Eyes on the prize

The battle for the Palme D'Or is wide open this year. Leslie Felperin and Ryan Gilbey assess some of the contenders

Cannes is all about surprises, discoveries and wallops out of nowhere, and no doubt there will be many in every category before the festival finishes on 23 May. Hotly tipped but completely unknown quantities include The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Stephen Hopkins, Clean by Demonlover's Olivier Assayas, La Nina Santa by the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things by starlet Asia Argento.

None of those films has been seen yet, except by the Cannes selectors, and in the case of Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, no one has even seen the final cut because they were still shooting it last week. And yet the line-up this year seems populated by a strikingly large quantity of movies that have been screened already, and even in some cases ones released in their home territory. For example, the Coen Brothers' remake of The Ladykillers, in competition, was working the multiplexes in April Stateside. Terry Zwigoff's bawdy Bad Santa, showing out of competition, came out in December in the US. And Kill Bill Vol. 2, also out of competition, came out only weeks ago in select territories, but at least it makes some sort of sense to be showing it in Cannes considering director Quentin Tarantino is the head of the competition jury.

The Ladykillers (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen), is a charming if slight affair. The Coens make a so-so stab at remaking what many consider to be one of the Ealing Studios' finest films. Transposing the action from London's Kings Cross in the 1950s to the Mississippi Delta today, the Coens keep the central conceit of a gang of con artists using the premises of an elderly woman to stage a heist, this time on a neighbouring casino. Tom Hanks gives one of his broadest and sinister performances as the snaggle-toothed, oleaginous leader of the pack. But where the original was an economical 90 minutes or so, the remake feels drawn out. Coens purists were appalled by their last, Intolerable Cruelty, which was seen as a Hollywood sell-out. Heaven help the Coens if the faithful get up in arms over this one.

The Woodsman, (directed by Nicole Kassell) is one of those films nearly everybody admires deeply but few distributors are brave enough to buy. Starring Kevin Bacon as a convicted heterosexual paedophile newly released from prison and trying to recover some semblance of a life working anonymously at a lumber yard, it was a hit with the critics at Sundance earlier this year.

By the time you read this, Pedro Almodovar will already have enjoyed a rapturous reception for presenting the opening night film, Bad Education, an ambitious and complicated romance-cum-thriller that takes in transvestism, film noir, movie- making and the sexual abuse of children by priests under Franco. Business as usual, more or less, for one of cinema's most dependable sorcerers. The picture - boasting a sublime performance by Gael Garcia Bernal - is one to see at least twice: once to untangle the story, another to feast your eyes on the sumptuous art design and Gaultier costumes.

Gael Garcia Bernal also turns up as the young Che Guevara in Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries - a road movie that's moving in both senses of the word. The picture follows Guevara and his travelling companion, Alberto Granado, on their tour of Latin America. There is an episodic structure to the narrative, but Salles doesn't signpost the life lessons too blatantly. He keeps his film light and entertaining; instead of pitching it as the tale of a budding revolutionary, he creates a gentle analysis of burgeoning political consciousness. A glimpse of the real Granado, now craggy and wizened, provides an understated climax.