US films create buzz at Cannes

Every spring, an army of critics, reporters, and industry insiders head for the annual film festival here. It's a pilgrimage we look forward to eagerly – and nervously, too.

Why do we flock to Cannes so regularly? It's not for the warm Riviera sun, since we spend most of our time in large, crowded rooms with nary a window in sight.

(Those auditoriums are stuffy, too. For all their accomplishments, the French seem to have never quite mastered the art of air conditioning.)

Nor is it for the parties and black-tie screenings you'll be hearing about on glitz-and-glamour TV channels. The press and industry screenings are more modest affairs – no red carpets, posh evening gowns, or celebrity-studded galas for the likes of us.

This doesn't mean we lack for excitement. Some movies are shown in medium-sized theaters with tiny lobbies – and, like air conditioning, the habit of forming orderly queues has never caught on here. That usually means that at least two or three screenings and press conferences each year turn into thundering, almost life-threatening stampedes when the theater door finally opens.

So why do we come here?

Simply because no other event offers such a wide-ranging overview of current film, or has such a walloping influence on filmmakers' careers – and on the choice of movies that eventually come to local theaters everywhere.

To première a picture at Cannes is to unveil it for people whose opinions can launch a movie with a resounding cheer – or send it to oblivion with literally thousands of downturned thumbs.

We journalists want to see this process in action. And to tell our moviegoing readers about the pictures we discover – since viewers with more awareness of what's out there may demand more choices from the market-sensitive entertainment industry.

With such a stimulating task facing us, it would take more than airless auditoriums and film-critic stampedes to keep us away.

This year's program, getting under way this week, doesn't have a large American presence. But the US movies that did make the cut are impressively varied, and are generating more buzz than most of their European, Asian, and Latin American competitors.

One is About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson as a widower trekking through the Midwest to his daughter's wedding. Nicholson reportedly lowered his movie-star pricetag to snag this role, which speaks well for Jim Taylor's screenplay. It's directed by Alexander Payne, who teamed with Taylor for "Citizen Ruth" and "Election," two of the smartest political satires of recent years.

Speaking of politics, Michael Moore scored big with "Roger & Me," his 1988 portrait of a city bulldozed by corporate greed. His new movie analyzes a real-life school shooting from an iconoclastic perspective. Would a man who ducks controversy make a documentary called Bowling for Columbine?

Punch Drunk Love comes from Paul Thomas Anderson, whose "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" made him a mainstay of the American indie scene.

The stars are punchy Adam Sandler and elegant Emily Watson, an offbeat pairing if ever there was one. Their on-screen chemistry – or lack of it – will spark much comment as they walk the red carpet to the première.

Other hard-ticket items include All or Nothing, by England's brilliant Mike Leigh, whose "Secrets & Lies" scored at Cannes and in the Oscar race in 1996; and 24 Hour Party People, a fictionalized history of Britain's roaring '80s rock scene. And then there's Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a G-rated animation in the old Hollywood tradition. Cannes is known for art films, but it's surely an equal-opportunity showcase.

• David Sterritt's coverage of Cannes will continue next Friday and May 31.

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