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The ten best Cannes Palme d’Or winners

We look back to Cannes Film Festivals past and select our favourite Palme d’Or winners

By David Jenkins

When Terrence Malick picked up the Palme d’Or for his history-spanning magnum opus ‘The Tree of Life’ in 2011, we decided to take a long glance back at some of the past winners of world cinema’s most prestigious prize. Here you’ll find the ten films that came to Cannes Film Festival and walked away victorious.

10. Padre Padrone


Directors: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani

Year: 1977

The opening shot of the Tavianis’ severe study of patriarchal abuse – think of it as a Sardinian ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ – sees a man zealously whittling down a long stick to use as a weapon. Later, another such stick is whittled into a handy whip (see above), and later still, a character meets his maker by getting a big bonk on the head by – you guessed it – a big stick. In spinning the autobiographical yarn of and linguist Gavino Ledda, the Tavianis evoke a spare rural setting in which no law or tradition exists to prohibit such violence against that enclosed society's most vulnerable. This still distinctive film centres on a father unwilling to kowtow to his eldest son’s pleas to get out of the punishing family farming business, and how gradually – through the beautifully constructed natural poetry of his lonesome country annex – he receives educational and spiritual enlightenment and is able to break the chain of suffering.

9. Under the Sun of Satan

Film Drama

Director: Maurice Pialat

Year: 1987

Underrated French auteur Maurice Pialat was booed by the braying hoards of the Croisette when he went to collect the coveted prize for this grim exploration of religious doubt and sexual temptation. Nestling somewhere in between Bresson’s ‘Diary of a Country Priest’, Dreyer’s ‘Ordet’ and ‘The Exorcist’, it stars a mesmerising Sandrine Bonnaire as a boisterous murderess out to test the faith of strayed-from-the-flock priest Gérard Depardieu. Pialat’s spare rendering of the Georges Bernanos novel spreads the theological discourse thick, but keeps us enticed and intrigued as Depardieu’s wavering religious conviction leads him into a series of dark existential corners.


8. The Conversation

Film Thrillers

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Year: 1974

For Gene Hackman, the early '70s were undoubtedly his salad days as a creative force: He starred in two consecutive Palme d’Or winners during that period, first as a brawling drifter in Jerry Schatzberg’s ‘Scarecrow’ (1973), then as a compulsive and emotionally fragile surveillance boffin (and jazz afficionado!) in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’ the following year. With the aid of ace sound designer Walter Murch, Coppola fashioned a paranoid classic which giddily orbits around the verbal inflections of a fuzzed-up sound recording and dramatically hinges on what these words mean to both the victims of the sting and Hackman’s Harry Caul – himself a mess of sexual, religious and political contradictions.

7. 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days

Film Drama

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Year: 2007

Romania’s first prizewinner bowled festival crowds for six on the first day of the competition back in ’07. Mungiu’s relentless, seedy Ceaucescu-era thriller about the unseemly business of coordinating a back-street abortion was not only deemed best of the fest by Stephen Frears’s jury, but was also seen as one of the key films (alongside Cristi Puiu’s ‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’) of the so-called Romanian New Wave. One of the key attributes of this movement is also one of the reasons ‘Four Months…’ excels as cinema, as without ever verbalising the draconian political framework that has spawned this nightmarish situation, Mungiu’s film offers intimate human drama that speaks volumes about the woes of a generation.


6. The Ballad of Narayama


Director: Shohei Imamura

Year: 1983

Japan’s Shohei Imamura shared the Golden Palm with Abbas Kiarostami in 1997 for ‘The Eel’, his hushed study of an ex-con striving to stay on the straight and narrow. But 1983’s ‘The Ballad of Narayama’ is a film whose dark soul feels indebted to his early, anthropologically distanced studies of the carnal appetites of the underclass. Based on the book ‘Men of Tohoku’ by Shichiro Fukazawa, the film takes place in a muddy nineteenth-century Japanese village and centres on a long-held tradition that once a person reaches the age of 70, they must be hoisted into the mountains and left alone to die. Instead of taking the obvious route of questioning the brutality of this practice, Imamura delivers a heartbreaking investigation of family ties and responsibilities in the face of impending death, albeit one replete with asides of bestiality, rape and ritual slaughter. Yum!

5. The Leopard


Director: Luchino Visconti

Year: 1963

It’s perhaps hard to feel any pity for the aristocracy in this age of dire economic inequality. So it’s quite a feat that Visconti’s visually resplendent, three-hour adieu to the nineteenth-century Sicilian nobility still has the ability to make you weep salt tears. Composed with a fastidiousness whose like is rarely seen in contemporary cinema, the main draw here is still Burt Lancaster’s gut-wrenching turn as gentle giant Don Fabrizio Corbera, a man crushed by the fact that he seems to be the only person aware that his noble lineage is doomed to extinction. While there’s nary a moment that doesn’t contain some kind of spine-tingling element, it’s the dizzying, 45-minute ballroom finale and that amazing climactic shot that will choke you up every time.


4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Film Drama

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Year: 2010

If you take a look at the previous winners of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, it’s clear that they have more of a predilection towards experimental and leftfield fare, having bestowed the award upon directors like Jia Zhang-ke, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Alexander Kluge. Cannes maybe got one up on them in 2010 by propelling Apichatpong Weerasethakul into the world cinema A-list for his enchanting, freeform tale of rebirth in the Thai countryside. Some critics left the film bemused and bewildered, but the overall feeling was that jury chief Tim Burton had done his finest work in years by recognising the quality of a film which contained a scene of a talking catfish engaging in cunnilingus with an aging princess. Also, a rarity for a Palme d'Or winner: a vision of true happiness.

3. Rosetta

Film Comedy

Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

Year: 1999

What’s the betting that, in 20 years time, Belgium’s Dardenne brothers will still be producing poetic, small-scale dramas about the daily dilemmas of life’s have-nots? And what’s the betting they’ll still be receiving invites to Cannes, where their previous five films have premiered? But the Dardennes' Cannes dream really kicked off in 1999, when their disarmingly curt tale of a surly, poverty-stricken young girl (Emilie Dequenne) and her attempts to keep herself and her mother alive while retaining a sense of self-worth was given the top prize, beating strong competition from the likes of Pedro Almodóvar (‘All About My Mother’), Bruno Dumont (‘L’Humanite’) and Raúl Ruiz (‘Time Regained’). Comparisons to Robert Bresson’s ‘Mouchette’ feel entirely appropriate, especially its view of life as a prolonged nightmare of suffering that makes those small, occasional moments of respite even sweeter.


2. The Third Man

Film Thrillers

Director: Carol Reed

Year: 1949

Unlike the Olympics and the World Cup, Britain has been pretty decent at winning the top prize in Cannes. In the '60s we had ‘If…’, in the '70s ‘The Go-Between’, in the '80s ‘The Mission, in the '90s ‘Secret and Lies’ and in the '00s there was ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’. But way back before all that, Carol Reed’s masterly dissection of a post-war Europe that was rotten to the core – ‘The Third Man’ – set the awards ball rolling, and it stands as the UK’s greatest Palme d’Or winner.

1. Underground


Director: Emir Kusturica

Year: 1995

Kusturica’s combustible brew of hyperactive wartime satire, Old Testament-level destructive parable, full-bore gypsy cabaret and heart-rending breakdown of long-held friendships still stands up as a singular achievement in European cinema, even if the director’s distinctive stock has fallen in recent years. Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and Marko (Miki Manojlovic) are birds of a debauched feather who take to hiding after Hitler’s invasion of Yugoslavia. The film then proceeds to filter the contemporary history of this soon-to-be fragmented territory through their tenuous comradeship, all set to a driving Klezmer soundtrack and containing more jaw-dropping set pieces that was likely seen in the collective cinematic output of that entire year. And even if you don’t buy the hysterical pitch of the performances or the idiosyncratic delivery of dark subject matter, hang tight until the final scene, as it’s one of the most brilliant and moving things ever committed to film.

Read more about Cannes Film Festival

Cannes Film Festival, red carpet
© Andrea Raffin

Cannes Film Festival


The Cannes Film Festival is one of the world’s leading celebrations of film, in which roughly 20 films go head to head each year to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or. Find out the latest news and reviews of all the big films as and when we have them. Salut!


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