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Cannes 2016: 11 films our critic can’t wait to see

Cannes 2016: 11 films our critic can’t wait to see
Ruby Barnhill stars in "The BFG," adapted from Roald Dahl's novel. (Walt Disney Studios)

An annual gathering of cinema's best and brightest (and sometimes just loudest and luckiest), the Cannes Film Festival contains multitudes: studio blockbusters and low-budget discoveries, midnight horror-thrillers and cinephile documentaries, George Clooney and Isabelle Huppert, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Steven Spielberg. This year's 69th edition will open with Woody Allen's 1930s romance "Café Society" before veering down a rabbit hole of family dysfunction, sexual intrigue and geopolitical turmoil — invariably among the festival's favorite subjects and themes.

With 55 features set to screen in the official selection, and more than 30 playing in various adjacent programs (including Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Week), diligent festival-goers will have their work cut out for them in terms of figuring out what to see. Those who stick with it are sure to get a first look at several of the year's most notable movies from around the world. Here are 11 titles that I'm hoping will be among them (listed in alphabetical order):

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1. "Aquarius." This year there are 21 films in competition for the Palme d'Or, the festival's top prize and effectively the highest honor in world cinema. Most of these films are from seasoned directors who have been in this derby a few times before. One notable exception is Kleber Mendonça Filho, who made an outstanding debut a few years ago with his ensemble drama "Neighboring Sounds," which brilliantly examined the tensions and anxieties of contemporary Brazilian life. With any luck, "Aquarius" — notably, the only Latin American-produced feature in competition — will build on that film's promise.

2. "The BFG." As a rule, you don't go to Cannes to see movies that will flood your multiplex a month later — or in less than a week, as is the case with Jodie Foster's "Money Monster" (starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts) and Shane Black's "The Nice Guys" (with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling). Then again, to simply skip all the Hollywood product would be to neglect a potentially important part of the conversation: Last year's "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Inside Out" were rightly hailed as two of the best films playing anywhere in Cannes, in an early harbinger of their eventual Oscar-night glory.

Hence my high hopes for "The BFG," an adaptation of a wickedly funny Roald Dahl novel that is both a childhood favorite and a fount of culturally dubious wordplay ("He went off to Baghdad to bag dad and mum"). We should expect only good things from Steven Spielberg and Mark Rylance (a recent Oscar winner for "Bridge of Spies"), who plays the Big Friendly Giant of the title. The film also marks the final collaboration between Spielberg and the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, whose credits include such landmark children's films as "E.T." and "The Black Stallion" — all of which augurs well for "The BFG" even as it sets a very high bar.

3. "Elle." Paul Verhoeven hasn't directed a full-length feature in the decade since his rude and raunchy World War II thriller "Black Book," and he hasn't had a film in competition at Cannes in the 24 years since "Basic Instinct." Both those streaks will come to an end with this apparently quite violent French-language psychological thriller starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman who begins stalking her rapist. (Sort of like last year's Rosamund Pike vehicle "Return to Sender," except, you know, better. Hopefully.) Verhoeven has a gift for bringing out the very best — which is to say, the very worst — in his leading ladies, and Huppert, no stranger to turning self-abasement into art ("The Piano Teacher"), sounds like just what the mad doctor ordered.

4. "Neruda." Four years ago Pablo Larraín scored a big critical hit in the Directors' Fortnight program with "No," a rousing political dramedy set during the final days of Pinochet's reign of terror. The Chilean director is back in the Fortnight this year with "Neruda," which stars Luis Gnecco as the famous poet and politician during his fugitive years (and also features "No" star Gael García Bernal as the policeman on Neruda's tail). Here's hoping Larraín, whose tonally varied work is always predicated on a precise marriage of style and subject matter, can breathe fresh life into the great-artist biopic template.

A still from Michael Dudok de Wit's "The Red Turtle," premiering in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.
A still from Michael Dudok de Wit's "The Red Turtle," premiering in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. (Wild Bunch)

5. "The Red Turtle." This beautiful-looking animated film, about a man stranded on a desert island, arrives in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar with a remarkable pedigree. It's the first feature directed by the Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, who is known for his Oscar-winning short, "Father and Daughter" (2000), and who wrote the reportedly dialogue-free script with the French filmmaker Pascale Ferran ("Lady Chatterley," "Bird People"). It's the first international co-production for the venerable Studio Ghibli, with Isao Takahata ("Grave of the Fireflies," "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya") serving as artistic producer.

6. "Risk." After obtaining such astonishing access to Edward Snowden in her Academy Award-winning documentary, "Citizenfour," the fearless Laura Poitras now turns her camera on another highly controversial document revealer, Julian Assange, in this in-depth, five-years-in-the-making look behind the scenes at WikiLeaks. I can't be the only one dying to know what she found out; expect this documentary to be one of the hottest tickets in Directors' Fortnight.

7. "The Salesman." Not much is yet known about the latest drama from the Iranian master Asghar Farhadi, which was added to the main competition at the last minute. But the mere fact that it centers on a couple's troubled relationship is good enough for me: His two previous films, "The Past" and the Oscar-winning "A Separation," spun tales of marital disintegration into spectacular dramatic fireworks. Farhadi's meticulously plotted humanist thrillers have suggested an ingenious synthesis of Agatha Christie and Jean Renoir; his new film, per its title, will add a dash of Arthur Miller to the mix.

A scene from "Sieranevada," which is screening in competition at Cannes.
A scene from "Sieranevada," which is screening in competition at Cannes. (Wild Bunch)

8. "Sieranevada." Romania boasts one of the most vital cinemas on the world stage, and for more than a decade Cannes has been its premiere launchpad. This year will see something of a bumper crop with the competition entry "Graduation," from the gifted director Cristian Mungiu (who won the 2007 Palme d'Or for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), and Bogdan Mirica's "Dogs," which is premiering in Un Certain Regard. The Romanian film drawing most of the early buzz, however, is Cristi Puiu's "Sieranevada," a nearly three-hour drama about a family reunion gone awry. Puiu's films, which include the much-lauded "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and "Aurora," have established him as a master of the slow burn: long takes, bleak atmosphere and the subtlest of dramatic cues. Remarkably, "Sieranevada" is his first film in competition; whether it lives up to its predecessors or not, the honor is long overdue.

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FOR THE RECORD

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10:02 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that "Sieranevada" is Cristi Puiu's first film in Cannes. It is his first film in competition.

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9. "Toni Erdmann" (Maren Ade). Not enough people saw this gifted German director's debut feature, "Everyone Else," one of the more ruthlessly honest relationship movies of recent vintage. Her long-awaited follow-up "Toni Erdmann," sounds like an excursion into lighter, funnier territory as it follows a father who drops in on his daughter abroad and tries to bring back her sense of humor with "a rampage of jokes," according to the Austrian Film Commission.

10. "The Unknown Girl" (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne). Belgium's Dardenne brothers are titans of world cinema and longtime Cannes standard-bearers, having won two Palmes (for 1999's "Rosetta" and 2005's "L'enfant") and a slew of other prizes. Each of their films is a heartrending moral thriller predicated on conscience rather than contrivance, and their latest, starring two-time Cesar-winning actress Adèle Haenel as a doctor investigating a patient's death, should be no exception. (An early hunch: The title doesn't refer to the person you think it does.)

11. "The Wailing" (Na Hong-jin). Many eyeballs will be on "The Handmaiden," a period drama and Palme d'Or contender from the attention-grabbing Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, who remains best known for shaking up the festival in 2004 with his violent revenge thriller "Oldboy." (That film won the Grand Prix, the jury's runner-up prize.) But I'm a bit more stoked for "The Wailing," a detective tale directed by Park's lesser-known countryman Na Hong-jin, which will be making its premiere out of competition. If it's anything like Na's two previous efforts, "The Chaser" and "The Yellow Sea," it will be a thriller of such grisly, unrelieved intensity as to put most American action movies to shame.

A scene from Na Hong-jin's "The Wailing," set to screen out of competition at Cannes.
A scene from Na Hong-jin's "The Wailing," set to screen out of competition at Cannes. (Finecut)

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