The driver who brought me into Cannes this morning from the Nice airport told me I’m lucky because the weather here was horrible the day before. Well, the sun has started shining now, just as the 65th annual Cannes Film Festival is in heavy preparation mode for its big opening night Wednesday with Focus Features’ Moonrise Kingdom kicking things off from director Wes Anderson, who’s making his Croisette debut. Certainly festival director Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob hope the sun will shine on the official selection this year as well after a rousing 2011 where Cannes had an an unusually large impact on the Oscar race. An impressive three films that debuted here — Midnight In Paris, The Tree Of Life and The Artist — all received Best Picture nominations, with the latter winning and also taking four other Oscars — including one for Best Actor Jean Dujardin repeating his Cannes victory. A fourth 2011 competition entry, Drive was also a major player during awards season after picking up the Best Director prize here for Nicolas Winding Refn.

That’s a pretty tough act for Fremaux to follow. When I saw him at  this year’s Governors Ball chatting up Harvey Weinstein just a short time after The Artist’s Oscar triumph (the first French picture ever to pull that off), I suggested that the pressure is on to repeat again this year. “I’m just here supporting our film,” an excited Fremaux told me at the time, but certainly ‘how do you top this?’ had to be in the back of his mind. Of course, Cannes being the world’s most important film festival doesn’t depend on finding movies that strike the fancy of Academy voters, but the two biggest red carpets in show business are important for each other.

Oscar and Cannes don’t always see eye to eye, so last year might have been an abberation. 1955’s  Marty still  remains the one and only film to win Best Picture and its Cannes equivalent the Palme d’Or (The Artist could have been the second but lost the Palme to the only American competition entry, The Tree Of Life).

Usually Cannes makes its biggest impact on the Oscar race in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, with Cannes discoveries landing the lion’s share of nominations. But last year only one Cannes debut, Israel’s Footnote, made the final cut. But for 2012 there are certainly a number of promising titles from world-class filmmakers to turn that performance around. With new films from auteurs like Matteo Garrone (Reality), Jacques Audiard (Rust And Bone), Cristian Mungiu (Beyond The Hills), Michael Haneke (Amour), Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt), Abbas Kiarostami (Like Someone In Love), Ken Loach (The Angels’ Share),  Hong Sangsoo (In Another Country) , 90-year-old Alain Resnais (You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet), and the late Claude Miller’s final film Therese Desqueyroux among others, there is certainly excitement in the air.

The real focus as to how much this year’s fest can emulate 2011 in influencing Oscar’s upper races will be on the marquee titles with big names — and commercial prospects — outside the art house circuit. Full reviews of Moonrise Kingdom have to wait until after its Wednesday press screenings here, but suffice to say it walks and talks like a Wes Anderson film. He’s a unique voice in cinema, but none of his previous films have yet cracked a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Will this break the mold? It will be interesting to see how he does in his first Cannes competition. Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris was last year’s beloved opener (though out of competition), so it is a tough act to follow. 

Precious Oscar nominee Lee Daniels is sparking some buzz with his follow-up film The Paperboy starring Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, John Cusack and Matthew McConaughey. (The latter also is starring in Jeff Nichols’ first main competition entry, Mud, showing on the last Saturday of the fest; Nichols’ Take Shelter dominated Critics Week last year.) One of the longest-gestating movie projects ever — Walter Salles’ film adaptation of Jack Keroauc’s Beat bible On The Roadwhich the author once hoped would star Marlon Brando in his prime — is a highly anticipated premiere May 23, and star Kristen Stewart is sure to make a splash on the red carpet. There’s also a new David Cronenberg film, Cosmopolis, on May 25and he’s always a force to be reckoned with here if not at the Oscars, where he has never been shown much love. It stars Stewart’s Twilight partner Robert Pattinson.

Finally there are a pair of contenders from The Weinstein Company in Lawless (formerly The Wettest County In The World), from director John Hillcoat and starring Shia LeBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain; and Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt. Even though it’s early in the game, you have to believe Harvey Weinstein is again hoping a successful Cannes debut will lead to the inevitable Oscar campaigns for both fall entries. Of course there’s always a risk when you come here months ahead of your release. When I talked to Pitt after he received a Best Actor nomination for Moneyball in January, he told me he was quite excited about his Killing Them Softly role. “It’s pretty strong; it’s unconventional as well,” Pitt said of the project, filmed under the title Cogan’s Trade. It’s a mob-themed movie from Andrew Dominick, who directed one of Pitt’s personal favorites, The Assasination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. The Weinstein Co has been fine-tuning the film in advance of its May 22 debut here. In fact, Harvey and Weinstein COO David Glasser were spotted at L.A.’s Landmark Theatre doing a research screening last Thursday, the same night President Obama was across town at George Clooney’s house. Actually, I ran into Harvey exactly two years ago at the same theatre where he was doing a test screening of a new cut of Blue Valentine prior to its Un Certain Regard Cannes debut. Must be a good-luck venue.

Speaking of Un Certain Regard, the secondary and often edgier, more relaxed competition offers its own intriguing list this year with just two American films in the bunch — both triumphs from Sundance and SXSW and both from first-time directors. Fox Searchlight’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild from Benh Zeitlin  won the big prize at Sundance, while writer-director Adam Leon’s remarkable and lively teen graffiti tale Gimme The Loot won Best Narrative Feature at SXSW. That film’s young stars Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson are ones to watch when this infectious film gets its Cannes moment on the fest’s final weekend.

Oscar isn’t the only major showbiz award that could be impacted by what we are about to see unfold in the next 11 days. Out of competition but in the official selection is the rare TV film, Hemingway And Gellhorn, starring Kidman (again) and Clive Owen in the story of the tempestuous love affair and marriage of the ‘it’ couple of the 1940s. Directed by Philip Kaufman in his TV debut, it’s truly epic and cinematic but instead of theatres it will be debuting May 28 on HBO just three days after its world premiere in Cannes. If this festival’s selections fail to impress Oscar this year do not despair Mr. Fremaux. With Hemingway And Gellhorn in the mix, you could just be having an impact on the Emmy race too.