Cannes 2021 Lineup: 10 Surprises and Snubs, from Sean Penn to Park Chan-wook

The festival unleashed a lot of cinematic potential in its big comeback announcement — and raised plenty of questions.
Cannes 2021 Lineup: Surprises & Snubs, From Sean Penn to Park Chan-wook
Tilda Swinton in "Memoria"

“Cinema is not dead.” It was a fitting opening remark to begin the morning press conference announcement of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where festival director Thierry Frémaux announced 63 films from around the world set to premiere at this year’s July gathering. Arriving on the Croisette one year after the 2020 edition was canceled, the lineup delivers a dense assemblage of cinema from around the world, some of which has waited for its big moment since the days before the pandemic.

What we don’t know is how big Cannes will be. France’s own entry guidelines continue to evolve with the pandemic, and many countries still don’t know if they’ll be able to travel. However the practicalities play out, Cannes has thrown down the gauntlet with this year’s selection. It doesn’t emphasize movie stars, and it may not fuel constant Oscar buzz, but it compensates with work that’s passionate about cinema and some of its greatest contemporary filmmakers. Exhibition paradigms shift every day, but the Cannes selection is poised to highlight the resilience of the art form and some of its most treasured practitioners

With a selection finalized at the very last minute, even Frémaux forgot a few titles as he went through the list. There’s 24 titles in Official Competition, 18 in Un Certain Regard, and a smattering of other promising entries in new sections: The program can seem like a daunting challenge to even the savviest viewers. Here’s a starting point.

What We Already Knew

Much of the Cannes 2020 selection traveled to a handful of festivals that took place in person, from San Sebastian to TIFF, including eventual Oscar winner “Another Round,” but Cannes held the door open for any of these titles that wanted to wait. “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson’s imaginary vision of 20th-century journalists, has been one of Searchlight’s most promising new titles for some time. The movie was set for a Cannes premiere last year and would have later played Telluride, among others. There was some uncertainty in recent weeks about whether Searchlight would bring the movie this year, given the fall release date, but that was settled : Anderson will return to the Croisette in competition for the first time since “Moonrise Kingdom” opened the festival in 2012.

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

Another 2012 alumni returns with his own opening-night selection: Ever-surprising French auteur Leos Carax opens Cannes 2021 with “Annette,” a surreal musical drama starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard with music from cult U.S. band Sparks. The movie, which Amazon will release in the U.S., marks Carax’s first English-language production and promises a “day one” Cannes film certain to generate conversation as well as star power.

And then there’s “Benedetta,” the so-called “lesbian nun movie” from 82-year-old provocateur Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s first movie since 2016’s “Elle” follows a closeted nun in a 15th century Italian covent as a plague ravages the city. Early reports suggest a movie less controversial than meets the eye, but filled with complex historical details that will generate conversation. U.S. buyers got an early look, and IFC picked up the movie a few weeks ago.

American Cinema Is at the Forefront

Where is that “planetary blockbuster” that Frémaux promised Variety in an interview a few weeks ago? As always, the selection process for Cannes is fluid and subject to the whims of companies that often decide the high-pressure festival environment isn’t worth the risk. As a result, the American presence for 2021 has virtually no studio contingent, an outcome that may disappoint media outlets looking for the flashiest titles.

It’s still heavy with American cinema, U.S. distributors, and filmmakers making their English-language debuts. Fremaux listed 23 competition titles this morning and sounded like he was done, then added a 24th: Sean Penn’s “Flag Day,” which stars his daughter Dylan Penn, Josh Brolin, and Miles Teller in the story of a criminal father who runs con jobs and heists to support his daughter. Things didn’t go so well the last time Penn directed a movie in the Cannes competition — the embarrassing mopey romance “The Last Face” in 2016 — but this is the same filmmaker who made “Into the Wild.” Here, he has returned to adaptation mode with a Jez Butterworth script based on Jennifer Vogel’s weird-but-true memoir “Film-Flam Man: The True Story Of My Father’s Counterfeit Life,” so there’s plenty of comeback potential here.

The First -- "Collisions" - Episode 106 - Laz attempts to sway an influential reporter who is critical of the Mars program. Aiko and Eitan test a solution to the MAV problem. An incident with Denise forces Tom to reconsider his priorities. Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), shown. (Photo by: Paul Schiraldi/Hulu)
Sean PennPaul Schiraldi/Hulu

Another Sean in the lineup also came as a surprise: Sean Baker, the American naturalist behind “The Florida Project” and “Tangerine,” finished a cut of his Texas-set drama “Red Rocket” in the last few days. That’s a big step for the filmmaker, whose “Florida Project” premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar before landing Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination. With a cast of non-professional actors (or, as Baker prefers, “first-time actors”) led by potential breakout Simon Rex, this story of a porn star attempting to reconnect with his estranged family holds a lot of potential to generate buzz even if its cast won’t look familiar on the red carpet.

The red carpet will have a few familiar faces to keep Penn’s film company including Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin, who star in Tom McCarthy’s Universal-produced “Stillwater. Another desperate-father tale, this one involves a father who attempts to help his incarcerated daughter get out of jail for a crime she may not have committed. This is McCarthy’s first adult drama after the Oscar-winning “Spotlight.” (His last film was the YA adaptation “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” for Disney+.) Since it premieres out of competition, that will lead some to speculate about its quality.

If Val Kilmer comes to Cannes, he won’t be there to promote a new role in the traditional sense. The actor lost his voice after a battle with cancer, but the new documentary “Val” — which A24 recently sold to Amazon — documents the extensive highs and lows of his career. A24 is one of the few companies to see major success with non-fiction cinema at the festival (future Oscar winner “Amy” premiered there, among others) and buzz on “Val” is strong.

While Cannes doesn’t usually premiere a lot of documentaries, there’s more than usual this year, including one from Kilmer’s old collaborators: Oliver Stone’s “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.” There’s also Cannes regular Andrea Arnold with “Cow,” an apparent non-fiction effort about a couple of bovines that sounds like a notable new direction for the “American Honey” filmmaker, and Todd Haynes’ long-gestating rock portrait “Velvet Underground,” which Apple picked up after footage was shared with buyers back at Cannes 2019. On the more personal side, “Jane By Birkin” promises a poignant tribute to Jane Birkin directed by her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg (another Cannes regular).

In addition to Baker, a few other American directors stand a good shot of internationalizing their profiles. Justin Chon’s  “Ms. Purple” and “Gook” premiered at Sundance; now he has Un Certain Regard selection “Blue Bayou,” the story of a Korean-American man working to build a life for his family in Louisiana. Sure to invite comparisons to last year’s “Minari” (at least on paper), the movie co-stars Chon alongside Alicia Vikander and Mark O’Brien. Then there’s Kogonada, the video essayist-turned-filmmaker whose delicate debut “Columbus” launched his career at Sundance back in 2017. His A24-backed followup “After Yang” also heads to Un Certain Regard. The heady sci-fi movie stars Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith in the futuristic story of a broken A.I. assistant that complicates a family dynamic.

U.S. Distributors Will Be Busy

As theaters reopen as American distributors assess an unsteady market, the Cannes brand still seems valuable for specialty releases. A24 has several films including the Icelandic supernatural thriller “Lamb,” which stars Noomi Rapace returning to her native Scandinavia. Neon, meanwhile, returns to the festival where it launched “Parasite” in 2019 with “Memoria,” the first English-language effort from Thai Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul starring Tilda Swinton as a woman with “exploding head syndrome.” Apichatpong is also one of the filmmakers behind the anthology feature “Year of the Everlasting Stories,” a series of shorts inspired by the pandemic that also features work from Asghar Farhadi. Neon previewed the movie as part of its slate weeks ago, and it provides Cannes with a handy means of acknowledging the past year without overstuffing the selection with films based around that topic. The company will also premiere Julia Ducournau’s “Titane,” the French director’s follow-up to her dizzying and bloody debut, “Raw.”

Sony Pictures Classics has Eva Husson’s first English-language film “Mothering Sunday,” a British drama set in 1924 that co-stars Olivia Colman and Colin Firth as a well-to-do couple and Odessa Young as their maid. The out-of-competition entry brings SPC back to the festival after it launched Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” there in 2019. In addition to “Benedetta,” IFC Films has Cannes heavyhitter Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District,” a French variation on several short stories by New York graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, with a script co-written by Celine Sciamma.

A Netflix No-Show

The world’s biggest streaming platform continues its unsteady relationship with Cannes. After backlash for its presence in competition 2017, Cannes established a rule that required all competition films to have theatrical releases in France. That led Netflix to hold back all of its films from the festival, including “Roma,” the following year. In 2020, Netflix was poised to return to Cannes with an out-of-competition screening for jury president Spike Lee’s “Da Five Bloods,” and while Lee is still the jury president this year, Netflix won’t follow him there. That may be in part because the streaming platform doesn’t want to accept the theatrical rule for competition, or deal with a lower-profile out-of-competition slot. “We regret this absence, this attitude, this desire, this will, not to negotiate about an out-of-competition presence,” Fremaux said at today’s press conference.

Jane CampionNetflix

The strong wording may have something to do with the absence of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” a Netflix production with a stacked cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons. Campion, so far the only woman in history to win the Palme d’Or, for “The Piano,” would be a no-brainer for the Cannes selection. Her absence sticks out like a sore thumb and will likely stay that way as the Cannes/Netflix divide continues to fester. It’s also unfortunate for another reason…

Gender Parity Continues to Be a Problem

Despite various pledges and conversations about moving toward a more inclusive selection, Cannes has only four women directors in its competition: more than usual, but not exactly progress on paper. (The festival does have a historic number of women directors throughout the selection, though.) There will be much to explore about which films didn’t make the cut, or were shuffled into other categories. All four of these titles hold a lot of potential, and all but one come from filmmakers making their debuts in Cannes competition. Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi’s “The Story of My Wife” was a late addition in the programming process (some thought it was tipped for Venice) that finds the filmmaker following her dreamy Oscar-nominated “On Body and Soul” with an English-language adaptation of Milán Furst’s novel about the romance between a sea captain and a woman he meets at a cafe. The film co-stars Cannes regular Léa Seydoux and Louis Garrel.

“Bergman Island”

Another long-gestating project, “Bergman Island” marks acclaimed French director Mia Hansen-Love’s first Cannes competition title. Supposedly based around real events, the movie stars Mia Wasikowska and Tim Roth in the story of an American filmmaking couple who travel to the revered Swedish island to work on a screenplay as their relationship faces a series of strange hurdles. Then there’s Ducournau, who follows her grotesque Cannes Critics Week hit “Raw” (the ultimate cannibal coming-of-age story!) with “Titane,” a French thriller about “biocompatibility” shrouded in mystery but sure to have some shock value in store (Vincent Lindon stars). Joining her, Catherine Corsini’s “Fracture” (her first film in competition in 20 years) revolves around a lesbian couple contending with a breakup over the course of a long night at a hospital. And these two French auteurs won’t be alone…

French Cinema Aims for a Comeback

There were hundreds of French films set for a 2020 release that held back, waiting for theaters to reopen. At the press conference, Fremaux called “for us to be united” in preserving French cinema, but behind the scenes there were a lot of fiery back-and-forth discussions about films jockeying for positions at a festival that goes out of its way to internationalize its selection. Still, five French films made it into competition and many others landed in other sections. A lot of regulars will return, including the aforementioned Palme-winner Audiard (despite swearing off competition at Cannes a few years ago) and Bruno Dumont, whose “On a Half Clear Morning” again stars Seydoux as a journalist recovering from a sudden accident.

The Usual Gang Gets a Sidebar

Over the years, Cannes has faced pushback for stuffing its competition with the same club of auteurs (Dardennes! Kawase! Loach!) instead of making room for rising filmmakers. And sure, many regulars have returned, from Audiard and Weerasethakul to Nanni Moretti, whose “Tre Piani” brings back to Cannes exactly 20 years after he won the Palme.

Now Cannes has found an intriguing resolution to include more heavy-hitters without blowing all of its competition slots. A new section, Cannes Premiere, creates a dedicated space for established filmmakers who previously played the festival. That’s where Arnold’s “Cow” documentary will go, alongside prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo with “In Front of Your Face,” and Kornél Mundruzco with his Phillip Roth adaptation “Evolution.” (His Oscar-nominated “Pieces of a Woman” premiered in Venice last year.) Cannes MVP Mathieu Amalric has “Hold Me Tight,” which stars “Phantom Thread” breakout Vicky Krieps in the story of a woman who may or may not choose to abandon her family. It remains to be seen if the films in this section deserved to compete for the Palme — or what that even means these days — but this provides additional space for many of the festival’s most reliable names to showcase their latest work.

A Strong Showing for the Middle East

Middle Eastern cinema comes and goes from Cannes, but this year there will be plenty of films from the region to stir conversation. After scoring Berlin’s Golden Bear for 2019’s “Synonyms,” Nadav Lapid graduates to Cannes competition with “Ahed’s Knee,” another apparently intimate story of a national identity crisis through the lens of a young filmmaker. Other Israelis return to Cannes in sidebars, including “The Band’s Visit” director Eran Korlirin’s Un Certain Regard entry “Let There Be Morning” and actor director Shlomi Elkabetz’s “Black Notebooks.”

Asghar FarhadiAnne Thompson

Above all, most Cannes diehards will be pumped for the return of Asghar Farhadi to his native country. The Iranian filmmaker opened Cannes several years ago with the starry Spanish-language “Everybody Knows,” and found a mixed reaction (though the film performed commercially worldwide). Now, he’s back at the festival with the Iran-set “A Hero.” The plot is still under wraps (Farhadi’s work tends to have a lot of slow-burn surprises) but Amazon recently acquired the movie and set it for a prime fall season release date — much like it did with his Oscar winner “The Salesman.”

An African Showcase

Cannes has a spotty record when it comes to African cinema, but this year brings several compelling entries from the continent. Competition regular Mahamat-Saleh Haroun returns with the Chad production “Lingui,” about a Muslim woman attempting to get an abortion despite the country’s strict prohibitions. Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch makes his competition debut with “Casablanca Beats,” the story of a hip-hop artist. And versatile Brazilian director Karim Ainouz (“Invisible Life”) addresses themes of the diaspora with his essay film “Mariner of the Mountains,” in which he revisits his father’s roots in Algeria.

Missing Pieces All Around

As usual with a Cannes selection, the high-profile films that didn’t make the cut are often as intriguing as those that did. What, for instance, happened to genre maestro Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave,” the saga of a detective who meets the ghost of a murdered man? Some have speculated that the movie — not quite finished — could wind up in the Venice lineup. That could give him a leg up (at least in theory) since Venice’s jury will be chaired by fellow Korean director Bong Joon Ho. (Venice has no issue with possible conflicts of interest, as “Roma” premiered there when Guillermo del Toro chaired the jury.)

In fact, Venice is rumored to have invited numerous films for its fall gathering, which follows last year’s successful launch for “Nomadland.” Among the expected Venice titles that some may have predicted for Cannes: Paul Schrader’s Oscar Isaac thriller “The Card Counter,” Pablo Larraín’s Kristen Stewart-as-Princess-Di drama “Spencer,” Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s Woody Harrelson-on-a-cruise comedy “Triangle of Sadness”… and, hey, let’s go ahead and predict Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” too. Venice and Netflix tend to play nice.


The Cannes selection hasn’t exactly reached the finish line. While it’s hard to imagine the official selection adding much to its already-stuffed lineup, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics Week have yet to finalize their selections. It’s here where we might see new works from the likes of Joanna Hogg (“Souvenir Part 2” and another movie she shot during the pandemic), Ari Folman (the animated “Anne Frank’s Diary”), the kooky Nicolas Cage revenge drama “Pig,” and more exciting genre efforts from new filmmaking talent, like the Finnish body-horror effort “Hatchling.” All of which is to say: Watch this space. For all the movies that Cannes promised us today, there is still more to come.

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