By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 10, 2011 at 3:52AM
Compared to many festivals, Cannes is downright petite. A mere 20 films vie for attention in the main competition, with another 21 in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. With an additional eight titles receiving out of competition slots, that's a total of 49 movies -- not counting the Cannes Classics sidebar and the selections at Directors' Fortnight and Critics Weeks, which are technically separate events.
That said, Cannes is tiny like a drop of nitroglycerine. A relatively unknown film can become a frontrunner for the Palme d'Or after its premiere and a few boos at a morning press screening can kill a movie's prospects by afternoon.
So what do we think will be worth seeing, across all sections? Frankly, if it's anywhere at Cannes, it's worth watching -- even if only so you can say, "How did that ever get into Cannes?" However, this year's early buzz has been unusually positive and until screenings can prove otherwise, here's what we think are the lineup's more intriguing aspects.
In no particular order:
- The elusive Terrence Malick will premiere his cosmic family drama "Tree of Life," which looks to be a typically dreamlike affair (although those who got an early peek say the Brad Pitt segments are superior to the ones with Sean Penn).
The generally foolhardy Dardenne brothers are back with "The Kid With a Bike," about a runaway child on the lam from youth workers.
- Italian master Paolo Sorrentino, whose works typically hovers around the private lives of criminals, takes a different tact here with "This Must Be the Place," his first English-language drama. Senn Penn plays an aging rock star seeking the Nazi who killed his father. Even if Penn strikes out in "Tree," his other role at Cannes sounds interesting enough to keep his reputation intact.
- And then there's Pedro Almodovar, whose oddball thriller "The Skin I Live In" looks like a return to the surrealist melodramas that put him on the map.
- In Un Certain Regard, Gus Van Sant delivers the romance "Restless," his first feature since "Milk."
- South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk's "Arirang," supposedly shot on a cell phone, has been endorsed by a few who got an early peek.
- Novelist Julia Leigh's directorial debut "The Sleeping Beauty" has already been gaining attention for its tantalizing plot, a contemporary erotic fairy tale with Emily Browning as a prostitute. "Sleeping Beauty" screens on the first day of the festival, joined only by the opening night film, Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." In recent years, Cannes usually reserves the first competition slot for a selection bound to turn heads, which in previous years has included "Waltz with Bashir" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."
- Other first-timers attracting attention include Liza Johnson's war trauma portrait "Return," the only American entry in Directors' Fortnight, as well as main competition contender "Michael," the directorial debut of Austrian casting director and actor Markus Schleinzer.
- Also in competition, the offbeat cop drama "Polisse" will introduce a much larger audience to French director and actress Maïwenn Le Besco, whose earlier films weren't released in the U.S.
- Cannes has a midnight section, but still leaves the door open for more eccentric genre experiments. Leading the charge this year is dogged provocateur Lars von Trier, bound to gain attention when he hits town next week with his apocalyptic offering "Melancholia." Early word on this visually dazzling production, which stars Kristen Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, suggests a triumphant follow-up to 2009's show-stopping "Antichrist."
- We'll have to wait and see if von Trier can hold onto his self-appointed mantle as the best director in the world, but he'll have to compete for attention with the uber-prolific Takashi Miike, whose likely graphic "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" marks the first time a 3-D feature will play in competition (but not at the festival itself, which opened with a 3-D project of "Up" two years back).
- Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, whose last effort was the ultra-bloody Viking saga "Valhalla Rising," makes his English language debut with the star-studded "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling.
- Jailed Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof will both screen movies at the festival, with Panahi's first-person prison documentary "This Is Not A Film" receiving a special screening and Rasoulof's "Goodbye" in Un Certain Regard. Last year, Panahi was on the main competition jury headed by Tim Burton, but couldn't attend since he had been jailed for a separate infraction. Since then, he has received a six-year sentence and been banned for filmmaking for 20 years, a nasty limitation that he has remarkably found a way to defy, as suggested by the title of his latest work.
- Cannes often embraces filmmakers with a tendency to push boundaries and explore uneasy subjects. Among the more promising, "Ratcatcher" director Lynne Ramsay's first feature since 2002's "Morvern Callar" is poised to push some buttons. That would be "We Need to Talk About Kevin," in which Tilda Swinton plays a mother dealing with her son's role in a high school shooting. The plot bears a close similarity to the soon-to-be-released tearjerker "Beautiful Boy," although Ramsay's uniquely pensive style will probably help her movie distinguish itself.
- Another filmmaker with a reputation for unnerving narratives, Bruno Dumont's Un Certain Regard entry "Hors Satan" involves the relationship between a forest dweller and a young farm girl "mysteriously engaging in a private prayer at the edge of the pond, where the devil is prowling," according to an official synopsis. Sounds like Dumont is up to his old bag of subversive tricks.
- "The Artist," a late addition to the competition, finds French director Michel Hazanavicius moving beyond the rudimentary satires of his two "OSS 117" movies to try something a little more ambitious. The movie, which has a cast that includes John Goodman and James Cromwell, apparently was shot in black-and-white and has no sound. Word on the street is it has landed a high-profile U.S. distributor ahead of the festival and should gain more attention for Hazanavicius than he has achieved with his earlier efforts.
- Another comedic offering, Italian director Nanni Moretti's "Habemus Papum" takes place following the death of the Pope and examines the difficulties involved in choosing his successor. Billed as a black comedy, the movie looks like it will either have the Palais in stitches or fleeing for the exits. So it goes in Cannes.