CANNES, France -- It was exactly a year ago in this coastal town that much of the film world first heard about a quirky movie from a French director who has a peskily unpronounceable name. On the eve of the world's most prestigious cinema gathering, the movie landed an unexpected competition slot and a sizable distribution deal from an aggressive U.S. company.
That film was of course "The Artist," directed by Michel Hazanavicius, and its acquisition by Weinstein Co. at the start of the Cannes Cannes Film Festival began a magic-carpet ride that would take the movie and many of its principals all the way to the Oscar-night podium.
It's impossible to hazard a guess as to which film will catch fire that way this year, if any. Not every edition of Cannes produces an award-season breakout of that magnitude, and an "Artist"-size success should hardly be the yardstick by which Cannes debuts are measured.
Still, the attention that fall-season movies receive here can prove surprisingly telling of their ultimate fortunes. In 2007 "No Country for Old Men" premiered to the kind of hype a festival finds only a few times a decade. Sure enough, when the fall rolled around, the Coen Bros. serial-killler film became a crossover smash and swept through the Oscars.
Events unfolded similarly with "Inglourious Basterds" in 2009, which after a very favorable reception on the Croisette did big business in the late summer and early fall and earned its share of Oscar plaudits. And last year proved a reliable crystal ball even below the "Artist" level -- the festival offered hints of the amount, and type, of attention that was to come for Oscar contenders "Midnight in Paris," "We Need To Talk About Kevin" and "The Tree of Life."
Several films at this year's festival -- which is kicking off with Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" and a twee opening ceremony as we type this post -- are already poised to make their case.
Many of them come in with more expectation and name recognition than "The Artist" did: David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis," Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy," Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly" and Walter Salles' "On the Road" on the (unusually deep) English-language front, and Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" and Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" on the foreign one.
Less prominent but potentially with just as much upside is "Mud," a coming-of-age story from young American director Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter") that industry types who've seen it describe as "Stand By Me" meets "Huckleberry Finn."
All of these contenders could yield the kind of buzz that "The Artist" began to build here last year, though it should be noted that, as movies that have been primarily shot in color and with sound, none have quite the same level of formal ambition or gimmickry.
The Cannes hype machine is a funny one. More than any other festival, the combination of global media and tony pedigrees works to crank up expectation -- and then, just as often, grind it down. Yet despite the festival's eat-its-young tendencies, and even with the tweet-from-the-bathroom level of social media, a genuine discovery and breakout is possible. "The Artist" proved that in spades.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from Jeff Nichols' "Mud." Credit: FilmNation