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

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

Paris, Texas

: 1984
Three years after winning the Palme d’Or, Wim Wenders would make “Wings of Desire,” a film about a wayfaring figure, on a search for meaning in pursuit of a loved one. Although “Paris, Texas” doesn’t feature any angels, the way that Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis flits around the periphery in the lives of his family members, he might as well be hovering. Through a family drama that questions the very nature of family, Wenders is able to show the evolution of a distinct kind of fatherly interaction, organically evolving as Travis reconnects with a young son he’s returned to after years away. With one of the most subdued high-stakes car chases in film history and a series of green-drenched tableaus that could launch an entire color theory thesis paper, “Paris, Texas” lets its various reunions play out with emotional honesty and tension that never feels overplayed. It’s the special kind of film that show tears of joy and regret in equal measure without letting you know which are which. – SG

sex, lies and videotape

: 1989
The film launched the career of 26-year-old Steven Soderbergh, but more importantly helped put Sundance and Miramax on the map, while setting the table for the ‘90s American indie film boom. For the Sundance film to receive the Palme d’Or from the Wim Wenders-led jury was a seal of approval that gave the American indie film movement credibility in the eyes of the international film community. Soderbergh’s quiet film, in which a drifter with a VHS camera (James Spader) gets a repressed housewife (Andie MacDowell) to open up about her sleazy husband’s (Peter Gallagher) inability to make her orgasm, touched a nerve here in the States. By directly challenging yuppie culture and the deathly bland storytelling of Hollywood in the 1980s, the film became a $25 million box office success story that revealed there was an arthouse audience hungry to embrace something new. – CO

Wild at Heart

: 1990
Vastly dividing audiences at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, David Lynch’s “romance in hell” (as the director so winningly put it) stars Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as Sailor and Lula, young lovers from North Carolina on the run from gangsters hired to kill them by Sailor’s mother. Their road trip plays like a predecessor to “Natural Born Killers,” with an orgy of sex and violence producing no shortage of eye-opening moments and killer dialogue. Set to a blasting rock soundtrack, “Wild at Heart” is Lynch at his gnarliest extreme, telling his own version of the “Badlands” narrative, dipped in the contemporary bloodbath of ’80s culture. It may not have been the Lynch film many would have given the Palme (“Mulholland Drive” lost in 2001), but it’s a roller coaster of auteur ambition that can’t be denied. – ZS

Barton Fink

: 1991
The Coen Brothers’ single Palme win (well, so far) was part of a grand sweep that also saw their John Turturro-starring slice of Hollywood drama garnering Cannes awards for Best Actor and Best Director (it later went on to three Oscar nods and a seriously disappointing box office take). Initially cooked up as a bit of a stress reliever from the strain of writing “Miller’s Crossing,” the script for the feature was written in about three weeks. It allowed the brothers to play around with both colorful characters (from Fink to Charlie Meadows and Lou Breeze) and one of their most memorable settings ever, the iconic Hotel Earle. Both a close character study of Turturro’s Fink, a playwright trying to make his way in an unforgiving Hollywood, and a deeper examination of the price of creativity in a world that doesn’t always welcome it, “Barton Fink” contains innumerable classic Coen-isms, a treasure trove for fans of all stripes. Turns out that the Coens can tell a story. And make us laugh. And make us cry. And maybe even make us break out in joyous song. Now that’s a winner. – KE

Pulp Fiction

: 1994
If there’s anyone who knows how to bow a movie with a little bit (okay, a lot) of showmanship and a pretty generous dash of flair, it’s Quentin Tarantino. Oh, and also Harvey Weinstein. Put the two together, and it’s movie magic. That’s pretty much what happened in 1994 when The Weinstein Company debuted Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” to a packed midnight crowd with the entire (super-stacked) cast in attendance. Winning the Palme d’Or was only the icing on the cake for one of the most riotous Cannes debuts in recent memory. Only Tarantino’s second feature, “Pulp Fiction” shaggily hews together an impressive cast, a chopped up timeline and a screenplay full to bursting with cultural nods, zippy witticisms and rapid-fire fun. In short, pure Tarantino. While “Pulp Fiction” pulling out the Palme worked to further legitimatize Tarantino’s work, it also did something far more rare: it awarded a filmmaker for signature work at a vital time in their career. Cannes isn’t always so on-point with their picks, but “Pulp Fiction” helped break that mold. – KE

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