Amir here, to bring you this month’s edition of Team Top Ten, a monthly poll by all of our contributing team at The Film Experience. Cinephiles all around the world turn their attention to the south of France in May as the most prestigious film festival in the world gets underway in Cannes.
The festival’s history is a rich one, full of interesting cinematic and political narratives. It’s an event that has celebrated the best in cinema and operated as a launching pad for emerging artists as much as it has played games of politics and festival world favouritism. Still, when all is said and done, the list of Palme d’Or winners can rival any list of the best films ever made.
With this year’s edition of the festival just about to begin, we thought it would be a good time to revisit the past and choose our Top Ten Favourite Cannes Winners of All Time. For this poll, we’ve excluded the first two editions of the festival (1939, retroactively awarded to Union Pacific, and 1946, when the top prize was shared between 11 films.)
There is really no easy way to select the cream of the crop here, because these films are already... well, the cream of the crop. Consider the eight films that finished behind our top dozen: Pulp Fiction; Dancer in the Dark; Viridiana; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Farewell My Concubine; Secrets & Lies; The Tree of Life; The Pianist. Not to mention masterpieces like Black Orpheus, Wages of Fear and Rosetta that placed outside the top 20. The point is that this is the highest echelon of films awards so the standards are high and margins are slim. Some of you will surely disagree with our ranking, but we welcome that. Let us know what you think in the comments.
THE BEST CANNES WINNERS OF ALL TIME
a non-definitive poll which begins with a three-way tie for tenth
10= La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 1960)
Sometimes a Palme d'or arrives a bit early (ask Steven Soderbergh), sometimes it comes much too late (no worries, Ken Loach doesn't remember for which film he won it either), and sometimes it is given at the exact right moment. 1960 was one of those times - for if Fellini's subsequent 8 1/2 arguably remains his definitive masterpiece, La Dolce Vita marked the precise moment when the Italian master broke with his neorealist roots to become, well, Federico Fellini : a gloriously flamboyant megalomaniac indulging in unforgettable visions of gargantuan excess and baroque decadence. That is the whole point of Cannes: not necessarily to rubber-stamp filmmakers at their pinnacle, but rather to shine a light on them when their talent still feels refreshingly and excitingly new. With his 1960 snapshot of a decaying Roman society, there was little doubt that Fellini was taking Italian cinema to the next level: with its legendary opening shot of a statue of Christ being heliported over the city, the character of Paparazzo whose name has been given to a whole profession, Marcello Mastroianni’s career-defining performance and Nino Rota's immortal score, La Dolce Vita remains a cultural touchstone whose colossal influence can be traced in countless works, the latest of which is this year's Oscar winning The Great Beauty.
10=Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)
A study of the myths of post-war America as filtered through two very different personalities: writer Sam Shepard, prominent eulogist of the modern West, and director Wim Wenders, shining star of the German New Wave and lover of Eurocentric travelogues. Between the two of them, they managed to make one of the most perfect studies of the desolation of the American Southwest that ever could be made, using the emptiness of the landscape and the vacant history of its amnesiac protagonist (Harry Dean Stanton, giving one of the greatest performances of the '80s) as metaphors for each other. Few movies have ever so insightfully and mercilessly deconstructed the idea of the wide-open frontier, while also indulging in a kind of post-modern endorsement of the same myth, culminating in a moment that reworks the traditional heroic loner into a figure of mysterious and beautiful spiritual transcendence.
10= The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov, 1958)
It's been years since I saw Mikhail Kalatozov's wartime masterpiece and though the specificity of the images, glorious as they are, has faded, their lyricism, poetry and pain has not. Whenever I'm reminded of the movie (which is not often enough - let's have a revival of Russian cinema of the 50s because, my god, the gorgeousness. See also: Ballad of a Soldier) I go into a kind of blissful trance remembering how overwhelming it all felt the first time. In fact, I sometimes misremember it as a silent movie, so potent is its visual sophistication. The black and white cinematography by Sergey Urusevsky, filled with passionate close-ups and disorienting but stunningly staged continuous shots (some of the best crowd scenes in the movies), is justly worshipped. But this is the kind of movie that transcends on just about every level from performance to editing to direction and sound work. The Cranes Are Flying may belong to one of the most crowded subgenres in films (the war-time romance) but it stands apart all the same. As WW II dramas go, there's very little that can touch it for both sweeping scope and moving intimacy.
9. The Leopard (Visconti, 1963)
Burt Lancaster wasn't Luchino Visconti's first choice for the iconic role of Don Fabrizio Corbera (he wanted Nikolay Cherkasov...) but watching The Leopard and imagining anyone else in the part seems almost preposterous. As the Prince reluctant to let changing times affect his traditional views, the actor brought his poised Old Hollywood mannerisms to a story that, in a way, represented the passing of time in his own career. Lancaster's dignified performance anchors a film often considered Italy's own Gone with the Wind. Directed by Visconti with virtuoso attention to detail, and also featuring performances from Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, The Leopard is a true landmark of cinema that reminds us that they really don't make them like they used to.
8. Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)
Often times, it is impossible not to take into account the political and historical context of a film’s fate at Cannes. Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, the only Iranian film to ever win the top prize, is a prime example. A deceptively simple film in the director’s trademark visual style, this is an experience that yields better results upon every repeated screening, revealing whole new facets of its thematic reach. The ethical questions that form the spine of the narrative are as complicated, challenging and rewarding as they were when Kiarostami shocked the world with a film openly about suicide set in the Shi’a world, where the topic remains an unspeakable taboo. Yet, the film’s win seems more significant today for the context in which it happened than the (very deserving) film itself. Iranian cinema, arguably the biggest discovery of the 90s in the Western film world, was at its peak at this point. Its most prominent player, Abbas Kiarostami, was just coming off the massive critical success of Close-up and Through the Olive Trees, and The White Balloon, scripted by him, had just won the Camera d’or a couple of years earlier. This Palme d’or was the festival’s stamp of approval on Iranian cinema and one of the world’s most important auteurs and it arrived at just the right moment.
7. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
My entry point to Apocalypse Now late in life as a subsidiary part of a postcolonial studies module is not the ideal one. In many ways approaching Coppola’s film to complement Conrad’s Heart of Darkness might seem less than ideal because it’s about as loose an adaptation as can be. The beauty and significance of the film, even as it does not follow the text to the letter, makes good on Conrad’s foundation (and even surpasses it at times) by following the spirit of the text completely, the spirit which is one of horror. Everything about it, in its messy, provocative, defiant glory evokes a sense of beguiling revulsion. It’s a movie about depravity, about losing control and everything about it – formally and negatively, engaging, attacking even, the audience on that emotional level. The madness and abandon of its characters becomes manifested in its form. It’s a quality which makes it a hard film to love but an overwhelming one to behold. On a list of the best films to take the highest prize at Cannes, that sentiment feels apt.
6. The Conversation (Coppola, 1974)
The extraordinary cultural relevancy of The Conversation, released as it was in the midst of the Watergate scandal, was entirely coincidental; or so director Francis Ford Coppola insists. In any event, that timeliness does little to explain how effective the film has remained since. That might be more easily understood thanks to the film's astonishing, intricate use of sound – not often a cinematic instrument used with much care and certainly not loaded with this much narrative detail – and its psychological comprehension and realisation of the nature of obsession. Combine that with Gene Hackman's most committed, revealing and electrifying performance, and you've got what is, for my money, easily Coppola's shiniest golden hour.
5. All That Jazz (Fosse, 1980)
I have unfortunately not seen as many of the Cannes winners as I would have hoped to before compiling a list such as this. Still, no matter the figures, there was never any doubt that my own number one would be All That Jazz. It is the film I consider my favourite of all time. I (again) don’t claim to have seen enough cinema to so casually toss around words like “best film ever” – Who really has? – but Bob Fosse’s dizzying, dazzling mix of Fellini-esque personal reflection (All That Jazz could work as a remake of 8 ½ in much the same way Blue Jasmine was a remake of A Streetcar Named Desire), inspiring technical achievements, incredible performances by Roy Scheider and the unheralded likes of Ann Reinking and Leland Palmer, truly stunning musical and dance sequences, and 1970s Manhattan energy never fails to captivate me. Bookended by opening and closing numbers of pure spectacle, All That Jazz feels like an odd duck of a Palme d’Or winner, but a special one nonetheless.
4. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964)
To my eternal joy, three musicals have won the Palme d'Or, and each of them is, in its own way, completely radical. The candy-colored melodrama Les parapluies de Cherbourg would be a pretty huge gambit even if it were just completely sung through. But director Jacques Demy takes it to the level of brazen genius by making it the biggest Technicolor wondershow since The Wizard of Oz. Instead of reading as juvenile, the colors only enhance the viewing experience, fully enveloping you in the whirlwind of teenage romance and heartbreak at the film's center. In fact, take away the music and play it as a silent film, and it would probably work just as well because of the stunning mise-en-scène. But why would you? The music, by the legendary Michel Legrand, is one of the most romantic pieces of music composed for the cinema. Of course, the cherry on top of the cake is the breathtaking debut performance of French cinema’s goddess Catherine Deneuve.
3. The Third Man (Reed, 1949)
Sometimes you spot a flaw in an established film classic and it’s comforting to know that even bona fide masterpieces have weaknesses. Carol Reed’s The Third Man is not that film. The Third Man is the film that makes you hang your head and weep because sometimes perfection is attainable. The winner of the 1949 Cannes Festival is an example of everything coming together and not only working, but operating at a level that becomes the standard against which you judge other films. Does any other film compose shadows as striking? Are any other villains as delicious as Orson Welles’ Harry Lime? Does any other score lodge itself so powerfully in one’s consciousness as Anton Karas’s zither music? Is any film ending so delicate, so simple, and yet so devastating? The Third Man’s victory occurred in Cannes' early days as it was still building its reputation (It predates the establishment of the Palme d'Or). Carol Reed’s film noir masterpiece set a high standard for the festival, a standard that one could argue has not been surpassed.
2. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
Who are we to accredit for why Taxi Driver remains such a potent and perfect piece of boldly-designed American moviemaking? The urban entropy of 1970s New York City has never been captured with more grotty elegance than from behind Michael Chapman’s camera, or articulated with more lurid yet poetic preoccupation than in Paul Schrader’s script, which reaches near operatic levels of carnage and chaos. There’s Bernard Herrmann’s gorgeous, sax-heavy score that resonates like a jazzy elegy within the urban inferno, but also Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro’s mesmerizingly fluid edits, which keep this inferno alive and moving. Jodie Foster deserves praise, if only for the mere iconicity of her provocative casting, as well as costume designer Ruth Morley, for finding that abrasively well-worn, story-telling military jacket, as well as the floppy-brimmed hats and baby doll halters of Iris’ workwear. De Niro should’ve been handed a bouquet of Oscars for embodying not just the electric anger and accumulating danger of Travis, but also the pained and poignant sense of vexed incoherence. But, of course, it all comes back to Scorsese, who unites all these players and elements with such daring and dynamic conviction, creating an indelible, harrowing portrait of a lost and lonely city.
1. The Piano (Campion, 1993)
You feel every edit in The Piano. The images, so idiosyncratically arresting, refuse to yield any smooth continuity. In that respect, quite aside from its mute protagonist, the movie feels like a silent film. The story of four rough-edged people in stark but shifting conflict with each other recommends the blunt, disorienting cuts that punctuate most shots. Sometimes Campion opts instead for eerie and equally conspicuous dissolves, insisting on highly porous membranes between physical reality and inward journeying. The Piano reminds me of stained glass: every frame feels beautiful and brittle; every oddly-shaped shard encased by firm borders that still produce a glorious whole. But that analogy undersells the movie’s dynamism. Back in 1993, I had never seen another film where every scene, almost every shot changed my response to every character and their entanglements. The characters, too, seemed stunned by their instincts and capacities. I’m still astonished, every time.