Like it or not, it's time to place bets on what will win at Sunday's Cannes awards, a highly unscientific process that involves concocting convoluted rationales for how a jury of filmmakers whose personal tastes are a mystery will vote as a group. Just when you think that a critical favorite like "Son of Saul" or "Carol" has it in the bag, something like last year's surprise winner, "Dheepan," will take top honors.
Anyone who isn't on the jury is, well, outside. We can make inferences about who is "due" and what "played well." And while it's possible that the jurors are secretly checking their decisions against the Screen International grid, it's also possible that they enjoyed the boldly saturated colors and nightmare logic of Nicolas Winding Refn's "The Neon Demon" far more than the critics who gave it an average score of 1.6 out of 4.
As of this writing, I have yet to see three well-reviewed titles—Park Chan-wook's "The Handmaiden," Pedro Almodóvar's "Julieta," and Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake." As I catch up, I'll post an update if I decide I've overlooked a major contender.
And with that, on to the predictions.
Palme d'Or: "Toni Erdmann." Lots of directors come to Cannes and shoot just over or under par, but Maren Ade's third feature is one of the rare movies that seemed to pull well ahead of the pack, not merely exceeding expectations but sidestepping them, just as the eventual Palme winner "Blue Is the Warmest Color" did in 2013. One reason why Ade's film is so difficult to classify—is it a father-daughter reconciliation drama? A corporate satire? A light comedy about a goofy dad in a ridiculous wig? A long-lost collaboration between Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Cameron Crowe?—is that it's actually something new. It never fails to dissect its characters even as it veers from one improbable situation to the next. (Stars Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek are both phenomenal.) Emerging from the screening, I told a colleague that I thought the movie would prompt the festival's most interesting range of reactions. That range turned out to be pretty narrow: The movie has received almost universal acclaim.
Grand Jury Prize: "Paterson." It probably looks too "small" on paper to win the top prize, but Jim Jarmusch's portrait of a bus driver (Adam Driver) who writes poetry on the side is widely liked, and as such, a good choice for this second-place award. Jarmusch's perceptive, quietly disarming character study takes time to reveal its depths, but it contains considerable wisdom about the tradeoffs of a writer's life, and how it's possible to create art, and to dream, even if it goes unappreciated.
Jury Prize: "American Honey." Depending on how you look at it, the jury prize is either third place or an opportunity for some sort of special citation; it often goes to a flawed but ambitious work. Andrea Arnold's nearly three-hour road trip movie—a rare case of a British director in full-on Wim Wenders mode—certainly fits that bill. The plot concerns Star (Sasha Lane), an 18-year-old who joins a group of roving scammers who go door to door across the American heartland selling magazines. The faintly prurient, improvisatory shamblings reminded me of Larry Clark ("Kids," "Bully"), but many others disagree, and it's possible that the more lyrical stretches will sway at least a few jurors.
Director: Paul Verhoeven, "Elle." In "Elle," Isabelle Huppert's character, who runs a video game company, at one point insists that players need to feel as though they've felt the blood on their hands. Verhoeven, making his first proper feature since 2006's "Black Book" (2012's crowd-sourced "Tricked" doesn't really count) seems to make movies with the same philosophy. Wherever you come down on his provocative new film, it's never less than completely gripping. Huppert, as a rape survivor who refuses to don the mantle of victimhood in any aspect of her life, gives a performance so scene-for-scene magnificent that she should sweep all of this festival's awards, but I assume she'll be edged out by …
Actress: Sonia Braga, "Aquarius." Braga is the main attraction in this new feature from Brazil's Kleber Mendonça Filho ("Neighboring Sounds"); she plays Clara, a breast cancer survivor who is pressured by developers to leave her longtime apartment. But that's an overly simplistic description of a two-and-a-half-hour movie that touches on countless facets of Clara's life, and the movie wouldn't convince at all without an extraordinarily versatile actress at its center. Braga has flown under the radar lately, and this is the sort of role that could jump-start an international comeback—which is why I suspect she'll win out over Huppert, who is and will remain a French national treasure. (It's worth noting that this was an exceptionally strong year for great women's parts at Cannes—"Toni Erdmann" and "The Unknown Girl" could easily turn up here as well, if they fail to win other awards that foreclose the opportunity.)
Actor: Shahab Hosseini, "The Salesman." Like "Elle," "The Salesman" screened for the jury on Saturday; who knows whether the late arrival will help or hurt it. Hosseini stars as a schoolteacher who's also playing Willy Loman in a community theater production. After his wife experiences a traumatic incident, he grapples with what to do. The movie is probably as close as Asghar Farhadi ("A Separation") will ever come to making his "Straw Dogs," and Hosseini, tasked with being at once vengeful and contemplative, makes a difficult character utterly credible. (Those who have seen "I, Daniel Blake" tell me that that film's lead, Dave Johns, has a real shot here.)
Screenplay: Alain Guiraudie, "Staying Vertical." The writing prize at Cannes often rewards eccentricity, and the new feature from Alain Guiraudie ("Stranger by the Lake") keeps shifting shape. It follows a writer's-blocked screenwriter (Damien Bonnard) who fathers a child with a farm girl (India Hair) but seems torn among his many obligations and desires. It's an everything-and-nothing movie, in which the story line proves as surreally malleable as the characters' sexual orientations.