Seventy-four years on from the inception of the Cannes Film Festival, its coveted Palme d’Or remains one of the industry’s highest honours. The prize has been bestowed upon some of the greatest auteurs in history—Roberto Rossellini, Orson Welles, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Luis Buñuel—and is staunchly global in its outlook, rewarding new releases that take risks and shed light on urgent social issues, regardless of their origin. Despite the cancellation of last year’s festival as a result of the coronavirus crisis, its influence continues to be felt, particularly after the critical and commercial success of 2019’s Palme d’Or recipient: Bong Joon-ho’s groundbreaking thriller Parasite.
Ahead of this year’s festival, due to run from 6 to 17 July, we shortlist 10 previous winners to rewatch now, from a surreal 1970s musical to a moving Japanese family drama.
1. La Dolce Vita (1960)
There’s no better introduction to Federico Fellini’s oeuvre than this exuberant masterpiece. Set over seven decadent days in Rome, it follows a world-weary journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) who is chasing stories for his gossip column. The women he pursues are glamorous and enigmatic—Anouk Aimée shines as a jaded heiress—but Anita Ekberg is the most captivating, as a film star who dances late into the night and then wades into the Trevi Fountain in a floor-length ball gown.
2. Blow-Up (1966)
Veruschka in a beaded cocktail dress, Vanessa Redgrave in a checked button-down and Jane Birkin in a striped shift—the actors that populate Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult classic are as striking as they are stylish. They play the prospective subjects of a fashion photographer (David Hemmings) whose life is disrupted after he stumbles upon a murder scene. It’s a thriller that doubles as a vibrant portrait of Swinging London, complete with raucous parties and a rock’n’roll soundtrack.
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese’s account of urban alienation features a career-defining performance from Robert De Niro. Playing a Vietnam War veteran-turned-cab driver, he cruises the streets of New York and is appalled by the corruption and exploitation he encounters. Violence quickly ensues, but there’s unexpected beauty to be found in the film’s haunting score and hallucinatory visuals: a fever dream of neon signs, rain-splattered sidewalks and steam ominously rising from manhole covers.
4. Apocalypse Now (1979)
A soldier (Martin Sheen) travels from Vietnam to Cambodia on a secret mission to assassinate a colonel who has gone rogue (Marlon Brando) in Francis Ford Coppola’s electrifying war epic. It is unflinching in its depictions of the horrors of combat, zipping from napalm-strewn fields to jungles engulfed in flames and an airstrike set to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Beyond the set pieces, though, it’s a meditation on the absurdity of battle and the psychological scars it leaves behind.
5. All That Jazz (1979)
Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical musical extravaganza opens with a flurry of high kicks and jazz hands, but what lies beneath its shiny surface is much more complex. It centres on an eccentric choreographer (Roy Scheider) who is juggling projects on Broadway and in Hollywood, dashing between theatres and editing suites until he slowly loses his grip on reality. There are dreamlike dance sequences, elaborate costumes and bizarre insights into the mind of a creative genius.
6. Kagemusha (1980)
In 16th-century Japan, the death of a feudal lord is covered up through the use of a double, a petty thief who bears an uncanny resemblance to him. Both characters are played with relish by Tatsuya Nakadai, in his penultimate collaboration with legendary director Akira Kurosawa. It’s a samurai epic that weaves together Shakespearean court intrigue and explosive battles, culminating in a heart-stopping scene in which the impostor finally lets his hubris get the better of him.
7. Paris, Texas (1984)
The vast landscapes of the American southwest provide a lyrical backdrop for Wim Wenders’ wistful road movie. It begins with a drifter (Harry Dean Stanton) walking alone through the desert. After a mysterious four-year absence, he is discovered by his brother (Dean Stockwell) and sets out to find his long-lost wife (Nastassja Kinski). It’s worth watching for the latter’s moving, measured performance, not to mention the blunt bob and pink mohair jumper that made her a style icon.
8. The Piano (1993)
With this ravishing period drama, Jane Campion became the first, and still the only, female director to win the top prize at Cannes. It features two poignant, Oscar-winning turns: Holly Hunter as a mute Scottish widow and Anna Paquin as her precocious young daughter. They are shipped off to New Zealand after the former is promised in marriage to a landowner, but tragedy looms when she agrees to give piano lessons to a crude forester (Harvey Keitel), with whom she falls in love.
9. Shoplifters (2018)
An unconventional family unit is at the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s delicate study of poverty in modern-day Tokyo. A gang composed of an elderly matriarch, a couple, a young woman and a boy, they make ends meet by stealing from supermarkets. Soon, they also take in a child (Miyu Sasaki) who they suspect is being abused by her parents. Has she been kidnapped or rescued? The film offers few answers but captivates with its warmth, compassion and clear-eyed view of the world.
10. Parasite (2019)
As the first release to win both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Picture since 1955’s Marty, Bong Joon-ho’s audacious satire has cemented its place in film history. It’s a rip-roaring romp that combines black comedy with Hitchcockian horror and social realism—a fable about two clans, one destitute but ambitious and the other naive and wealthy, whose lives become intertwined. The sets are pristine, the dialogue biting and the overwhelming sense of foreboding undeniable.