With the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival underway this week, all eyes will be on the films competing for the festival’s ulimate prize, the Palme d’Or. The winners are always hotly debated, and there have been a few major surprises over the last few years (including last years I, Daniel Blake and 2015’s Dheepan).
In honour of the festival, which tends to kickstart the year of prestige filmmaking, here are seven of the finest winners of the illustrious Palme d’Or, some controversial, all worth watching.
One of two films to ever win both the Best Picture Oscar and the Palme d’Or (The Lost Weekend is the other), Delbert Mann’s Marty, a heartwarming tale of an unwed butcher looking for love. Marty (Ernest Borgnine), an Italian American who still lives with his mother at 34, has all but given up on marriage. That all changes, of course, when he meets Clara (Betsy Blair), whom he finds crying after being abandoned on a blind date. The two form a genuine connection, and Paddy Chayefsky, (who won an Oscar for his screenplay) keeps the focus squarely on the characters, allowing for plenty of incisive and heartwarming moments. A serious crowd-pleaser, Marty is tremendously charming and well deserving of its accolades.
Black Orpheus (1959)
Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus takes the greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and brings it to twentieth-century Brazil during the madness of carnivale. The film is packed with vibrant colours, and a fabulous musical score (which inspired a global Bossa Nova craze) that give it an boundless sense of energy. Music and movement are a vital component of every frame. While the plot may be sidetracked from time to time, its hard to care when such tour de force sequences like the nighttime carnivale showcase an originality and excitement rarely seen in cinema.
The Knack…and How to Get It (1965)
It is something of a tragedy that Richard Lester is rarely mentioned amongst discussions of great directors, but the mastermind behind the spectacular Beatles film A Hard Days Night seems all but forgotten. It is his Palme d’Or winner – a wildly anarchic look at three men and their sexual desires, that is one of his most incredulous creations. The film is extremely controversial, and viewed rather negatively these days, particularly for its use of the word rape. Lester’s is as easy to see as horribly misogynistic as it is a revelatory look at toxic masculinity, and his fresh approach ensures a superbly entertaining watch, regardless of which viewpoint you’ll take from the film.
The Conversation (1974)
If you think about Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970s, chances are you’d think of his hallowed Godfather films. Indeed, 1974 was the year The Godfather Part II was released, and cemented Coppola’s status as one of the greatest living filmmakers. However, in the same year he also made The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman. The film is heavily influenced by an earlier Palme d’Or winner, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, and revolves around a surveillance expert who discovers a potential murder in his recordings. The film is a truly masterful portrait of paranoia in a world of surveillance, and is anchored by a truly astonishing performance from Hackman. It is no small feat to create one of the best films of all time, but it is another thing entirely two release two of them in the same year. The Conversation is absolutely essential viewing, and its themes of surveillance and technology’s place in society are even more relevant now than ever before.
Secrets & Lies (1996)
Mike Leigh has an extraordinary ability to find the extraordinary in the most common situations, and is responsible for a number of searing, intimate dramas. Few are more affecting than Secrets & Lies, a film about a middle-class black woman (the fabulous Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who chooses to meet her birth mother, only to discover that she is a working-class white woman (Brenda Blethyn). Dialogue is the lynchpin to all of Leigh’s films, and each and every word matters here. Two groundbreaking performances from Jean-Baptiste and Blethyn form the films emotional core, and the diner scene, in which they meet for the first time, crackles with authenticity.
Of all the films I’ve seen in my lifetime, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is one that has stuck with me the longest. It is a film about a school shooting, and while most would try to understand the why of such a tragic event, Elephant is satisfied simply in letting it play out, almost completely free of context. Van Sant’s camera takes us through the school, in wonderfully constructed tracking shots, as we follow various students, unsure of their fates. This is difficult viewing at its finest, and at times it is a real challenge to keep your eye on the screen. It is equal parts infuriating and fascinating, and whether you find it hollow or compelling, you won’t forget it.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007)
The last few films on this list are incredibly dark and often distressing, and that theme certainly continues with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The film tells the story of two students in Romania in the late 1980s who try to organise an illegal abortion. The film is starkly minimalist, and most of it takes places in a bleak hotel room. Director Cristian Mungiu paces the film perfectly, creating a taught, compact thriller filled with long takes, an exceptionally controlled camera and natural dialogue.