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Alterna-Cannes 2015

Coverage of Cannes tends to focus on the red carpets, the hype, the glamour and—in case you forgot there were movies showing here—the competition, the 20 or so films vying for the Palme d'Or. (This year there are 19.) A journalist's impulse is naturally to prioritize the movies in the horse race: Missing one could mean missing a film that will go on to win a prize. Missing something on the fringes, by contrast, generally has less-lasting consequences for someone required to churn out articles about the festival every day.

But while the competition has the highest wattage in terms of auteurs, there are always great films in Cannes that turn up elsewhere, particularly in Un Certain Regard (the main sidebar of the official selection), in Special Screenings (a smaller program, for which "special" can mean any number of things), and in two parallel festivals, the Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Week, that technically aren't affiliated with the main event. Collectively, I think of these programs—and really, any worthy titles off the beaten track—as "alterna-Cannes."

This year, the wealth may have been spread even more than usual. When the competition lineup was announced in April, much of the discussion focused on the major directors who had been shoved aside. Gaspar Noé ("Enter the Void") will show his 3-D sex film "Love" at an awards-ineligible midnight screening. Arnaud Desplechin's "My Golden Days" was rejected from the competition because, according to a Variety interview with Cannes programmer Thierry Frémaux, the festival had "too many French films and too few slots." Desplechin will instead take "My Golden Days" to the Fortnight, Cannes' archenemy, which will also show Miguel Gomes's "Arabian Nights"—three films totaling more than six hours. Advance word suggests Gomes's saga may be one of this year's most talked-about entries.

Then there's Apichaptong Weerasethakul, who won the Palme just five years ago for "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives." His "Cemetery of Splendor" will show in Un Certain Regard, which, in terms of prestige (not necessarily quality) is kind of the minor leagues to competition's majors. (Weerasethakul showed "Blissfully Yours" there in 2002.) It's a surprising downgrade: Generally speaking, one of the perks of winning the Palme is that it serves as a free buy-in to future rounds.

Still, the trick to having a full Cannes is never seeing all of the competition films. It’s figuring out in advance which ones aren’t worth seeing, and then filling the time with better options. There are turkeys in the main slate every year, owing to vagaries of programming that outsiders can't hope to understand: jockeying among festival honchos, the clout of French sales agents, fear of alienating a major director—whatever. Placement in the lineup isn't destiny, and it often pays to stray down the Croisette for alternative fare. Last year I went to Israeli director Nadav Lapid's excellent "The Kindergarten Teacher" while the competition crowd suffered (or so I heard) through Naomi Kawase's "Still the Water."

The Directors' Fortnight might be the trickiest alterna-Cannes event to define: It started in 1969 in the wake of the canceled 1968 festival, with the goal of focusing on more adventurous and groundbreaking work. Around 2008 and 2009, the festival had a reputation for favoring austere filmmakers like Albert Serra and Pedro Costa. But the current Fortnight chief, Édouard Waintrop, has a thing for genre fare. This year's edition, which kicks off tomorrow, includes "Green Room" from Jeremy Saulnier, whose "Blue Ruin" was one of the breakout hits of the Fortnight two years ago.

Critics’ Week, which only takes directors’ first and second features, is always a bit more of a wild card; there are fewer "names" in the lineup, and with less history to go on, seeing a film here often means taking a chance. But last year’s edition was perhaps the strongest in the years I've attended, with early screenings of such critical favorites as "It Follows," "The Tribe," and "Breathe."

There's even a third parallel festival—one that almost no one talks about. It's called ACID, and this year's slate includes "The Grief of Others," a new film from Patrick Wang ("In the Family") that already showed at South by Southwest.

It's my eighth year here, and by now I should feel as though I have my ear to the ground. Still, it's always surprising throughout the course of the year when I see a great film and then learn, for the first time, that it had shown in Cannes, generally hidden away in some less-covered sidebar. Last year "Of Men and War" and "The Rules of the Game," two cutting, topical documentaries—the first on PTSD, the other on unemployment—played here and garnered almost no response. One explanation: "The Rules of the Game" screened in the perennially under-covered ACID, while "Of Men and War" had the bad luck of showing opposite the new Jean-Luc Godard. Ouch.

Of course, I'm excited about many of the new Palme contenders as well, and I hope to say my piece about new films by Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Jia Zhangke, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. But I'm keeping an eye on alterna-Cannes. Sometimes it feels as though there's an entire year's worth of filmgoing here, and I hope to catch as much of it as possible.

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