Reporting from Paris — It was an announcement with an asterisk.
A scant 16 films playing in official competition at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival — far fewer than usual — were revealed at a Thursday morning news conference held at the Grand Hotel. In announcing the lineup, festival director Thierry Fremaux reiterated comments that he's recently made to the media, saying that it has been a difficult year to put together the list of films but that he does intend to add to it in the coming days.
Among the most high-profile films to make the grade are Doug Liman's political thriller "Fair Game" — about the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame incident — starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, and the only U.S. film in the main competition. Ridley Scott's " Robin Hood," starring Russell Crowe, will open the festival out of competition, while Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" was, as expected, given an out-of-competition screening slot.
Other out-of-competition screenings are Stephen Frears' "Tamara Drewe" and Woody Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," which also stars Watts and "Wall Street's" Josh Brolin. Fremaux noted that he had asked Allen whether the film could screen in the main selection but that the competition-shy director refused yet again.
Back in the competition this year is Alejandro González Iñárritu, who last appeared in 2006 with "Babel," for which he won the directing prize. This year's film is the drama "Biutiful," starring Javier Bardem. Iran's Abbas Kiarostami will walk the red carpet with his "Certified Copy," marking the fourth time he appears in competition.
Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano appears in his "Outrage," which marks his return to competition for the first time since 1999. In total, there are four films hailing from Asia in competition, including Im Sang-soo's "Housemaid," Lee Chang-Dong's "Poetry" and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "A Letter to Uncle Boonmee."
Also making a return appearance is Mike Leigh with "Another Year," starring Jim Broadbent. This is Leigh's fourth time in the main competition. Nikita Mikhalkov is also back for the first time since winning the Grand Jury Prize with "Burnt by the Sun" in 1994. The Russian maestro's latest film is a sequel of sorts to that epic, "Burnt by the Sun 2."
Missing from the lineup thus far is Julien Schnabel's "Miral," which had been tipped for a spot, although it could still turn up in another section — or be added with Fremaux's upcoming announcements. Terrence Malick's long-gestating "Tree of Life" didn't show up on the schedule either, negating rumors, for now, that the Brad Pitt film would make a Cannes debut. Nevertheless, it still could make the list, and "we are crossing our fingers," Fremaux said.
The Un Certain Regard section held a milestone of sorts, as Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira's latest picture, "Angelica," scored a spot there. The director has appeared in Cannes at least seven times and is still going strong at 102 years old.
On the other end of the age spectrum, 21-year-old director Xavier Dolan will appear in Un Certain Regard with "Les Amours Imaginaires." The wunderkind swept prizes in Directors Fortnight last year with his debut film, "I Killed My Mother."
Last year at Cannes saw several high-profile American films — including "Up" and " Inglourious Basterds" — mixed in with a heavy dose of international work, and this year reflects a similar sensibility. Regarding the overall selection, Fremaux took pains to point out that U.S. filmmakers (including Stone and Liman) were particular in their "reactivity to treating current events we see in the news and on TV." He also added that he was very happy to have Liman's film in competition with "actors who are cherished by the festival."
Fremaux also said that for the first time there was a small drop in the number of films submitted to the festival — 1,665 versus 1,670 last year — which he put down to the lengthy process of making a film, and he expressed his view that it may only be now that cinema is feeling the effects of the global economic crisis. Still, he added that of the 16 films in competition, 13 countries are represented, which "is good to see because it means cinema is alive everywhere."
The lineup announcement was marred by a boycott from several news agencies, including the Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images, who were protesting the festival's new red-carpet video policy. The protesting outlets say the policy favors French broadcaster Canal + and pay-TV service Orange, with which Cannes has deal. Fremaux said that festival organizers had been taken by surprise by the boycott. However, he said, "we will find a solution."
Finally, joining jury President Tim Burton this year will be actresses Kate Beckinsale and Giovanna Mezzogiorno, actor Benicio Del Toro, directors Shekhar Kapur and Victor Erice and writer-director Emmanuel Carrere. Also on the jury is the director of Italy's National Cinema Museum, Alberto Barbera.
The Cannes Film Festival runs May 12 to 23. For a complete list of films, go to latimes.com/24Frames.
Times staff writer Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.