10 American Movies That Won the Palme d'Or at Cannes

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

The 66th annual Cannes Film Festival is in full swing. There are many films from world-renowned directors in heated competition for the coveted Palme d’Or (The Golden Palm) Award, including Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Only God Forgives, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, and Joel & Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Although Cannes is an international film festival, flicks from the United States often win the festival’s grand prize. Here are 10 American movies that won the Palme d’Or Award.

1. The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s time-shifting narrative about discipline and grace was a very polarizing film when it was first released in 2011. After The Tree of Life debuted at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, half of the 2400-seat Grand Auditorium audience heckled and booed the surreal film, while its supporters cheered. The Tree of Life remains a very divisive film among general audiences and critics alike, but was eventually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture later in the year.

2. Fahrenheit 9/11

Fresh off his Academy Award for Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore’s follow-up was the first American-made documentary to win the Palme d’Or when it debuted at the 57th Cannes Film Festival in 2004. Fahrenheit 9/11 received a 20-minute standing ovation after it was first screened. Famously, director Quentin Tarantino, who was the president of the festival’s jury that year, told Michael Moore that his film didn’t win the grand prize because of its politics, but rather its accomplishment as a piece of cinema.

3. Elephant

The first film in director Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy—along with the films Gerry and Last DaysElephant took a fictional look at the mass shooting at Columbine High School. Reviews of the film were mixed, and Elephant remains a very controversial film, even being blamed by some for spawning copycat school shootings.

4. Pulp Fiction

Director Quentin Tarantino took the world by storm with the release of Pulp Fiction at the 47th Cannes Film Festival in 1994. The festival’s jury loved the film’s sharp wit, non-linear structure, and in-depth storytelling. When Pulp Fiction opened in the US, the film took the No. 1 spot at the box office in its first week of release.

Today, Pulp Fiction is considered one of the best movies of the 1990s.

5. The Lost Weekend

Before the Palme d’Or was the highest award, the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film was the most prestigious honor a film could aspire to during the Cannes Film Festival. In 1945, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend—which took a dark look at alcoholism in America—received the top prize. The film would go on to win four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Ray Milland.

6. Marty

Director Delbert Mann’s Marty was the first film to unanimously win the top prize in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. Based on Paddy Chayefsky’s 1953 teleplay, Marty told the story of a socially awkward unmarried 34-year-old man (Ernest Borgnine) who still lived with his mother. Marty, along with The Lost Weekend, are the only two films to win both the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Picture.

7. Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough film was the Italian-American director’s first critical and commercial hit in the United States. Time magazine put the film on its list of Top 100 Films of All Time.

8. Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was the director’s second Palme d’Or-winning film (the first was The Conversation in 1974). The epic Vietnam War film showcased an all-star cast including Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and Martin Sheen.

With production delays due to a massive typhoon in the Philippines, the early recasting of Martin Sheen for Harvey Keitel, and the theft of the film’s entire payroll, getting Apocalypse Now made was a giant undertaking for Francis Ford Coppola. The film’s production woes were masterfully documented in the film Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

Despite the troubled production, Apocalypse Now was later nominated for many Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, and is one of the best films to examine the Vietnam War.

9. Wild At Heart

One of David Lynch’s most controversial films, Wild At Heart received an abundance of applause and wild cheers when it debuted at the 43rd Cannes Film Festival in 1990. But when the film won the Palme’ d’Or, a few film critics—including Roger Ebert—booed and jeered the jury’s selection for the festival’s prestigious top prize. Wild At Heart is a fevered dream of brutality and sexual exploitation, but at its heart is a genuine romance between its characters Lula and Sailor, two outlaws played by Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage.

David Lynch was forced to censor the film for an R rating for its American release, but international audience got to enjoy an uncut and uncensored version.

10. Barton Fink

The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink was a big winner at the 44th Cannes Film Festival in 1991. The strange film won Best Director for Joel Coen and Best Actor for John Turturro in addition to the festival's top prize. To prevent other films from receiving so many accolades in the future, the festival organizers and programmers limited the number of awards a single film could win to two.

Despite its many honors including multiple Academy Award nominations, Barton Fink was a disappointing box office performer. It failed to register with general audiences because of its specific and yet abstruse subject matter and narrative.