Cannes Festival History and 2011 Buzz Films (Q&A)

McCarthy, who has been attending the fest since 1970, also reflects on Robert De Niro as this year's jury president and the importance of Cannes.

When did you first go to Cannes?

My first festival was in 1970, when I was a student at Stanford. Ralph Gleason at Rolling Stone gave me authentic credentials, although I wasn't really covering the festival for them. I did end up writing for the student newspaper. It was a real counter-culture year. Among others, I met Robert Altman, who was there with MASH, which won the Palme d'Or.

What are some of the most memorable moments of your Cannes career?

In the old days, back in the 1970s, the Le Petit Carlton used to be the favorite hangout of mercenaries and journalists. It was this backstreet, dicey bar that no longer exists. The mercenaries would work on yachts when they weren't fighting in Africa. One night, a bunch of rowdy Brits started singing British naval songs, and then the French guys started singing French naval songs. It was like the scene out of Casablanca. It got a little rough, and there was some shoving, but it didn't turn into a melee.

What movie do you remember seeing at Cannes that you fell in love with and championed?

Last year, Carlos was the one that stood out for me. Another big discovery was Stranger Than Paradise, which played in 1984. And the screening of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (in 1982) was extraordinary. It was the closing-night film. And going back to the 1970s, there was an overwhelming reaction to Wim Wenders' The American Friend.

What are the buzz titles heading into this year's festival?

Everyone is curious about Terrence Malick's film, The Tree of Life, which has been on the runway for a long, long time. I've heard very good things about The Artist, with John Goodman. It's a French, silent film. And Drive intrigues me. And you never know what Lars von Trier, who has Melancholia, will stir up. One region in particular that seems to be very active this year is Denmark and the Scandinavian countries.

What kind of jury president will Robert De Niro make?

The makeup of the jury is always the subject of speculation, in terms of how domineering the president will be. Some presidents have been extremely so, like Roman Polanski with Barton Fink. I hear Altman was domineering as well. I don't know what De Niro will be like, but he's got friends on the jury, like Uma Thurman. With an actor as the president, the jury could have more of an acting orientation. It's unusual to have an actor, rather than a filmmaker.

How important is Cannes? How does it stand up this year, compared to the Berlin Film Festival or the upcoming Venice Film Festival?

It's absolutely the top film festival. Also, Berlin had a rough year and Venice is in for some choppy waters since the Palazzo del Cinema is still under renovation. Despite certain factors that everyone talks about, such as the major specialty companies holding back films until fall, like Alexander Payne's next movie film, The Descendants, or Jason Reitman's Young Adult, Cannes is still the place.