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Cannes 2014: When choosing films, festival follows its own formula

EntertainmentMoviesArts and CultureFilm FestivalsCannes Film FestivalRyan GoslingDreamWorks Animation

The Cannes Film Festival can certainly welcome, and boost, movies that aim to be Academy Awards players — the festival has premiered at least one best picture nominee in four of the last five years, including "Nebraska" in 2013.

But as it made clear when it announced this year's official selection Thursday, Cannes also operates independently from the awards machinery of its late-summer and early-fall counterparts, emphasizing such things as returning directors and dues-paying.

As festival director Thierry Fremaux announced this year's selections at a Paris news conference, the returnees were much in evidence. Mike Leigh will come back with his new film "Mr. Turner" — a biopic about the British artist JMW Turner — having brought his last film, "Another Year," to the festival in 2010 and winning the Palme d'Or for "Secrets & Lies" in 1996.

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With Irish period piece "Jimmy Hall," the competition will once again welcome Ken Loach, who Fremaux guessed has more Cannes appearances in his career than any other director. And French titan Jean-Luc Godard has been given a competition slot for the first time in 13 years for his 3-D (!) "Goodbye to Language" despite recent tepid offerings, including the coolly received "Film Socialisme" in 2010.

Returning filmmakers tend to catch programmers' eye at Cannes — which this year will begin on May 14 — even if it's been a while since their last visit. Tommy Lee Jones hasn't directed a movie in nine years. But his well-received appearance in 2005 with "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" may have helped ensure a spot in competition for his latest, "The Homesman," a movie about a westward migration starring Hilary Swank that Fremaux described as "a western... but not a western with cavalry and Indians."

And Fremaux acknowledged that a coveted out-of-competition slot went to DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon 2" as a kind of thank you to DWA head Jeffrey Katzenberg for his years of cooperation with the festival, on the occasion of the company's 20th anniversary.

All of this doesn't mean awards strategy is absent from the festival. Cannes is a place where a few big hopefuls usually launch, and a savvy distributor can ride buzz from the Croisette all the way to the Oscar podium, as the Weinstein Co. did with Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" in 2011. (He's back with a new film too, "The Search," a Chechnya-set remake of a 1948 post-World War II picture).

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This year the movie that rides in with the highest Oscar expectations is "Foxcatcher," the Bennett Miller fact-based drama about John du Pont's murder of wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996 starring Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. Like "Grace of Monaco," the previously announced Grace Kelly biopic starring Nicole Kidman that opens the festival, "Foxcatcher" was moved out of the 2013 season as Miller and distributor Sony Pictures Classics worked on the cut.

As a closely observed bellwether for the state of cinema, the Cannes Film Festival puts a veneer of credibility on — and a bright target on the back of — any movie that premieres there, the announcement of what's in and what's out, setting up a high-risk, high-reward game. That was true for other selections Thursday.

On the opposite side of the ledger from Leigh and Loach, Xavier Dolan got a long-awaited — at least by him — promotion from other sections to the main competition with his custody drama "Mommy."

A Quebecois who has improbably made five feature films by the age of 25, Dolan has been to Cannes three times previously in other sections with films such as "Laurence Anyways" and "Heartbeats," but has said he's been unhappy being shut out of the competition. To a reporter who asked if Dolan's discontent was a factor in his acceptance, Fremaux laughed and said no, though acknowledged he was aware of his displeasure and offered an arched eyebrow to his feverish work ethic. "If he keeps going at this pace, in 20 years he'll have made 20 films."

No Cannes 2014 selection may be more telling of its approach than Ryan Gosling. The festival embraces Gosling, whose films have appeared numerous times, from "Blue Valentine" to "Drive" to "Only God Forgives." But he is looking to make an evolution to filmmaker with the mysterious "Lost River," a movie about an underwater utopia starring Christina Hendricks and Eva Mendes (but not Gosling).

That netted him an entry — but only in Un Certain Regard, in keeping with the unwritten rule that most first-time directors are kept out of competition.

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This year's selections also showed another unspoken rule of Cannes selections: to grab a competition slot, it helps to mix in star power with your auteurs. That potent, at times polar synergy is, after all, what Cannes runs on, the thousands of camera-wielding fans and professional photographers who pack the streets outside the landmark Palais des Festivals a contrast to the earnest, elegant genuflections to the power of cinema inside it.

This year, Kristen Stewart landed in competition with "Sils Maria," Olivier Assayas' English-language examination of actors' lives in Europe, while her former "Twilight" co-star and tabloid stablemate Rob Pattinson has two films, David Cronenberg's inside-Hollywood story "Maps to the Stars," in competition, and "The Rover," Australian David Michod's crime drama, in an out-of-competition midnight slot.

Coming off what some regard as the best year for film in recent memory, the bar is high for the small group of films that will comprise this year's selection. After all, many of last year's award-season's talkers — "Nebraska," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and particularly "Blue Is the Warmest Color" — came to prominence in large part because of attention first showered on them at Cannes. On Thursday, the festival showed that it is once again willing to throw down in the awards game, if only on its own terms.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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