The Cannes Film Festival isn’t just the most glamorous venue on the planet to debut a movie, with its sea of tuxedos and ballgowns on the red carpet. It also has a recent history of being an excellent platform for launching Academy Award contenders. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Carol,” “Inside Out” and “Son of Saul” all premiered at last year’s Cannes and went to score a boatload of Oscar nominations.
But the competition at this year’s festival has been at its weakest in years — especially after such a dud as Sean Penn’s “The Last Face.” Critics were also disappointed by Nicolas Refn’s “The Neon Demon” and Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World” and underwhelmed by out-of-competition titles like Woody Allen’s “Café Society” and Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG.”
Now that the dust is settling on Cannes 2016, it’s very possible that not a single movie that screened here will snag a best picture Oscar nod.
The project that came to Cannes with the loudest awards buzz was Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” and it leaves the festival with its Oscars hopes intact — even if it didn’t earn the same raves as “Carol.” The story of a interracial couple (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), whose fight against anti-miscegenation laws led to a groundbreaking 1967 Supreme Court ruling, “Loving” is timely after the backlash from two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite. But it feels too quiet at times, at others, too “made-for-TV.” That restraint was nevertheless a goal. “It’s a very quiet civil rights film,” Nichols told Variety in an interview earlier this year. “Bombs aren’t exploding. Crosses aren’t burning. But the tension is all there.”
Focus Features acquired “Loving” out of the Berlin Film Festival in February, and like the distributor’s 2015 hopeful “The Danish Girl,” it might just miss out on a best pic nod. But its acclaimed lead performances will factor into the acting categories. Edgerton’s challenge will be that his work on screen is so understated, with the anger simmering beneath the surface of his character’s skin, whereas Academy voters tend to favor performances that explode. But by next January, bet on Negga as being one of the five women in the best actress race (particularly after voters get a load of her range on TV’s ultra-violent “Preacher” this summer).
The movie that generated the most excitement on the Croisette was Andrea Arnold’s dazzling “American Honey,” about a group of kids hustling for money on a cross-country road trip. At nearly three hours long, this favorite to win the Palme d’Or has the opposite problem as “Loving”: It’s probably too daring for most Oscar voters’ tastes. “American Honey” follows in the tradition of “Kids” or “Thirteen,” but it’s unlike any movie that I’ve ever seen.
It would be hysterical (in the best possible way) if lead actor Shia LaBeouf, after a string of bizarre performance art stunts, somehow found himself at the Dolby Theater with the likes of Meryl Streep and Matt Damon. He certainly delivers a tour-de-force, career-defining performance as the film’s male anti-hero, Jake. More likely, though, if enough voters see “American Honey,” Arnold could become the first woman nominated for best director since Kathryn Bigelow won the category in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker.” The fact that the director’s branch of the Academy has more indie-skewing tastes will work in her favor, if A24 spends enough money to properly campaign for the film.
In Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” Kristen Stewart delivers one of her strongest turns — a raw and eerie portrait of a woman dealing with her twin brother’s unexpected death. But the IFC Films release may not open in the United States until 2017, and Oscar voters aren’t fans of spooky stories (just ask Nicole Kidman about 2001’s “The Others”).
Finally, Sony Pictures Classics was one of the few companies breaking out the checkbook this year. One acquisition, the ecstatically-reviewed German comedy “Tony Erdmann” (another strong Palme’ d’Or contender), becomes an automatic contender for best foreign language film, should Germany choose to submit it. And “The Red Turtle,” an animated film made in association with Japan’s Studio Ghibli, could become an animated feature contender for the distributor like “The Illusionist” in 2011. Members of that branch are always eager to stand up for traditional hand-drawn animation in the face of CGI’s preponderance.
Other than that, the cupboard looks rather empty. To find the two biggest Oscars heavyweights of 2016 so far, you’d have to go back to Sundance, which gave us Nate Parker’s “The Birth Of A Nation” and Kenny Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.” If both of those movies had somehow waited for a May debut, they would surely be touted as among the best of Cannes.