Cannes Film Festival: Can you feel le buzz?

Big names bomb and unknowns prosper – nobody knows anything on the Croisette. But Jonathan Romney knows which films he's excited about …

So why do people make such a fuss about the Cannes Film Festival? Because Cannes is a dazzling, intricate, sometimes laborious, but always unpredictable machine for generating fuss – and for proving that cinema is worth making a fuss about. The commercial film universe has its blockbusters, its tentpoles, its event movies. But in these artificially hallowed 12 days on the Croisette, movies are seen as something more exalted – manifestations of whatever ineffable substance le cinéma is made of.

Whether a given year turns out good or bad, Cannes always tells us which films we'll be talking about for the next 12 months – but they're not always the ones we expect. I've been making my annual pilgrimage since 1993, and have learnt that it doesn't pay to try to predict how good a particular edition will be. I've seen all-star line-ups yield their share of duds, and drab-seeming ones go on to glitter.

But it's not just the competition – with a jury chaired by Steven Spielberg – that counts. The selected titles may hog the limelight and the prestige, but some of the best films often turn up in other sections. This year, official sidebar Un Certain Regard boasts the latest by admired French auteur Claire Denis (see overleaf) and a glamorous opener in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, starring Emma Watson. Cognoscenti will always make a few sorties up the Croisette to investigate Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Week, guaranteed hotbeds of discovery with the occasional big name thrown in.

All that's sure about this year's competition line-up – high on Americans, low on women directors, Brits, and intriguing outsiders – is that it promises to be extremely entertaining. How could it not be, with Michael Douglas playing Liberace (in Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra) and two French directors both named Arnaud going head to head? Never say Cannes selectors don't have a sense of humour ....

The Cannes Film Festival, Wed to 26 May. Jonathan Romney will tweet from the Festival @JonathanRomney

The Great Gatsby

The talent: Baz Luhrmann directs; Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan star; Jay-Z masterminds the soundtrack.

The pitch: Forget your grandad's Jazz Age – this is the 1920s when bling was king.

Croisette quotient: This opening night extravaganza will be big, loud and lavish, and may horrify those who cherish their slim, dog-eared Penguin of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel. With a glitzy R&B-themed score, it's just the sort of event movie – whatever the so-so reviews thus far – that continues to justify the Croisette's reputation for world-class razzle-dazzle.

Le buzz (out of 5): ****

Only God Forgives

The talent: Danish genre maverick Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Drive) directs; Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas star.

The pitch: Refn's hot, Gosling's hot, the Thai underworld is hot …. What's not hot about it?

Croisette quotient: Refn's 2011 competition entry Drive gave him a mainstream crossover hit, and if this thriller pulls it off, his international hipster cachet will be unbeatable. The neon-devil poster looks great – and you don't often get to see the fragrant Ms Scott Thomas playing "a merciless mafia godmother". Le véritable hot ticket du festival.

Le buzz: *****

Michael Kohlhaas

The talent: Danish star Mads Mikkelsen; French director Arnaud des Pallières

The pitch: You liked Mikkelsen as the TV Hannibal; now try him as a 16th-century merchant turned bandit.

Croisette quotient: The competition loves a dark horse. Hitherto obscure French director Des Pallières has made little-seen such as Parc, a bizarre John Cheever adaptation. Michael Kohlhaas, from the 19th-century German novella, could be a straight costume number – but seems likely to be something richer and stranger. A sleeper hit in the making.

Le buzz: **

The Past

The talent: Iranian director Asghar Farhadi; stars Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim

The pitch: You liked A Separation – here's another separation, this time with a European touch.

Croisette quotient: Farhadi put Iranian cinema back in the spotlight with A Separation. This story of a French-Iranian couple breaking up stars Bejo, from The Artist, and Rahim, from Jacques Audiard's A Prophet. Probably the most solid auteur package in competition, tipped for the Palme d'Or.

Le buzz: ****

Venus in Fur

The talent: Roman Polanski directs Madame P – aka Emmanuelle Seigner – and Mathieu Amalric.

The pitch: Polanski gets perverse again, in a two-hander from the play by David Ives – about a director trying to adapt the novel that gave masochism its name.

Croisette quotient: Given his chequered past, Polanski's friendly reception in Europe rests on his ability to show that he's still a heavyweight. This competition contender could restore Polanski's former reputation as a provocateur.

Le buzz: ***

The Selfish Giant

The talent: Brit director Clio Barnard (The Arbor), and some Northern kids you haven't heard of – yet.

The pitch: A troubled 13-year-old falls into the underworld of scrap-metal dealing.

Croisette quotient: Cannes loves British cinema in its gritty realist mode, and that's possibly what we can expect from Barnard's Directors' Fortnight entry. She made a brilliant debut with her docu-drama about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. The connection with the Oscar Wilde fairy tale may or may not be tenuous.

Le buzz: ***

The Dance of Reality

The talent: Alejandro Jodorowsky behind the camera, several other Jodorowskys in front.

The pitch: The education of a South American surrealist, by a man who knows.

Croisette quotient: The barmier the better, as far as the fans of this cultest of cult auteurs are concerned. Jodorowsky made the legendarily demented 1970 El Topo but has been missing in action since 1990. This autobiographical fantasia in Directors' Fortnight could be the craziest film in Cannes. Fans will also throng to see a documentary about how Jodorowsky nearly directed a version of sci-fi bible Dune.

Le buzz: **

Nebraska

The talent: Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) directs, old-timer Bruce Dern stars.

The pitch: Curmudgeon makes road trip with estranged son; the kind of story that Payne has made his speciality.

Croisette quotient: Payne isn't the biggest US indie name in town – the Coens, Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmusch also have films in competition. But Payne is much admired in Cannes, and you can expect veteran Dern to be the toast of Croisette cinephiles.

Le buzz: ***

Max Rose

The talent: Jerry Lewis. Or as the French say, "Ah! Jerry Lewis!"

The pitch: The cantankerous comedy legend plays a jazz pianist looking back on his life.

Croisette quotient: This one has its own rubric in the official selection: "Hommage à Jerry Lewis" – ominous words to some. Little is known about it, but if you remember Lewis in Scorsese's King of Comedy you'll want to check it out.

Le buzz: *

The Bastards

The talent: Director Claire Denis; stars Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni.

The pitch: Container-ship captain on a mission of revenge. But, knowing this director, done the abstract way.

Croisette quotient: Claire Denis is one of France's most innovative directors. So why isn't she in competition? Especially given her photocall-friendly cast, big names in Gaul. And especially given 2012's furore over a competition dearth of women directors – a lapse hardly remedied this year. Still, this could be the jewel of the often terrific Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Le buzz: ****

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