Inside Cannes' Oscar Clues

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Will triumphs at the famed festival for films like "Tree of Life" and "Melancholia" translate in the U.S.?

Basking in the glow of the just-concluded Cannes Film Festival, this year's winners have every reason to celebrate. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life was rewarded with the top prize, the Palme d'Or. Best actress honors went to Kirsten Dunst, whose performance as a depressed bride in Melancholia wasn't overshadowed by director Lars von Trier's Hitler antics. And the best actor laurels went to French star Jean Dujardin, who offered up a wordless turn in the silent movie The Artist.

But only one Palme d'Or winner -- 1955's Marty -- has ever gone on to win the best picture Oscar, and Cannes history is littered with favorites that lost their buzz by the time Hollywood's awards season kicked into gear in late fall.

STORY: 'The Tree of Life' Wins Cannes' Palme d'Or

This year, though, Cannes might prove more prophetic. Take Malick's case. The Academy has never known quite what to make of the elusive director: He's received only two Oscar noms -- as writer and director of 1998's The Thin Red Line -- for his previous four films combined. And he's not likely to sit through a series of guild Q&As to explain his new movie. At Cannes, he slipped into the Palais for the movie's unveiling but skipped the red carpet and traditional press conference entirely.

But Tree's Palme d'Or means attention must be paid, and there's a growing critical consensus to match. Even if the film, which Fox Searchlight begins rolling out May 27, befuddles the average moviegoer, Academy voters might bite. An acting nomination for Brad Pitt, who plays the stern paterfamilias, is more problematic. He convincingly inhabits the role, but Malick doesn't ask his performers for the kind of showy scenes that pay off at awards time.

On the other hand, for the film's pristine imagery, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki -- who was nominated in 2006 for Malick's The New World -- has to be considered a front-runner in his category.

While the unconventional Tree poses a challenge, two other Cannes movies -- Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist -- emerged as genuine crowd-pleasers. And that could boost one or both into best picture contention depending how many slots are available once the more serious movies arrive toward year's end.

At very least, Allen should be in line for another original screenplay nomination for his Gallic valentine: Not only does Owen Wilson play a successful Hollywood screenwriter who yearns to write a serious novel -- what member of the Academy's writing branch can't relate to that? -- but the movie also flatters smart-house audiences with lots of Paris-in-the-'20s name-dropping. The Sony Pictures Classics release already received an official Academy screening, which was packed and enthusiastic.

The Weinstein Co. is hoping something similar happens with Artist, which was greeted with an extended standing ovation at the Palais. As if providing an antidote to today's effects-heavy 3D movies, Hazanavicius has constructed a retro entertainment, set when the talkies were edging out silent movies. Dujardin's Cannes win won't automatically translate into recognition in the U.S. (His OSS 117 spy spoofs have been big hits in France.) But if he's brought to the states for extended meet-and-greets, he could court a nomination with the same kind of charm offensive that Harvey Weinstein orchestrated some years back for Roberto Benigni.

The controversy surrounding von Trier aside, his films -- with the exception of 1996's Breaking the Waves, which brought Emily Watson a nom -- haven't been warm and fuzzy enough for Academy tastes. So Dunst will need a lot of critical support if she's going to prevail for the Magnolia release.

Tilda Swinton has a lot of critics in her corner for her role as a mother at war with her difficult son in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Oscilloscope, which two years ago helped Woody Harrelson get a nom for The Messenger, is promising an awards push.

Although only buyers saw Pathe's promo reel for The Iron Lady, in which Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, a drumbeat that could lead up to the actress' 17th nomination has already begun. Partnering with Ron Burkle's Yucaipa, the Weinstein Co. ponied up about $7 million for the biopic, which is aiming to be finished in time for a fall release. The conservative Thatcher might not seem like someone Hollywood will rush to embrace, except that Streep plays the former prime minister as an aging woman struggling to hold it together as she flashes backs to memories of her triumphs. That sounds like the kind of acting exercise the Academy won't be able to resist. 

FRENCH BOX OFFICE: In keeping with tradition, films debuting at the Cannes Film Festival open simultaneously in French theaters. Here's how some of those titles fared May 18 to 22:

-- Midnight in Paris came in No. 2 for the weekend behind Pirates: On Stranger Tides, grossing $1.8 million from 406 playdates for a stellar total of $6.1 million in less than two weeks.

--Xavier Durringer's Nicolas Sarkozy biopic La Conquete (The Conquest) grossed $1.7 million from 500 locations in its debut. The film came in No. 4.

-- Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life opened at No. 5, grossing $1.1 million from 405 playdates.

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