Inasmuch as anything can be called “official” in the unscientific business of Oscar-watching, the early-fall festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto marks the official start of awards season: Venice, in particular, is on a roll, having premiered the last two best picture winners (“Spotlight” and “Birdman,” not to mention 2013’s close runner-up “Gravity”) in calmly European style before the noise built up on the other side of the pond.
Happily situated in the less frenzied days of spring, Cannes sits at a respectable distance from the mania of the U.S. awards derby. It is, after all, a festival principally devoted to the kind of high-art world cinema that rarely rules the Oscars: For every Palme d’Or winner like “The Pianist” or “Amour” that breaks through to Academy voters, there are several others (“Winter Sleep,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) that aren’t remotely on their wavelength. Even for more Oscar-friendly fare, a Cannes premiere puts films on a far longer track to glory; momentum has to be sustained, and buzz nurtured, for several months longer than, say, a hit Telluride discovery that heads straight into the prime prestige-release season.
Yet Cannes — like Sundance, way back in the wilds of January — is nonetheless a place where industry pundits keep their eyes peeled for Oscar possibilities that can play the long game: It’s where buzz can start with a murmur, rather than a roar.
Not many people declared “The Artist” a presumptive best picture favorite when it charmed the Croisette in May 2011, but it was clear the film could work a crowd. The Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” may not have been an equivalent underdog in 2007, but neither was it self-evident that the Academy would thrill to its terse darkness; the critical hosannas it earned at Cannes helped warm up perceptions of a cool auteur work. “The Tree of Life” was a clear Palme d’Or favorite in 2011, but many thought it too esoteric for the best picture nomination it eventually just managed. Any awards talk at all, meanwhile, was deemed wishful thinking when “Mad Max: Fury Road” rocked last year’s festival; critics were wowed, but you’d have been called delusional if you’d predicted it’d emerge as the biggest Oscar winner of 2015.
All of which is to say that something from this year’s Cannes lineup will probably emerge as a major Oscar player in months to come, but it’s far from obvious — particularly sight-unseen — what that may be. This year’s Competition field, rich as it is in international names both established (Jim Jarmusch, Ken Loach) and less expected (Maren Ade, Kleber Mendonça Filho), is markedly light on filmmakers previously favored by the Academy.
Of the 21 directors in contention, only three have already been to the Oscar podium: Pedro Almodovar (whose latest, “Julieta,” has already premiered to mixed reviews), Asghar Farhadi (returning to the Iranian setting of “A Separation” with “The Salesman”) and Andrea Arnold — making her first U.S.-set film with the large-scale youth study “American Honey.” A former short-subject winner whose feature-length work has been far too thistly for the Academy’s palate, Arnold’s one of three female directors in Competition this year — more than usual, sad to say.
Farhadi and Almodovar could feasibly return to the best foreign language film category, which has plucked a few of its winners (“Amour,” “The Great Beauty,” last year’s “Son of Saul”) from the Cannes competition in recent years. Could Romania finally get its due in this category? Despite the country’s critically vaunted “New Wave” this century, none of its films have received a nod — not even Cristian Mungiu’s aforementioned Palme winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” the controversial omission of which prompted a revision of the category’s voting rules.
Mungiu’s back in Competition this year with “Baccalaureat,” but it’s his compatriot Cristi Puiu who’s currently hogging the Cannes buzz: his three-hour family-gathering drama “Sieranevada” has been the prohibitive Palme d’Or favorite since the lineup was unveiled. We’ll know soon enough if it measures up to the hype. It’ll be the first Competition film to screen tomorrow, hours after Woody Allen’s non-competing latest, “Cafe Society,” officially kicks off proceedings. The last Allen film to open Cannes, just five years ago, was “Midnight in Paris,” which turned out to be a summer arthouse sleeper and won Allen his fourth Oscar to boot.
It’s anyone’s guess whether the recently uneven veteran can repeat the trick with this all-star period piece — though it serves as the warm-up act for Kristen Stewart’s potential domination of the Croisette this year. An ensemble player in the Allen film, Stewart also takes leading-lady duty in Olivier Assayas’ eagerly awaited Competition entry “Personal Shopper,” and expectations are high for her work here. Stewart’s first collaboration with Assayas, in 2014’s “Clouds of Sils Maria,” was a personal best that netted her several top U.S. critics’ prizes as well as a French Cesar award. Oscar voters didn’t follow suit, but she can’t be that far from her first nomination.
If Stewart is to follow Julianne Moore and Rooney Mara (who carried her Cannes win for “Carol” to a dubiously categorized supporting Oscar nod) in the recent run of American best actress winners, she’ll have to get past Marion Cotillard. The Frenchwoman may have an Oscar to her name, but she’s rapidly becoming the Susan Lucci of the Croisette: Despite a hot streak of stellar performances in Competition titles like “Rust and Bone,” “The Immigrant,” “Two Days, One Night” and “Macbeth,” she has yet to win at Cannes.
This year, she has two shots on goal, with roles in Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World” — the starriest project to date from the cocky Quebecois wunderkind, who took the Jury Prize two years ago for “Mommy” — and Nicole Garcia’s “Mal de Pierres.” In what looks a pretty strong Competition for female roles, she’ll be vying against another French heavy-hitter: Two-time Cannes winner and former jury president Isabelle Huppert, who intriguingly headlines rape-revenge thriller “Elle,” a long-awaited return to genre territory for “Basic Instinct” director Paul Verhoeven.
Or perhaps we should be keeping an eye on buzzy Irish up-and-comer Ruth Negga, who stars alongside Joel Edgerton in Jeff Nichols’ “Loving.” In a Competition lineup that’s relatively (refreshingly, some might say) light on U.S. fare, this interracial romantic drama is being earmarked as the likeliest-on-paper candidate for mainstream awards attention further down the line. If the critics bite, it’ll make 2016 a banner year for crossover indie auteur Nichols, whose sci-fi “Midnight Special” was warmly received at the Berlinale only three months ago.
Though Sean Penn’s political drama “The Last Face” has the most Hollywood A-list credentials of any title in Competition — starring Javier Bardem and Penn’s recent ex Charlize Theron, it’ll inevitably attract as much gossip as it does critical attention — few are betting the house on what could be a vindication or a vanity project for its prickly creator. As for Nicolas Winding Refn’s sleek-looking “The Neon Demon,” I hear from those who’ve seen it, that it represents a creative rebound from the gorgeous, but empty sadism of “Only God Forgives,” but if the fluorescent violence of “Drive” couldn’t connect with Academy voters, don’t expect any more momentum this time.
The biggest Hollywood title, of course, bows out of competition: Steven Spielberg’s eagerly awaited adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel “The BFG,” starring his new favorite actor (and freshly minted Oscar winner) Mark Rylance in the title role. Spielberg, never exactly a stranger to the Academy, has been on quite a roll with them. His last three directorial efforts all scored best picture nominations. While “The BFG” may seem a return for Spielberg to the kind of commercial fantasy that nets more awards attention below the line than above it, if the combination of his populist sentiment with Dahl’s off-kilter humor lands with critics and audiences, you can’t dismiss its chances. Or, indeed, Rylance’s, in a CGI-enhanced role that is nonetheless ideally suited to his wry warmth.
Over in the more discovery-driven Un Certain Regard strand, it’s even harder to predict potential standouts. Recent success stories of the section, like “Dogtooth,” “White God” and “Stranger by the Lake” (whose director, Alain Guiraudie, got bumped up to Competition this year with his more clothed follow-up “Rester Vertical”), have tended to grab viewers from behind. Of note this year is the return, after two years’ hiatus, of the Sundance-to-UCR carry-over slot, which has previously helped sustain awards buzz for such Park City hits as “Precious” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” (Other selections, like “Fruitvale Station” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” weren’t so lucky.) Many expected that slot to go to this year’s clear Sundance juggernaut “Birth of a Nation,” though perhaps Fox Searchlight was cautious after 2013’s “Fruitvale” fizzle. Instead, crowd-pleasing Viggo Mortensen starrer “Captain Fantastic” surprised many by getting the Cannes berth.
Keen animation-watchers, meanwhile, should note the presence in Un Certain Regard of “The Red Turtle.” Toons rarely make it into competitive sections at Cannes, and this first feature by veteran Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit — who nabbed an Oscar in 2000 for his gorgeous short “Father and Daughter” — is a collaboration with Studio Ghibli, no less. If it lives up to its pedigree, this could be ideal fodder for GKIDS, the arthouse animation outfit that has a nifty habit of elbowing studio heavyweights out of the Oscar race.
In a particularly robust Directors’ Fortnight strand — no longer viewed as the weak sister of the Official Selection, it has its own programming style and smarts — a number of name auteurs are jostling for attention. Among them are Pablo Larrain (whose Oscar-nominated “No” debuted with a splash in this section four years ago) with the biographical “Neruda,” Italian veteran Marco Bellocchio with “Fai Bei Sogni,” Alejandro Jodorowsky with “Endless Poetry” and Paul Schrader, closing out the section with his latest Nicolas Cage collaboration “Dog Eat Dog.” The title Oscar-watchers will be monitoring most keenly, however, falls on the documentary side. Laura Poitras swept all before her in 2014 with her Edward Snowden doc “Citizenfour,” so will her Julian Assange-focused follow-up “Risk” prove a similarly lauded companion piece?
These are the questions we’re asking heading into Cannes. The festival itself will mostly answer them with further questions rather than crystal-ball answers. But over the next 12 days, some titles will be promisingly hailed, others irreparably trampled — and some of the best films we see here won’t inspire a whisper of awards discussion, now or later. For a few more hours, at least, the possibilities are endless.