The Cannes Film Festival is like Rick's Cafe Americain, Humphrey Bogart's nightclub in "Casablanca" about which one character proclaims, "Everybody comes to Rick's."
For film professionals, entertainment journalists and even fans worldwide, Cannes is the place where everybody comes _ or wishes they could _ for 12 days each May.
The 64th edition of Cannes, which starts Wednesday, is one of the world's prime celebrity-watching zones and a launching place for big and small films, among them Woody Allen's opening-night premiere "Midnight in Paris," featuring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard and France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
Other highlights include a Saturday night special as Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz turn out for a Cannes screening of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" over the festival's first weekend, followed by Monday's premiere of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.
Cannes gives all three films a last-second publicity blast as they head into commercial theaters during the festival or immediately after.
"With the star power of Johnny and Penelope, it's just great to have them walk down that red carpet there," said "Pirates" producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "You have the world media there. That's the biggest boost for us, because if you open a picture in May and you want to go to London and all these other places to promote it, there's nobody there. They're all in Cannes. So that's where you have to be."
The notoriously press-shy Malick _ who has made only a handful of films in a nearly 40-year career, among them "Days of Heaven," which earned him the Cannes directing prize in 1979 _ is expected to skip most or all of the public appearances filmmakers usually make at the festival.
"He chooses to live his life in a private way and just focus on the art," said "Tree of Life" producer Dede Gardner. "One of the very great differences working with him above all else is his honesty. He endeavors to achieve that in everything he does. Every moment he creates between the actors, there's a spontaneity that he insists upon, which is mesmerizing to watch."
Cannes organizers caught criticism last year for a lackluster lineup, but they have made up for it this time with a promising schedule of 20 films competing for the top prize, the Palme d'Or. Past winners include Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."
"Pirates" and "Midnight in Paris" screen out of competition, while "Tree of Life" is up for prizes against a field that features films from three past Palme d'Or winners.
Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, two-time winners for 1999's "Rosetta" and 2005's "The Child," return with their drama "The Kid with a Bike," starring Cecile de France. Danish director Lars von Trier, the festival's 2000 winner for "Dancer in the Dark," is back with "Melancholia," a drama with end-of-the-world overtones starring Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won the best-actress award at Cannes two years ago for von Trier's "Antichrist." Italian actor-director Nanni Moretti, the 2001 winner for "The Son's Room," comes to Cannes again with the papal saga "We Have a Pope," in which he co-stars with Michel Piccoli.
Spain's Pedro Almodovar, an Academy Award winner and frequent Cannes entrant who has won the festival's directing and screenplay prizes but never the Palme d'Or, is in the running again for the genre-bending tale "The Skin I Live In," starring Antonio Banderas, who rose to stardom in Almodovar films in the 1980s.
"It's a movie that's very difficult to describe in words," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the U.S. distributor of Almodovar's films. "It's got a little horror in it, a little science fiction in it. There's drama in it. It has some comic elements, but I wouldn't call it a comedy. It's a very rich film."
A key Cannes player both in premiering films and snapping up titles for sale in the festival and the huge Cannes market that runs alongside, Sony Pictures Classics also is releasing "Midnight in Paris" and past Palme d'Or winner Gus Van Sant's drama "Restless" with Mia Wasikowska, Thursday's opening film for a secondary competition called Un Certain Regard.
Penn has a second film in the main competition, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's "This Must Be the Place."
The main competition also features Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly in Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin"; Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive"; John Goodman in Frenchmen Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist"; and Emily Browning in Australian director Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty."
Cruz _ a frequent festival-goer in Almodovar films, Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and other Cannes entries _ is jetting in with the "Pirates" cast for a quick stopover before continuing on a global tour to promote the movie. She's sorry she'll miss Allen and Almodovar's current Cannes films and will be there just long enough for a taste the festival's carnival atmosphere.
"I love the festival," Cruz said. "To go around the streets there, it feels a little bit like being inside a Fellini movie. I always say that, but it really feels like that. But it's a beautiful celebration of cinema and embracing of film."