The family of filmmakers welcomed into the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival each year are an exclusive bunch, and this year is no exception. With American heavyweights of the arthouse world like the Coen brothers, James Gray and Alexander Payne premiering new movies alongside work from European auteurs Roman Polanski and Arnaud Desplechin, the competition is a survey of new cinema from very familiar faces on the Croisette. Even though expected Palme d’Or contenders Kelly Reichardt (“Night Moves”) and Steve McQueen (“Twelve Years a Slave”) didn’t make the cut, the fascinating assemblage of high profile faces on the jury this year — headed by Steven Spielberg, it also includes recent Oscar winners Ang Lee and Christoph Waltz as well as Nicole Kidman — will have plenty to discuss.
Yet no matter the caliber of these movies, there’s an element of predictability to the major roles they’re bound to play at the festival. The exposure the competition films will receive threatens to overwhelm a vast majority of the other selections available elsewhere, particularly at Directors Fortnight, which this year looks like a far more exciting realm of possibilities.
Its opening night film, Ari Folman’s science fiction hybrid of animation and live action storytelling “The Congress,” originally looked like a lock for competition; Clio Barnard, whose sensational experimental documentary “The Arbor” brought to life poet Andrea Dunbar, was also allegedly courted by the main slate but wound up at Fortnight with her second feature “The Selfish Giant,” which revolves around a pair of copper thieves and draws inspiration from an Oscar Wilde story.
The difference of content and approach in these two movies alone speaks to a wonderful diversity in the lineup as a whole. The 21-film program is especially friendly to genre titles. The Sundance midnight hit “We Are What We Are,” a remake of the Mexican hit of the same name, makes its European debut alongside fellow Sundance premiere “Magic Magic,” a bleak change of pace for director Sebastian Silva and star Michael Cera. Though “Magic Magic” received a tepid response in Park City, its cryptic narrative may find a better audience with European crowds, while “We Are What We Are” is bound to deliver its grotesque appeal once again. Then there’s “Blue Ruin,” the second feature from Brooklyn-based director Jeremy Saulnier, whose hipster slasher comedy “Murder Party” won Slamdance a few years ago. Saulnier, a noted cinematographer of American indies like “Putty Hill,” seems well-positioned to deliver another outrageous entertainment, further demonstrating the potential for Fortnight to provide a platform for smaller, weirder projects that might never catch the attention of the main lineup.
But the incredible range of movies at Fortnight doesn’t ignore established names; it simply offers a more precise sampling of them. Alejandro Jodorworsky, the famed Mexican director of midnight cult hits like “El Topo,” has not one but *two* reasons to visit Fortnight this year: His “La Danza de Realidad” (“The Dance of Reality”), which draws from his memoirs of the same name, will premiere at the festival. Given the personal nature of the material, which follows Jodorworsky through his troubled childhood, it may point to a more intimate project for the octogenarian director. Even if it’s a dud, though, audiences can still celebrate his mad genius with the documentary “Jodorworsky’s Dune,” which follows the director’s ill-fated attempt to adapt the Frank Herbert sci-fi novel into a 10-hour feature scored by Pink Floyd. That project never made it to the finish line, but his ambition has finally received a well-timed tribute.
Jodorworsky isn’t even the oldest director at Fortnight this year. That honor goes to Marcel Ophuls, the 85-year-old director of the seminal Holocaust documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity,” whose new movie “Un Voyageur” (alternately titled “Ain’t Misbehavin'”) marks his first feature in 18 years. Appropriately enough after such a lengthy absence, Ophuls has apparently made a very intimate work filled with stories from his life while also paying visits to filmmaker colleagues like Woody Allen, sharing memories of giants like Stanley Kubrick and recalling Ophuls’ father, the legendary Max Ophuls. Rumor has it that Marcel’s dog also makes an appearance, hinting at perhaps the best animal-friendly diary film since Chris Marker’s “The Case of the Grinning Cat.”
But even if the lineup will mainly excite cinephiles familiar with a wide spectrum of international cinema, the Fortnight selection still offers some commercial potential in the form of Ruairi Robinson’s “Last Days on Mars,” which stars Liev Schreiber and follows a group of explorers on the red planet falling prey to an ominous presence, a premise that suggests “Prometheus” by way of “The Thing.” Also poised to attract distributors, French critic-turned-filmmaker Serge Bozon will premiere “Tip Top,” which stars the always-versatile Isabelle Huppert in an adaptation of British author Bill James’ book about a pair of female police officers — the conventions of the typically chauvinistic cop movie turned on its ear, one hopes.
Fortnight is all about challenging expectations. Invented by a close-knit group of filmmakers amid the political turmoil of May 1968 as an alternative to the glitzier and unabashedly elitist gathering nearby, the smaller festival has clung to that perception over the years even while remaining fairly subservient to the main selection. Overall, that still holds true: Cannes waited until the last minute to finalize its selection this year, which forced both Directors Fortnight and the 10-film program at Critics Week to wait before they could finalize their own programs. However, Fortnight doesn’t bear the mark of a festival stuck with leftovers this time around. Formulated to provide a smart alternative to Big Cannes, it looks especially poised to achieve that goal this time out.