By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 15, 2012 at 12:07PM
Every year, Cannes Film Festival hype suggests a cinephile's heaven on earth. There's some truth to that, but the reality is more complicated. The grand environment often obscures the particulars, which in this case breaks down to 22 films screening in the main competition, another 16 in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, seven out-of-competition titles, 21 films in Directors' Fortnight and 10 in Critics' Week. And we can count on a number of surprises, both good and bad, ranging from outright masterpieces to complete misfires.
Here's a look at some entries that the combined hype and personal interest have got me fired up as well as a few more that invite reservation. Consider this more of a subjective starting point than a universal guide; not even festival director Thierry Fremaux can predict how Cannes will receive the films.
THE SUREFIRE BETS
If any of these movies are utter duds, something about Cannes' process is broken. The festival doesn't exclusively land the best of the best, but you can usually pick through the program and single out likely highlights based on directors' track records and other factors. It's an inexact science.
Discounting that unnecessary English-language "Funny Games" remake, Michael Haneke has ventured into the later years of his career with ease. The Austrian director, who turned 70 last month, returns to Cannes with his first feature after scooping up the Palme d'Or for "The White Ribbon" in 2009. His latest, "Amour," stars Isabelle Huppert as the daughter of retired music teachers (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) who are dealing with an accident that tears them apart. The premise and the trailer suggest "Another Year" with a dark twist, but it's likely a grim character study from a filmmaker known for them.
"Beyond the Hills"
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu seemingly came out of nowhere in 2007 with the startling abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which snatched up the Palme d'Or that year. While that movie took place in an urban '80s setting, Mungiu's latest takes on the world of a rural monastery where two childhood friends squabble about whether to leave the place for their old home in Germany. Naturally, things go awry -- and, judging by the suspenseful climax of "4 Months," they also get tense.
Director John Hillcoat's eye for dreary western landscapes first brought him great acclaim with the Nick Cave-scripted "The Proposition," which he followed up with an equally tense adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." The star-studded "Lawless," written by Cave and based on Matt Bondurant's novel, takes place in Prophibition-era Virginia and involves a showdown between bootleggers and corrupt officials trying to get in on the illegal action. With Shia LaBeouf as the youngest of the sibling gang members, Guy Pearce as a deputy and Gary Oldman as a gangster, "Lawless" sounds like one grimy actor's showcase.
Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" was a delirious, mesmerizing look at blue-collar struggles, schizophrenia and apocalyptic fears. Nichols' latest effort promises to further that mixture of southern-fried drama and magical realism with a plot that recalls "Night of the Hunter" and a cast that stars Matthew McConaughey as a fugitive and Reese Witherspoon as his distant lover.
Chilean director Pablo Larraín memorably arrived at Directors' Fortnight a few years back with his debut feature "Tony Manero," a wildly unsettling and shrewdly allegorical black comedy about life under Pinochet's dictatorship. He followed that up with the equally unnerving "Post Mortem," which dealt with the same dark era. Sticking to tradition, Larrain's third feature stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a real-life character who challenged Pinochet's rule in the late 1980s.
More than a dozen years have passed since Leos Carax's last feature, the disturbing Herman Melville adaptation "Pola X," but "Holy Motors" sounds like quite the comeback: Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Michel Piccoli and Denis Lavant star in this curious production about a man living multiple lives. Carax, who first garnered major acclaim over 20 years ago with the Lavant vehicle "The Lovers on the Bridge," is certain to deliver a strange, distinctive work.
"In Another Country"
For over 15 years, Korean director Hong Sangsoo has been steadily churning out delicate dramas and comedies about the nature of human relationships, often using clever structural approaches to delve into his characters' psyches. "In Another Country" marks the first Hong film to star a major non-Korean star, Isabelle Huppert, and its spot in competition suggests it might be the first Hong movie with the potential to introduce his work to larger audiences.
"Killing Them Softly"
Andrew Dominick's Malick-like period drama "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" never found a massive audience, but nobody could deny the allure of its lyrical take on an iconic western drama. One can assume the director brings a similarly unconventional approach to this investigative drama starring Brad Pitt.
"Post tenebras lux"
Mexican director Carlos Reygadas is one of the most doggedly cinematic filmmakers of the past decade, as demonstrated by his extraordinary depiction of natural wonder in his previous effort, "Silent Light." His latest venture has been described only in very abstract, deeply personal terms: A family experiences major life changes in rural Mexico. Whether the masses at Cannes love it or not, "Post tenebras lux" is basically a guaranteed visual marvel.
Maybe it's cheating to put a movie on here that premiered at Sundance, but it's the only one at the festival that I can truly vouch for because I've seen it. Additionally, the mere presence of this sublimely odd mash-up of conspiracy theories surrounding the meaning of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight sidebar is something of a small miracle deserved of analysis by one of the movie's own cockamamie experts.
"Rust and Bone"
Director Jacques Audiard's tense, vindicating prison drama "A Prophet" took Cannes by the storm in 2009; now he's back with a peculiar love story between a nomadic single father (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a wheelchair-bound woman he meets in a nightclub (Marion Cotillard). If Audiard's intimate approach in "A Prophet" still holds weigh, the new movie is a guaranteed emotional ride.
Argentinian director Pablo Trapero's "Carancho" was a visceral medical thriller that even its detractors had to admire for the thrilling craftsmanship. His first film in Cannes competition takes place in the slums of Buenos Aires and involves two Catholic priests battling local corruption. Assume more intensity and ample moral dilemmas enacted with sensational technique.
Read on for Cannes films that invite healthy skepticism.
To be clear: These movies aren't destined to disappoint. Rather, while some Cannes entries fail to live up to the hype, others arrive with a cloud of mystery that calls for healthy skepticism.
A wacky sci-fi thriller about the harvesting of celebrity viruses for obsessed fans -- directed by Brandon Cronenberg, the son of David Cronenberg, the man who practically invented modern body horror. Is that reason enough to expect much beyond a grotesque premise? Nope, unless dad ghost-directed. It remains to be seen whether Brandon can follow in his father's visceral footsteps.
David Cronenberg, meanwhile, has his own reasons to feel nervous. As much as I'd like to get pumped about this zany-looking adaptation of Don DeLillo's Kafkaesque odyssey about a young billionaire playboy (Robert Pattinson) making his way across Manhattan over the course of a single, chaotic day looks a little too ambitious for its own good. Then again, Cronenberg did film the unfilmable with "Naked Lunch," but he's testing his luck this time out.
"Ernest & Celestine"
The Belgian animation team responsible for the surreal cartoon antics of "A Town Called Panic," which premiered in Cannes' midnight section a few years back, returns to the festival in Directors' Fortnight with this adaptation of Gabrielle Vincent's popular children's book. Leaving behind the stop-motion realm of their previous venture in favor of a scrappy 2-D feel, the filmmakers follow the strange adventures of a bear and mouse who become friends against all odds. It looks adorable, of course, but it's too early to tell if it will reach the inspired lunacy of "Panic."
"La noche de enfrente"
Legendary Chilean director Raul Ruiz died earlier this year, but the incredibly prolific filmmaker had already completed this final work in time for it to play Cannes. A characteristic combination of stories involving different time periods and places, all based on the work of acclaimed Chilean author Hernan del Solar, "La noche de enfrente" is likely to attract a lot of attention for its historic value coming at the end Ruiz's career. But Ruiz has made so many movies over the years that it's hard to say if this one will match up to his most acclaimed works.
"On the Road"
Walter Salles' adaptation of the classic Jack Kerouac novel, which co-stars Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart, has been in production for years. Could it possibly render a novel so firmly ingrained in American consciousness without simplifying the distinctive voice of the text? It sounds even harder than adapting "Naked Lunch."
Lee Daniels' adaptation of a Peter Dexter novel about the relationship between a reporter and a death-row inmate (John Cusack) is the filmmaker's first movie since "Precious," which danced a dangerous line between absurdity and dramatic intensity. The new movie's premise just sounds shrill and melodramatic, but then again so did "Precious."
At 72, Dario Argento has made a 3-D "Dracula" movie with Rutger Hauer playing Abraham Van Helsing. One can imagine the ample gore spewing forth in multiple dimensions, but other than that? Don't expect this vampire drama to sink in.
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns to Cannes after winning the Palme d'Or for "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" with an hourlong piece about the titular locale situated alongside the Mekong River. Descriptions imply a quiet, pensive experimental work -- most likely inoffensive but also less eventful than the director's feature-length efforts.
"The We and the I"
Michel Gondry's latest, opening Directors' Fortnight, centers on a bunch of teens riding a bus around the Bronx and stars nonprofessional actors. It sounds like an interesting experiment from a filmmaker who has always made intriguing off-kilter choices that yield interesting results even when they don't entirely hold together. But it's hard to say (mainly because so few people have seen it) whether this small-scale effort will lead to satisfactory results. Also: The aforementioned premise doesn't give us the Gondry element -- that is, the magical realism that percolates through all his work and undoubtedly finds its way in here.
Rising star Xavier Dolan made a startling transition from acting to directing with his debut feature "I Killed My Mother" in 2009, made when he was 20 years old, and followed it up with the stylish romance "Heartbeats." His third credit revolves around a love story made complicated by a sex-change operation. That's a terrific hook that should lend an air of distinction to the proceedings; whether the onscreen chemistry works is another story, especially over the course of the nearly three-hour running time.
"You and Me"
Bernardo Bertolucci was already given an honorary Palme d'Or by Cannes last year, a validation of his continuing relevance that may have helped give him the confidence to complete his first feature since 2003's "The Dreamers." This adaptation of Niccolo Ammaniti's coming-of-age novel about a reclusive teenager forced to deal with his drug-addled older sister has the sort of low-key ingredients that could yield a strong, contained drama, but it's been nearly a decade since Bertolucci last directed anything.
"You Haven't Seen Anything Yet"
At 90, French New Wave icon Alain Resnais shows no sign of slowing down, as implied by his latest effort's title. Another adaptation from a director known for his eloquent adaptations, the new movie takes its inspiration from a play about actors (including Mathieu Almaric and Michel Piccoli) reading the will of a late playwright. Resnais' last two efforts, "Wild Grass" and "Private Fears in Public Places," proved he still has the chops to inject visual poetry and emotion into his elegiac narratives, but when an artist has been going strong for so long, each new outing invites a little more anticipation.