Palme d'Or winners – ranked!

As the Cannes film festival celebrates its 70th anniversary, here are the 10 best winners – from Viridiana and La Dolce Vita to Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction

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

Uncle Boonmee is a sublime film, a realist fantasy that plays with the ideas of the spiritual and the supernatural – but does so in such a remarkably calm and matter-of-fact way that it almost persuades you that these things are natural phenomena. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film is about a dying man who has retreated to the forests of north-eastern Thailand to make his peace with the world, and it offers its visions and conceits in such a calming and quiet spirit that it is impossible to refuse them.

9 The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion’s exotic and very literary movie, set in the early years of the European colonisation of New Zealand, has Holly Hunter as the mute Ada whose cruel husband (Sam Neill) will not let her have her prized piano. Another man (Harvey Keitel) rescues her, via an arrangement whereby she can have the piano back in exchange for increasingly sexualised “lessons”. The piano is fetishised, eroticised: all Ada’s yearning and frustration is poured into it. A perennially fascinating and subtle film.

8 Pulp Fiction (1994)

This Palme d’Or that set the seal on Quentin Tarantino’s huge prestige – and initiated the gruesomely abusive career of its producer, Harvey Weinstein. But this film’s electrifying energy shook Cannes out of what many felt was a rather complacent arthouse torpor. Its insolent ability to shock, amuse and produce endless uniquely exciting and seductive dialogue riffs co-exist with a brilliant experimentation with fractured narrative. The excitement of seeing it for the first time was incredible.

Viridiana. Photograph: Allstar/Kingsley-Int

7 Viridiana (1961)

This was the film that Luis Buñuel made on being invited back to Spain from his Mexican exile by the Franco regime and it instantly offended some of the most reactionary and pompous elements of the Spanish political establishment. Fernando Rey plays a man who has conceived an erotic obsession with his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), who is about to take her final vows as a nun. He attempts to drug her, but rape is beyond him and he hangs himself in guilt; the shocked and bewildered Viridiana invites some homeless people to live in his house and the situation deteriorates into an anti-carnival of licentiousness and abuse. An eerie spectacle of subversion.

6 The White Ribbon (2009)

The icy Austrian master Michael Haneke has won the Palme d’Or twice – the second time was for Amour, his heart-rending study of an old couple facing illness and death. But my mind returns over and over to this deeply disturbing parable of Germany in the years before the first world war: another study of group dysfunction and poisoned-herd malaise. A village is plagued with strange, malicious acts of violence and spite, and at the community’s social apex is the pastor, superbly played by Burghart Klaussner, who is a strict disciplinarian, making his errant children wear a white ribbon of contrition on their arm: the ribbon looks weirdly both like a Nazi armband and a yellow star.

Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita.
Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. Photograph: Allstar/Pathe

5 La Dolce Vita (1960)

Federico Fellini’s brilliant, hallucinatory movie invented the word “paparazzo”, and perhaps also invented modern Italy itself – at least the Italy that the rest of the world loved to idealise. Marcello Mastroianni is a jaded, melancholy gossip columnist who hangs around with Rome’s smart set – too good for this job, too lazy to write his novel. Fellini himself loved circuses, and this was the media circus, the showbiz circus and perhaps just the circus of all worldly vanity.

Giuseppe Sanfelice and Nanni Moretti in The Son’s Room.
Giuseppe Sanfelice and Nanni Moretti in The Son’s Room. Photograph: Allstar/Momentum Pictures

4 The Son’s Room (2001)

This is a beautiful film that induces a kind of ecstasy of sadness. Nanni Moretti took his work to the next level: he directed and starred as the therapist who is beginning to have doubts about his vocation. Out of a sense of duty, he makes a house call to a demanding patient, which means he has to cancel a hiking trip with his son, who goes boating instead and is killed in an accident. Moretti shows the effect that this unthinkable tragedy has on the entire family.

3 Taxi Driver (1976)

The horror and the weird, despairing exhilaration of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic still have the power to knock you backwards out of your cinema seat. The N-bombs, the misogyny, the fear and despair are brutal. Livewire young Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a traumatised Vietnam vet who, like Macbeth, has lost the ability to sleep and is now condemned to an eternal night-time of wakefulness, cruising around the infernal city in his yellow cab, encountering lost and vengeful souls. He finally grows obsessed with rescuing a child prostitute – an unforgettable performance from Jodie Foster – and thus redeeming himself. The daytime scenes in the political office are also superb, with a great and under-noticed performance from Albert Brooks.

Homayon Ershadi in Taste of Cherry.
Homayon Ershadi in Taste of Cherry. Photograph: Allstar/Abbas Kiarostami Prod

2 Taste of Cherry (1997)

This is arguably the masterpiece of one of cinema’s great poets, Abbas Kiarostami – a strange, beautiful, bizarre, heart-rending parable that even now eludes precise interpretation. A deeply depressed man intends to kill himself and then lie in the grave that a labourer has dug, and must then fill in. It is startling, preposterous – and shocking and upsetting. It speaks to the darkest and least discussed aspect of this subject: the wish that the suicidal act itself can be covered up. But someone tries to talk him out of it – by reminding him of the sweetness and joys of this life, like a cherry’s taste.

1 The Third Man (1949)

The classic metaphysical noir was written by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed and starred Orson Welles as the enigmatic fugitive Harry Lime, a crooked dealer in stolen penicillin in postwar Vienna; having faked his death, he has gone to ground. Unemployed pulp-thriller writer Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten, must unravel the mystery of why exactly his old pal Lime has lured him to Vienna with the offer of a job. The Cannes jury, under the presidency of historian, mandarin and festival co-founder George Huisman, chose The Third Man over competitors such as David Lean’s Passionate Friends and Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades. It was the right choice – and the film resonates more and more over the years. Is Lime now in purgatory? Or hell? Or might the strangely insolent and unrepentant Lime be the instrument of grace for everyone else: those flawed, shabby, desperate people who have somehow survived the war? Lime could be a martyred Judas Iscariot, someone who has absorbed everyone else’s sins.


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