Just as I hit the ground at the Nice airport today I ran smack into Jude Law, one of the main competition jury members of the 64th edition of the Cannes Film Festival (under President Robert De Niro), and he looked rarin’ to go as he arrived for all the hoopla and non-stop filmgoing over the next 11 days. We’ll see what he feels like after plowing through the 20 competition films as well as those out of competition such as Wednesday night’s opener, Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, and the closer, on May 22, Christophe Honore’s 2-hour and 25-minute Les Bien-Aimes (Beloved), the longest of any film in the official competition — competing or not.

Workers were busily attaching huge billboards up on the big Croisette hotels when I cruised the tony neighborhood earlier today, but the world’s second-most-famous red carpet won’t be laid out until midday tomorrow just before Woody, Marion Cotillard, Owen Wilson and the cast of the director’s first French-set film make their way up those famous Palais steps for his love letter to Paree. It was hoped that co-star Carla Bruni, aka Mrs. Nicolas Sarkozy, First Lady of France, would be coming too, but I heard she’s not making the trip after all and neither is her husband. C’est La Vie.

Up and down the Croisette you are bombarded as usual by Hollywood product being hyped on any available space. The new Transformers film from that auteur (NOT) Michael Bay got the hot spot at the Carlton entrance right next to a display for Disney/Pixar’s  Cars 2 on one side and Cowboys and Aliens on the other. Lording over them, though, are The Smurfs and all of those Pirates of the Caribbean, which plans to make a huge splash here Saturday as the prime-time film on one of the key nights of the fest. Star power will be in force, of course, with Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz driving the paparazzi wild, which is just what Disney wants for its global launch of the film that premiered last week at Disneyland and makes another stop in Moscow before hitting the Cote d’Azur. Cannes, though a serious-minded haven for cineastes, doesn’t mind the attention either.

Although there are lots of lesser-known flicks unspooling in the various competitions here over the next 11 days, Cannes, in addition to also being a major marketplace for buyers and sellers, is undoubtedly a magnet for launching summer fare. No less than five films — Kung Fu Panda 2 (stars Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman are in town for a lot of press doings), Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight In Paris and Terrence Malick’s forever gestating The Tree Of Life — are using Cannes as a major platform to get worldwide press attention for their May release dates. In fact, the latter two films have held back major press screenings until their Cannes debut with distributors, working on a time crunch, scheduling simultaneous press screenings in L.A. and N.Y. to coincide with the starting time of their official premieres here. Both will be launching their domestic runs just 10 days after unspooling here, leaving little time for a lot of pre-release screenings in the States and putting their publicity machines in a pickle. But a Cannes premiere with all the world’s entertainment media in one place is too hard to pass up.

Certainly the most eagerly awaited of all the competition entries this year, just based on buzz alone, Tree Of Life‘s Cannes saga started last year when it was eagerly accepted by Fest Director Thierry Fremaux only to be pulled back by perfectionist Malick. But what goes around comes around, and the festival finally reeled it in. Malick will hit the red carpet, but the notoriously reclusive director will apparently not participate in the obligatory press conference as he’s not listed on the rundown that does include star Brad Pitt among others. Some are predicting this will be the film that wins the Palme d’Or. Malick won Best Director here in 1978 for Days Of Heaven but between then and Tree of Life has only made two other films, The Thin Red Line and the rather dull New World. (In record pace for him, he recently just completed shooting another film.) Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos, who is coming to Cannes for the Monday night premiere, along with the whole Searchlight contingent (who picked the movie up from producer Bill Pohlad’s River Road in Telluride over Labor Day), was raving about the film when I ran into him last week.

Still, betting on Palme d’Or winners is fool’s folly. Each jury has its own quirks and remain totally unpredictable. Who would have predicted last year’s winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives? It didn’t even make the nine finalists for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language list even though Cannes is a grand showcase for some of the best of world cinema. Still, the recent winners of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — Departures, The Secret in Their Eyes and In A Better World — weren’t even in Cannes competition, so you can bet Fremaux is hoping this year’s auteur-heavy lineup will change that statistic with much-awaited new films from past Cannes faves like Nanni Moretti (Habemus Papam), two-time Palme d’Or winners the Dardenne brothers (The Kid With A Bike), Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre), Lars von Trier (Melancholia), Paolo Sorrentino (This Must Be The Place, starring Sean Penn, who is also in Tree Of Life), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia).

And of course there’s Pedro Almodovar, who has made a bid for the Palme d’Or three times before and is back with his first “horror” film, The Skin I Live In, starring Antonio Banderas, which I am told he went down to the wire in editing in order to have it ready for its Cannes debut May 19. It will be released stateside by Sony Pictures Classics, whose co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard funded it from script stage.

Another Cannes favorite, Gus Van Sant, will be opening the always-interesting Un Certain Regard section with another Sony Pictures Classics film about a young terminal cancer patient, Restless, starring Mia Wasikowska.

Women are gaining a lot of attention this year as well across all competitions including Directors Fortnight and Un Certain Regard. Leading off the main competing films Thursday night are Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty followed by Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton. That’s an unexpected double feature and a very welcome development for a festival that has always seemed more tilted toward the guys.

One eagerly awaited title toward the end of the Festival is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a film noirish piece starring hot things Carrie Mulligan and Ryan Gosling, both among New Gen Oscar bait. Of course, Cannes, while sometimes generating Oscar talk (think The Pianist, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds), rarely pulls off a big matching win. You have to go back to 1955 when Marty won what was the equivalent of the Palme d’Or and then went on to win Best Picture.

Can one of this year’s entries do it? Don’t hold your breath, but there is lots of buzz and enthusiasm this year that was sorely lacking when I got here this time last May.

Can’t wait to dive in.