Cannes: All the Palme d'Or Winners, Ranked

9:55 PM 5/10/2016

by THR staff

THR critics sifted through all 69 past winners of Cannes' coveted top prize and put them in order from bottom of the barrel (sorry, Bille August) to creme de la creme (hint: a timeless Italian masterpiece starring Burt Lancaster).

Pulp Fiction - H 2016

Critics are a contentious bunch. But when it came to ranking all 69 Palme d'Or winners, THR’s film reviewers attending Cannes this year — Todd McCarthy, Jon Frosch, David Rooney, Deborah Young, Leslie Felperin, Boyd van Hoeij and Jordan Mintzer — discovered, via a series of emails and phone conversations, that they were mostly on the same page (give or take some minor disagreement over where to place Blue Is the Warmest Color and which top five slot to award The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

What's most apparent from the results is that the majority of the top 10 — and even 20 — films chosen were made several decades ago. Are critics nostalgic by nature? Or are movies just not what they used to be? That’s for you to decide.

  1. 69

    'The Best Intentions' (1992)

    Ingmar Bergman wrote the script, about his parents’ complex relationship in the years leading up to his birth, but August’s rather bland direction made this a forgettable Palme.

  2. 68

    'The Long Absence' (1961)

    Alida Valli plays a lonely Parisian cafe owner who becomes convinced that an amnesia-suffering vagrant is her long-lost husband. The film shared the Palme with Bunuel’s Viridiana, and it is indisputably the less memorable of the two.

  3. 67

    'Keeper of Promises' (1962)

    Still the only winner from South America, this Brazilian drama follows a poor farmer who vows to carry a cross to a faraway priest in thanks for the recovery of his donkey.

  4. 66

    'The Hireling' (1973)

    From the backseat of a Rolls-Royce, an aristocratic young widow takes a shine to her new chauffeur in this slow-paced British drama.

  5. 65

    'The Way' (1982)

    The story behind Turkey’s first winner (it shared its Palme with Missing), set after the 1980 military coup and banned in the country until 1999, is more interesting than the film itself: It was directed by Goren on the instructions of Guney — who was imprisoned at the time — and edited after Guney fled to France.

  6. 64

    'Chronicle of the Years of Fire' (1975)

    This brutal drama about Algeria’s prerevolutionary struggles under colonialism remains the only Arab or African title to claim Cannes' top prize.

  7. 63

    'The Working Class Goes to Heaven' (1972)

    The Italian comedy focuses on a factory employee’s realization that he’s simply a tool in the machine after losing a finger in a work accident.

  8. 62

    'A Man and a Woman' (1966)

    This French romance between a widow (Anouk Aimee) and a widower (Jean-Louis Trintignant) became a smash hit and international date movie — but feels a bit fromage-y after all these years.

  9. 61

    'Pelle the Conqueror' (1988)

    Max von Sydow gave a much lauded performance as a Swedish immigrant in early 20th-century Denmark in August’s touching, if poky, drama. The film also scooped the foreign language Oscar.

  10. 60

    'The Son's Room' (2001)

    Festival favorite Moretti shook off the "Italian Woody Allen" badge with this poignant but very conventional portrait of a grieving family.

  11. 59

    'Fahrenheit 9/11' (2004)

    Many griped about what was clearly more a political Palme than an artistic one, but the filmmaker’s fiery anti-Bush doc earned him a prolonged standing ovation in the Palais and did killer business at the box office.

  12. 58

    'The Go-Between' (1971)

    MGM’s head offloaded this British romantic drama (starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates and adapted by Harold Pinter from L.P. Hartley’s novel) just a few days before the win, deeming it a flop. Critics considered it among the director’s best at the time, but it feels somewhat minor today.

  13. 57

    'Dancer in the Dark' (2000)

    Denmark’s bad-boy auteur divided critics with this dreary musical, earning raves and pans in roughly equal numbers. Its greatest legacy today may be the swan dress star Bjork wore to the Academy Awards performance of her nominated song from the film. 

  14. 56

    'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' (2006)

    The U.K.’s right-wing took aim at the British filmmaker when this drama (set during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War) won the Palme, accusing him of "hating" his own country. Many critics, meanwhile, found fault with the film’s rather academic approach.

  15. 55

    'The Child' (2005)

    The Belgian brothers' second win was another bleak slice of Belgian life, about a destitute young man who sells his baby and then, faced with his wife’s fury, tries to get him back. Warning: Don’t watch this one if you’re feeling down.

  16. 54

    'Dheepan' (2015)

    Many felt this tense tale of Sri Lankan refugees in the crime-ridden Paris suburbs didn’t have the punch of the director’s A Prophet or Rust and Bone, but the win confirmed Audiard’s spot as one of France’s most essential living filmmakers. 

  17. 53

    'The Mission' (1986)

    Joffe’s robust historical epic starring Jeremy Irons as an 18th-century Jesuit priest and Robert De Niro as a slave trader struck the fancy of the Sydney Pollack-chaired jury. 

  18. 52

    'The Pianist' (2002)

    Polanski’s Holocaust drama, based on the memoirs of a Jewish musician forced to survive in Nazi-controlled Warsaw, went on to win Oscars for leading man Adrien Brody and the director himself (who, of course, couldn’t attend the ceremony).

  19. 51

    'Winter Sleep' (2014)

    Many thought that the Turkish master of slow storytelling should have won in 2011 for epic police procedural Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (he shared the Grand Prix, losing the Palme to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life), but it was this three-hour-plus domestic drama that earned him top honors.

  20. 50

    'The Silent World' (1956)

    The first film to use underwater cinematography in color, this visually stunning aquatic nature documentary also drew criticism for massacring a school of sharks and dynamiting a coral reef during the shoot.

  21. 49

    'The Knack ... and How to Get It' (1965)

    This crude and kooky British tale of three roommates competing over the same girl hasn’t aged well, but is elevated by strong central performances and that swinging '60s backdrop.

  22. 48

    'Signore e signori' (1966)

    This triptych of bawdy sex tales (appropriately titled The Birds, the Bees and the Italians in English) shared the top prize with A Man and a Woman. For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine a film this politically incorrect winning today.

  23. 47

    'The Class' (2008)

    This drama about a teacher in an inner-city Parisian school screened late in the festival but made an impression with its bracing avoidance of "heroic teacher film" cliches. Dangerous Minds this ain’t.

  24. 46

    'Underground' (1995)

    Kusturica’s satirical epic about his native Yugoslavia, from WWII to the ethnic wars of the 1990s, may seem dated today, but its ambition and abandon wowed a jury presided over by legendary French star Jeanne Moreau

  25. 45

    'Scarecrow' (1973)

    Dismissed by some as a minor entry in the New Hollywood Cinema movement, this freewheeling tale of two drifters is worth a second look for the riveting performances by leads Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.

  26. 44

    'Paris, Texas' (1984)

    Its reputation has faded a bit, but Wenders’ enigmatic tale of an amnesiac (the perfectly cast Harry Dean Stanton) searching for his missing wife (Nastassja Kinski) still has a passionate following in cinephile and critical circles.

  27. 43

    'Wild at Heart' (1990)

    Lynch’s love-it-or-hate-it bacchanal mixes sex, violence and quotable dialogue (“You got me hotter than Georgia asphalt”) set to a blasting rock soundtrack. It may not be the Lynch Palme winner we wanted (Mulholland Drive lost to The Son’s Room in 2001), but it’s the one we have.

  28. 42

    'Farewell My Concubine' (1993)

    Still the only Chinese-language film to win the Palme (in a tie with The Piano), Chen’s decade-spanning tale of two childhood friends who become opera stars before the Cultural Revolution was banned in China for its homoerotic themes.

  29. 41

    'Friendly Persuasion' (1957)

    Wyler’s film (written by blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson) stars Gary Cooper as a Quaker whose pacificism is put to the test by the Civil War. Even Ronald Reagan embraced the film’s stirring antiwar message: He gave the movie to Mikhail Gorbachev at one of their summits.

  30. 40

    'Barton Fink' (1991)

    The Coen brothers’ sardonic black comedy about a playwright who gets caught up in the hell of Hollywood won three Cannes prizes — film, director and actor (for lead John Turturro) — prompting a new rule limiting the maximum number of honors per film to two.

  31. 39

    'Blue Is the Warmest Color' (2013)

    Some critics felt its 10-minute lesbian sex scene was inauthentic (and even pornographic). But the Steven Spielberg-chaired jury was so dazzled by this emotionally immersive coming-of-age epic that it awarded a shared Palme d’Or to the director and both leading ladies, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.

  32. 38

    'Secrets & Lies' (1996)

    Leigh’s warmest, most accessible film, about a middle-class black woman who tracks down her white, blue-collar birth mom, tugs at the heart while tickling the ribs. Try making it through without tearing up. Or laughing out loud.

  33. 37

    'Missing' (1982)

    This tale of an American (Jack Lemmon) who joins forces with his daughter-in-law (Sissy Spacek) to search for his missing son in post-coup Chile is a savvy blend of action and emotion.

  34. 36

    'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' (2010)

    Perhaps the weirdest film to win — and certainly the only one featuring an intimate act with a catfish — Uncle Boonmee is so different from Western-style cinema in pace, style and structure that it’s surely better experienced than explained.

  35. 35

    'The Tree of Life' (2011)

    Malick gave in fully to impressionistic awe with this epic study of family, childhood, the nature of the universe and the meaning of life. It drew a passionately divided reaction at the first press screening (including some hearty boos), but won over the festival jury.

  36. 34

    'Eternity and a Day' (1998)

    A moving meditation on life and death, this Greek film follows a terminally ill poet (Bruno Ganz) who befriends a young Albanian boy. The Martin Scorsese-led jury swooned.

  37. 33

    'The Eel' (1997)

    Imamura’s funny and haunting second Palme winner (following 1983's The Ballad of Narayama), follows a man who goes to prison for killing his wife and then, upon being released, converses mainly with — yes — his pet eel.

  38. 32

    'The White Ribbon' (2009)

    After the commercial and creative disaster that was his U.S. remake of his own Funny Games, Haneke returned to form with this black-and-white drama about the roots of evil in a small German village on the eve of WWI.

  39. 31

    'M*A*S*H' (1970)

    Altman’s furious satire about an army hospital unit may have been set during the Korean War, but the timing of its premiere gave it a powerful Vietnam subtext. The now seminal anarchic comedy portrays war as a cruel joke on us all.

  40. 30

    'Black Orpheus' (1959)

    Camus' modern-day update of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, set during the Rio carnival, is a visual delight filled with musical numbers and well-played drama.

  41. 29

    'Marty' (1955)

    The inaugural Palme d’Or winner (which went on to take home four Oscars, including best picture) was penned by Paddy Chayefsky and starred Ernest Borgnine as an Italian-American butcher who falls for a lonely schoolteacher, played by Betsy Blair. It’s as sentimental as it sounds, but in the most warmly winning way.

  42. 28

    '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' (2007)

    This ferocious, unsentimental and superbly made drama about a woman trying to procure an illegal abortion in communist Romania helped launch the Romanian New Wave.

  43. 27

    'Elephant' (2003)

    By resisting explanation or catharsis, this tale of a school shooting is bleakly radical both in content and form, with its long, observational tracking shots and refusal to focus on the violence itself. Unsurprisingly, it divided critics.

  44. 26

    'When Father Was Away on Business' (1985)

    Kusturica’s collaboration with Bosnian poet and screenwriter Abdulah Sidran offers a kid’s-eye view of political repression in 1950s Yugoslavia, in which humor and the almost mystical power of family trumps all.

  45. 25

    'The Ballad of Narayama' (1983)

    As brutal and introspective a look at life and the ultimate cruelty of death as has ever been put onscreen, this film follows a 19th-century rural Japanese woman who, upon turning 70, must go up a mountaintop and be left to die, according to ancient tradition.

  46. 24

    'The Piano' (1993)

    With a canvas of stunning images and a dose of desire, Campion flushed all the preciousness out of the period drama genre. Featuring Oscar-winning performances by Holly Hunter and a young Anna Paquin, the film still is the only Cannes winner directed by a woman (though Campion shared the prize with Chen Kaige for Farewell My Concubine).

  47. 23

    'Sex, Lies, and Videotape' (1989)

    While the commercial highs of Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s Eleven franchise still lay ahead of him, Soderbergh was already in top form with his debut, a compelling and very funny movie about two sisters, two men, repressed emotions and the voyeuristic lure of the camcorder.

  48. 22

    'Amour' (2012)

    The story of an elderly man watching his beloved wife slowly succumb to dementia is given unflinching but surprisingly touching treatment by Haneke. The film won the Austrian his second Palme d’Or (and first Oscar). 

  49. 21

    'Man of Iron' (1981)

    Polish director Wajda was at the peak of his considerable powers in this portrayal of the Gdansk shipyard strikes that triggered the revolution that tore down the Iron Curtain.

  50. 20

    'The Mattei Affair' (1972)

    Rosi’s film is a compelling mix of documentary and fiction exploring the mysterious death of Enrico Mattei (the former head of Italian public energy company ENI), who broke the oligopoly of the Western oil giants before he was killed in a plane crash.

  51. 19

    'The Tree of Wooden Clogs' (1978)

    One of the great and most neglected masterpieces of Italian neorealist cinema, Olmi’s drama cast nonprofessionals and was shot in a near-documentary style to re-create the struggles of rural peasants in 1890s Lombardy.

  52. 18

    'Rosetta' (1999)

    Rosetta introduced much of the world to the Dardennes’ particular brand of raw but compassionate realism. The brothers take the story of a Belgian teen trying to hold her life together with her alcoholic mom and strip it of any contrivance or sentimentality.

  53. 17

    'Under the Sun of Satan' (1987)

    Pialat’s tale of a priest (a young Gerard Depardieu) struggling with evil in the form of a young murderess was roundly booed at its Cannes premiere. When it became the first French film to win a Palme in 21 years, Pialat shook his fist at the disapproving audience. Justifiably so.

  54. 16

    'All That Jazz' (1980)

    Fosse managed the impossible: matching — even topping — his Oscar-winning Cabaret with this magnetic musical, an autobiographical look at a womanizing, drug-addled choreographer flirting with death.

  55. 15

    'If ...' (1969)

    Anderson’s clarion call to revolution against Britain’s status quo (represented by a sadistic and repressive public school), starring Malcolm McDowell, still has the power to shock — especially in that legendary final scene.

  56. 14

    'Padre Padrone' (1977)

    The themes of this spare stunner of a film, about a peasant boy struggling against his father to rise out of ignorance, mirrored the Taviani brothers’ struggle to break from the Italian neorealism of master Roberto Rossellini (ironically, jury president in Cannes that year).

  57. 13

    'The Tin Drum' (1979)

    In its own way, Schlondorff's memorable adaptation of Gunter Grass' epic novel — featuring an excellent David Bennent as Oskar Matzerath, the boy so disgusted by the adult world he refuses to grow up — is as ambitious and outrageous as Apocalypse Now, with which it shared the 1979 Palme d’Or.

  58. 12

    'Pulp Fiction' (1994)

    Tarantino elevated the exploitation film to high art with his brash and bloody masterpiece, leaving an indelible mark on the culture and the industry when the film became the first indie to gross more than $100 million.

  59. 11

    'Apocalypse Now' (1979)

    "My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam," Coppola famously said about his mad, maddening, messy, brilliantly directed and deeply disturbing tale of war that has lost none of its ability to shock and awe.

  60. 10

    'Kagemusha' (1980)

    Set against the wars of 16th-century Japan, Kurosawa’s majestic samurai epic is still awe-inspiring, not only in its historical pageantry, but for imagery that communicates complex ideas about reality, belief and meaning. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas helped find American backing for this pet project about a common thief made to double for a dead warlord. This bitter parable is painted in the strong colors of Shakespeare, Noh theater and abstract modernism. 

  61. 9

    'Taste of Cherry' (1997)

    Kiarostami’s quiet masterwork (which shared the Palme with The Eel) offers up a highly literal interpretation of the Freudian death drive concept, following a middle-aged man as he cruises around the outskirts of Tehran in his jeep, trying to find someone to bury him after a possible suicide. As dark as that sounds, the Iranian auteur transforms this contemporary fable into a piercing meditation on natural beauty and the kindness of strangers, while a meta epilogue reminds us that this is only a movie.

  62. 8

    'The Conversation' (1974)

    Made in a flash between the first two Godfather movies, Coppola’s existential spy thriller has since become a pinnacle of the genre. As the aptly named audio expert Harry Caul, Gene Hackman channeled the paranoia of the Watergate years via his hero’s impossible quest for anonymity, in a film that would prophesize the limitless surveillance state of our internet age. The work of Walter Murch, who both edited and designed the sound, remains unsurpassed.

  63. 7

    'Viridiana' (1961)

    After more than two decades of exile, Surrealist maestro Bunuel returned to his native Spain to direct this tragic-comic parable of Catholic charity gone wrong. As a former aspiring nun hoping to do right by the servants of her inherited manor, Silvia Pinal finds herself at the mercy of a lecherous band of miscreants, who in one famous scene re-create Da Vinci’s The Last Supper as a drunken domestic’s frat party. Deemed “blasphemous” by the Vatican, this remains one of Bunuel’s sharpest, most sinful efforts.

  64. 6

    'The Cranes Are Flying' (1958)

    The only Soviet film to win the Palme d’Or, Georgian-born Kalatozov’s WWII-set love story still is capable of dazzling today with its exquisite, chiaroscuro lighting and bravura tracking shots across crowds of extras. Every face, even those just seen for a second, tells a story here of suffering, love and loss, but it’s the endlessly expressive visage of lead actor Tatiana Samoilova that really sticks with you.

  65. 5

    'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' (1964)

    Yes, Demy’s winner is a brightly-hued musical in which every single word is sung (and actually dubbed). A star-making turn from a young Catherine Deneuve and Michel Legrand’s bittersweet score are major assets, but what elevates Umbrellas to great art is the film’s slowly metastasizing heartbreak, as two star-crossed lovers are forced to spend the rest of their lives as imperfect other halves of other people.

  66. 4

    'Blow-Up' (1966)

    You could argue that, as with a great many auteurs, director Antonioni rightly won a Palme, but for the wrong film; most consider L’Avventura (1960) the stronger work. And yet, although its sexual politics may look embarrassingly dated, Blow-Up still has something timelessly eloquent to say about alienation, the bewitching emptiness of beauty and the unreliability of our senses. Bonus points for inspiring so many homages and imitations, from The Conversation and Blow Out to the Austin Powers franchise.

  67. 3

    'Taxi Driver' (1976)

    Scorsese’s masterwork likely would be described today as "the story of the radicalization of a marginalized youngster," underscoring the timelessness of Paul Schrader’s finest screenplay. Its most famous line — an incredulous "You talkin’ to me?" — suggests Travis Bickle’s primary desire: to simply talk to someone and be heard. But it’s Scorsese’s reliance on visuals and music to explore Bickle’s troubled psyche that make this descent into hell so profoundly disturbing.

  68. 2

    'La Dolce Vita' (1960)

    Marcello Mastroianni’s iconic performance as a cynical modern Dante guides the viewer on a sprawling, episodic trip from the dome of St. Peter’s to the bowels of Via Veneto’s strip clubs. The film launched a sexy, new image of post-war Italy, though probably outdated even when the film came out. What’s eternal is Fellini’s melancholy realization that behind modern-day sin, redemption, distraction and the come-hither facade of the sweet life, there lurks only emptiness.

  69. 1

    'The Leopard' (1963)

    This Italian masterpiece represents a climactic synthesis of European classicism in literature, music and cinema. It also acutely personalizes the double-edged thematic treatment of romantic love and political upheaval that characterized Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel. The film is at once so beautiful and moving that it overcomes even the lack of a definitive version; the superb restoration that premiered at Cannes in 2010 lacks the benefit of Burt Lancaster’s own English-language vocal performance, found only in the American dubbed version.