Now that opening night is behind us and all the unnecessary vitriolic venom from some critics toward the Cannes Film Festival‘s choice for opener, Grace Of Cannes2014_badgeMonaco, the main official competition got underway tonight. The first film eligible for awards to screen was Mr. Turner from Mike Leigh, who has been in the hunt on the Croisette four times before and won the coveted Palme d’Or in 1996 for his masterpiece, Secrets & Lies.

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After seeing his latest, an uncharacteristic period piece, screen to an enthusiastic black-tie crowd at the Grand Lumiere Theatre at the Palais, I would venture to say he has just unleashed yet another masterpiece in Cannes. And given what you hope to see here at the festival, I would bet right now this one will be a major Oscar contender in several categories after it is released stateside December 19 by Sony Pictures Classics. It’s that good in "Mr Turner" Premiere - The 67th Annual Cannes Film Festivalterms of costume and production design, makeup, music, writing, directing and particularly acting. If there aren’t nominations for star Timothy Spall and supporting actress Marion Bailey, then something is terribly wrong with the Academy. Acting just doesn’t get better than this. Spall is simply extraordinary as 18th century English painter J.M.W. Turner in a performance that has got it all and drew early raves from critics and big applause from tonight’s audience. Yet Spall himself is modest about the whole thing and doesn’t seem to know what he has accomplished, at least according to what he told me at the film’s private dinner party at the Film Four (which financed) headquarters in Cannes. “I am so inside the movie, I don’t have any objectivity about it,” he said. “Yes, it’s fantastic every time I’ve seen it, but I don’t understand it all.” He added about the total transformation he makes in this film, I look at it and say, ‘Who’s that?'” No doubt we will be encountering him on the awards circuit many times during the next nine months. This is just the beginning. It’s a long road, but I can’t imagine Spall won’t be on it the whole time.

As for Leigh, he’s not only a Cannes favorite, he’s an Academy darling who somehow89U3166-Timothy-Spall-as-JMW-Turner-Turner-paints-in-his-studio never has won despite a whopping seven nominations spread over five movies including two for directing and a quintet for writing the gems Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy, Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year. This one should add to the total. That’s what great about Cannes: We can start making predictions early. Leigh employed his usual unusual style of bringing all the actors in for an extensive rehearsal period, honing the script and characters before actually shooting. The actors are in essence writing collaborators with Leigh, who has wanted to do the Turner story for a long time. “We started thinking about it at the end of the ’90s,” he said. “It just took a long time to get [financiers] interested in it.” I told him the low-budget film looks like a proverbial “million bucks,” and he agreed. “I know, and actually I have mixed feelings about that. You make a film for ‘two bucks’ that looks like a million bucks and then they tell you that’s all you need,” he laughed about digging his own hole.

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sony-pictures-classics-logoAs for Sony Pictures Classics, the company is really on a roll at this year’s Cannes — and it wasn’t according to plan, says co-President Tom Bernard, who shares the title with longtime partner Michael Barker. In addition to Mr. Turner, they have the long-gestating Foxcatcher, new pickup Saint Laurent, out of competition entries Red Army and Zhang Yimou’s Gui Lai (Coming Home), and Sundance winner Whiplash in Directors’ Fortnight.  There are nascent Academy campaign plans for all, depending on how the wind blows.

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In fact, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher was supposed to be part of last season’s contest but was delayed, even cancelling its AFI November premiere to allow more time in the editing room. Bernard said Steve Carell was extraordinary — and unrecognizable — in the movie. And Bernard is suggesting there may be even more to come as he surveys the available titles in Cannes. “I just saw four movies today,” he told me, with many others to watch in the next few days. He has a bike he rides around Cannes to get from one place to another. He said he and Barker are hands-on in every aspect of their business. SPC is one of the two remaining thriving art house specialty divisions still managing to exist in a major studio structure. He also expressed sorrow over this week’s surprising suicide of Malik Bendjelloul, director of SPC’s 2012 Best Vanity Fair Party - 2014 Tribeca Film FestivalDocumentary Oscar winner Searching For Sugar Man. “How do you top what he did? He won everything, but he didn’t want to be a hero or a star,” Bernard said. “He just wanted to do the next movie. Very sad.”

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Bernard and Barker both told me they have another major player in the documentary category with the aforementioned  Red Army, a Russian hockey film of sorts that SPC picked up last month and premieres here Friday night. Bernard, a major hockey fan, said you have to see this one to believe it (and there are two other versions of the story in the works elsewhere). He says you could have knocked him over with a feather by suggesting that it was going to Cannes. They are now thinking about July for a domestic opening of what he says is a remarkable movie.