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Cannes Film Festival: Pre-opening report

An exceptional gathering of movies makes this year's event especially buzz-worthy. On to-see lists are films by Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodóvar and Takashi Miike.

May 10, 2011|By Kenneth Turan | Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • A worker climbs a ladder in front of the Festival Palace before the start of the 64th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.
A worker climbs a ladder in front of the Festival Palace before the start… (Vincent Kessler / Reuters )

Reporting from Cannes, France — — Cannes is always the film festival that critics have to go to, but this year it's shaping up as a place you actually might want to be.

With Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" opening its 64th edition Wednesday night, Cannes is known as an event where art and commerce coexist uneasily, where the 20 presumably rarefied films in the official competition share time and space with the sprawling Marche du Film, a marketplace where 4,079 companies from 103 countries buy and sell movies with an impressive frenzy.

Cannes is also the place where filmmakers go to raise money and boost the profiles of their projects; one year I watched in shock and awe as literally hundreds of dinner plates were smashed on a yacht in an attempt to round up cash for "The Greek Tycoon." (Don't ask.) Nothing that dramatic is in the offing this year, although an event for "Myn Bala," a film from Kazakhstan about a teenage boy facing off against fierce Mongol invaders, sounds promising.

Photos: Cannes Film Festival 2011

What makes this year's Cannes stand out, however, is that the movies in the 20-film competition seem especially enticing. Among the English-language films alone, three very different movies are at the top of everyone's to-see list, starting with Terrence Malick's complex "The Tree of Life," starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It's the director's first time in Cannes since 1978's "Days of Heaven."

Also starring Penn, but in a very different way, is "This Must Be the Place" from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. A stylish and inventive director — his "Il Divo" knocked viewers out in 2008 — Sorrentino has Penn play a retired rock star with big hair who gets involved in a revenge scenario.

And then there is Lynne Ramsay's eagerly awaited "We Need to Talk About Kevin," which stars Tilda Swinton and deals with the aftermath of a school shooting. Ramsay's "Ratcatcher" was a splendid debut, but she hasn't made a feature since 2002.

Also looking promising are new films by talented directors not that well known in the United States. Israel's Joseph Cedar, whose "Beaufort" was nominated for an Oscar, is here with "Footnote," while Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, who debuted with the delightful "Caramel" is in the festival's Un Certain Regard section with her new "Where Do We Go Now?"

Festival veterans who rarely disappoint are here as well. Pedro Almodóvar's "The Skin I Live In," which reunites him with star Antonio Banderas, sounds like an atypical scary thriller. And Belgium's Dardenne brothers, two-time Palme d'Or winners, return with the Cecile De France-starring "The Kid With a Bike."

Though Malick's film is the only U.S. entry in the official competition, the American presence at Cannes this year is especially noticeable. Not only does Allen's film open the festival proper, but Gus Van Sant's "Restless," starring Mia Wasikowska as a young cancer patient, opens Un Certain Regard.

More that that, a glamorous vintage shot of Faye Dunaway, taken by American photographer and director Jerry Schatzberg, is the image on this year's festival poster and Pitt is on the cover of Le Monde's special Cannes magazine.

When it comes to the movie ads that traditionally cover the front of the Carlton Hotel, not only are they all American, but they all focus on films coming out this summer, like "Cars 2," "Super 8" and the new Transformers movie. You have to go a few blocks to find promos for a high-profile movie due out later in the year, such as Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's "The Adventures of Tintin," slated for U.S. release around Christmas, not to mention films like an Asian animation effort with the unlikely title of "Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild," touted as "a story of a special hen's adventure, love and sacrifice." Let Michael Bay try to top that.

Cannes is not above having prominent popcorn movies in the mix, though they are not usually in competition. So Disney's new "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," opening stateside next week, will get the red-carpet treatment. The festival also has found room for a documentary on India's ultra-popular Bollywood films ("Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told") and the first 3-D film ever in competition, Takashi Miike's "Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai."

What is special about Cannes, frankly, is how much it does find room for. This is especially true in the ever-expanding Cannes Classics section, which celebrates the glories of cinema past. This year, in addition to documentaries on Akira Kurosawa, Roger Corman and Charlotte Rampling, there are new or restored prints of everything from George Méliès' celebrated 1902 "A Trip to the Moon" to Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange."

More than this, Cannes has found space to stage an evening tribute to Jean-Paul Belmondo, to give an honorary Palm d'Or to Bernardo Bertolucci and to start a new tradition of an annual section featuring the films and filmmakers of a "guest country." For 2011, that nation is Egypt, a timely choice.

If the festival selections are as strong in 2012 as they are this year, that will be something to look forward to.

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