Critic's Notebook Cannes 2012

Bookish films rule the must-see list, but it's not easy guessing what the jury has in store.

One year ago at this time, much of the press coverage of the upcoming Cannes Film Festival was centered upon Terrence Malick's long-delayed The Tree of Life, accompanied by speculation that it was probably the film to beat for the Palme d'Or. As it turned out, this was correct. But how many of the same pieces put a spotlight on a silent, black-and-white French film about Hollywood by a director with an unpronounceable name no one had ever heard of?

That few even mentioned The Artist illustrates the difficulty of forecasting the nature and quality of the Cannes Film Festival, the 65th edition of which begins May 16. There are titles that take precedence in most people's minds, but only festival director Thierry Fremaux and his small selection committee have seen all these films; the rest of us are just guessing as to what we'll end up seeing.

That North America has seven titles in the competition this year has quickened the pulses of many, especially because the filmmakers are mostly relatively youthful and exciting. It's also intriguing that four of these entries possess high-grade literary pedigrees, the most conspicuous being On the Road. Just documenting the attempts different writers and directors have made to adapt Jack Kerouac's novel could fill a book of its own. The man to finally land the job was Walter Salles, whose previous road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, might have served as an audition piece.

A film I'm looking forward to even more is Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly. Not only is it adapted from the novel Cogan's Trade, by George V. Higgins, but as a huge enthusiast for Dominik's last film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I'm very keen to see if this new collaboration with Brad Pitt can maintain the same artistic standards, albeit perhaps in a more mainstream vein.

John Hillcoat's Lawless, based on Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, is intriguing. Hillcoat has a strong critical following based primarily on the Aussie Western The Proposition. Curiosity also surrounds Lee Daniels' follow-up to Precious, an adaptation of Pete Dexter's 1995 novel The Paperboy, a crime story rooted in murder and race. Word seeping out from screenings has centered on some very strong performances.

The other literary adaptation of note is David Cronenberg's film version of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, a rich Wall Street type's Joycean, all-in-one-day odyssey through the city that bears very directly upon the Occupy mentality. The trailer looks weird and intense. And to put the icing on the literary cake, Philip Kaufman's HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn, about the tempestuous marriage and journalism of two prominent scribes of the last century, will play out of competition. Again, early screenings have yielded great praise for the actors.

The other English-language competition titles both have directors with strong followings: Wes Anderson's opening-night lark Moonrise Kingdom and Mud from Jeff Nichols, whose Sundance hit Take Shelter played in the Critics Week sidebar last year.

In France, there is considerable excitement concerning Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, because of the cast, led by Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead), and because Audiard is just one or two more strong films away from installing himself securely among the great French directors. Alain Resnais, who is 89, has announced that his Cannes entry, You Haven't Seen Anything Yet, is his last film, lending its title an ironically bittersweet tinge. A sense of poignancy also surrounds the closing-night film, Therese Desqueyroux, whose well-liked director, Claude Miller, died April 4, just as he was finishing post-production.

Adamant supporters of the talented but erratic onetime enfant terrible Leos Carax will be out in force for his first film in 13 years, Holy Motors, starring Eva Mendes. I remain to be convinced by Carax, as well as by Thomas Vinterberg, whose The Celebration created a sensation 14 years ago -- his latest is The Hunt. As much as I admired Mexican maverick Carlos Reygadas' last film, the exquisite Silent Light, in 2007, I am always wary of encroaching pretension and artistic arrogance: the title alone to his new work, Post Tenebras Lux ("After Darkness, Light"), sends warning signals.