It's hard to say whether it's more fitting or ironic that "L'Amour" dominated this year's Cannes Film Festival, holding the Gallic fete du cinema's flogging hordes in its thrall. This is not to say that Michael Haneke's harrowing tale of a man struggling with his wife's impending death isn't more than worthy of the Palme D'Or that was bestowed upon it over the weekend along with the festival's other awards going to the likes of Sundance sensation "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (Camera D'Or), Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" (Best Actor, Mads Mikkelson), Christian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" (Best Actresses Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur) and Ken Loach's "The Angel's Share" (Jury Prize).
But for every visionary auteur anointed and every masterpiece that beckons the next cinematic tidal upsurge (i.e., "The German New Wave has crested!"), Cannes crowds have proven themselves capable of the kind of public shaming and extreme cruelty normally relegated to junior high school lunchrooms and talk radio. Such ambitious failed experiments as Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" and Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" were attacked with a savage intensity befitting a piece of Nazi propaganda.
But rather than blaming these vitriolic outbursts on the kind of cultural petulance often attributed to all things French. We suspect there's something more benign (and interesting) driving these toddler-like vacillations between extreme affection and inconsolable tantrums: unrealistic expectations. Because Cannes is considered the world's premiere showcase for cutting-edge cinema, audiences have a much lower tolerance for the inevitable duds, misfires, and interesting failures that pop up like weeds in any festival program.
As it turns out we had a few expectations of our own going into Cannes 2012. In fact, about three weeks ago, we composed a list of the most promising films debuting on the Croisette this year. We never wrote that post because we thought it might be more interesting to look back at how our expectations measured up to the genuine articles. In most cases -- as you'll find in the following postmortem assessment of some of this year's most highly anticipated Cannes contenders (both in and out of competition) -- this batch of films held up surprisingly well under the glare of Gallic scrutiny. That doesn't mean this year was without its designated leper in the form of "The Paperboy" (Lee Daniels' adaptation of Pete Dexter's novel), which weathered the outrage and may even go on to succeed with audiences not expecting the next great masterpiece. But for those who are, here is a selection of 2012 Cannes alums least likely to disappoint.
"Hemingway and Gellhorn"
This made-for-HBO portrait of the perilous and peripatetic love affair between two literary lions -- Ernest Hemingway and novelist/war correspondent Martha Gellhorn -- is the rare example of a film that exceeded expectations of critics and audiences alike when it drew raves after screening out of competition late in the festival. Turbulent literary romance is not new terrain for writer-director Philip Kaufman ("Henry and June"), but his detailed character study of these two icons brought a grit and humanity to characters that have often fallen prey to caricature in past portraits.
"Killing them Softly"
Based on George V. Higgins' celebrated crime novel Cogan's Trade, writer-director Andrew Dominick mined this neo-noir about a hit man (Brad Pitt) hired to take out a friend (Ray Liotta) who runs the mob's high-stakes poker game for every ounce of its power as a haunting allegory for corruption and collusion between the government and Wall Street in creating the financial crisis and politician's disingenuous promises to get us out of the hot mess they engineered. Not since the '70s has a high-profile film stacked with big movie stars worn its outrage at the political status quo so nakedly.
"On the Road"
Some thirty years in the making, this adaptation of Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation expressionist cri de coeur drove into Cannes hauling a metric shit-ton of anticipation. It took writer-director Walter Salles some seven years developing the project, even making a documentary about the process, "Searching for On the Road," along the way. He won half the battle in translating Kerouac's crackling kinetic prose into a visual medium. So when the quintessentially American odyssey starring Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, and Garrett Hedlund received a warm but not overwhelmingly positive reception in Cannes, the filmmakers and fans of the book considered it a victory nonetheless.
Writer-director John Hillcoat established himself as a fierce filmmaker capable of probing humanity's darkest depths with his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. He only further cements that reputation with this adaptation of Matt Bondurant's The Wettest County in the World, a dark and depraved Prohibition-era tale of a trio of bootlegging brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke). Novelist and Goth rocker Nick Cave wrote the screenplay that plays like a grand elegy that will leave audiences reeling for days.
Taken together, the elements comprising writer-director David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's topical and provocative novel might seem like some sort of parody dreamed up by the smart alecks over at The Onion: Rob Pattinson stars as the anti-heroic start-up millionaire who falls prey to serious paranoiac episodes as he tries to control and protect his paper fiefdom. It was only two years ago that it was hard to boot up a computer without being assaulted by "Twilight" headlines accompanied by images of Pattinson's brooding mug peering out from beneath his cascade of Byronic curls. But now comes "Cosmopolis," which has been celebrated as a prime example of quintessential Cronenberg at his most idiosyncratic, thoughtful, and eminently watchable prime. This is the rare case where a film cleared the high expectations in its path with room to spare.