May 23--CANNES, France -- American movies are faring well this year in Cannes, with the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" holding on to the No. 1 spot in the competition for the Palme d'Or, according to a poll of critics compiled by Screen International. Set in 1960s Greenwich Village, "Davis" focuses on a struggling folk singer who's a predecessor of Bob Dylan.
Its closest competitor is Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty," which captures the ennui of high-society Romans in the present day while paying homage to the classic "La Dolce Vita."
The poll, however, has been a rather poor predictor of the eventual winning film, which will be announced Sunday during a black-tie ceremony in the Palais. And if that trend holds true this year, then the Palme is up for grabs.
Other top films of the festival include Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's "The Past" and Chinese director Jia Zhangke's "A Touch of Sin." Noting that U.S. director Steven Spielberg heads this year's jury, some critics are predicting a win for Japanese director Kore-Eda Hirokazu's "Like Father, Like Son." It's a sentimental tale about a well-to-do family who's told that the boy they have been raising was mistakenly given to them by the hospital, and that their biological son is living with a working-class couple. Another point in its favor: Spielberg has a sentimental streak.
"Behind the Candelabra," which tracks the romance between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and a young man (Matt Damon), also has a shot at a major award. Douglas appears to be one of the favorites for best actor. His Liberace is eerily accurate. But others are predicting that Oscar Isaac of "Inside Llewyn Davis" will win acting honors for his portrayal of a self-destructive folk singer.
But the festival isn't over yet, and several American movies have yet to screen. They include Alexander Payne's road-trip tale "Nebraska," James Gray's "The Immigrant" and Jim Jarmusch's vampire drama "Only Lovers Left Alive." U.S. fugitive Roman Polanski will screen "Venus in Fur" over the weekend. And still to come is one of the most controversial screenings of the festival, "Blue Is the Warmest Color." Directed by France's Abdellatif Kechiche, it's a three-hour lesbian coming-of-age tale that reportedly includes explicit sex.
"Only God Forgives," the followup to "Drive" from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, ranks as the biggest disappointment of the festival. After the press screening Wednesday, the audience erupted in a hearty round of boos and whistles. And the big star of the film -- Ryan Gosling -- didn't show up to support it. Supporters of the film, however, were quick to point out that Gosling is working on his directorial debut, "How to Catch a Monster."
Refn described the film as mystical and an outgrowth of an existential crisis he faced while his wife was going through a difficult pregnancy. But a graphic torture scene featuring hairpins and knives, as well as a stunningly vicious portrayal of motherhood by the normally serene Kristin Scott Thomas, will confine this film to only a few arthouses. The tart-tongued Thomas has possibly the most startling dialogue of the festival: When told that her oldest son was killed after raping and killing someone else, Thomas' character replies, "I'm sure he had his reasons."
Perhaps coincidentally, the other film to draw the biggest critical lashes this year also featured a torture scene involving what's become known along the Croisette as "genital immolation." Mexican director Amat Escalante's "Heli" takes viewers into the drug underworld and follows an innocent family as it gets sucked into the violence.
"Jimmy P.," from France's Arnaud Desplechin, has also taken some big hits, despite having two of Cannes' favorite actors -- Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Almaric. The movie basically meanders as it explores psychotherapy sessions between a Native American World War II veteran and a French anthropologist. There's no breakthrough moment, and various members of the audience were visibly napping throughout.
Another big disappointment involves Japanese director Takashi Miike's "Shield of Straw." It has an excellent premise, at least for a crime thriller: A serial killer rapes and kills a small girl, who happens to be the granddaughter of one of Japan's wealthiest men. He turns around and offers 1 billion yen to anyone who will execute the murderer, but the murderer turns himself into police, who then have to figure out how to protect him. Everyone, it seems, is willing to sell out for a billion yen, and that includes some of the people who are assigned to protect the killer.
But then Miike makes a mistake. He slows the action way down, as the various officers who are protecting the killer engage in long, philosophical debates.
Americans have fared well at screenings outside of the main competition. One of the biggest hits has been Dallas director David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," which played in Critics Week. It stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in a Texas crime saga reminiscent of Terrence Malick's "Badlands." James Franco's "As I Lay Dying" has been hailed as a faithful adaptation of the Faulkner novel, although Europeans have complained that the Southern dialect is too hard to understand. And Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station," which focuses on the killing of a young African-American in Oakland, Calif., has been getting raves. It's playing in Un Certain Regard and is eligible for the first-time director award, the Camera d'Or.
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