This is an impossible undertaking. Since 1955, when the Palme d’Or was introduced, there have been 66 feature winners. Many of them, if not most of them, are worthy of rising to the top of any list. This isn’t the Best Picture Oscar winners list, where there are a bunch of almost universally agreed-upon duds. This is the cream of the crop of international cinema, going back more than five decades. These rankings are somewhat meaningless, every film from about #30 on down to #1 can probably be considered a masterpiece, and most of the ones behind in the ranking are pretty darn excellent in their own way. Take this with a grain of salt.
The experience of watching all of these films was like a spiritual marathon on a couch ("The Palme D'Chore"). Many of them are quite long, too. There were the obvious films I had somehow missed in school, and then there were the obscure classics that are in great need of rediscovery. I stumbled upon stunning work and squirmed through one or two disasters that somehow found their way to the Palme. Mostly I learned an awful lot, in particular about the landscape of international cinema in the 1960s and 1970s that we have mostly forgotten about.
66. “Scarecrow,” by Jerry Schatzberg (1973)
The 40th anniversary of Jerry Schatzberg’s “Scarecrow” is this week, so perhaps it’s an unfair time to pick on it. But pick on it I shall. This is one of the lesser ‘70s road movies, a well-shot meandering trip through America without much to say. Its casual misogyny doesn’t help, including a character played by Ann Wedgeworth that seems mostly like a total misunderstanding of what Karen Black was doing in “Five Easy Pieces.” A central diversion into homophobic prison clichés only makes it worse, defining “Scarecrow” as a confused meditation on masculinity that just doesn’t hold up.
65. “Under the Sun of Satan,” by Maurice Pialat (1987)
Now, Maurice Pialat’s agonizing Catholic drama isn’t necessarily a bad film. It has some interesting ideas and a handful of interesting images, and Gérard Depardieu isn’t awful. Its problem is simply that it expresses its ideas with very, very little style. The screenplay lobs its overwrought religious anxieties at the audience, and little is done to soften the blows. A film about self-flagellation, it lashes at us as well with an almost medieval obscurity.
64. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” by Michael Moore (2004)
More than any other film on this list, Michael Moore’s indictment of the George W. Bush Administration represents a particular moment in time. The Iraq War had just entered its second year and left-wing European outrage about the invasion of Iraq was at a fever pitch, especially in France. The problem is simply that the film is not at all Moore’s best, not even close. It is his most abrasive work, and regardless of its political validity it runs far afield of the razor-sharp effectiveness of “Roger and Me” or “Bowling for Columbine.”
63. “Marty,” by Delbert Mann (1955)
The only film to win both the Palme d’Or and the Best Picture Oscar has not aged well. It’s short but not concise, and its final stumble into real dramatic conflict in its last ten minutes doesn’t really save anything. Ernest Borgnine is ok, but his performance pales in comparison to Rod Steiger’s turn in the original TV movie. It may have been a dry year for the Oscars, but the Marcel Pagnol-led Cannes Jury’s decision to award “Marty” over “Rififi” continues to baffle me.
62. “The Son’s Room,” by Nanni Moretti (2001)
In some ways Nanni Moretti is his own worst enemy. “The Son’s Room” could be one of the great films about loss, but it’s derailed by the character at its center: a psychiatrist and father, played by Moretti himself. He wants to be 1970s Woody Allen but ends up being 2000s Woody Allen, with little of his comedy and all of his smugness. The snide attitude the film takes toward his patients is at odds with its own treatment of grief, and a finally cathartic last act can’t make up for Moretti’s tonal missteps.
61. “Wild at Heart,” by David Lynch (1990)
“Wild at Heart” is a bad movie. There’s really no way around it. The first half is admittedly entertaining, absurd and almost unintentionally raucous in the same mode as “The Paperboy.” Yet somewhere along the way, around the entrance of Willem Dafoe, the comedy collapses and we’re left with a bad-tasting last act that overstays its welcome. David Lynch’s signature weirdos are haphazard and unpleasant in this case, and not even Isabella Rossellini can save the day.
60. “Yol,” by Yılmaz Güney and Şerif Gören (1982)
There are some moments of stunning beauty in “Yol,” particularly those set in the frozen mountains of Eastern Turkey. Yet the grandiose cinematography is in service of one of cinema’s most over the top narratives, one which feels even schmaltzier than it reads. Like many other films, it is perhaps more historically than artistically significant – due to Yılmaz Güney’s political activities it was banned in Turkey until 1999.
59. “A Man and a Woman,” by Claude Lelouch (1966)
Take everything stylistically interesting about the French New Wave and throw all of its thematic accomplishments into the nearest ocean. Claude Lelouch’s romance is an ode to samba, walks on the beach and charismatic coloration, all set to Francis Lai’s earworm musical score. Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant are convincing but in a film that has almost nothing to say, how much do their voices matter?
58. “The Tree of Life,” by Terrence Malick (2011)
Oh, come at me. I acknowledge that this is a gorgeous film, but it’s also so darn simplistic and retrograde. It’s as if Terrence Malick is stuck in 1953, at least in his view of life the universe and everything, which is what this film attempts to be about. It’s beautifully sculpted blandness, and I will have none of it.
57. “The Eel,” by Shohei Imamura (1997)
The eel in “The Eel” is a pet. Its owner is a recently released convict, who spends the first few minutes of the film killing his wife and her lover. That’s quite the opening sequence, which I assume is the principle reason for which it won the Palme. The whole first act is pretty interesting, actually, engaging with whether or not its protagonist has any real intent on pursuing remorse. Yet it veers off into the direction of a soap opera with a screwball finale, losing its urgency and ending on a bland note.
56. “Friendly Persuasion,” by William Wyler (1957)
The dilemma that the American Civil War caused the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, is a fascinating one. They were both vehemently anti-slavery and resolutely pacifist, abolitionists who refused to fight. William Wyler’s adaptation of Jessamyn West’s novel looks at the impact of this theological burden on a Quaker family in Southern Indiana, starring Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire and Anthony Perkins. If only Wyler chose to actually get to the war before his wholesome epic’s final half hour, after a whole lot of humble and mundane family drama.
55. “L’enfant,” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (2005)
What is social realism when it’s contrived? “L’enfant” is not lacking in the Dardennes Brothers’ typical down-to-earth Belgian empathy, but its thematic thrust approaches triteness in its facility. It’s a film with a single idea, that young people who are essentially still children themselves should probably not have children of their own. In execution is not quite so moralistic, but the way that Jérémie Renier’s youthful antics are featured and even harped upon in the film almost squash its resonance. It has the mood but none of the subtlety of the Dardennes’ other Palme d’Or winner, “Rosetta.”
54. “The Class,” by Laurent Cantet (2008)
On the one hand, Laurent Cantet’s classroom drama might be the greatest single entry in the “well-meaning teacher brings light and wisdom into the lives of a bunch of unfortunate youths” genre. On the other hand, its competition is mostly drek like “Freedom Writers.” The kids are mostly quite excellent and François Bégaudeau (essentially playing himself) is well worth a watch. But be honest, how well do you really remember this film?
53. “When Father Was Away on Business,” by Emir Kusturica (1985)
This, the first of Emir Kusturica’s Palme-winning films, brushes up against greatness without quite breaking through the wall. It’s a charming film about totalitarianism in Yugoslavia shortly after World War Two, when the nation was at odds with the Soviet Union. Told from the perspective of a child to soften the blow of political oppression, “When Father Was Away on Business” has all the comedy of Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball” or Kusturica’s better “Underground” but not quite as much bite.
52. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” by Ken Loach (2006)
A great many Palme d’Or winning films start slowly and only find their footing in their second halves. It is what it is. The Irish War of Independence is a great story, but the Irish Civil War is a better one. You need the emotional victory of the first to truly express the tragedy of brother turning against brother in the second, but you can’t let the early years get boring along the way. Nevertheless, this is still Ken Loach’s best film of the 21st century and it does pack quite a punch in its latter half.
51. “The Ballad of Narayama,” by Shohei Imamura (1983)
“The Ballad of Narayama” is a little bit silly. It is also about mortality, set in a village where upon reaching the age of 70 the aged residents are expected to climb to the top of a nearby snowy peak to die. In this way it’s an awful lot like “Amarcord,” a warm and often comic portrait of a small community with a darkness hiding under the surface. It’s occasionally quite mild, but its dramatic wintertime conclusion is one for the ages.
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50. “MASH,” by Robert Altman (1970)
Altman’s first great American ensemble picture is also the first great comedy on this list. Its irreverence and wry wit lampooned the Korean War in the wake of growing resentment over our involvement in Vietnam, perfectly fitting the moment both in Europe and at home. Its humor is very, very ‘70s, both in its landmark goofiness (which would of course spawn a long-running TV spinoff) and its lascivious sense of fun. And how often does one get to refer to Elliott Gould as “at the top of his art” anymore?
49. “The Go-Between,” by Joseph Losey (1971)
Speaking of lasciviousness, the sexual charge of Joseph Losey’s “The Go-Between” is quite something. Julie Christie and Alan Bates might be the definitive film couple of the early 1970s, with a chemistry that borders on the inflamed. Bates brings all of the almost animal magnetism he had in “Women in Love” while Christie’s charm is only more nuanced than her Oscar-winning performance in “Darling.” Harold Pinter’s screenplay keeps things from completely bursting at the seams, Losey tying it all together into a classic of British cinema.
48. “The Best Intentions,” by Bille August (1992)
Bille August brings great patience to this portrait of a marriage, the humblest of epics. The husband and wife in question are the parents of Ingmar Bergman, and the screenplay is his as well. It begins as a tale of love across the lines of class. Bergman’s father was a poor seminary student and his mother a member of the enlightened bourgeoisie. Yet even after they get over that hurdle and marry, their lives are further complicated by a ministerial assignment to a tiny town in the far north of Sweden. Placid snows and fiery quarrels make up this lengthy work’s last act, which somehow keeps you devoted to a love story for over five hours.
47. “Blowup,” by Michelangelo Antonioni (1967)
Michelangelo Antonioni was the filmmaker of alienation, very pretty people feeling terribly sorry for themselves. Yet that dynamic, which served him so well in his earlier trilogy of “L’avventura,” “La notte,” and “L’eclisse” is much complicated with this bold move to London and a potentially dangerous murder mystery. While not necessarily a representative film of the Swinging Sixties, Antonioni’s characteristic disquiets are a fascinating twist on the mod world we think we know.
46. “Chronicle of the Years of Fire,” by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (1975)
This film seems entirely forgotten by most English-language critics, and that’s a problem. A stunning epic of revolution and anti-colonial resistance, it colors in the Algerian perspective over the decades leading up to the brief moments captured in “The Battle of Algiers.” Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina forges a national narrative out of fire and ashes, boldly sketching decades of his nation’s history with an eye on the growth of a generation of heroes. Someone restore this and put out a Blu-Ray, please.
45. “The Hireling,” by Alan Bridges (1973)
I’ll admit, this stuffy British anti-romance has an air of “Downton Abbey” to it. Yet its prissiness is momentary and only for the sake of thematic contrast. The frail Lady Franklin, played with welcome strength by Sarah Miles, is recently widowed. Her driver (Robert Shaw), a self-made man who has fallen on hard times, falls desperately in love with her. It sounds like a cliché but it is nowhere near it, and rounds out with one of the most dreadful and affecting conclusions of any film on this list.
44. “The Pianist,” by Roman Polanski (2002)
In a way “The Pianist” can be seen as more definitive a Holocaust film than “Schindler’s List,” in that it entirely avoids the kitsch that Spielberg occasionally brushes up against. Yet its significance comes from its specificity, a story of a single survivor, Wladislaw Szpilman, told by another individual survivor, Roman Polanski. The brilliant and Romantic music of Chopin is somewhat distant from the film’s tragedies, at least compared to the lachrymose cello of John Williams, which again casts “The Pianist” as a profoundly singular work of art.
43. “The Birds, the Bees and the Italians,” by Pietro Germi (1966)
Pietro Germi’s filmography is perhaps the most hilarious in Italian cinema, even if this Palme d’Or winner doesn’t really come close to the glorious laugh-riot that is “Divorce, Italian Style.” Still, “The Birds, the Bees and the Italians” is a coup of ensemble comedy that draws on Italy’s most ridiculous of mid-century contradictions regarding sex and fidelity.
42. “The Mission,” by Roland Joffé (1986)
“The Mission” is a very odd and perhaps even unlikely movie. Jeremy Irons stars as a Jesuit priest in South America trying to protect the lives and lands of the Guaranì while converting them to Christianity. Opposite him is Robert De Niro as a slaver, initially a voracious kidnapper of those same natives. Yet faith is greater than the greed of men, or at least it can be, and De Niro’s character undergoes quite the transformation. The real story here is Ennio Morricone’s score, which raises the final battle for the freedom of the Guaranì to an almost divine feeling.
41. “Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior,” by Akira Kurosawa (1980)
Akira Kurosawa’s historical films are like Shakespeare, even when they aren’t explicitly based on the plays of The Bard. “Kagemusha” opens on three men, identically dressed doppelgangers. They are the daimyo Takeda Shingen, his brother and his new double. It’s all in one take, absolutely grand in its symbolic weight and entirely simple in its composition. And then we’re off, down a three hour path through expertly choreographed battle scenes and more colorful feudal banners than you can imagine. It’s hard to believe that it’s based on real 16th century events, but Kurosawa is nothing if not a wizard of the hard to believe.
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40. “sex, lies and videotape,” by Steven Soderbergh (1989)
In hindsight, “sex, lies and videotape” is a bit strange. Many other American independent films have followed in its footsteps, but none of them have quite replicated the odd way that Steven Soderbergh and his cast formulated their characters. Everyone is slightly off in a slightly sinister and sexual way, while the film’s descendants are mostly just “quirky.” The plot has lost something to the cutting edge of age, but Andie MacDowell’s costumes, Laura San Giacomo’s facial expressions and James Spader’s mild ickiness still stand strong.
39. “Secrets & Lies,” by Mike Leigh (1996)
Mike Leigh has a gift for gab, both in the writing of his very verbal screenplays and the encouraging of top-notch performances from his family of actors. At the center are Brenda Blethlyn as a working class aging mother and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the daughter she gave up for adoption years before. Both women are astonishing, leading an absolutely formidable cast down a road of dramatic reveals of secrets and unpleasant airings of grievances. Leigh never gets drawn too far into despair and keeps “Secrets & Lies” in a sweet spot of brutal honesty and real love.
38. “The Knack…and How to Get It,” by Richard Lester (1965)
If Blowup is the anti-Mod film then Richard Lester’s charming and ridiculous comedy is Mod’s incarnation. Armed the joy of his earlier collaborations with The Beatles, he unleashes three roommates out into London to offend and horrify an older generation of delightfully caricatured fogeys. Rita Tushingham is a sublime central figure, if compromised by a misogynistic sense of humor that reminds one of “MASH.” Yet at the end of the day Lester’s warm absurdity wins out, giving us images as unforgettable as a large iron bed used as urban transportation and an artist obsessively painting everything in his apartment white.
37. “Pelle the Conqueror,” by Bille August (1988)
Bille August’s “Pelle the Conqueror” is, among other things, cinema’s great epic of fog. Its gloom is the source of the film’s most memorable images and it serves its central theme of immigration within Scandinavia. Max von Sydow’s salt-of-the-earth Swedish farmer sets out for the Danish island of Bornholm with his young son, moving through the mist to find a new home. Once they get they’re they find themselves treated as second class citizens, as it goes, but August’s intent is far from miserable. It is, rather, to begin dissolving the haze.
36. “Elephant,” by Gus Van Sant (2003)
Chilling and as relevant now as ever before, “Elephant” might be Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece. It’s more structurally ambitious and experimental than most of his other work and that pays off. The camera’s winding through the halls of its doomed high school setting offers a strange perspective that borders on something almost omniscient. It frees itself from the constraints of linear time in order to highlight a single, immovable moment and does so with a flawless ease.
35. “The Leopard,” by Luchino Visconti (1963)
“The Leopard” is the “Gone with the Wind” of Italian cinema. It’s a portrait of a jeweled aristocratic society that faded after the 1860s, whose decay was beneficial for the nation but also inspires an impulse to wistful mourning. The original novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa goes further into the death of the Italian nobility while Luchino Visconti chooses to cut off while it still hovers on the edge of decline. It’s a missed opportunity for the film, but hardly a fatal flaw.
34. “Dancer in the Dark,” by Lars Von Trier (2000)
The best part of “Dancer in the Dark,” by far, is Björk. She sings, she dances, and she desperately attempts to raise her children in an unfriendly America. Incidentally, it’s the 1950s. This is initially hard to notice, but that’s immaterial. The whole plot is sorta immaterial, actually. This film is as high up on this list as it is because of Björk, Catherine Deneuve and Joel Grey’s surprising cameo. Otherwise it’s kind of a mess.
33. “Amour,” by Michael Haneke (2012)
Jean-Louis Trintignant has starred in two Palme d’Or winners, both of them love stories. The first, “A Man and a Woman,” is an entirely idealized and fantastical bunch of nonsense that is already quite dated. The latter, “Amour,” is a brutal but fiercely truthful narrative of love at the end of life that will probably remain potent forever. Make of that what you will.
32. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work deals in fluidity, often related to gender but sometimes in a much larger sense. “Uncle Boonmee” is a placid whirlpool of identity, following souls through a series of bodies and time periods. It lives and breathes a sort of spiritual wisdom without needing a single note of narrative guidance. It is the film that “Cloud Atlas” so desperately wanted to be, but could not for want of figurative looseness.
31. “Rosetta,” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
If one of the two Dardenne films to win the Palme d’Or can be called an unmitigated success, it is “Rosetta.” Featuring a revelatory debut performance from Émilie Dequenne, this is the greatest of Belgian stories about making waffles and growing up in a trailer park. Like “L’enfant” it features youth making bad, hurtful decisions but here it does not feel so contrived. Rosetta is a thoroughly realized character, and among the most effectively written heroines of this list.
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30. “The Cranes Are Flying,” by Mikhail Kalatozov (1958)
It’s a little surprising that “The Cranes Are Flying” is the only Soviet film to win the Palme, but if there can only be one it’s certainly an excellent choice. Tatiana Samoilova’s very spirit is iconic, the beginning of a new era in Soviet cinema after Socialist Realism. Kalatozov’s film is hardly a great act of resistence to the dominant Communist culture, but it brought a more human face back into the spotlight.
29. “Undergound,” by Emir Kusturica (1987)
“Underground” is Kusturica’s masterpiece, just ignore whatever Slavoj Zizek has to say. The film caused a great deal of controversy upon its release, particularly among French intellectuals who hadn’t yet actually seen it. As with any cinematic representation of the Balkan Wars, there is a valid conversation to be had about bias and culpability. In this case, however, the ingenuity of its treatment of the Second World War and the Cold War period is also definitely worth a chat. An entire community spends two decades of the Communist period underground, convinced that the Nazis still run Yugoslavia. It’s brilliant!
28. “The Long Absence,” by Henri Colpi (1961)
Alida Valli is an unsung legend of French cinema, or at least slightly-less-sung than she should be. “The Long Absence” has not stuck around in the canon, perhaps because Henri Colpi (also the editor of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad”) is not one of the big names. It’s time we look at it again. Its intimate take on the losses felt after the Second World War rises to the heights of resonance through Valli’s emotional crescendo of a performance.
27. “The White Ribbon,” by Michael Haneke (2009)
The political films that have dominated the festival in recent years are mostly like “The White Ribbon,” thinly veiled historical works that seek to identify and interpret a time gone by. This lack of immediacy doesn’t make them any less significant, however. Haneke’s village-bound allegory is one of the most compelling works about the antecedents of Fascism we’ve ever seen, particularly in a German context.
26. “The Working Class Goes to Heaven,” by Elio Petri (1972)
The older political films, those that rocked the festival in the 1960s and 1970s, were much more rollicking. Featuring a brusque, unadorned performance from Gian Maria Volonté, Elio Petri’s “warts and all” portrayal of the tumult then engulfing Italy’s factories is a fireball of political contradictions. Radical students, unionists and management barrel down on Volonté and through him the audience, beaten by the sounds of machines and bullhorns. It’s a visceral experience.
25. “Taste of Cherry,” by Abbas Kiarostami (1997)
Abbas Kiarostami's most controversial and divisive film (Ebert rather famously awarded it one star) is also perhaps Kiarostami's simplest. A perfect distillation of the filmmaker's tropes, fetishes and obsessions, "Taste of Cherry" is almost exclusively set inside a car as it rolls around the Iranian countryside, the rather unexceptional man behind the wheel in desperate search of someone who might perform a favor for him (not that kind of favor, though such a misunderstanding is joked about early on). No, the man, who is suicidal, is looking for someone to throw earth onto the grave that he has already dug for himself. A compelling pas de deux, "Taste of Cherry" is mostly remembered for its paradigm-shifting ending, among the cinema's most shocking and unusual conclusions. An intimate and richly laconic meditation on life, death and how we make sense of their relationship to one another, "Taste of Cherry" may not be Kiarostami's crowning achievement, but it was worthy of the Palme.
24. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” by Jacques Demy (1964)
Dripping with whimsy without becoming saccharine, Jacques Demy’s masterpiece is the jazz opera that took on the anxieties of French youth. You may remember it for its floating melodies and longing glances, but let’s not forget that Demy also sent his male lead off to fight the revolution in Algeria for de Gaulle. More than just light and airy, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” strives to be the voice of a generation.
23. “The Mattei Affair,” by Francesco Rosi (1972)
Enrico Mattei was the controversial and immensely powerful head of ENI, the Italian national energy agency from 1945 until 1962, when he died in a plane crash under mysterious circumstances. Francesco Rosi sent a reporter down to Sicily to reconstruct Mattei’s last days, and the reporter also died under mysterious circumstances. “The Mattei Affair” was not only built on the darkest of scandals, but contains captures their complexity and obscurity with immense style. It is one of the great Italian political films.
22. “Eternity and a Day,” by Theo Angelopoulos (1998)
“Eternity and a Day” is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and it has nothing at all to do with its narrative. The film is about an old, dying poet who befriends a young Albanian immigrant boy on his last day before entering hospice. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. What we haven’t seen before are images of the border fence between Greece and Albania, obscured by fog but still clearly the resting place of a number of refugees, suspended forever by presumably electric wires at an impossibly high voltage. We haven’t seen the sea in quite the same way, nor a flood of oncoming traffic with a brood of kid window-wipers on its tails.
21. “Missing,” by Costa-Gavras (1982)
The CIA helped stage the coup in Chile in 1973. We know this now, and we should be pretty ashamed of it. We didn’t necessarily know it in 1982 however, at least not in the way we’ve known it since the declassification of documents under President Clinton. Costa-Gavras is a fearless filmmaker, however, and “Missing” is a live wire. Jack Lemmon, representing a nation uncomfortable and initially unwilling to confront its imperialism, gives the performance of a lifetime.
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20. “if….,” by Lindsay Anderson (1969)
The boys at the center of Lindsay Anderson’s “if….” are reckless, dangerous and entirely without respect for authority. The film itself matches that gleefully confrontational spirit, but it is anything but reckless. This is one of the most calculated, brilliant take-downs of British nationalism to ever set fire to the silver screen.
19. “The Tin Drum,” by Volker Schlöndorff (1979)
Imagine a horse’s head full of eels. That’s what Günter Grass’s landmark novel does, along with a three year old that never ages and can shatter glass with his high-pitch voice. Volker Schlöndorff brought this magical book to life without taking the wonder out of a single one of its strange images, from the sublime to the disgusting. “The Tin Drum” is a triumph of imagery well before its historical weight even sinks in.
18. “Black Orpheus,” by Marcel Camus (1959)
Many of the Palme d’Or winners have memorable, virtuosic soundtracks. Not one of them is as musically infectious as “Black Orpheus.” The film that introduced the world to samba is a rhythmic marvel, a masterpiece of effortless symbolism and mythological soul. The whole thing gets stuck in my head regularly, from Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “A felicidade” to Luiz Bonfá’s “Samba de Orfeu.”
17. “Padre Padrone,” by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (1977)
Now, if you go into this film without any prior knowledge you might be a bit surprised with the extent to which the Taviani Brothers are determined to eroticize every aspect of the Italian farm. I promise you, it’s to a legitimate end. This is a tale of the peasant’s son emancipated, run away to the wider world in spite of his father’s harsh objections. From the conflict within a single family, “Padre Padrone” turns out to face the generational and regional tensions within a recently-industrialized Italy, an old but still resonant theme.
16. “Man of Iron,” by Andrzej Wajda (1981)
The rare honor of being the only man to win the Palme d’Or with a sequel goes to Andrzej Wajda, whose “Man of Marble” won the FIPRESCI Prize in 1978. I’d argue that the earlier film is actually the better one, a “Citizen Kane” structured exploration of the Stakhanotive ideal and the worker’s identity in Communist Poland. “Man of Iron” is a much more immediately militant film, depicting the Solidarity movement only a year after the Gdánsk Shipyard strike. It’s daring and defiant, and Krystyna Janda is wonderful.
15. “Pulp Fiction,” by Quentin Tarantino (1994)
Oh, “Pulp Fiction.” What is there even left to say about it? How about this: it has the longest Wikipedia page of any Palme d’Or winner. It’s terribly detailed.
14. “Barton Fink,” by Joel and Ethan Coen (1991)
“Barton Fink” is a milestone in the career of the Coen Brothers, regardless of how you feel about their earlier work. “Raising Arizona” is awesome, but it isn’t exactly the sort of thing that wins the Palme d’Or. 1991 is the first moment at which the artistic ambition of the writer/directors really emerged to philosophically smack an audience, and the Roman Polanski-led jury recognized that. A jury that included Whoopi Goldberg, I might add.
13. “The Conversation,” by Francis Ford Coppola (1974)
“The Conversation” lost out at the Oscars, mostly because there was another, bigger Coppola masterwork to compete with. Not so at the Cannes Film Festival, though the competition was equally intense. Somehow the film manages to strike gold with both its first and last shots, making it kinda legendary from start to finish.
12. “Viridiana,” by Luis Buñuel (1961)
It’s hard to imagine a list of this caliber without at least one Luis Buñuel film, especially given how virulently political much of it is. “Viridiana” might be a personal favorite of his work, striking an ideal balance between his occasionally humanist tendency and his cold-hearted metaphorical jabs at the bourgeoisie and the church. The infamous Last Supper scene is reason enough to put the film on any list. And Viridiana in that wedding dress? Fierce and beyond unsettling.
11. “Paris, Texas,” by Wim Wenders (1984)
“Paris, Texas” opens like an insufferably vacant art film. It really does. Harry Dean Stanton, alone and mute in the Texan desert, is not at all a good sign. Yet Wenders isn’t interested in the aimless meanderings of a wordless vagrant. Instead, it finds its way to a meaningful family drama that takes from the thematic weight of the open road without letting it dominate the proceedings.
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10. “Farewell My Concubine,” by Chen Kaige (1993)
Chen Kaige’s epic of the world of Chinese opera has every element that seems to tie this whole list of films together. It’s deeply political, though also grounded in a long history. It has a love story that reaches beyond the usual boundaries of a romance in its themes. It’s full of incredible images, the music is great, and its boldness derives from its understanding of cinematic (and gender) fluidity. Also, the opening scene is killer.
9. “The Silent World,” by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle (1956)
One of only two documentaries to ever win the Palme, “The Silent World” is a masterpiece of non-fiction cinema. It’s immensely entertaining and breathtakingly lush, especially given how little color underwater photography there had been before. It’s also an excellent time capsule, from an era of adventure documentaries and free-wheeling filmmaking, as well as an almost reckless pursuit of science.
8. “The Piano,” by Jane Campion (1993)
Jane Campion is a wizard and “The Piano” is an enchantment. And I don’t just mean that making Harvey Keitel into a genuinely erotic figure takes some magic, though that is certainly true. This film wasn’t edited, it was woven. The colors, the music, the rhythms of every performance ease in and out of each other like zephyrs off the coast of New Zealand. Its wisdom comes not from the combination of music and silence, but the understanding that they are one and the same thing.
7. “The Tree of Wooden Clogs,” by Ermanno Olmi (1978)
Apparently Al Pacino’s favorite movie, Ermanno Olmi’s 19th century pastoral is at once immensely ambitious and quietly humble. It begins like “Padre Padrone,” with a peasant’s dilemma over whether to send his son to school or keep him to work on the farm. Yet this family values the education, to the point that the father will later cut down a tree to make new clogs for his son so that he can continue going to school. This sounds bland, but it turns out to be both an immensely poetic act and the hinge around which the final twist of the story turns.
6. “Apocalypse Now,” by Francis Ford Coppola (1979)
I have some issues with the way this film concludes, in particular its commonalities with Heart of Darkness’s negation of non-white peoples and space. On the other hand, I cannot get the damn thing out of my head. Every episode of Coppola’s film is impeccably acted and designed, down to the littlest of absurd details. Surfing, tigers, Playboy magazine, the lot. Flaws and all, “Apocalypse Now” is among the greatest of American art to deal with empire and its implications, and I plan on continuing to find news ways to approach it for as long as I live.
5. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” by Cristian Mungiu (2007)
It might be too soon to judge Cristian Mungiu’s (currently) most significant work. My next highest ranked film of the 21st century is “The White Ribbon,” at #27. Yet the Romanian New Wave is the most significant cinematic development of the new millennium, no question about it. That movement’s arrival was heralded by victories at Cannes, Mungiu’s being the most high profile. This particular film is a doozy, unbearably tense but intimately aware of the passage of time. It’s wrenching but maintains a distance, with a perfectly cast lead actress in a role that could not be better written.
4. “All That Jazz,” by Bob Fosse (1980)
“All That Jazz” is a sweaty, feverish, drug-addled dance marathon the likes of which could put “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” to shame. Bob Fosse takes “8 ½” and shoves it into dancing shoes, in the process summoning up the most essential questions about life and art on Broadway, in Hollywood, and in our own equally addled minds. It doesn’t stop, it can’t stop, it won’t stop until it finally almost keels over.
3. “Taxi Driver,” by Martin Scorsese (1976)
This is New York City in all the paranoia, crime and filthy glory of the 1970s. It’s iconic for a whole slew of reasons, the list of which I won’t bother with here. I will say that the jury that gave the Palme d’Or to Martin Scorsese was led by Tennessee Williams. Think about that for a second. Here you have Travis Bickle, the incarnation of post-Vietnam masculine crisis, horrified by the apparent moral corruption of the American urban city. Now think of him in the context of Williams. He’s like a straight Stanley Kowalski with Blanche DuBois’s madness. Here’s Scorsese, making butch films about gritty and seedy hyper-male New York, and getting an award from America’s greatest gay playwright. It’s not only coincidence, it’s also continuity. “Taxi Driver” is tightly wound but very open work, that reads a little differently every time.
2. “Keeper of Promises,” by Anselmo Duarte (1962)
“Keeper of Promises” is astounding. It’s like Buñuel’s work, a fiery condemnation of clerical domination of faith, but without any of the Spaniard’s characteristic smugness. It unfolds like a work of theater but looks like something else entirely, the entire world forced into a single plaza in front of a church. Its pace is perfect, its performances lit from within and its message complex but never obscure. Track this movie down, you owe it to yourself to see cinema this exciting.
1. “La Dolce Vita,” by Federico Fellini (1960)
And here we are. Federico Fellini’s near-Dantean journey through Roman society on the cusp of the 1960s is boundless. Almost all of the major themes of the works above float in and out of the world of Marcello Rubini, from questions of religion and politics to the anxieties of sex and love and death. That there are no definitive conclusions in the end, facing the leviathan on the beach, is immaterial. Just asking the question takes time enough, and the patience and openness needed to travel through every ring of human perspective.