The joy of the Cannes Film Festival is surprises, whether it's a challenging art-house veteran like Michael Haneke making a late-career film regular people find moving, or seeing an unlikely film like the silent, black-and-white The Artist emerge from nowhere to popular acclaim.
All 20 of this year's competition films are from veteran filmmakers, including former Palme d'Or winners Steven Soderbergh (Behind the Candelabra), the Coen brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Roman Polanski (Venus in Fur). For a glimpse of the future, the baby sibling Un Certain Regard sidebar has five of the 18 films from first-time filmmakers, including 25-year-old Quebec director Chloé Robichaud's Sarah Prefers to Run, and Sundance winner Ryan Coogler with Fruitvale Station.
As always, the Cannes festival, which starts Wednesday and runs until May 26, honours the French tradition of épater le bourgeois, with some promised ultra-violence in the Ryan Gosling-starring Only God Forgives and Takashi Miike's Shield of Straw. Two other films, François Ozon's Young and Beautiful, and Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Colour, promise to push the boundaries in the depiction of teen sexuality.
The key is finding those films that turn expectations of what's old and new, sweet and shocking, upside down. Here are 10 Cannes films I can't wait to watch.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Fargo), the story, based on Dave Van Ronk's posthumous memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, stars John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac, F. Murray Abraham and Adam Driver in a portrait of the Bob Dylan-era Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties, plundering baby boomer sacred territory. Isaac, in his first big role, plays singer Llewyn Davis, with Mulligan as his ex-girlfriend who is now married to Timberlake's character. Musician T-Bone Burnett teamed up with Marcus Mumford (Mulligan's husband) and Timberlake on the soundtrack.
Israeli director Ari Folman's 2008 autobiographical film Waltz with Bashir used a dazzling mixture of animation and live action to depict the horrors of Israel's 1982 Lebanon invasion. In this English-language film, he's turned to a literary source and a timely topic. The Congress is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), starring Robin Wright as an aging actress who sells her digital likeness to a studio to do with as they wish, with the agreement she'll never act again.
Asghar Farhadi, director of the Oscar-winning Iranian film A Separation, takes on the subject of domestic woes in a Paris-set film starring The Artist's Bérénice Bejo and Algerian-French actor Tahar Rahim (A Prophet). The pair play a French woman and her Iranian husband who meet after four years to finalize their divorce when a secret about the wife's past alters everything.
James Gray's well-wrought old-fashioned dramas (We Own the Night, Little Odessa) tend to fly under the awards radar, but this anti-Gatsby twenties tale might be the one that puts him over the top, with a cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner and Dagmara Dominczyk. Cotillard plays a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island in 1920 with her sick sister. Phoenix is the burlesque club owner who lures her into prostitution, with Renner as a magician who works at the club.
After he presented The Artist at Cannes, director Michel Hazanavicius said that many directors, including Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways) expressed envy that he had been able to make a contemporary film in black and white. Now Payne, too, goes colour-free in this dramedy starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte as a father and son on a road trip to collect a Publishers Clearing House-type sweepstakes.
Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian
Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale, Kings and Queen) has been one of the freshest voices in French cinema in the past two decades with his ensemble, often absurd, dramas. This English-language film sounds atypically commercial: At the end of the Second World War, Mathieu Amalric plays a psychologist who attempts to connect with a desperately traumatized Native-American soldier, played by Benicio Del Toro.
A Touch of Sin
Chinese director Jia Zhangke has bucked the Chinese historical blockbuster trend and become a leading figure in world cinema by pushing minimalist stories and stark documentary techniques to display the hard facts of daily life in contemporary China. This multi-strand contemporary road movie, shot by Roman Polanski's cinematographer, Pawel Edelman, looks like a distinct departure in scale, though not necessarily in critical edge.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Long-time Cannes favourite and American indie stalwart Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise, Broken Flowers) applies his take on the vampire genre, which, good or bad, is sure to be original. The early buzz suggests an updated version of Tony Scott's 1983 cold sizzler, The Hunger. Tom Hiddleston is a rock musician/bloodsucker and Tilda Swinton his long, long-time lover, until her little sister (Mia Wasikowska) comes between them.
French director Claire Denis is a rigorous filmmaker. Her last two features in the past five years, 35 Shots of Rum and White Material, made numerous top 10 lists, but since her debut, Chocolat (1988), Cannes has not invited her films into official competition. Not this year again, for some reason. The Bastards, starring Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni, follows a ship captain who is called back to Paris because of a family crisis that has led to a suicide, a hospitalization and a bankruptcy. He plots revenge against the businessman he thinks is responsible.
Sarah Prefers to Run
Following in the footsteps of such Quebec compatriots as Denis Villeneuve, Philippe Falardeau and Xavier Dolan, 25-year-old Chloé Robichaud brings her first feature to Cannes in the same Un Certain Regard sidebar as Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring) and James Franco (As I Lay Dying). Robichaud's coming-of-age story follows a young track star who accepts a marriage of convenience as a way to pay for a college with a strong athletic program, but then finds herself boxed into an emotional predicament.