The excitement of the Cannes Film Festival is the anticipation of seeing films that, in most cases, no one has seen – outside of the actual filmmakers and Cannes director Thierry Frémaux and his selection committee.
And there's a sense that anything can happen. Last year, for example, all the talk focused on Terrence Malick's long-gestating The Tree of Life, which went on to win the Palme d'Or, yet it was an obscure black-and-white silent French film from Cannes, The Artist, that would end up winning the best picture Oscar.
Arguably, this year opens a relatively narrow window on the cinematic world: There are only two films from Asia in the official competition, one from Latin America and none by women – but at least there's a healthy mixture of new and old directors trying new things.
Here are 10 Cannes films I can't wait to watch.
Cosmopolis David Cronenberg (Canada)
Some David Cronenberg fans were disappointed with the restraint of his last film, A Dangerous Method, about the birth of psychoanalysis, but they should feel better about this absurdist story. Adapted from Don Delillo's 2003 novel, the film follows a young billionaire ( Twilight's Robert Pattinson) making a one-day journey across Manhattan in his limousine to get a haircut against a background of global financial collapse, seductions, assassination attempts and automobiles. The pedigree cast includes Juliette Binoche, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Jay Baruchel, Sarah Gadon and Mathieu Amalric.
Rust & Bone Jacques Audiard (France)
A master director-in-waiting, Jacques Audiard impressed audiences with his early thrillers of damaged souls, Read My Lips (2001) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2007), and dazzled them with 2010's stark prison drama A Prophet. His new film, based on Canadian author Craig Davidson's short story, is about a homeless man who falls in love a marine park killer whale trainer who has a bad accident. The cast here includes Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts.
Killing Them Softly Andrew Dominik (USA)
Killing Them Softly is based on George V. Higgins 1974 thriller Cogan's Trade, about a professional enforcer (Brad Pitt) investigating the heist of mob money from a poker game. Higgins' novel has been praised for its crackling, hardboiled dialogue, and the New Zealand director, Andre Dominik, who previously made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a brooding 2007 Western, has grown in stature over the past five years. The cast includes James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins.
Amour Michael Haneke (Austria)
There are reports that Michael Haneke initially cancelled this film after he saw Sarah Polley's Away from Her. Best known for his bracing dramas of complicity, media and civilized violence ( Code Inconnu, Cachet, Funny Games), Haneke's latest is about love put to the test by illness. When an elderly woman (85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva) suffers a stroke, her husband George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and daughter (Isabelle Huppert) struggle to cope.
No Pablo Larrain (Chile)
Not in the official competition (it's in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar), this is the most eagerly anticipated South American film in the festival, an historical black comedy about an ad executive's campaign to oust Chile's Augusto Pinochet. Director Pablo Larrain ( Tony Manero, Post Mortem) is one of Chile's most exciting directors, and this – the conclusion of a trilogy about the dictator – stars Gael Garcia Bernal, which might provide the break through he deserves.
Mud Jeff Nichols (USA)
With his Sundance breakthrough, Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols established himself as one of the best new American directors. His latest film is about the friendship between a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) and the 14-year-old boy who helps him escape from a Mississippi island to get to his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). There's enough southern gumbo here to whet the appetite, along with a role for Nichols' favourite collaborator, Michael Shannon.
On the Road Walter Salles (USA/France/Brazil)
Frances Ford Coppola has been working on getting Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation classic adapted for the screen for 30 years, and now he serves as executive producer, with Walter Salles ( The Motorcycle Diaries) in the director's chair. Relative newcomers Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley star as poet adventurers Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise in the search for "It," with a cast that includes Kirsten Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi and Terrence Howard.
Laurence Anyways Xavier Dolan (Canada)
Quebec wunderkind actor/director/writer/editor Xavier Dolan's first feature, I Killed My Mother, took a raft of prizes at Cannes and established his name around the world. His follow-up, Heartbeats, was a luscious-looking if somewhat slight love-triangle drama. Now, at 23, he returns to the Un Certain Regard sidebar with what looks like his most ambitious film so far, the story of a man (French actor Melvil Poupaud) who, on his 30th birthday, tells his fiancée that he wants to become a woman. Running at more than two and a half hours, this is Dolan's longest film, and his first with non-Canadian actors, including French actress Natalie Baye, a veteran of films by Godard and Truffaut, as Laurence's mother.
Like Someone In Love Abbas Kiarostami (Iran)
The Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami stepped out of his home culture deftly with the Italian-set Certified Copy in 2010, so perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise to see him in the land of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, with this Japanese-language feature about the relationship between an old professor and a young student who moonlights as a prostitute. Curiosity abounds.
Post Tenebras Lux Carlos Reygadas (Mexico)
The title is Latin for "after darkness, light," and the cryptic synopsis – a semi-autobiographical "expressionist painting" in which "reason will intervene as little as possible" – doesn't entirely shed the obscurity. Carlos Reygadas, a former United Nations lawyer-turned-director ( Japon, Silent Light), brings some of his world-travelling experience to bear here in this film, set in several countries but also focusing on a man named Juan who lives with his family in the Mexican countryside. Could this be the Mexican answer to The Tree of Life?
The Cannes Film Festival runs May 16-27. Watch for Liam Lacey's daily reports from the festival on Globeandmail.com.