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Cannes 2021 Contenders: Here’s a Look at the Likely Winners (FINAL PREDICTIONS)

Spike Lee's jury could make a lot of unpredictable decisions, but here are some educated guesses about the way things could turn out.

The Palme d'Or is displayed prior to the 74th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, July 5, 2021. The Cannes film festival runs from July 6 - July 17, 2021. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

The Palme d’Or is displayed prior to the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

Invision

While the pandemic failed to vanquish awards season in 2020, one key prize was left out of the picture. For many filmmakers, the Palme d’Or is the most revered accolade on the planet, and in 2019, it set the bar high. After Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” won the Competition and went on to commercial and critical success — not to mention that historic Oscar for Best Picture — many expected that it would place renewed focus on Cannes as a major launchpad for international cinema. That didn’t happen in 2020, as the festival canceled its physical edition, but it’s back to business as usual in 2021.

With Spike Lee as its president, the return of the Cannes Competition looks to be one of the most unpredictable in years. He’s joined by an international group of filmmakers and actors, mostly women, whose work suggest a wide array of sensibilities in play: The other directors are Mati Diop, Jessica Hausner, Melanie Laurent, and Kleber Mendonca Filho; the performers are Mylene Farmer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tahar Rahim, and Song Kang-ho. If they all voted for movies that looked exactly like the ones they make, the safe money’s on it a real outside-the-box choice. (Gyllenhaal and Laurent are actor-directors, which means their decision-making process could straddle the line between two perspectives.)

But there’s the honest truth: There is no exact science to predicting the Palme d’Or winners, as jurors spend 10 days watching two movies a day and can shape their decisions on the basis of whatever they want. While the president may have a right to be the loudest voice at the table, everyone ultimately gets one vote, and sometimes they go to unexpected places.

In fact, some filmmakers seem most inclined to reward the films most unlike their own. Jury president David Lynch awarded the fairly classic “The Pianist” in 2002. Steven Spielberg, who is not known for sexually explicit lesbian romances, went for “Blue is the Warmest Color.” The year that “Mad Max” auteur George Miller led the jury, rumors persisted that he wasn’t a fan of critics favorite “Toni Erdmann,” and the Palme didn’t go to other beloved entries like “Paterson” or “American Honey,” either: Ken Loach’s far more traditional “I, Daniel Blake” won instead.

In short: Nobody knows anything until the golden trophy arrives. Still, the speculation is a fun excuse to engage with the Competition as it unfolds, one day after the next, and the race intensifies.

We only list films after they’ve screened publicly. The following predictions have been updated throughout the festival. The Palme d’Or ceremony will take place on Saturday, July 17 at 7:15 p.m. CET.

1. “Titane”

Titane Review: One of the Wildest Films to Ever Screen at Cannes

“Titane”

Expectations for something wild and memorable were high well ahead of the first screening of “Titane,” French director Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to her cannibal coming-of-age story debut “Raw.” And boy, they did not disappoint: Ducournau’s shocking and unpredictable story follows a young serial killer (newcomer Agathe Rousselle) who feels sexually attracted to cars after having metal inserted in her head during her childhood. Fleeing her broken home as a young adult, she winds up posing as the long-lost son of a firefighter (a ripped Vincent Lindon) as all kinds of peculiar and depraved hijinks ensue. Ducournau blends body horror with an incisive and intelligent exploration of queer identity through a distinctive surreal lens; while some of the visceral and violent twists may turn some audiences off, it’s exactly the kind of visionary work that tends to take off at Cannes, as it did with its boisterous premiere. Among the four films directed by women in this year’s Competition, “Titane” is the most unconventional and ambitious among them, so if the jury wants to give the Palme d’Or to the first female director since Jane Campion’s win for “The Piano,” this one’s a frontrunner by default. But even without that potential milestone in sight, “Titane” is a memorable conversation starter almost certain to remain on audiences’ minds as the festival continues. There’s always a chance that jury members can have surprising reactions, but “Titane” seems like the kind of movie they could all get behind.

2. “A Hero”

“A Hero”

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi returns to Cannes Competition with his first film in the section since “The Salesman,” which won Best Screenplay and Best Actress at the festival before scoring the director his second Best International Film Oscar. Amazon Studios clearly has similar aims with this latest effort, which finds Farhadi returning to Iran after his Spanish-language “Everybody Knows.” That seems to have been a wise choice: “A Hero” has been praised as the subtle director’s best movie since his international breakout, “A Separation.” His latest effort follows a man who uncovers a bag of money, which, in typical Farhadi fashion, leads him down a rabbit hole of unexpected complications and moral quandaries. Farhadi excels at nuanced portraits of characters struggling to reconcile their values with self-interest, and “A Hero” could be exactly the sort of agreeable embodiment of his skill that the jury could find common ground on. At the same time, much of the jury may already know Farhadi’s work and think that since he’s not exactly reinventing the wheel this time around, the Palme could go to a more challenging work. But it’s undeniably the sort of uniformly appreciated title that tends to stay in the mix until the very end.

3. “Drive My Car”

“Drive My Car”

Japan’s Ryusuke Hamagachi is returning to Cannes following 2018’s “Asako I & II” with his best-received film to date. At three hours, the talky drama might be a tough sell for the Palme simply because there are many flashier filmmaking efforts on display this year. However, Hamaguchi’s subtle and involving adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story about a theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his screenwriter wife (Reiki Kirishima) is — like “Bergman Island” — a film about the art of storytelling, which could resonate with this year’s jury. It’s also a rich exploration of relationships and artifice, with its central character attempting to stage “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima while navigating various unexpected complications along the way. Reactions have been strong enough to this one to suggest that the jury probably can at least appreciate Hamaguchi’s artful screenplay, even if they decide a more compact movie deserves the Palme, so expect this one to be in the running for some sort of prize.

4. “Red Rocket”

"Red Rocket"

“Red Rocket”

A24

Sean Baker has graduated to Competition following the breakout success of “The Florida Project” at Directors Fortnight, and the American naturalist hasn’t disappointed his growing fans with this rough-and-tumble look at an ex-porn star (Simon Rex) who returns to his old Texas stomping grounds and finds himself estranged from every angle. Set in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, the movie follows a Trumpian trainwreck and promiscuous loudmouth whose very existence is a provocation. Baker hovers alongside the character’s provocative edges without endorsing his behavior, and audiences have embraced that delicate balancing act while once again celebrating the filmmaker’s distinctive handling of the nation’s jagged underbelly. Will the jury? As one of the best-received films at the festival, it’s a safe bet that “Red Rocket” will have a lot of fans in the Palme d’Or discussion, and famed Trump critic Lee is reportedly among them. At the same time, if the jury decides the film’s key strengths are direction and Rex’s performance, they may be more inclined to award it in one of those areas while saving the Palme for another contender.

5. “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds”

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds

“Lingui, the Sacred Bonds”

Cannes

Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is one of the few African filmmakers with a regular presence in Cannes Competition, most recently with “Grisgris” and “A Screaming Man.” His latest effort is an early Palme favorite for several reasons. Haroun’s first movie to center on a female protagonist takes place in a small traditionalist village, where a single woman works every possible angle to get an abortion for her teenage daughter, even though it’s considered a taboo with dangerous consequences.

The weighty subject matter merges nicely with Haroun’s sturdy approach to the drama, as he maintains the tension of the story throughout as the mother-daughter bond deepens under gripping circumstances. “Lingui” isn’t the kind of explosive Cannes movie that reinvents the wheel, but it’s a genuine story of female empowerment from an underrepresented country, which could puts it in a good position to remain a jury favorite during the festival. Spike Lee was spotted publicly showing his appreciation to Haroun at the Cannes premiere, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

6. “Compartment No. 6”

Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen graduates to Cannes competition following his Un Certain Regard win for “The Happiest Days in the Life of Olli Maki” with this rousing look at a disillusioned young woman (Seidi Haarla) who finishes studies in Moscow and takes a train to see some petroglyphs in a small town. Along the way, she forges an unlikely bond with a boozy skinhead (Yuriy Borisov) who shares a compartment with her. With both of them alienated from the larger world of responsibilities awaiting them, they develop a complex relationship steeped in mutual frustrations and the desire to take risks. One of the bigger crowdpleasers in this year’s Competition could certainly win a prize, but the relative smallness of its premise — two people on a road trip, basically — means that it might have less of a lasting impact than some of the more adventurous or thematically complex films this year.

7. “Casablanca Beats”

Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch’s crowdpleaser revolves around a class of arts students galvanized by a rapper-turned-teacher (Anas Basbousi) as they overcome various religious and sociopolitical boundaries to unite for rousing musical performances. Based on the Positive School of Hip Hop, which united a Casablanca slum, the movie bears some resemblance to “The Class,” which won the Palme d’Or as a late entry into Competition back in 2008. With many of the students playing fictionalized versions of themselves, the movie’s quasi-documentary approach has been praised for the way it provides a snapshot of real life through an inspirational framework. Critics have been comparing the narrative to “Dead Poet’s Society,” while acknowledging that Ayouch’s approach is more minor-key. It’s the kind of movie that could fire up some jurors looking reward a genuine slice-of-life story with real-world resonance, but may not be as powerful a vision as some of the other more uniformly embraced options.

8. “Bergman Island”

“Bergman Island”

French director Mia Hansen-Love’s first time in Competition finds the acclaimed director in a deeply personal mode with this winning story of a filmmaking couple (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) traveling to Faro Island, the famed home of Ingmar Bergman. As Roth’s character basks in his stardom, Krieps’ attempts to finish a screenplay inspired by their relationship struggles, and the movie turns meta with Mia Wasikowska playing Krieps’ alter ego. An absorbing meditation on storytelling and life priorities meted out with Hansen-Love’s usual understated touch, the filmmaker’s first English language effort is strong enough to be a serious Palme contender if its self-reflexive approach doesn’t wind up alienating the jury. Assuming that doesn’t happen, “Bergman Island” would be a natural pick for a group of filmmakers and actors who might relate to the movie’s fixation on cinema as a gateway for larger ideas, especially at such a complicated moment in the history of the medium. At the very least, the talky, layered narrative could be a formidable screenplay contender, but there’s plenty of competition on that front.

9. “Petrov’s Flu”

“Petrov’s Flu”

Cannes

When Russian director Kirill Serebennikov came to Cannes with “Leto,” he was under house arrest in Moscow. Now, “Petrov’s Flu” has landed at the festival and he’s banned from leaving the country. Nevertheless, the inventive filmmaker’s new work has found its way to a warm reception. An adventurous and experimental look at an absent-minded cartoonish and his family who come down with the titular flu, the movie careens through bizarre, discursive twists, including one that involves his wife’s side job as a superhero. Critics have been appreciative of this innovative adaptation of Alexey Salnikov’s novel, which zips around the city of Yekaterinburg as it probes and mocks Russian identity through a range of surreal and time-jumping twists. It’s certainly a visionary work and one that this particular jury could appreciate; plus, Serebennikov’s ability to keep making movies despite the persecution of his government harks back to a statement jury president Lee made at the start of the festival about Putin and his ilk as “thugs.” But that’s more a case for the jury deciding to give the filmmaker a Best Director prize, as more obvious consensus titles lurk elsewhere.

10. “The Divide”

la fracture

“The Divide”

Spike Lee is rumored to be a big fan of this taut new dramatic comedy from France’s Catherine Corsini (“Summertime”), which takes place in an emergency room over the course of a single night as several characters endure the hectic scene while yellow vests protests overtake the street. A quasi-dark comedy loaded with real-time chaos, “The Divide” certainly has ambition in terms of its narrative and tone, though some critics have complained that they find they find it heavy-handed and a bit jumbled from a storytelling point of view. That would suggest the jury might be less inclined to give it the top prize — divisive movies can win, but messy ones less so — but with every juror getting one vote, it’s the kind of option that could very well gain traction if many of the other films find far less consensus. Critics don’t pick the Palme, and even if it’s not the most well-reviewed film of the festival, “The Divide” is exactly the sort of movie that could linger in the conversation with its timely setting and adventurous storytelling. However, it’s not the kind of title that has stirred up serious debate: Some people respect it, others are lukewarm. If even some of the jury falls into the latter camp, don’t bet on “The Divide” dominating at the end of the festival.

11. “The Worst Person in the World”

'The Worst Person in the World' Review: Joachim Trier Spins a Fun Norwegian Riff on 'Frances Ha'

“The Worst Person in the World”

Norwegian director Joachim Trier completes his so-called “Oslo Trilogy” by following “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st” with this multilayered tragi-comic look at a young creative woman (Renate Reinsave) who drifts between two lovers as she struggles to find her identity in a fast-moving world. Trier’s complex tonal juggling act includes heavy voiceover as it unfolds across 12 chapters to explore its protagonist’s life, with inventive curveballs that deal that include a memorable mushroom trip and a foray into cancel culture.

The dramedy has been compared by many to “Frances Ha,” and in favorable terms. However, that kind of formula isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking, and as the competition continues, the jury may be more inclined to reward more daring material. Still, “Worst Person” is accomplished enough to remain a contender, perhaps for screenplay or for Reinsave in the best actress category.

12. “Memoria”

Tilda Swinton in “Memoria”

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first film in Competition since his Palme d’Or-winning “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” finds him leaving his native Thailand for Colombia and joining forces with Tilda Swinton. The resulting hypnotic journey may be a new backdrop for the director, but it’s hardly a shift in form: The slow-burn story of a woman who hears mysterious sounds as she wanders the city and countryside, it’s a pure meditative cinematic experience that demonstrates the filmmaker’s mastery of the form. However, as always with Apichatpong, the enigmatic style is an acquired taste, and this film in particular may test the patience of some viewers eager to embrace more immediately engaging narratives. It will almost certainly find some fans, but is very far from a consensus film.

13. “The French Dispatch”

Wes Anderson's 'French Dispatch' to Open in Theaters This October, Plus Cannes and NYFF

Wes Anderson returned to Cannes with his loose and style-heavy tribute to old-school New Yorker journalists (who work at a fictionalized publication in France run by expats). The stacked ensemble cast includes everyone from Benicio del Toro as a prisoner who paints to Jeffrey Wright as a variation on James Baldwin telling a convoluted kidnapping story. The color schemes veer from bright palettes to black and white. Needless to say, audiences who saw the movie at Cannes described it as very Wes Anderson, whether or not they meant it as a good thing. Reaction has been mixed to the movie as a whole, but critics have praised its undeniable entertainment value and stunning craft; it also received a substantial nine-minute ovation at the premiere. While not exactly the kind of consensus movie to win the Palme d’Or, this jury might appreciate a performance or two as well as Anderson’s ever ambitious directorial specificity, so it’s quite possible it could win some sort of prize. It’s just not the most likely movie to find consensus in this particular year.

14. “Ahed’s Knee”

“Ahed’s Knee”

Israeli auteur Nadav Lapid follows up in Berlinale-winning “Synonyms” with another searing look at the paradoxes of Israeli identity, this one focused on a filmmaker (Nur Fibak, possibly a stand-in for Lapid) who roams around the Arabah desert while musing on his frustrations over military service and government censorship as he plots an audacious new film.

This kind of navel-gazing meta material can go wrong in a lot of ways, but Lapid’s shocking, inventive approach continues to keep the drama surprising and inventive, including a couple of abstract musical numbers with soldiers that inject the movie with a furious sense of purpose. Its fragmented approach and wandering narrative style may not click for all of the jurors, but they’re likely to respect its distinctive outlook. It may not be an obvious consensus title, but these sort of adventurous works often score other prizes at the festival, like the Grand Prix. It will almost certainly remain in the conversation.

15. “Everything Went Fine”

Francois Ozon is one of the most prolific and versatile filmmakers working in France today, and has been a regular crowdpleaser in Cannes Competition, where recent entries include “Young & Beautiful” and “Double Lover.” His latest entry finds him working in a fairly conventional mode, with the story of an aging father (André Dussolier) who asks his daughter (Sophie Marceau) to help him end his life.

The story, which largely takes place in a hospital, might not be the most rousing subject matter in a year of much bolder storytelling swings. However, the movie has played well to audiences and critics who recognize its emotional accessibility as a key strength. If the jury ends up divided over many of the more experimental films in Competition, the sturdiness of “Everything Went Fine” might work in its favor. But it’s still not a strong Palme contender given that the respectful but muted response almost certainly extends to some of the jury.

16. “Annette”

Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver

Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver on the cover art for “So We May Start” from “Annette”

Sony Music

The Cannes opening night selection brings outré director Leos Carax back to the festival for the first time since his formally adventurous “Holy Motors,” and almost a decade later, he remains a bold, surprising filmmaker whose work divides and excites audiences in equal measures. He’s also delivering his highest-profile effort to date, a peculiar rock opera composed by Sparks that stars a propulsive Adam Driver as a failing comedian and Marion Cotillard as his wife, and a wooden puppet as their titular puppet.

“Annette” divided audiences right on schedule, but those who took kindly to it responded to Carax’s moody surrealism, the constant energy of the soundtrack, and Driver’s utter commitment to a bonkers performance. Opening night films rarely win the Palme, in part because the jury is so far removed from them by the time vote arrives, and this wide range of reactions on this one make it an unlikely title to top the festival (even if some of the jurors undoubtedly took kindly to it).

17. “Nitram”

Australian director Justin Kurzel first broke out at Cannes with his disturbing debut “The Snowtown Murders,” and continues that focus with this unnerving look at the story of Martin Bryant, the young man behind the Port Arthur massacre. In 1996, Bryant shot and killed 35 people in Tasmania, an act that led to national gun reform laws. The killer is portrayed in Kurzel’s film by a wild-eyed Caleb Landry Jones, who once again shows his ability to inhabit a disturbed mind with utter authenticity. The movie itself is a bleak and fairly straightforward look at how the emotionally disturbed Bryant became alienated from his family and fell into a strange new relationship while dreaming of a new life. It’s not the explosive sort of filmmaking bound to win the Palme (as Gus Van Sant’s shooter drama “Elephant” did) but Jones is definitely a strong contender for an acting prize.

18. “Paris, 13th District”

"Paris 13th District"

“Paris 13th District”

Shanna Besson

French heavyweight Jacques Audiard returns to Competition for the first time since his Palme winner “Dheepan” with this multi-part black-and-white adaptation of short stories by American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. Transplanting the setting from the U.S. to France, “Paris, 13th District” follows the experiences of two young women (Lucie Zhang and Noemie Merlant) as they endure unexpected relationships that impact their personal and professional lives. While the film features a screenplay by filmmakers Celine Sciamma and Léa Mysius, “Paris, 13th District” is notable for the way it departs from Audiard’s standard focus on tough, battered characters, from “Rust and Bone” and “A Prophet” to “The Sisters Brothers.” Critics have been mixed on how well he pulls off the pivot, but even the kinder takes on the film see it as a fairly unadventurous comedy-drama about young people making sense of their confusing lives. Some jurors may appreciate those themes or the performances (Zhang in particular is a major discovery), but it’s a bit too familiar in terms of subject matter to skyrocket into Palme debates.

19. “Flag Day”

flag day

“Flag Day”

The last time Sean Penn directed a movie that played in Competition at Cannes, it didn’t go so well. That was “The Last Face,” a movie that the festival reportedly didn’t even screen in full before it was invited. “Flag Day,” a more contained two-hander starring Penn and his daughter Dylan, has gone considerably better. Based Jennifer Vogel’s 2014 memoir, the movie revolves around a young woman coming to terms with her father’s criminal antics, while she struggles through her conflicted emotions as her personal and professional ambitions evolve. Some reviews were underwhelmed by screenplay, but most at least acknowledged the strong performances and heartfelt quality of the drama its core. While not the kind of cinematic achievement that tends to galvanize a jury, “Flag Day” could certainly sneak into the best actress conversation if other performances don’t generate as much enthusiasm.

20. “Benedetta”

Benedetta Review: Verhoeven's Lesbian Nun Drama Doesn't Inspire Faith

“Benedetta”

Paul Verhoeven’s so-called “lesbian nun movie” is, like much of his work, a wild and uncompromising provocation. The movie follows two 17th century nuns, one of whom seems smitten with the Jesus and other of whom is smitten with her. The pair fire up a clandestine affair that includes one instantly-notorious scene involving makeshift wooden dildo carved from a Virgin Mary statuette. But the movie is also invested in the religious hierarchies of the time, and finds a timely hook in the arrival of a plague during the chaotic climax. “Bendetta” definitely has its supporters, including some who embrace it as a guilty pleasure and others who adore Verhoeven’s approach to blending complex themes with caustic entertainment. But a lot of audiences have written this one off as simply too silly for its own good, or problematic in terms of its gaze, and these factors alone make it a very unlikely Palme d’Or winner in such a competitive year.

21. “France”

Prolific French auteur Bruno Dumont moves in a different direction following his experimental “Jeanette” and “Joan of Arc.” His last film in Competition was the surrealist “Slack Bay,” but he takes a more grounded satiric detour with his media story starring Lea Seydoux as a famous news anchor who life collapses around her after a collision with a motorcyclist. While some audiences enjoyed the overall premise and the ubiquitous Cannes performer Seydoux’s central role, the movie has been largely considered to be a mixed bag of tonal shifts and under-realized emotions. It’s the kind of French production that tends to get a good platform at Cannes but likely won’t excite audiences beyond its borders, including those on this year’s jury.

22. “The Restless”

Belgian director Joaquim Lafosse returns to Cannes with a grounded portrait of a bipolar painter (Damien Bonnard) who struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with his wife and son despite constant bouts of rage. Shot during the pandemic (masks make some appearances), “The Restless” is an undeniably affecting drama about passionate creativity and its many risks. It’s easy to imagine this year’s jury of film artists relating to that conundrum. However, the movie itself is very straightforward, lacking much in the way of surprise or ambition from a narrative standpoint, which makes it hard to imagine the movie taking home the top prize.

23. “Three Floors”

Cannes fixture Nanni Moretti returns with this 2020 holdover that resurrects many of the key fixations from his previous films. The movie, an adaptation of Israeli writer Eshkol Nevo’s novel, moves the setting to Rome and follows three separate tales: a young man who kills a woman in a drunk driving accident, thrusting his parents — both successful judges — into a profound moral conflict; a young mother whose husband ignores her; and the plight of an old man tasked with caring for a young child until he gets lost on the way home. The disparate narrative threads don’t connect, and critics have been largely unimpressed by the bizarre trifecta of stories and their awkward execution. Moretti may be a talented filmmaker, but don’t bet on this one to generate much heat with this year’s jury.

24. “The Story of My Wife”

The first film from Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi since her Oscar-nominated “On Body and Soul” is an English-language period drama adapted from Milán Furst’s novel. Set in 1920s Paris, the story finds a sea captain (Gijs Naber) who suspects his wife (Lea Seydoux) of cheating on him. Despite the handsome period details, this is a fairly routine melodrama that hasn’t made much noise at the festival and seems unlikely to inspire any passionate debate from the jury.

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