A full year after it was initially floated as a hot fest prospect, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is set to make its world premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s still unclear whether the Fox Searchlight drama starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn will play in or out of competition, a decision that likely will not be made until closer to April 14, when fest topper Thierry Fremaux announces the full official selection lineup. But it’s sure to be included in what’s shaping up to be a vintage year for Cannes, with new works by Palme winners Gus Van Sant, the Dardenne brothers, Lars von Trier and Nanni Moretti hotly tipped for competition berths, though Fremaux and his selection committee still have many titles to screen before the April deadline.

Tree of Life” is the rare film to have spent an entire year as a will-it-or-won’t-it possibility on the international festival circuit. When it became clear the film wouldn’t be ready in time for Cannes last year, many assumed it would be unveiled in the fall at the Venice, Toronto and New York fests. Yet word persisted that the famously fussy Malick still hadn’t completed the picture, and the shuttering of original distrib Apparition further complicated the question on when, if ever, “Tree” would see the light of day.

But when Searchlight swooped in to acquire the River Road Entertainment production and slated it for a Memorial Day weekend release (May 27), the stage seemed set for a Cannes 2011 premiere.

“Tree” stands to be one of the hottest tickets in a festival that looks to bounce back from its wanly received 2010 edition. While it’s still coming into focus, the lineup should be chock full of top-tier possibilities, including the Van Sant-directed “Restless,” starring Mia Wasikowska as a terminally ill teenager. An early clue to the pic’s Cannes prospects appeared when Sony yanked it from an original Jan. 28 release, which would have positioned it right after Sundance.

Belgium’s Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne could vie for an unprecedented third Palme with “The Kid With a Bike,” a drama starring Cecile de France.

Von Trier, who galvanized the fest with 2009’s “Antichrist,” may get another chance to do the same with “Melancholia,” a sci-fi-tinged drama with Kirsten Dunst and “Antichrist” star Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Moretti is also considered a festival near-lock for Italo-French co-production “We Have a Pope,” starring Michel Piccoli as the titular figure. Italy will have an especially strong presence this year with Emanuele Crialese’s “Terra Firma” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place,” an English-language drama starring Penn (which would make it a busy fest for the “Tree of Life” actor).

The U.K. could also be well represented, its strongest prospect being Scottish helmer Lynne Ramsay’s Tilda Swinton-John C. Reilly starrer “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Looking less certain among British titles are Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of “Wuthering Heights” and Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea,” both of which may not be completed in time.

Chinese helmer Lou Ye, a competish alum with “Summer Palace” and “Spring Fever,” looks to return with one of his most Cannes-friendly items to date with love story “Love and Bruises,” a Sino-French co-production toplining Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet”).

Much more of a question mark is Michael Haneke’s “Love,” which reunites the Austrian auteur with his “Piano Teacher” star, Isabelle Huppert. Reportedly a smaller, lighter affair than his 2009 Palme d’Or winner “The White Ribbon,” the film began a 40-day shoot in February. Despite the tight time frame, early rumors suggest the film may make the deadline.

By contrast, reports suggest that Wong Kar Wai’s hotly anticipated martial-arts biopic “The Grandmasters” won’t be ready in time and will be finished closer to year’s end. Other Croisette perennials unlikely to make the trip this year: David Cronenberg, whose Carl Jung-Sigmund Freud drama “A Dangerous Method” was once tipped for the recent Berlin fest, and Pedro Almodovar, whose “The Skin I Live In” is set for a Sept. 2 release in Spain, suggesting it could appear at one or more of the fall fests.

The French titles, always the last to be decided (often as late as the eve of the announcement), look to present Fremaux and Co. with an especially thorny selection this year, with a wealth of Gallic options including but scarcely limited to Bruno Dumont’s “L’empire,” Christophe Honore’s “The Beloved,” Andre Techine’s “Unforgivable” and Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s “Chicken With Plums.”

Woody Allen’s romantic comedy “Midnight in Paris” will open the fest, which runs May 11-22.