Kicking off on Wednesday, the 69th Cannes Film Festival looks to be as stacked with potential gems as any edition in recent memory. Of the 21 films in competition for the prestigious Palme d’Or, which has gone in recent years to Blue Is the Warmest Color and The Tree of Life, three are from directors who have already won the prize at least once—and that’s to say nothing of returning festival favorites like Nicolas Winding Refn, Pedro Almodóvar, and Park Chan-wook.
Cannes is more than its competition slate, of course—the festival’s Un Certain Regard and the parallel sections Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week will contain some treats as well—but the Palme contenders dominated my choice for the movies I’m most excited to see. Narrowing it down to ten films wasn’t easy, but since we already spotlighted The BFG, Café Society, The Neon Demon, and The Nice Guys in our summer movie preview, I decided to skip over those and focus instead on films that may not ring a bell yet.
A movie about teens wandering across America in pursuit of adventure and escape might seem pedestrian. But when English filmmaker Andrea Arnold is behind the camera, my curiosity is piqued. The director of Red Road and Fish Tank, who won a Best Live Action Short Film Oscar for 2003’s Wasp, Arnold has assembled a cast that includes Sasha Lane, critical lightning-rod Shia LaBeouf, and Riley Keough, who has been flat-out phenomenal on Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience. A24—the smart studio behind Spring Breakers, Room, and Ex Machina—plans on releasing American Honey in the second half of this year, billing the film as “both an intimate coming-of-age story and a look at an American generation not playing by the rules.” Arnold’s movies have always observed outsiders with a compassionate, incisive specificity, so I’m hopeful that this film will transcend that potentially eye-rolling plot description.
It’s hard to know what’s more amazing: that Elle is director Paul Verhoeven’s first film since 2006’s Black Book; or that the last time he competed for the Palme d’Or, it was with Basic Instinct. The competition doesn’t usually make room for straight-up genre fare, but the festival makes exceptions for this man, who’s back with the tale of a business executive (played by two-time Cannes Best Actress winner Isabelle Huppert) who tries to track down the assailant who attacked her at home. Elle sounds juicy, thrilling, kinky, and strange—which is to say, it sounds like a Verhoeven movie.
Cristian Mungiu is one of two major Romanian filmmakers in this year’s competition (we’ll get to the second shortly), and his latest reportedly draws from his experience of becoming a parent. Graduation stars Adrian Titieni as a small-town doctor, and Mungiu has said that the film is “about compromise, parenting and children, and understanding this relationship between what you say to your children and what they see you doing.” Mungiu won the Palme d’Or in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and his follow-up film, 2012’s Beyond the Hills, won Best Screenplay and Best Actress at the festival. Sundance Selects has already picked up the U.S. distribution rights for Graduation, so expectations will be high.
Take Shelter filmmaker Jeff Nichols has already had one winner this year with Midnight Special, and he hopes to continue his hot streak with this true-life drama about an interracial couple (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga) whose marriage in the late 1950s lands them in prison. Focus Features has slated Loving for a November release, positioning the film as a serious awards contender. Launching at Cannes could be the ideal way to kick-start the film’s Oscar campaign, and the festival clearly has a soft spot for Nichols: His 2012 drama Mud premiered in the competition, just like Loving will.
Adam Driver is now best known for playing the emo Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, but he’s been doing great work in everything from Girls to While We’re Young to Midnight Special. Now, he stars in director Jim Jarmusch’s latest, about a bus driver living a quiet life in New Jersey. Jarmusch and Driver both had movies in competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival—the filmmaker screened Only Lovers Left Alive, while Driver was part of the ensemble of Inside Llewyn Davis—and although Paterson’s modesty doesn’t make it a Palme d’Or frontrunner, it could be the sort of quiet charmer that garners plenty of buzz. (If you want something a little louder, Jarmusch will also be presenting his Stooges documentary, Gimme Danger, in the festival’s Midnight Screenings section.)
In 2016, there’s no longer any reason to be shocked that critics like Kristen Stewart or surprised that she’s taken seriously as an actor. Now years removed from Twilight, she won a Best Supporting Actress César last year for her work in Clouds of Sils Maria, becoming the first American actress to ever do so. Now she has reunited with that movie’s writer-director, Olivier Assayas, for Personal Shopper, which has been described as a ghost story set amidst the world of Paris fashion. Assayas’s latest also features two actors who have worked with him in the past, Lars Eidinger and Nora von Waldstätten, and Personal Shopper will be his fifth film to compete for the Palme d’Or. But for many, Stewart will be the draw—and she might have a memorable Cannes between this film and festival opener Café Society.
Every year at Cannes, after the competition is announced, one or two last-minute additions will be accepted a week or so later, the festival essentially holding slots for movies that are rushing to be completed. This year, one such film is the latest from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, who has recently established himself as a significant international filmmaker. His 2011 divorce drama A Separation won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and 2013’s The Past took home Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for Bérénice Bejo. (Adding to his reputation, his 2009 missing-person drama About Elly finally got a proper U.S. release last year, earning stellar reviews, and his 2006 film Fireworks Wednesday hit American theaters in March.) Not a lot is known about The Salesman—it’s either the story of a couple going through difficulties while on a tour of Death of a Salesman, or a tale of an apartment with a troubled history—but Farhadi’s precise observations about human frailty will probably be front and center as usual.
The Romanian New Wave sounded its first major depth charge when The Death of Mr. Lazarescu screened at Cannes in 2005 as part of the festival’s Un Certain Regard, winning that section’s top prize. The filmmaker was Cristi Puiu, who is now back with Sieranevada, which sounds Lazarescu-like in its dramatization of an event that never quite takes place. Chronicling a successful doctor who’s attending a family reunion that will honor his father, who died a year earlier, Sieranevada is, according to Puiu, “a story about those who choose to escape into fiction and hide their fears behind ‘concrete reality’ when overwhelmed by a grief they cannot understand.” Considering how darkly humorous Lazarescu was, there’s more than a possibility Puiu will find the black comedy in this bleak scenario as well.
2009’s Everyone Else is one of the best recent romantic dramas, ably dissecting that delicate moment during a new relationship when you and your lover decide to go on vacation together and everything falls apart. German writer-director Maren Ade hasn’t made a film since, which is why it’s so cheering that she’s returned with Toni Erdmann. That said, the vague plot description makes it very hard to know what kind of movie awaits us: It stars veteran actor Peter Simonischek as a father who decides to visit his distant adult daughter (Sandra Huller), determined to shake her out of a funk by unleashing a bunch of jokes. Is this a twisted dark comedy? A despairing drama? A little of both? After Everyone Else, Ade has as much leeway as she desires.
The Unknown Girl
If Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have a new movie, you can bet it’ll unveil at Cannes. Their last six films screened there—two of them (Rosetta and L’Enfant) won the Palme d’Or—and they’re back on the Croisette with their latest, which concerns a doctor (Adèle Haenel) trying to determine the identity of a young woman who died after she refused to have necessary surgery. Haenel is a relative unknown in the States, although she’s won France’s César Award for her performances in Suzanne and Love at First Fight. But the chief selling point with any of the Dardennes’ movies is always the directors themselves, whose previous film, Two Days, One Night, starred Marion Cotillard. Nobody comes close to their specific brand of stripped-down human dramas.
Looking for more movie recommendations? Check out the latest episode of the Grierson & Leitch podcast.