The Cannes Film Festival kicks off today, setting in motion 10 days of premieres of some of the most heavily anticipated movies of the year. Inside Llewyn Davis and Blue Is the Warmest Color got their start there last year—not to mention Best Foreign Language Oscar winner The Great Beauty—and certainly some possible award-season contenders are among the 2014 lineup. With so many titles to choose from, it wasn't easy to pick just 10. But life is about making difficult choices, people.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Although Cannes celebrates world cinema, Hollywood is never too far from its mind. Big American films have premiered there—The Great Gatsby last year, How to Train Your Dragon 2 this year—and a few of the more recent festival selections have concerned themselves with issues of celebrity and industry phoniness. In 2014, we have David Cronenberg's Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars, as well as Clouds of Sils Maria. The latest film from director Olivier Assayas (Carlos), it stars Juliette Binoche as an aging actress who agrees to appear in a remake of the film that launched her career—except this time, she's playing the older character, replaced by a hot new talent. Co-starring Chloë Grace Moretz (as the starlet) and Kristen Stewart, the result invites comparisons to All About Eve and Persona.
Foxcatcher, the latest film from director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote), was supposed to come out last year during award season. Instead, its release was postponed so that Miller could fine-tune this true-life drama about the unlikely friendship between Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and du Pont heir John du Pont (Steve Carell). Oscar-courting movies that get yanked from the fall schedule usually raise red flags, but the fact that Foxcatcher is now premiering in the Cannes competition suggests that Sony Pictures Classics are still fully confident that they've got a winner. (The announced November 14 release date, right in the heart of this year's Oscar rush, only backs up that fact.)
For all the good work that Tommy Lee Jones has done as an actor, not enough praise has gone to his directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, an excellent modern-day Western that won two prizes at Cannes in 2005, including a Best Actor nod for Jones. The Homesman is the first film he's directed since, and it too is a Western, about a man (Jones) in the 19th century escorting a woman (Hilary Swank) and three clinically insane patients across the Midwest. The path is fraught with dangers, and the first trailer suggests a more action-packed Meek's Cutoff: spare but also intense.
Leviathan doesn't have a trailer yet, and the film's plot specifics are vague. (I've heard everything from "metaphysical sci-fi epic" to ensemble character drama.) But what makes it a must-see is that it's the latest movie from Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose first three efforts are all terrific. Best known for 2003's The Return, about two sons' uneasy reunion with their absent father, Zvyagintsev received some of the best reviews of his career for his most recent drama, 2011's Elena, about a woman who takes matters into her own hands when her rich husband won't support her deadbeat adult son. Zvyagintsev creates powerful moods and finds the extraordinary in normal lives, and Leviathan easily sounds like his most ambitious, sweeping film.
If there's an early frontrunner for Best Actor at Cannes, it's Timothy Spall, star of Mr. Turner, filmmaker Mike Leigh's biopic of celebrated British painter J.M.W. Turner. Going with a period piece for the first time since 1999's Topsy-Turvy, Leigh has wanted to make a movie about Turner, who was famous for his eccentricity, for quite some time; Cannes loves Leigh (Secrets & Lies won the Palme d'Or in 1997), and this looks like the sort of grand valedictory that old masters make. (Adding to the movie's sense of epicness: It's about two and a half hours long.)
Australian filmmaker David Michôd made his debut with 2010's Animal Kingdom, one of the best thrillers in recent years. (It also helped introduce Hollywood to Jacki Weaver, who got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and has gone on to appear in American films like Silver Linings Playbook.) His followup film, The Rover, is set in a bleak future in the middle of nowhere that looks like a combination of The Road and The Proposition. The film stars guy's-guy actors Guy Pearce and Scoot McNairy, but it also has Robert Pattinson, in his second of two big Cannes entries. (He's also in David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars.) Screening in Cannes' Midnight section, this may not be high art, but for fans of flinty, hellish post-apocalyptic dramas, it looks like heaven.
Comedic actors sometimes star in dramas to show off their range and seriousness, but in this case, it's the filmmaker doing the change of pace. Director Michel Hazanavicius earned Oscar acclaim for 2011's The Artist, one of the rare comedies to win Best Picture, but he's back with a drama starring wife Bérénice Bejo as an NGO worker who befriends a boy in war-torn Chechnya. Based on Fred Zinnemann's 1948 film, The Search is Hazanavicius demonstrating that he doesn't just do silent-film homages (or in the case of his OSS 117 films, cheeky James Bond satires). It's one of the biggest question marks at Cannes, which is where The Artist started its march to award-season victory three years ago.
Amid the high-profile entries at any festival, there are also the quiet sleepers that end up being major sensations. One of those Cannes surprises could be this nervy drama from Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytsky that chronicles the exploits at a school for the deaf and dumb. The NSFW trailer above suggests a mixture of Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier, but its really provocative hook is that there won't be any subtitles or voiceovers: If you don't know sign language, you'll just have to figure out what's going on. The trailer boldly proclaims, "For love and hatred, you don't need translation." We shall see.
Two Days, One Night
Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are among the most decorated Cannes filmmakers of all time: Two of their movies, 1999's Rosetta and 2005's L'Enfant, won the Palme d'Or, and their most recent, 2011's The Kid With a Bike, took home the Grand Prix. You don't go to their films for their layered plots—you go for their skill at crafting moving, bare-bones character dramas. Their latest is predictably simple in its logline—a woman has to convince her coworkers to forgo their bonuses so that she can hold onto her job—but what's new for the Dardennes is that Two Days, One Night has a star in it. The presence of Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard alone guarantees that, even if this movie is terrible, it'll get more attention in the U.S. and elsewhere than any of the brothers' previous films. But considering that they've never made even a just-OK film, that shouldn't be a concern.
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been a Cannes favorite for a while, winning prizes for his films Distant (2002) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), his sort-of murder mystery in which the police drive around the countryside trying to help jog the confessed killer's memory about where he buried the body. Winter Sleep is his longest film at over three hours, and there aren't many plot details available aside from the fact that it's a domestic drama. (The above teaser trailer even lacks English subtitles.) But Ceylan's movies have always been more about mood than plot, and this very much looks to be in that same vein. For all his Cannes acclaim, he's never won the Palme d'Or: Little surprise that festival handicappers have pegged this one as the film to beat. Sight unseen, of course.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.