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Cannes 2011: Palme d'Or race begins to come into focus

 

Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Courtesy of IMDb.

It's never too early to begin handicapping the Palme d'Or race.  The
film-festival world's most prestigious prize captures the attention of
attendees in Cannes the way the New Hampshire primary mesmerizes
political pundits -- it's hashed out and obsessed over for every
possible shade of meaning -- and provides a film festival with a certain
level of suspense.

With the competition now one-third underway,
moviedom's John King's are really starting to get going. Which of the 20
or so movies in competition have the inside track?

Based on some
informal polling about the films that have screened, two movies have
emerged as strong early contenders: Joseph Cedar's father-son picture
"Footnote" and Lynn Ramsay's violent-child tale "We Need to Talk About
Kevin." The choice of either would break from recent tradition, but also
contain a certain logic.

"Footnote" is the rare Israeli film not
to contend with issues of war or national politics, and some jurors may
question if it has the scope to merit a Palme. But the film, which
centers on an academic rivalry and family dysfunction, also shares
plenty of similarities with the French film "The Class," which won the
Palme back in 2008. Assorted media and tastemakers have embraced the
dramedy since it screened on Friday night.

And it's been some time since an English-language film came on strong
-- five year's since Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" took
the prize and seven and eight years since American films won in
consecutive years (Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" in 2004 and Gus Van
Sant's "Elephant" the year before). But "Kevin" has established its bona
fides. Though the Tilda Swinton-John C. Reilly drama seems a bit too divisive to
be considered a favorite, it's won over enough critics and
festivalgoers to be in the mix. That jury head Robert De Niro has worked
with so many in Hollywood could give an edge to a movie with big-name
stars.

Still to screen are films from past winners such as the
Dardenne Bros. and Lars von Trier. Also pundits are wondering if this
could be the year of Pedro Almodovar -- despite an illustrious career
and a near-permanent spot at Cannes, the Spanish director has never won a
Palme. He'll have to do it this year with a movie that has genre
leanings, a revenge thriller titled "The Skin I Live In." The movie does
screen late in the festival, which some consider an advantage.

Two
even bigger question marks hang out there, though, starting with
Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." If the long-awaited auteur film
lives up to expectations-- and they are considerable -- look for the
film to move in prime Palme position after it screens on Monday.

Meanwhile, Michel Hazanavicius' silent film "The Artist" has buzz in
its favor. The movie screens Sunday morning, and though it remains to be
seen whether it's enjoyed as novelty or something more, don't be
surprised if it comes out on top. The Cannes competition jury tends to
favor formal rigor above many other factors, which is part of the reason
"The White Ribbon" took the prize back in 2009.

Then again, the
Cannes competition jury favors surprise above many other factors too, as
anyone who watched "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives" win last
year can attest. Don't be surprised, then, if there's still a big
surprise.

-- Steven Zeitchik

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