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Cannes 2014 Preview: Legendary Directors Lead Impressive Festival Line-up

A portrait of the legendary Italian star Marcello Mastroianni looks out at the world from the official poster for the 67th Cannes International Film Festival, due to open on Wednesday, May 14. Peering with an ambiguous hint of tease over the top of his shades, the actor’s sultry eyes would seem to promise all that you could wish for...or maybe not, much like the Cannes festival itself.

"A classy sense of detachment" is the quality that actress Chiara Mastroianni ascribed to her famous dad’s gaze when the poster debuted back in March. Taking a hint from Marcello, classy detachment is possibly the safest attitude to adopt when the 2014 Cannes opens. From year to year the festival keeps us guessing with the perpetual tease of great cinema, and has thousands of critics, film distributors, and film industry functionaries chasing that promise. As ever, the selection, and the awards, might make our wishes come true or break our hearts with disappointment.

The producers and directors of the films announced for the prestigious Cannes competition are engaged in a chase of their own in pursuit of the desirable and elusive Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor. Along with the Oscar, it’s the greatest prize the film world has to offer. This year’s competition is studded with heavy-hitters and past Cannes winners, so it will be a race worth watching.

Jean-Luc Godard, 83-year-old French New Wave pioneer and a maverick if there ever was one, will be represented by "Goodbye to Language," his first feature since "Film Socialisme" debuted at Cannes in 2010. With a title like that, I’m guessing that this new Godard opus will be just as cryptic and just as provocatively divisive as "Film Socialisme." I’d expect no less from Godard.

Olivier Assayas, who scored a Cannes critical hit with his five-hour "Carlos" in 2010, will be in competition with "Clouds of Sils Maria." With a cast that includes Chloe Grace Moretz, Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche, and veteran German star Angela Winkler, this story set in the theater world is guaranteed to provide a stunning evening on the red carpet no matter how the film is received.

The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, past Palme d’Or winners for "Rosetta" in 1999, and "The Child" in 2005, are back with "Two Days, One Night" starring Oscar winner Marion Cotillard in a story that addresses the impact of a downturned economy on one woman’s life. They have a formidable track record as winners at Cannes, with major prizes for additional films including 2011’s "The Kid with a Bike." Their fellow competitors must shake in their shoes every time the Dardennes brothers hit town.

Speaking of formidable competitors, there’s Michel Hazanavicius, winner of seven Oscars and four Golden Globes for "The Artist," which snagged only Best Actor at 2011 Cannes, although it was a popular favorite. He’s back with "The Search" starring Annette Bening and Bérénice Bejo in a tale set during the war in Chechnya.

British director Mike Leigh, a past member of the Cannes jury, won the Palme in 1996, for "Secrets & Lies," which subsequently received five Oscar nominations. This year he’s represented in competition by "Mr. Turner," a period drama with Timothy Spall starring as 19th-century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner.

Ken Loach, now 77, had announced that his new competition film "Jimmy’s Hall" would be his last before retiring, but he’s reversed that pronouncement more recently. Judging by the trailer, "Jimmy’s Hall" is a rip-roaring return to the kind of political filmmaking that won him the Palme in 2006 for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley." Loach’s rollicking bittersweet comedy "The Angel’s Share" won the Jury Prize in 2012.

In four past trips to Cannes, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has never left without a prize, but he has yet to win the Palme d’Or. He’s been awarded the Jury Prize three times: for "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" (2011); "Three Monkeys" (2008); and "Distant" (2004); while "Climates" (2006) won the FIPRESCI prize from the international critics. This could be his lucky year for the Palme with "Winter Sleep."

Americans are a more modest presence in this competition.  Actor Tommy Lee Jones stars in his new directorial effort "The Homesman" alongside Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer, and Streep herself. Jones won Best Actor in 2005 for his Cannes competitor "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada."

American Bennett Miller ("Moneyball" and "Capote") will compete with "Foxcatcher," a crime story based on a real murder. Although scheduled for the Un Certain Regard section of the festival rather than the competition, I anticipate that a lot of critical interest will be generated by "Lost River," the first film as director by actor Ryan Gosling. It looks to be a thriller with a strong supernatural element.

Some would consider David Cronenberg an American director, but he’s Canadian, folks. Give Canada its due. "Cosmopolis," for which Toronto locations stood in for New York, competed in Cannes in 2012. I was not a fan of that dead-on-arrival film, and so I’m hoping that "Maps to the Stars," his first-ever film shot in the U.S., will represent a return to the more cohesive body-centered creepiness that is his unique trademark

Some national cinemas that normally have a high profile at Cannes have no shot at the Palme this year. Missing from the competition selection are any films from Romania, Iran, or China. Asia gets short shrift altogether as far as the competition is concerned, and so I’m especially looking forward to Zhang Yimou’s "Coming Home," which is a special presentation out of competition. It represents a reunion with Gong Li, the breathtakingly beautiful actress he made an international star in his early films, "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern," after discovering her as a young art student.

Last but not least, I will be watching every film carefully in search of the best feline performance for my own annual just-pretend Cannes award, the Palme de Whiskers. The celebrity cats of the film world are planning an extra-special award ceremony this year in their glittering Riviera venue the Palais de Kitty Cats. Stick with me and you’ll discover this year’s top cat on May 24!

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