CANNES, France: A Hollywood wrestling drama, a British biopic of an iconic artist and an intimate Turkish look at a troubled marriage led the pack for Cannes’ top prize Tuesday.
Halfway through the competition, critics cheered a few standout pictures among 18 contenders vying for the coveted Palme d’Or in what they called a surprise-filled year.
An international critics’ poll in British film magazine “Screen” had Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” a whisker ahead of the slow-burn domestic drama “Winter Sleep” by Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose career Cannes has long championed.
A Monday screening of “Foxcatcher,” starring U.S. comic actor Steve Carell as chemicals fortune heir John du Pont also generated excited buzz.
Based on du Pont’s real-life murder of an Olympic wrestling medallist in 1996, the film features a nearly unrecognizable Carell in an understated performance that is a far cry from his comic antics.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Roxborough said “Foxcatcher” was “already getting Oscar buzz” for Carell.
Variety’s Justin Chang said Bennett Miller’s picture was an “acrid, anguished commentary on the temptations of wealth, the abuse of power and the downside of the human drive for success.”
A fictionalization of the life of J.M.W. Turner, the 19th-century landscape painter credited with blazing a trail for modern art, “Mr. Turner” is widely seen as a return to form by the director, 71-year-old Leigh, who won the Palme d’Or in 1996 for “Secrets and Lies.”
German critic Jan Schulz-Ojala awarded “Mr. Turner” the maximum four stars while Peter Bradshaw of London’s Guardian newspaper called the picture “glorious.”
Cannes watchers said “Winter Sleep” could finally bring Ceylan the Palme d’Or. His feature was the bookies’ favorite to win ahead of the 12-day festival.
Variety called the story of a wealthy retired actor whose self-deception and hypocrisy hobble his marriage “a richly engrossing and ravishingly beautiful magnum opus” that, despite a three-hour running time, mesmerized cinemagoers.
Jean-Philippe Guerand, a critic with Film Francais for more than two decades, called the competition films a “good selection full of surprises.”
He said that while a few Cannes regulars had failed to live up to their reputations, “Wild Tales,” an Argentine grab bag of uproarious revenge fantasies by little-known director Damian Szifron had proved a delight.
He also hailed “Timbuktu” by Abderrahmane Sissako, the first feature about the jihadist takeover in Mali and the defiance of the locals that helped defeat it.
“It’s a courageous film that makes a key contribution: Showing us things we’ve heard about but never seen,” Guerand argued. “The film also manages to make you laugh even at tragic things and on top of that, is visually exceptional.”
Audiences embraced “The Wonders” by Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, a tender, slow-moving tale of a family of beekeepers by one of two women directors in the race.
Despite high expectations, “The Homesman,” a “Women’s Western” directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Hilary Swank, divided critics, along with Canadian provocateur David Cronenberg’s vicious Hollywood send-up, “Maps to the Stars.”
Roxborough opined the rest of the festival could have a few more gems in store.
He cited “Two Days, One Night” by the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgian brothers who have already won twice at Cannes, as well as “Leviathan,” Michel Hazanavicius’ follow-up to “The Artist.”
The critic noted that the turmoil in Ukraine and Russia had hurt business at Cannes’ film rights market.
“It is making everyone nervous and unwilling to do deals,” he said. “ Russia has been one of the fastest-growing territories in terms of box office over the past few years, but the current situation – and the drastic fall of the ruble – has meant that piece of the financial piece has fallen away.”