The Cannes Film Festival is about to head into its 70th year. That's seven decades of premiering some of the best films ever made, many of them vying for the festival's top prize: the coveted Palme d'Or.
While most people you ask would consider Best Picture at the Oscars the top film prize in the world, there's something special about the Palme. It's open to a narrower field of films in competition at Cannes, but it's more international, more austere, and more often going to films with serious artistic merit rather than mass popularity. To win the Palme d'Or is to win a kind of acclaim reserved only for the most respected filmmakers around the globe.
With the number of great Palme d'Or winners too large to count, it's worth looking back at the best of the best over Cannes' 70-year history. (Note: the festival's top prize has alternated between the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film and the Palme d'Or; for our purposes here, we're referring to it as the Palme d'Or, the name it has held since 1975.)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola's epic Vietnam War film, inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, stands today as one of the very best films ever made. Leading up to its premiere at Cannes, Apocalypse Now had been the subject of much controversy. Wildly over-budget, stories of the director and his crew going mad in the jungle, and a famously difficult Marlon Brando had given the impression that the film would be Coppola's great folly. It turned out to be a wild success, winning the Palme and fully cementing Coppola's legacy as one of the great American directors of all time.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Jacques Demy's colorful musical romance starring Catherine Deneuve and Nico Castelnuovo is one of the great films of all time, without question. Told in four acts and tracing the story of love between a woman and a man sent off to military service, the film is both a vivacious example of the musical form as well as a supremely real and emotional portrayal of the way life can separate lovers. Given its influence on the recent La La Land, there's more reason than ever to watch Demy's greatest work—one of the most deserving Palme d'Or winners ever.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Four men, one truck of nitroglycerin, a vast mountainous jungle to traverse: That's the setup for one of the greatest, most suspenseful films ever made. The lead-up to the journey is a wonder of character building, and then the journey itself—to transport the explosives to a raging oil fire—will leave you absolutely breathless. A sequence in which the men maneuver the truck up a narrow, winding hillside might just give you a heart attack. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot was at the very top of his game with The Wages of Fear, making a film that deserved every award it got.
Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up was a cinematic game changer in the mid '60s. The film, about a photographer who captures a murder on film, became a sensation in the United States, where its violent content and explicit sexuality were unlike almost anything most audiences there had ever seen at the movies. The film's adult content was one of the final straws in breaking the back of Hollywood censorship, leading to the creation of a new, much more permissive rating system and a lot more adult content at the cinema in the decades since. But before it made a splash in America, Blow-Up took home the top prize at Cannes.
Taste of Cherry (1997)
The only Iranian film to ever take home the Palme, and an incredibly deserving one. Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry—about a man driving around, trying to find someone who will bury him after he commits suicide, and having intense conversations along the way—is emblematic of the director's unique insights into humanity, politics, and filmmaking form itself.
The Piano (1993)
Jane Campion is still, shamefully, the only female director to win the Palme d'Or. But the film she won for, The Piano, surely stands as a testament to everything great about cinema. Amazing performances and provocative material are all shot through with absolute honesty and beauty by Campion.
All That Jazz (1990)
While Cabaret may be his most famous film, All That Jazz may be Bob Fosse's best. The semi-autobiographical story of a theatre director, infused with elements of fantasy. Roy Scheider delivers the best performance of his career in the film, and Fosse shoots it with some of the most inventive design and editing work ever put to film.
Emir Kusturica's Underground is a true epic, and one of the greatest of all time. It tells the story of two boys in Yugoslavia, from WWII until the Yugoslav Wars. Originally aired as a five-hour TV series, and later cut down into movie form, Underground is a masterpiece that makes every moment of its running time count. Kusturica displays incredible warmth and humanity, usually uncommon in epics, making it as emotionally fulfilling as any film you're likely to watch.
The Conversation (1974)
OK, it's maybe unfair to include two films from the same director on this list, but Francis Ford Coppola is about as deserving as a director can get. It's not Cannes' fault that he premiered two of the greatest films of all time at the festival. The Conversation, which came out the same year as The Godfather Part II, is often overshadowed by its mob-sequel cousin, but in so many ways it's the better film. Cannes rightly recognized that, giving the film their top prize.
Gus Van Sant's film inspired by the Columbine shooting is about the purest example of what an empathetic cinema can look like. It's not that the film puts the viewer in the headspace of the two killers, but that it allows the audiences to feel the space in which they existed, and the other kids who occupied their world. It's a film about daily living, marred by an extraordinary, tragic, horrific event, but which never forgets what the beauty of the everyday looks like. Elephant is one of the best films of the 2000s, and one of the best Palme d'Or winners as well.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.