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Cannes: Which Fest Films Could Become Oscar Contenders?

Cannes Festival Director Thierry Fremaux PASCAL LE SEGRETAIN_GETTY IMAGES

The Hollywood Reporter's awards columnist weighs in from the Croisette ahead of opening night.

The Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards have a complicated history.

Dating back to Cannes’ inception, many — particularly from Hollywood — have resisted sending Oscar hopefuls to the world’s famous film fest, partly for fear of having their project labeled an ‘art film’ (which can be the kiss of death for commercial prospects) and partly for fear of peaking too early (Oscar nomination voting doesn’t begin until more than a half-year after Cannes, which may explain why only two winners of the Palme d’Or, the fest’s top honor, have gone on to win the top Oscar — the Palme’s first recipient, 1955’s Marty, and most recent, 2019’s Parasite).

But with this year’s edition of Cannes pushed back from May to July, two months closer to the traditional launch of Oscar season, it will be interesting to see if what happens on the Croisette has a greater impact than usual on what ends up at the Dolby.

One could be forgiven for approaching Cannes’ opening night film — French-filmmaker Leo Carax’s long-gestating English language debut Annette (Amazon) — with skepticism, even if it stars past Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and nominee Adam Driver. Why? Because of its genre (“cinematic opera” isn’t exactly a time-honored Academy favorite) and Cannes’ bleak history with fest launchers (sure, Midnight in Paris, Up and Moulin Rouge! went on to Oscars, but those were over a decade ago, and the vast majority of openers before and since have gone the way of My Blueberry Nights, Blindness and Cafe Society — as in, nowhere).

There is, however, widespread anticipation for Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which was to have premiered in competition at Cannes a year ago. Last year’s fest was canceled due to COVID, but the film was held for a full year so that it could be unveiled here this year. Anderson has again assembled a remarkable ensemble for what is said to be a love letter to journalism and his best work since The Grand Budapest Hotel, which debuted at Berlin, rather than Cannes, and garnered nine Oscar noms (including best picture), winning four. And his distributor is again Searchlight, which is coming off its fourth best picture Oscar win in eight years.

Also in competition — to be evaluated by a jury led by Spike Lee — and worth monitoring: A Hero (Amazon), the latest film from Iranian master Asghar Farhadi, helmer of two winners of the best international feature Oscar; The Florida Project auteur Sean Baker’s Red Rocket (A24), which centers on an adult film actor who returns to his hometown; Benedetta (IFC), a film about a nun who becomes romantic with another woman, which was co-written and directed by Paul Verhoeven, whose last film, 2016’s Elle, premiered at Cannes en route to an Oscar nom for its leading lady; Paris, 13th District (IFC), which Frenchman Jacques Audiard — whose Dheepan won 2015’s Palme and A Prophet won 2009’s Grand Jury Prize — co-wrote with Portrait of a Lady on Fire helmer Celine Sciamma, and directed; Memoria (Neon), a Tilda Swinton vehicle which marks the English-language debut of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won the Palme for 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a jury prize for 2004’s Tropic Malady and the Un Certain Regard prize for 2002’s Blissfully Yours; Compartment Number 6 (still seeking U.S. distribution), a train-set drama from fast-rising Finnish filmmaker Juho Kousmanen, whose promising 2016 debut The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki won the Un Certain Regard prize; and Sean Penn’s Flag Day (UA Releasing), a crime caper which Tony winner Jez Butterworth adapted from Jennifer Vogel‘s 2005 memoir, and which Penn directs and stars in opposite his daughter, Dylan Penn.

The Cannes title with arguably the strongest Oscar pedigree is playing out of competition: Stillwater (Focus), a drama set largely in France which was co-written and directed by Tom McCarthy, helmer of Spotlight, the best picture winner six seasons ago; stars Matt Damon, French Call My Agent! standout Camille Cottin and Abigail Breslin; and is set to be released in the U.S. on July 30. Also playing out of competition, with more limited Oscar potential: Todd Haynes’ music documentary The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+) and Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s follow-up to his Cannes-premiered and Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir, another animated film about serious subject matter, Where Is Anne Frank? (still seeking U.S. distribution).

The Un Certain Regard section often produces contenders. This year, keep an eye on Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou (Focus), a drama about American immigration and deportation in which Chon also stars opposite Oscar winner Alicia Vikander; and rookie Icelandic filmmaker Valdimar Johansson’s Lamb, which boasts Noomi Rapace as one-half of a couple who adopt a baby who is half-human/half-sheep.

And in the Cannes premiere section, look out for Mothering Sunday (Sony Classics), a World War I period piece which marks the English-language debut of French filmmaker Eva Husson and stars Australian up-and-comer Odessa Young alongside The Crown‘s Josh O’Connor and Olivia Colman; indie darling Andrea Arnold’s documentary Cow (still seeking U.S. distribution), which revolves around two bovine subjects; another stage-to-screen adaptation from Pieces of a Woman helmer Kornel Mundruczo, Evolution (still seeking U.S. distribution), about three generations of one family; and Oliver Stone’s JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass (still seeking U.S. distribution), a documentary that comes 30 years after the triple Oscar winner’s controversial narrative feature JFK.


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