By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 10, 2011 at 3:49AM
This year at Cannes, it seems that you'll be able to throw a rock and manage to hit a celebrity. In stark contrast to last year's festival -- which some colleagues told us was the worst in a decade -- Cannes honcho Thierry Fremaux is bringing the goods this year with a cineaste's wet dream of films from some of the finest auteurs working today. However, what unfolds over the next few days will be fascinating. Not everything can be a masterpiece, there will be some unexpected disasters and more enticingly, some pleasant surprises. We've run down the list of the films that are likely to be making the biggest noise on the Croisette this year, and given the lineup, some of these choices are certainly obvious. We've tried to mix it up a little bit and the list might be more notable for what has been left off as well. Watch for our coverage starting tomorrow and expect reviews over the next ten days of each of the below films and more.
“The Tree of Life” -- dir. Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
What You Need To Know: At this point, is there anything really left to say about “The Tree of Life”? First planned for a 2009 release, the film now arrives two years later under deafening buzz. Tackling a fractured father/son relationship, dinosaurs, the universe and our place in it and who knows what else, Malick’s film comes with phrases like it “will change the language of cinema” being tossed around. The Cannes crowd is a notoriously tough one who aren’t afraid to be very vocal if they don't like something and after this much hype, you can bet the filmmakers will be sweating it out and hoping those on the Croisette feel the wait was worth it. Rumors have flown about that some distributors are nervous about the arty film and how it will play with more mainstream audiences (and that can't be helped by the fact that Pitt's character is kind of an asshole). However, if the film can walk away from the Croisette fulfilling even an ounce of pre-release hype, it could be one of the most memorable screenings at Cannes in years.
“Drive” -- dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Issac
What You Need To Know: After impressing adventurous arthouse crowds with “Valhalla Rising” and “Bronson” (which helped make a star out of Tom Hardy), Refn makes his Hollywood debut with gritty genre pic "Drive." Based on the novel by James Sallis, the lean-and-mean picture stars Ryan Gosling as Driver—a stunt driver moonlighting as a getaway-driver-for-hire who gets mixed up with the wrong people. And while that sounds pretty predictable on the page, leave it to Refn to completely upend expectations. A clip from the film recently landed and it revealed a moody, nervy piece with some outstanding sound design and some crisp, atmosphere and urban digital photography that should make Michael Mann weep with jealousy. Of any of the films in competition, "Drive" is the most blatantly commercial but if it's truly the "Blue Velvet" meets "Purple Rain" amalgam of influences as Gosling described it, this will get even the staunchest of high brow cineastes talking.
“The Skin I Live In" -- dir. Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Alamo, Blanca Suárez, Eduard Fernández, José Luis Gómez, Bárbara Lennie, Susi Sánchez, Fernando Cayo, Teresa Manresa
What You Need To Know: While Pedro Almodóvar has assembled his usual coterie of behind the camera talent including composer Alberto Iglesias, DoP Jose Luis Alcaine and editor José Salcedo, his latest effort is anything but usual. Based on crime novelist Thierry Jonquet‘s 2005 book, “Tarantula,” (originally published as "Mygale" in 1984) the story follows a plastic surgeon carrying out a vendetta on the man who raped his daughter. But as the recently released clip from the film highlights, that's just the tip of the iceberg in a movie that promises to be equally strange and disturbing. But will Cannes -- who bestowed Best Director on Almodóvar for "All About My Mother" and Best Screenplay for "Volver" -- be ready to embrace this new shift in direction? Will Almodóvar be able to pull it off? Two very big questions that will need answering, but with Sony Pictures Classics prepping the movie for an Oscar-baiting November release, they seem to have faith that Almodóvar has delivered another winner.
“We Need To Talk About Kevin" -- dir. Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly
What You Need To Know: This seems tailor made to be a Cannes Film Festival fairy tale story. It's Ramsay's first feature length film in almost 10 years and she's returning to a festival that has been a huge supporter of her work in the past. Her shorts "Small Deaths" and "Gasland" won the Cannes Prix de Jury, while "Kill the Day" won the Clemont Ferrand Prix du Jury. "Morvern Callar" walked away with two honors, the C.I.C.A.E. Award and the Award of The Youth, so eyes will be on her this year. But if the early, bone-chilling and breathtaking clips are anything to go by, Ramsay is set yet again to wow folks at Cannes. But this one will definitely be a tough watch. The story is an adaptation of the acclaimed bestseller by Lionel Shriver, about a mother (Swinton) and father (Reilly) whose teenage son is the perpetrator of a high school massacre. Swinton looks like an easy favorite for Best Actress honors and Ramsay has pretty much vaulted herself to the top of the heap of contenders for the Grand Prix and Best Director prizes.
“Sleeping Beauty" -- dir. Julia Leigh
Cast: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie
What You Need To Know: Author Julia Leigh makes her directing debut with a film that has landed In Competition in an already stacked competitive line-up. A disquieting "Salo"-esque trailer got initial buzz growing about the film in which Browning plays a student who drifts into prostitution and finds her niche as a woman who is drugged into sleep while men do to her what she can’t remember the next morning. Described as an "erotic fairy tale," will this simply be a much classier "Sucker Punch" or something else entirely? Either way, it's ambitious stuff from Browning and Leigh who will be looking to make a memorable stamp on the Cannes jury.
“Melancholia" -- dir. Lars Von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier
What You Need To Know: Everyone's favorite RV driving, enfant terrible, arrives two years after "Antichrist" caused infighting among the Cannes juries with an award going to Charlotte Gainsbourg for Best Actress while the Ecumenical gave the film an "anti-award" for its supposed misogyny. So what does Von Trier do next? He directs a film called "Melancholia" about two sisters dealing with the end of the world. You gotta love the brass balls on this guy, and as much as we adored the first trailer, our concern is that the material is almost too comfortably Von Trier-esque. The basis of the story follows the relationship between two sisters as the end of the world looms; one newly married (Dunst), and the other older, with a family (Gainsbourg). Running over two hours long, Von Trier will have to do something different to impress a Cannes crowd that is not only familiar with his tropes, but practically waiting for a reason to boo and hiss should the film fall flat on its face. We're excited, concerned, intrigued and hell, maybe even a little nervous to see what "Melancholia" will bring to the table, but whether it's good or bad, its pretty much guaranteed that there will be nothing halfway about this film.
“The Kid With A Bike" -- dir. Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne
Cast: Cécile De France, Thomas Doret, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione
What You Need To Know: Ever since “Rosetta” took the Palme d’Or in 1999, all of the Dardenne Brothers' films have not only played in competition at Cannes, they’ve also won prizes—they have two Palme d’Or, one Ecumenical and one screenplay prize from the festival. So the question to be asked at this point is how big of a contender this will be. The early trailer and clips for the film look fantastic, promising strong performance from France and Doret and the premise looks primed to rip out our hearts. The story centers on a young boy (Doret) battling his rage after his father abandons him in a children’s home, and tracks the relationship he develops with a hair salon owner (France) who cares for him on the weekends. Bring your hankies.
“This Must Be the Place" -- dir. Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton
What You Need To Know: Expectations were flying high for Sorrentino's follow-up to his Jury Prize winning "Il Divo" and then this clip dropped over the weekend. For a film about an aging ex-rock star who heads out on a mission to track down the Nazi war criminal who tormented his father, it seems there is a strange tonal balance going on here which will either work out great or flop terribly hard. There are always one or two misfires on the Croisette so we have to wonder: is this the "Southland Tales" of 2011? As you might remember Richard Kelly's film premiered In Competition and got scathing reviews, sending the director back to the editing suite. While that's a pretty extreme example, it's just a reminder that despite the stacked line up this year, there is bound to be a few pictures that don't live up to or completely miss expectations. So, is Sorrentino's latest outing just been misunderstood so far or is Penn's "I Am Sam 2" performance something to be worried about?
“Habemus Papam" -- dir. Nanni Moretti
Cast: Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti, Jerzy Stuhr, Renato Scarpa, Margherita Buy, Franco Graziosi
What You Need To Know: A Palme d'Or winner in 2001 for "The Son's Room," Moretti returns with a film that almost seems like "The King's Speech" redux. The film, a mixture of comedy and drama, centers on a psychologist who is called in to care for the new pope who is sworn in against his wishes. Though not based on a true story like Tom Hooper's film, this will also be doing a tonal balancing act while presumably showing us that those in power are just like Real People. Coming so soon after the Academy Award-winning film, we hope Moretti's film offers some fresh perspective and goes in unexpected directions, but if it plays like it sounds, its chances of making a mark among the stiff competition at Cannes is slight.
“Miss Bala" -- dir. Gerardo Naranjo
Cast: Noe Hernandez, Stephanie Sigman, James Russo, Jose Yenque, Irene Azuela
What You Need To Know: Naranjo made some waves on the arthouse circuit a couple of years ago with "Voy a explotar" but other than that, we don't really know much about this one. However, one of the great things about attending any festival is walking (almost completely) cold into a film and coming out surprised. We were immediately taken with this clip and with a story about a Mexican beauty pageant hopeful who gets inadvertently drawn into the criminal underworld, it feels excitingly fresh, particularly when we've admittedly known about most of the titles above for awhile now. While there are lots of big ticket movies walking the red carpet this year, there is also plenty of room for lower-key surprises and this could be one of them.
Of course, there are still a good handful of movies that will also be attracting eyes. It goes without saying that Woody Allen's "Midnight In Paris," which officially opens the festival, will be a giant group hug between the director and France, who adore the helmer. It will also be a photographer's dream with Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Adrien Brody, Carla Bruni and Léa Seydoux all likely to walk to the red carpet. It will be a great kickstart to the festival but in all honestly, unless it's some kind of masterpiece, this film will be a distant memory by Thursday morning. Gus Van Sant's slightly twisted teenage love story "Restless" seems to have fallen in the trap of being too arty for the mainstream, but too mainstream for the arthouse, so the reaction will be interesting. But we're not expecting the film to make as big a noise at the fest as some might think. Takashi Miike's 3D remake "Hara-Kiri" will inevitably draw comparisons to the 1962 original by Masaki Kobayashi, but if he can make it stand out on his own (in 3D no less) he may win the approval of movie snobs who don't give the prolific director his due. The black-and-white "The Artist" sounds intriguing on its premise alone -- it follows a silent film star who finds his world changed with the advent of the talkies -- but advance word on this seems to be good and it just looks gorgeous. The procedural "Poliss" from France about a Juvenile Protection Unit struggling for recognition in their police department intrigues us, as does Hong Sang-Soo's "The Day He Arrives," whose backward trailer put a smile on our face. Finally, the midnight movie "Days of Grace" looks like it might be a pulpy break for our brains in the midst of the fest.