The Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on Wednesday, is the year's premier film festival, the launching pad in recent years for celebrated movies like The Tree of Life, No Country for Old Men, The Artist, Amour, Holy Motors and Inglourious Basterds. It's funny that Cannes takes place just as summer movie season is getting underway: The festival's selections share little in common with their blockbuster brethren, but they do often factor into Hollywood's other big season, the Academy Awards.
Before the festival gets rolling, I've put together a handy little guide of movies that will be premiering at Cannes that I'm especially excited to see. (I'm going for the first time this year.) Narrowing the list to 10 wasn't easy—I had to leave off Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, among others—but that just underlines how many high-profile must-sees Cannes has on offer over the next two weeks.
All Is Lost
Writer-director J.C. Chandor's first film was Margin Call, an excellent ensemble drama about the 2008 economic collapse that showed off his skill with actors and sharp dialogue. So give him credit for going in a completely different direction with his follow-up film. All Is Lost, which stars Robert Redford as a man trying to survive at sea and is said to contain no dialogue and no other actors. Maybe it'll be nothing more than a gimmick. But after Margin Call, I'm willing to give Chandor the benefit of the doubt.
French filmmaker Claire Denis is no stranger to Cannes: Her first movie, 1988's Chocolat, had its premiere there. Since then, she's become one of the most distinctive and understated directors working today, whether it's the quiet character study 35 Shots of Rum or the slow-burning suspense of White Material. There aren't a lot of plot details about her new film, The Bastards, but it sounds like it involves a ship captain who decides to get revenge for his sister after her whole family is wrecked by an evil businessman. Denis has never shied away from dark dramas; this one promises to be especially jet-black.
Behind the Candelabra
It's still hard to imagine that Steven Soderbergh will retire from filmmaking, but if he's true to his word, then Behind the Candelabra will be his final effort. Telling the love story between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his boyfriend Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), this drama will play on HBO on May 26, the final day of Cannes. It looks absolutely fabulous.
Director Ari Folman's last film was Waltz With Bashir, the bold mixture of animation and documentary. His new movie isn't any less ambitious. The Congress, based on a novel by Solaris sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem, stars Robin Wright, who plays herself as an actress who sells the rights to her digital image with unintended consequences. Also featuring Jon Hamm, Harvey Keitel, and Paul Giamatti, The Congress will mix live-action and animation. Fingers crossed that it's a trippy, thought-provoking affair.
As HitFix film critic Guy Lodge points out, American director James Gray has gotten more love from international critics and festivals than he has in his home country. In the States, he may be best known for making Two Lovers—and in that case, too many people know that film as "the one where Joaquin Phoenix promoted it by acting all weird on Letterman." (No matter: It was my favorite film of 2009.) Gray reunites with Phoenix for The Immigrant, a 1920s drama starring him as a New York pimp who lures a recently-arrived Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) into his stable. Gray prefers stories about hardscrabble New Yorkers, and this one definitely fits that mold.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers have long been Cannes's favorites. Joel Coen has won three best director trophies, and Barton Fink won the Palme d'Or, the festival's top prize. Joel and his brother Ethan return with Inside Llewyn Davis, a tribute to the 1960s folk-music scene in Greenwich Village. Davis is played by Oscar Isaac, an up-and-comer who was in Drive and Robin Hood, and the film also stars Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan. For a lot of people, none of that matters: Just so long as the Coens directed it, folks will want to see it.
The latest from Sideways director Alexander Payne is a drama about a father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte) traveling to Nebraska. In its broad outline, this may seem reminiscent of earlier Payne movies: He's done road trips before with About Schmidt, and several of his films have taken place in Nebraska, his home state. But Nebraska is his first film he didn't co-write, and I'm curious to see how SNL/30 Rock alum Forte does in a more serious role.
Only God Forgives
One of the themes of this year's Cannes is the return of several filmmakers who have been part of the festival's official competition in previous years: Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, Roman Polanski (who has Venus in Fur). Another is Nicolas Winding Refn, whose last film, Drive, won him best director in 2011. He's back with Only God Forgives, a crime thriller set in Bangkok that stars his Drive lead Ryan Gosling. Around Drive's release, Refn talked a lot about wanting to make a Wonder Woman movie. Personally, I'm glad he's making his own versions of comic-book films instead.
One of the best reviewed films of 2011 was A Separation, the Oscar-winning drama from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. His new drama stars some Cannes veterans—Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Tahar Rahim (the excellent prison drama A Prophet)—in what's being billed as a multicultural love story set in Paris. Before A Separation, most didn't know Farhadi's name. Now, a lot of us can't wait to see what he does next.
A Touch of Sin
The terrific filmmaker Jia Zhangke has spent most of his career chronicling the rapid rise of his native China as a superpower, often focusing on those affected by the changes. (His 2004 film, The World, was about the unhappy workers in a real-life Chinese theme park that offers Disneyland-style re-creations of famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower.) His movies tend not to be heavily plotted, but that might be less the case with A Touch of Sin, which is said to "[revolve] around four threads set in vastly different geographical and social milieus across modern-day China." (However, as that above publicity still suggests, it may be more action-oriented than is customary from him.) It would be great to see his moving, muted films find a larger audience. Could the potentially more accessible A Touch of Sin help pave the way?
Grierson & Leitch write regularly for Deadspin about movies. Follow them @griersonleitch.