After two years in a row of heavily influencing the Oscar race, the 66th Cannes Film Festival lineup may make it three this year. Certainly I see very long and winding Croisette lines to pick up press or market credentials at the Palais, which is adorned with posters of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in a provocative still shot from their fluffy France-set 1963 comedy A New Kind Of Love. One early clue came when the jury was announced, beginning with President Steven Spielberg and including such Oscar winners as Ang Lee, Nicole Kidman and Christoph Waltz. And if it’s not enough to have those icons prominent at this year’s fest, add The Great Gatsby‘s Baz Lurhmann whose film is the opening night event with a gala after-party, and Martin Scorsese who will also be in town for a yacht party announcement of his longtime gestating directorial effort Silence on May 16th. Certainly many of the Cannes contenders both in and out of competition are from Academy Award winners and Cannes veterans back with intriguing films that make up a high profile and potent selection with advance buzz.  Competing are the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Roman Polanski and Alexander Payne plus a slew of famous names in front of the cameras both on screen and on the Red Carpet this year.

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As for the competition and key sidebars, one perennial Cannes question os whether it’s a good idea to ready or even rush a film designed for year-end release in order to play at the Festival in May. Particularly of that means risking negative reviews which can be a real buzz killer. Take, for instance, Payne’s last minute entry Nebraska from Paramount, which almost didn’t appear here. In the initial forecast Deadline posted on March 13, we thought Payne’s film fit in with the auteurist nature of the fest, it’s in black and white, and its filmmaker is quite a favorite in Cannes. (He has had only one film previously in competition – 2002’s About Schmidt – and won no prize, but he not only headed the jury for Un Certain Regard in 2005 but also was a member of the main competition jury last year.) Yet shortly after this prediction I was told Cannes wasn’t in the cards due to Payne’s fondness for long post-production time. He didn’t want to be rushed. Then the studio saw the film about a week before the Cannes deadline and execs urged Payne to put it into the festival. He took Nebraska to Paris to show to Cannes programming honcho Thierry Fremaux with just two days to go before the press conference announcing the 2013 lineup. Now it is one of the most anticipated screenings even though it ooccurs towards the end of the Festival on May 23. Paramount claims  it recently had a successful research screening in Pasadena and has dated the film for November 22nd, right in the heart of Oscar season (Payne is a two-time Screenwriting Oscar winner for Sideways and The Descendants).

Conversely there was absolutely no doubt Joel and Ethan Coen would be bringing their latest, the 1960’s-set Greenwich Village folk music tale Inside Llewyn Davis screening on May 19. It is their 8th time around this particular block so they are virtually Cannes regulars. CBS Films won’t release the movie stateside until December 6, another prime Oscar date.

Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur screening on May 25 on the last day of competition is the adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway play. It brings Polanski back to Cannes for the first time since winning his only Palme d’Or (for 2003’s The Pianist, which resulted in a Best Director Oscar). It stars  his wife Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Almarac and though audiences and critics weren’t too impressed with the last Polanski Broadway play adaptation God Of Carnage, this dramatic work could be more up his alley. There’s also strong interest in French director  Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian screening May 18 largely due to lead actor Benecio Del Toro’s role as a Blackfoot Indian WWII vet. (But someone’s gotta change that lumbering title.) Cannes watchers also are buzzing about new works from three directors who are no strangers on the Croisette: Nicolas Winding Refn who won Best Director in Cannes for 2011’s Drive and has re-teamed with star Ryan Gosling as a drug smuggler in the May 22nd entry Only God Forgives. (I am told Kristin Scott Thomas steals this one as his mother). And though his films don’t make much noise in theatres, James Gray is a Cannes favorite  and back with his fourth competition entry, The Immigrant (formerly called Lowlife) screening May 24th with a starry cast of Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. Jim Jarmusch brings his new Vampire story Only Lovers Left Alive which stars the always intriguing Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska . It has the distinction of being the last film to make the list and the last competition film to be screened: in the 10 PM slot on May 25th.

As always with Cannes there is just too damn much to see with many sidebar competitions like Un Certain Regard, Director’s Fortnight, Critics Week, Cannes Classics and so on. Certainly the opener for Un Certain Regard, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Ryan Coogler’s Sundance sensation Fruitvale Station (summer releases stateside) are both screening on the sidebar’s first day of May 16th and are instant must-sees in addition to James Franco’s directorial outing, As I Lay Dying, on May 20th.

One of the most interesting choices for Cannes this year is Behind The Candelabra in the prime spot of May 21. From Steven Soderbergh (a past Palme d’Or winner for 1989’s Sex, Lies And Videotape) and supposedly his last (I don’t believe him), the film premieres on HBO five days after its Cannes debut, even though it is theatrical in the rest of the world. With two outstanding performances by Michael Douglas starring as Liberace and Matt Damon as his young male lover Scott Thorson, it’s provocative and highly entertaining material which I have already seen. (It was sent to every Emmy voter weeks ago.) With that cast and director, it easily could have been an Oscar contender but likely will sweep the Movie/Miniseries Emmy categories. Fremaux had to convince a reluctant Soderbergh to let it compete, and, if it wins prizes, that will certainly be a first for HBO. The pay channel was here last year with Hemingway & Gellhorn and finds Cannes and its attendant publicity value a good way to launch for the small screen in America the way other distribs do for the big screen.

Of course this list is just partial and among other highlights is The Past screening on May 17, the first film from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi since he won the Foreign Language Film Oscar for A Separation. It stars The Artist’s Oscar nominated Berenice Bejo as a French woman involved in a failing marriage with an Iranian man. In fact, a number of other international Cannes titles are likely to turn up as entries in this year’s Oscar race, including this one if Iran will allow it. (The country sat out the race last year due to political reasons).

Out of competition on May 22nd is what is said to be a tour-de-force performance by Robert Redford in J.C. Chandor’s (Margin Call) All Is Lost, the story of a man and the elements. Roadside Attractions topper Howard Cohen tells me his company is very high on its prospects. French star and Tell No One director Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties stars his wife Marion Cotillard (again!) with Clive Owen. It’s an English language debut for Canet and is also stirring interest on the must-see lists for its May 20th screening.

Beyond all the official goings-on, there are some intriguing events where Oscar-watchers in particular will want to be. As in recent years, The Weinstein Company plans to bring filmmakers and stars to unveil generous footage from their fall slate of Oscar hopefuls, including August Osage County, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Grace Of Monaco, The Butler (just moved to August) as well as Fruitvale, Immigrant and Only God Forgives.

Oscar-wise, the Festival has a lot to live up to based on the success of the past two years. Last year’s Palme d’Or winner Amour not only went on to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but also had the rare distinction for a foreign film of being a Best Picture nominee. Two years ago Cannes premiered Woody Allen’s big Oscar comeback Midnight In Paris (a Best Pic nominee and Original Screenplay winner). Plus Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner The Tree Of Life went on to become a Best Picture nominee, while The Artist took a Cannes prize for Best Actor for star Jean Dujardin and not only repeated that feat for the Academy Awards but also took Best Pic and three additional Oscars. No one is saying we will have another year like that this time around, but all revealed on the Cote D’Azur as the festival kicks off in a few hours.