Cannes: The Hidden Gems Outside the Competition (Analysis)

'Arabian Nights' from Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes is set for the Directors' Fortnight.

Many of this year’s hottest tickets aren’t in the running for the Palme d’Or.

Every year, as the world’s media descends on Cannes for the film festival, the spotlight inevitably focuses on the titles - 19 this year - in competition, the only ones that have a chance of winning Cannes' top prize, the Palme d’Or.

But, as has become almost cliche, the best films in Cannes often screen far from the Palais and the red carpet. True cinephiles truffle through the sidebars looking for the buzz titles and breakout hits that, long after the May 24 awards ceremony, will define the 68th edition of the festival.

This year’s Directors’ Fortnight lineup looks particularly promising. The section, run by France’s Director’s Guild, can be hit-and-miss but it is rarely predictable or boring.

Potential highlights this year include Takashi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld and Arabian Nights from Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes (Tabu). The former, from the director of genre classics like Audition (1999) and Ichi The Killer (2001), is billed as a gangster-vampire thriller about a bloodsucking yakuza boss. The latter, a contemporary retelling of 1001 Arabian Nights, is a trilogy of films with a combined running time of more than six hours. It's just the thing for Cannes marathonists.

Jaco Van Dormael, whose work includes sleeper hits Mr. Nobody (2009) and 1991 Cannes Golden Camera winner Toto the Hero (1991), will also premiere his latest in the Directors’ Fortnight. The Brand New Testament is a religious satire postulating that God is alive and well…and living in Belgium. Catherine Deneuve stars alongside Belgium actors Benoit Poelvoorde (Man Bites Dog) and Yolande Moreau (Amelie).

The truly star-struck can check out Fortnight features A Perfect Day, the English-language debut of Spain’s Fernando Leon de Aranoa (2005’s Princesas), starring Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins and Olga Kurylenko; or Green Room, a drama from U.S. director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin), featuring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Patrick Stewart.

The Fortnight program also includes two of the hottest titles from Sundance this year: Chloe Zhao’s Native American drama Songs My Brothers Taught Me and Rick Famuyiwa’s L.A.-set dramedy Dope, which will be the section’s closing film on May 22.

Cannes’ Critic’s Week, which screens only first and second features, is a harder section to handicap, but the buzz is already growing around its opening film, the period drama The Anarchists from French director Elie Wajeman, mainly for the sizzling promise of its on-screen couple: A Prophet star Tahar Rahim and Blue is the Warmest Color’s Adele Exarchopoulos. Rahim stars as a French army corporal commissioned to infiltrate a dangerous anarchist group in Paris, circa 1899. He falls for the leading anarchist’s girlfriend, played by Exarchopoulos.

Of the Critic’s Week directorial debuts, one to watch out for is Degrade, a Gaza Strip-set comedy from identical twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser. The Palestinian filmmakers had their Cannes premiere in 2013 with the hilarious short Condom Lead, about the particular problems of having safe sex in a Middle East war zone. 

Cannes' Un Certain Regard section boasts even more familiar names than usual this year. Several veteran directors tipped for a competition slot have landed instead in the festival’s sidebar. These include Sweet Red Bean Paste, the latest from Japanese minimalist Naomi Kawase, whose The Mourning Forest won the Jury Grand Prize in 2007; Taklub from Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, a Cannes best director winner in 2009 with Kinatay; and Cemetery of Splendor, the latest from Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul, whose spiritual drama Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or back in 2010.

The 2015 Un Certain Regard lineup is also a treat for fans of the Romanian new wave, with new features from Corneliu Porumboiu and Radu Muntean (The Treasure and One Floor Below, respectively).

For Cannes bragging rights, however, nothing beats being the first to see this year’s festival shocker, typically one of the midnight screening titles. The prime candidate this year is Love from Gaspar Noe, the Argentinian director who brought Cannes audiences to their feet - many racing for the exits - with his brutal Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009). Another midnight screening, Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy, about the late Amy Winehouse, is unlikely to be anywhere nearly as provocative, but it is certain to be one of Cannes’ hottest tickets.

The festival’s biggest films, with the exception perhaps, of Todd HaynesCarol, featuring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as 1950s lesbian lovers; and Gus Van Sant's The Sea of Trees pairing Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe, will inevitably come from the out of competition galas.

Pete Docter’s Pixar animated feature Inside Out, George Miller’s Mad Mad: Fury Road and Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, starring Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix, belong in the category of must-sees this year. They won't win any prizes in Cannes but they are among the only festival titles guaranteed to be coming soon to a theater near you.

Twitter: @scottroxborough