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The 20 Best Palme d’Or Winners at the Cannes Film Festival

"Taxi Driver," "The Tree of Life" and more.


: 1967
On some level, most Palme d’Or winners require (or at least benefit from) some patience. Michaelangelo Antonioni makes that idea literal for one of his characters, a photographer whose fateful discovery effectively cleaves the film in two. What begins as a character study of the aimless Thomas, often careless and occasionally aggressive, becomes a suspenseful tribute to the power of a single image. The two halves of the film still have their respective mood changes, with a continuous swing between frivolity and danger that keeps the whole story on edge. As with the film below, the drive to dig deeper that’s inherent in the protagonist’s profession carries the risk of obsession, especially when that desire morphs into a particular strain of voyeurism. There’s something ominous and prophetic (with respect to the film’s narrative and our modern privacy issues) about the way one of Thomas’ unwitting subjects reacts to being seen out in the open: “This is a public place. Everyone has the right to be left in peace.” – SG

The Conversation


: 1974
Even though it came deep in the ascension of its director’s lauded early-career crest, it’s still difficult to imagine a film like “The Conversation” getting lost in Francis Ford Coppola’s overall body of work. With Gene Hackman in a similar prime as Harry Caul, the professional audio surveillance tech who uncovers something sinister surrounding his charges, there’s a distinct pleasure in the way the film tells its tale of intrigue in a workmanlike manner while allowing for some inspired flourishes around its edges. As Caul pursues the elusive truth behind the secret recordings, his day-to-day investigative rhythms become those of the film overall. In Coppola’s sure hands (here acting as both director and screenwriter), along with a world-class piano score from composer David Shire and Bill Butler’s haunting camerawork, “The Conversation” oozes tension from nearly every frame. Rarely do films earn an enigmatic ending as flawlessly as this one does. – SG

Taxi Driver

: 1976
Booing audiences are nothing new at Cannes – frankly, no other festival does it with as much gusto and verve as Cannes does – but the boos that followed both the 1976 debut of Martin Scorsese’s singular classic and the jury’s announcement of its Palme d’Or win beg to be contextualized. Scorsese’s vital, bruising film played at Cannes during a fraught time, just a year after a bomb went off in the festival’s main viewing hall during the early hours of opening day (a year later, another bomb was found that did not go off), to audiences who were likely not ready to see such violence back on the big screen. The film had already opened in the U.S. and was a bonafide hit before it arrived on the Croisette, but its Cannes win (no matter the boos) pushed it over the top and made it into a true awards contender. Provocation has never unnerved Scorsese, but “Taxi Driver” undid more than a few moviegoers during a wild time that needed a film to speak to a cultural climate more unsettling than anything that could show up on the screen. It’s one of the most deeply of-the-moment Palme d’Or wins in Cannes history, and it’s also one that absolutely holds up even four decades removed. – Kate Erbland

Apocalypse Now

: 1979
Movie legend holds that Francis Ford Coppola didn’t even want to screen his notoriously plagued “war is hell” classic at Cannes. An earlier test screening didn’t go well and studio United Artists made it clear that they were not interested in going through the disappointing experience in a much larger forum and with copious members of the press in attendance. Yet Coppola relented, eventually playing a still-unfinished feature at the festival in 1979. It ended up being the right choice. While the grand legacy of “Apocalypse Now” is mostly rooted in tall tales about the numerous incidents of on-set trauma and drama (from heart attacks to breakdowns, fat Brando to severe weather, and just about anything in between), the film’s place in Palme d’Or history should not be overlooked: It was the first time an American director had won the Palme twice (Coppola had previously won in 1974 with “The Conversation”), a feat that has not been matched since. – KE

All That Jazz

: 1980
Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical musical captures the time when the legendary choreographer was simultaneously editing “Lenny” (the Dustin Hoffman-starring bio-pic about Lenny Bruce) while staging the original Broadway production of “Chicago.” Fosse pulls no punches as he portrays his alter ego Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) as a pill-popping, womanizing, egomaniac driving himself to an early grave. The film even features Jessica Lange as the Angel of Death and a musical number set against the backdrop of the protagonist’s open heart surgery. But what really makes this film such a boundary-pushing musical masterpiece is Fosse’s incredibly inventive editing pattern; cutting through time and space in experimental ways that helps create an edgy Fellini-like dreaminess, but at the same time strengthening the film’s narrative.  – CO

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