Cannes Palme d’Or Winners: Ranking the Best of the Fest

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The 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival would be coming to a close this week, but the world’s glitziest and most influential cinematic event has been moved to July as COVID continues to wreak havoc with the industry calendar.
That follows after last year's Cannes cancellation, which was especially disappointing after the festival had one of its best years in recent memory in 2019. Parasite’s one-two punch of the Palme d’Or and the Best Picture Oscar marked only the third time a film won both honours. Given that the previous films were 1955’s Marty and 1945’s The Lost Weekend, that’s no easy feat. Additionally, Brad Pitt’s Oscar win for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… and the stupendous runs for award season favourites like Les MisérablesPain & Glory, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire only bolstered Cannes’ pedigree while joining Parasite as proof that cinéma is alive and well in the age of streaming.
To salute the festival’s legacy, the That Shelf team endeavoured to determine the best of the Cannes Palme d’Or winners. Whittling out the best of the best among 72 years’ worth of winners is no easy feat. But, hopefully, this list of top Palme d’Or winners helps readers create a Cannes Film Festival of their own at home as we wait on the real thing:

19. (tie) Viridiana (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1961)

Viridiana was denounced by the Vatican as an insult to Christianity and banned by Francisco Franco’s government in Spain for seventeen years immediately after its win at the Cannes Film Festival – with no mention of it even allowed in public. Much of the positive reception for the film has come in recent years due to its shocking content. The story of a titular young novitiate whose life is upended by a visit to her estranged uncle is classic Buñuel, a scathing indictment of both religion and the bourgeoisie.

This film is glorious in its biting satire. Beyond the cloistered walls of the convent, Viridiana learns of a world of shocking contradictions where forced piety regularly clashes with sexual desire. They cannot coexist. Neither is religious charity a simple matter with its strict enforcement of rules. When her uncle dies and leaves her with part of his estate, Viridiana decides to take in and ‘save’ some of the local poor. But the unruly laws of human nature preclude that and her experiment leaves only destruction in its wake. Viridiana features the famous ‘beggars’ banquet’ scene, complete with the Hallelujah Chorus as gleeful accompaniment. Still relevant today, this film remains a masterpiece. – Barbara Goslawski

19. (tie) Dancer in the Dark (dir. Lars von Trier, 2000)

Perhaps the definition of a “Cannes musical,” Dancer in the Dark is a bleak adventure on death row. Björk gives a devastating performance as Selma, a woman who pursues the American Dream as vision fails her and encounters a fabled U.S. pastime: capital punishment. Featuring a swell supporting performance by Catherine Deneuve and a memorable collection of “Selma songs,” Dancer in the Dark marks a career peak for bad boy Lars von Trier. His signature Dogme 35 aesthetic rejects the frivolous trappings of Hollywood. It spins Tinseltown’s most escapist genre on its head with stripped-down musical numbers. The film serves desolate misery where Hollywood musicals provide dreamy optimism. But it’s truly uplifting, albeit in the Lars von Trier sense of the word.

Dancer scored numerous accolades for Björk’s performance, which deservedly won a Best Actress prize when Cannes still allowed multiple jury awards per film. But the film’s legacy might ultimately be its Academy Award nomination for the haunting song “I’ve Seen It All.” Without it, Björk might not have worn that stupid swan dress to the Oscars. – Pat Mullen

19. (tie) Brief Encounter (dir. David Lean, 1946)

Perhaps one of the more conventional films on our list, Brief Encounter is a small gem with a big emotional impact. Housewife Laura (Celia Johnson) has a chance encounter with Alec (Trevor Howard) at a railway station café and their connection is instantaneous. They find themselves meeting weekly and gradually falling for each other, though both are married with children and know nothing can come from their affair. The screenplay—adapted from Noël Coward’s play Still Life—hits just the right notes of intimacy and longing, each moment underscored perfectly by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. But the film’s true and continued success is down to David Lean’s sensitive direction and the incredible, powerful performances at its core. It’s a bittersweet and painfully believable look at the realities of love—one that stays with you long after the credits have rolled.

Aside from winning Cannes’s highest honour, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Director, Screenplay, and Actress) but lost out to William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Olivia de Havilland respectively. The British Film Institute voted it the second greatest British movie of all time, behind only The Third Man—another Cannes winner that made our list. – Emma Badame

18. All That Jazz (dir. Bob Fosse, 1980)

Bob Fosse’s showstopping labor of love debuted at Cannes only a month after winning four Oscars and two BAFTAs. (Its 1979 U.S. release date made it eligible the prior awards season.) All That Jazz is one of the best self-reflective, loud, ego-driven extravaganzas to play the festival. The Cannes jury headed by Kirk Douglas saw Fosse’s film tie for the Palme d’Or with Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. While Cannes had awarded American films in the past, there was never one quite like the razzle dazzle of All That Jazz. Roy Scheider is superb as Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon in a film where every inch is choreographed perfection, including the highs and lows of a sometimes cringe-worthy life.

FX’s award-winning series Fosse/Verdon with Sam Rockwell as the famed choreographer is a must-see for fans of All That Jazz as it chronicles his life and career including the making of All That Jazz. – Rachel West

17. Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders, 1984)

Wim Wenders’ masterpiece Paris, Texas travels slowly down a river of emotion. In its tale of one man, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), as he attempts to repair his fractured family, the film exposes just how jagged the broken pieces really are. Trauma and regret washes over every aspect of the film. Characters are so consumed by the past that they have lost sight of themselves and others.
Playing like a western, one where uncomfortable silence pierces deeper than a bullet from a six-shooter, Paris, Texas defies conventions with every step. Travis is transformed from ragged wanderer to something more riveting and complex. One may not agree with all of his decisions, but by the end you understand his plight. Featuring richly constructed performances by Stanton and Nastassja Kinski, who plays Travis’s estranged wife Jane, Paris, Texas is endlessly watchable and constantly mesmerizing. – Courtney Small

16. Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2018)

It’s great to be able to celebrate a director being awarded the biggest prize of his life for the right film at the right time. (Admittedly, Cannes has a much better record than the Oscars in this respect.) The whole of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s stellar career seemed to be a journey towards Shoplifters, which stole a march on the competition to take home the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2018. 
The Japanese director says Britain’s Ken Loach inspires him and who are we to argue? After all, the sleight-of-hand in Shoplifters is that he makes heroes out of characters that seem like they’re going to be villains. When petty thief Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his son Shota (Kairi Jyo) raid a grocery store, they discover a five-year-old girl covered in bruises and abandoned. They take her home. It turns out that they’re not the Corleones. The Shibata family work hard at menial jobs but have to steal to make ends meet. Just as we’re settling into this modus operandi, the dastardly biological parents of Juri appeal for her return on TV. Kore-eda asks what’s the real crime here: stealing or bad parenting? And should Japan value biological parentage above good parenting? This heartbreaker is told in an unobtrusive style that challenges without pointing fingers. – Kaleem Aftab

For the rest of the countdown, head to