The 72nd International Cannes Film Festival.
The 72nd International Cannes Film Festival.
Image: Getty Images / Eamonn M. McCormack

Ever since its establishment as an antidote to what some saw as a worrying rise of rewards for fascist films, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, in the 1930s, the Cannes Film Festival, now in its 72nd year, has been no stranger to controversy. From a shutdown of the festival in 1968 in solidarity with the student protests in Paris, and the discovery of a bomb beneath the stage at the closing ceremony in 1978, to Danish director Lars von Trier’s bad joke about being a Nazi who understood Hitler, which earned the director a ban from the festival until last year, the world’s most prestigious film gathering has seen its share of headline-grabbing outcries.

This year looks set to be no different. After protests about Netflix films – which fail to meet France’s requirement of a 36 month period between theatrical release and streaming availability – and last year’s furore over the lack of female representation in the competition, this year’s edition has excluded Netflix titles and supposedly rectified the issue of gender parity by including four woman-directed films, out of a total of 21, on the longlist for its prestigious Palme d’Or award.

While Netflix won’t really be worried, seeing that its two potential top candidates for glory – Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers film The Laundromat - aren’t ready for consideration anyway, there is another controversy brewing as the festival begins this week and that’s thanks to maverick troublemaker and previous Palme d’Or winner Quentin Tarantino.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – the director’s first film in four years, a hotly anticipated take on the notorious Manson Family murders of Sharon Tate and others in 1969, was initially not ready in time for selection but has been completed and will debut at Cannes.

Although no one has seen it yet, there are rumours flying around that the film might contain too much of Tarantino’s signature love of gory violence to give the story the respect many feel it deserves. Critics have not forgotten his unfortunate 2003 comments about Tate’s ex-husband and rape accused Roman Polanski. He said that the Polish director’s teenage 1977 accuser had “been down with it”.  

Irrespective of the coming storm, it seems that, on paper, festival director Thierry Frémaux and his team have chosen a particularly strong lineup for this year’s competition, which features several previous – mostly male – winners of the cinema purist’s greatest accolades. Here is a selection of films to watch out for as the festival gets under way.

1. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Al Pacino, this is a comic-drama centring on a fading TV star and his aging stunt double set against the backdrop of the Manson Family murders in the late 1960s. Tarantino won the Palme d’Or in 1994 and has been a perennial festival favourite ever since.

WATCH | Once Upon a Time in Hollywood trailer:

2. A HIDDEN LIFE, director: Terrence Malick

The most poetic and reclusive director of his generation has been pretty productive over the last few years but don’t expect Malick to be in attendance at this year’s festival. A Hidden Life tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter an Austrian conscientious objector during World War 2 who was sentenced to death for undermining the Third Reich and later beatified by the Catholic Church. The film features the final performances of the late European actors Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist and hopes are high that it will earn Malick a second Palme d’Or, following his 2011 win for The Tree of Life.

WATCH | A Hidden Life first clip:

3. THE DEAD DON’T DIE, director: Jim Jarmusch

The coolest director in America and firm Cannes favourite Jarmusch returns with his take on the zombie genre. Starring Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny and Adam Driver as a bumbling group of small town cops faced with a zombie invasion, the film also features cameos by longtime Jarmusch collaborators Iggy Pop, Tom Waits and the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA.

WATCH | The Dead Don't Die trailer:

4. SORRY WE MISSED YOU, director: Ken Loach

Double Palme d’Or winner and godfather of the British kitchen-sink social realism genre, Loach brings his hard-hitting social criticism to the festival with this story of a delivery driver under pressure from the inequities of the fast-paced, digital-driven modern world.

WATCH | Sorry We Missed You clip:

5. PAIN AND GLORY, director: Pedro Almadóvar

A longtime nominee, previous best director winner and former head of the jury, Spanish auteur Almadóvar reconnects with some of his famous previous crew, including Penelope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Cecilia Roth, for this semi-autobiographical piece of introspection detailing the psychological breakdown of a famous film director.

WATCH | Pain and Glory trailer:

6. THE YOUNG AHMED, directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Two-time Palme d’Or winners, the Dardenne brothers take an unusual and decidedly political departure from their acclaimed social realist work in this story of a Belgian teenager who decides to kill his teacher after embracing a form of Islamic extremism.

WATCH | The Young Ahmed trailer:

7. DIEGO MARADONA, director: Asif Kapadia

It’s a documentary so not in consideration for the main competition but hopes are high for Senna and Amy director Kapadia’s exploration of the career of football’s most controversial and brilliant player Diego Maradona. Featuring selections from over 500 hours of never-before-culled footage, the film aims to shed light on one of the world’s most celebrated sports heroes.

WATCH | Diego Maradona trailer:

8. ATLANTICS, director: Mati Diop

The first black women to be in competition in the 72-year history of the festival, Senegalese director Diop’s film examines the effects of the refugee crisis on the women who are left behind in Dakar after their men attempt to make the perilous journey to Europe.

WATCH | Atlantics clip:

9. LITTLE JOE, director: Jessica Hausner

Austrian director Hausner makes her main competition debut with this dystopian sci-fi tale of a plant which promises to bring happiness to its owners. Starring Ben Whishaw and Emily Beecham, it’s a promisingly bleak examination of universal fears and anxieties, which is expected to deliver plenty of critical acclaim to its director, who has previously competed in the festival’s Un Certain Regard category and served on its jury. No trailer available. 

10. THE LIGHTHOUSE, director: Robert Eggers

Following his critically acclaimed horror debut The Witch in 2015, director Eggers brings his new film, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, described as a “fantast horror set in the world of old sea-faring myths”, to the festival. Shot on 35mm using old-school black-and-white film techniques, there’s already a lot of expectation for this second film by one of cinema’s most intriguing new voices. No trailer available.

• The 2019 Cannes Film Festival is on until 25 May 2019.

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