Oscars: Are There Any Contenders in the Cannes Lineup?

Julieta -Still 1- Inma Cuesta  and Adriana Ugarte -H 2016
Courtesy of Manolo Pavón/Sony Pictures Classics

It's not fair to judge a book by its cover — but with a quick glance at a book's cover and its back cover and its author's track record and the people who have endorsed it, a reader can usually get a fairly decent sense of what sort of a book they have in front of them.

That's the rationale for scanning the just-announced lineup for the 2016 Cannes Film Festival in the hope of finding titles that scream "future Oscar contender."

Of course, this sort of an approach sometimes produces false positives (e.g. Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist follow-up, 2014's The Search, didn't create a sensation). And it can also produce false negatives (e.g. who had ever heard of the director of Son of Saul, Laszlo Nemes, before his film took last year's fest by storm?). But, to be honest, it's usually pretty accurate.

So which films stand out on Thursday morning's list?

To me, the most exciting prospect is Pedro Almodovar's 20th feature, Julieta, a drama about a woman at two points in her life 30 years apart (starring Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez). It is said to be one of his stronger efforts in years. Spain previously has submitted five of Almodovar's films for the foreign-language Oscar, two of which got nominated, and one of which won. Plus, his leading ladies often generate attention (Penelope Cruz got a best actress nom for Volver). So there's no question about how capable Almodovar is.

The Unknown Girl, the latest film from two-time Palme d'Or-winning Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, also seems promising. The brothers' films have been repeatedly snubbed by the Academy's foreign-language committee, but their last effort, Two Days, One Night, did produce a best actress nom for Marion Cotillard. This time, keep an eye on 27-year-old Adele Haenel, who plays a doctor fixated on solving the identity of a patient who died after being denied surgery.

Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, also 27, could also rebound from an Oscar snub for his last film, 2014's Mommy (which had to have come very close to making the cut), with some love for It's Only the End of the World, a film about a terminally ill writer who returns to his family, after 12 years away, to tell them he's dying. Gaspard Ulliel, as the writer, leads a cast that also includes Cotillard, Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel.

I'd keep a close eye on Jeff Nichols' Loving, a drama about the landmark 1967 civil rights case Loving v. Virginia, which resulted in the legalization of interracial marriages in America. Nichols has never really come close to a nom before, having made critically acclaimed but somewhat abstract films (up to and including this spring's Midnight Special). But he also never previously sought to tell a fact-based story, and this one — which stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, as well as Nichols' muse Michael Shannon — is undeniably powerful. (In fact, a doc retelling, The Loving Story, landed on the Academy's shortlist five seasons ago.)

There are a number of others that I'm hopeful but skeptical about, in large part because they're apparently largely genre movies. For example, the French-language Personal Shopper reunites Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart, whose last collaboration, Clouds of Sils Maria, resulted in all sorts of accolades for Stewart (who came damn near a best supporting actress Oscar nom). This one, however, is a Paris-set ghost story, which sounds like a much tougher sell for the serious-minded Academy.

The same applies to Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon. You never know what you're going to get with Refn, who came to Cannes in 2011 with Drive (which got just one Oscar nom but damn well deserved a few others). He returned two years later with Only God Forgives (for which Oscar noms were never even a remote possibility after it was unveiled to boos on the Croisette). His latest effort, on which he teamed with the terrific young actress Elle Fanning, as well as Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks, has been described a horror-thriller, which certainly doesn't scream "Oscar."

And caveat emptor, as well, with Steven Spielberg's The BFG (the title character, a giant, is played by the great Mark Rylance, who just won an Oscar for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies) and Jodie Foster's Money Monster, which stars George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jack O'Connell. The former is a kids' movie and the latter a conspiracy thriller — and while those are perfectly fine genres, they are rarely the sort of meal that the Academy likes to order up at the end of the year.

A third grouping includes pics from filmmakers who generally direct solid movies, and who have made awards-friendly films before, but are not usually part of the awards conversation: Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, with Adam Driver; Sean Penn's long-gestating The Last Face, which stars Oscar winners Javier Bardem and Penn's ex Charlize Theron; and Paul Verhoeven's first film in a decade, Elle, a French-language effort that stars the great Isabelle Huppert as a rape victim.

It was previously announced that Woody Allen's Amazon-distributed Cafe Society would open the fest. That, frankly, isn't the greatest sign, since only two films in this century that were unveiled in that slot have gone on to best picture Oscar noms — although one of them was Allen's own 2011 film Midnight in Paris (the other was 2009's Up).

To me, the most notable Oscar-related aspect of Thursday's announcement is how many of the suspected contenders aren't going to be in Cannes this year. Martin Scorsese's period piece Silence, which stars Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson and which sought financing on a yacht anchored off of Cannes in 2013, apparently still isn't ready. The same seems to be the case for Terrence Malick's drama Weightless, the cast of which includes Oscar winners Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Benicio Del Toro, Holly Hunter and Natalie Portman. And what of the two Sundance sensations, Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation and Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea? Rumor has it they're skipping this fest and heading directly to Telluride, at which the last six best picture Oscar winners all made an appearance.