Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewelyn Davis

Every year at the fest's midpoint, insiders and critics debate whether the current Cannes Film Festival is a disappointment or marks the start of an exceptional new season of cinema. This year, with a driving rain and a howling wind trying the tolerance of attendees at many moments during the first half of this event, festival-goers have been particularly short-fused and impatient. That said, there are some standouts to highlight (even if many are waiting for a masterpiece to light up this year's festival).  

Asghar Farhadi's The Past (Le Passe) and the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis are the competition favorites as the 2013 Cannes Film Festival crosses the midpoint today. The Past leads the voting in the daily critics poll from Le film français. It has six Golden Palms from 16 critics (although a few writers also gave it low marks). Meanwhile, the Coens' Llewyn Davis, with a score of 3.3 stars out of 5, tops the Farhadi film (2.8 stars) in Screen International's daily survey of 10 critics' rankings at the festival.

In addition to The Past and Llewyn Davis, a number of other films-—Like Father, Like Son; Stranger By The Lake; Omar; The Congress; and <em>Heli—are standouts here in the opening days of this year's festival.

Asghar Farhadi's The Past (Le Passé)

Farhadi's film, set and shot in France, opened in local theaters here on the same day that it debuted at the Festival. Quickly picked up for U.S. distribution by Sony Pictures Classics (with a release date before the end of the year), the film explores some of the same terrain—namely a troubled marriage—that the Iranian filmmaker studied in his previous film A Separation. Farhadi said this week that he finds intimate relationships fodder for rich exploration.

The Past employs melodramatic moments and a collection of sharply constructed scenes to build towards a singular tender moment at the film's emotional climax.

“There's so much suffering and pain linked to a couple,” Asghar Farhadi said during a press conference a few days ago, “I could spend my entire life with this theme and not cover it completely.”

Hirokazu Kore-eda's Like Father, Like Son

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda feels the same way about families. His Like Father, Like Son, a drama with a light touch about two families whose sons are switched at birth, sparked an on- and off-screen debate. What would you do if you'd mistakenly raised someone else's biological son for six years? Keep him or trade him in for your rightful heir? That core question drives Kore-eda's narrative to compelling places.

“This isn't the only topic I address in my films,” Kore-eda said during the press conference for his Cannes competition entry. “It's the subject that is closest to me.” He added that with his own parents gone, and now that he's a father himself, the subject is even more rich for him. “I want to study the topic further,” Kore-eda explained.

This festival is also filled with discoveries. Two of the strongest from the first half came in the form of lead performances in a pair of competition entries: Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis and Adam Bakri in Hany Abu-Assad's Omar.

Hany Abu-Assad's Omar

Singling live on set, the Juilliard trained actor and musician Oscar Isaac is a standout for his quiet presence in the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis. The film, set in the 60s mostly in New York City, positions the young folk music singer in the muddled gap between success and failure as an artist at the exact moment before folk music burst out of Greenwich Village coffee houses and to a wider audience. Audiences will have to wait a bit before getting a peek at the Coens' latest. CBS Films has set a December release for the film and, like Farhadi's The Past, it's likely the film will figure into end of year awards season chatter once it heats up ahead of the fall fest circuit.

Adam Bakri, who portrays the title character, is constantly on the run in Omar, Hany Abu-Assad's energetic Palestinian feature follow-up to Paradise Now. Constantly on the move trying to dodge Israeli police, Bakri sprints, jumps and climbs through the narrow streets of his Palestinian neighborhood in a highly athletic (yet subtly touching) performance. A local baker, Omar's a bit of a lone wolf trying survive. He's navigating his own interests and those of fellow Palestinian resistors, all the while aiming to nurture the affections of a local young woman.

Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By the Lake

Alain Guiraudie's French feature Stranger By the Lake (L'Inconnu du Lac), takes a surprising turn and has generated considerable attention in the festival's Un Certain Regard Section where it screens alongside Omar. It starts out as a seemingly light and idyllic summer story about gay men who gather for fun and sun on the shores of a beautiful lake. But their carefree encounters are fleeting once a mysterious death emerges in their midst and threatens their isolated cruising spot. Guiraudie plays with genres in the film, exploring slasher elements alongside surprisingly graphic sex scenes. Last week, as the fest got underway, Steve Soderbergh's Behind The Candelabra was tipped as perhaps the gayest film ever to screen in Cannes. That honor surely belongs, at least this year, to Alain Guiraudie's stand-out entry.

The Congress, screening down the Croisette in the concurrent Directors' Fortnight section, is a wild ride that is hard to forget. Blending live action and animation in a futuristic sci-fi fantasy, Ari Folman has created a compelling commentary on Hollywood and the future. Robin Wright stars as actress (named Robin Wright) who's approaching her middle age and facing an uncertain future for her own career. Tough to describe but exciting to watch, Folman's film is an alluring entry that woke up the fest early on, and few films have generated as much energy (and passionate) responses since then. While it did'nt quite stir the passions of moviegoers the way that Leos Carax's Holy Motors or Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux did one year ago, it certainly offered attendees ambitious cinema.

A film that certainly has stoked emotions here this week is Heli, the third feature film by Mexican director Amat Escalante. It was the first film to screen in the Cannes competition early in the festival and since its debut has weathered considerable criticism for its portrayal of graphic moments of violence and torture within Mexico's ongoing drug war. From an at times removed, often unemotional vantage point—Escalante named James Benning as an influence in our Daily Buzz interviewHeli witnesses and exposes grotesque moments. Director Escalante defended that anything he decide to show in his film pales in comparison to the real situation in Mexico, which has left more than 2,000 people murdered so far this year. The debate here is about Amat Escalante's artistic choices, but the sad reality is the persistently tragic situation back in his home country. His powerful new film, crafted over five years and approached with sensitivity and a sharp viewpoint, provocatively grapples with a devastating situation that continues unabated in his homeland.

For more coverage of the 66th Cannes Film Festival, click here.