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Mississippi drama "Mud" and South Korea's "The Taste of Money" on Saturday joined tales of love, crime and economic crisis as the last of 22 films vying for the top prize in Cannes.
The Palme d'Or will be handed out at a star-studded gala on Sunday evening at the close of the 12-day movie marathon that saw some of the world's top directors showcase their latest work at the glitzy French Riviera festival.
Previous Cannes gold winners Michael Haneke of Austria and Romanian Cristian Mungiu were among the names bandied about as potential prize-winners, along with Frenchman Jacques Audiard and Australian Andrew Dominik.
They marched up the fabled -- and this year often rain-soaked -- red carpet alongside A-list celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, "Twilight" heart-throb Robert Pattinson, and Marion Cotillard.
Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who ahead of the event faced controversy for failing to pick a single woman director for the main competition, on Friday stuck by his line-up after critics said Cannes too often saw the same small group of film-makers.
"The fact that film-makers who have already won prizes find themselves on the list again is not a problem. Do people complain when Rafael Nadal wins the Roland Garros (tennis tournament) seven times?" he told AFP.
Cannes regulars in town this year include Haneke, Mungiu, Iran's Abbas Kiarostami and Mexican Carlos Reygadas, with Britain's Ken Loach in competition for a record 11th time.
Mungiu, who took Cannes gold in 2007 with the chilling Communist-era abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", this year presented "Beyond the Hills", the true story of a deadly "exorcism".
The film was joint leader of the pack in Screen International's daily compilation of ratings by critics from across the world when the magazine delivered its final list on Thursday.
The other film was the French-language "Love" by Haneke, who scooped the festival's top award in 2009 for "The White Ribbon".
The new work casts French screen icon Jean-Louis Trintignant as a devoted octogenarian husband caring for his dying wife in a wrenching cinematic study of love at the bitter end.
Trintignant, whose consummate performance sees torment seep quietly from each pore of his aged face, was being tipped by many festival-goers for a potential best actor prize.
Another hot Palme contender was Audiard's "Rust and Bone", with Marion Cotillard as a killer-whale trainer who loses both legs but finds her way back to life and love with help from bare-knuckle fighter Ali, played by Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts in a breakout performance.
Nicole Kidman brought major league star power to the Palme race in US director Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy", a steamy film noir in which she sizzles as a trashy blonde of a certain age.
The Australian actress got a second major outing in Cannes on Friday, this time in the out-of-competition "Hemingway and Gellhorn" in which she plays one of the 20th century's most respected war correspondents.
Brad Pitt, another Hollywood heavyweight, returned to Cannes as a humane hitman in Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly," an anti-capitalist gangster movie that delivers a damning indictment of the state of the American nation.
Pitt was the star of last year's Palme winner, "The Tree of Life", Terrence Malick's film about life on earth and the troubles of a 1950s Texas family.
"The Hunt", a taut psychological thriller by Denmark's Thomas Vinterberg with Mads Mikkelsen as a man falsely accused of molesting a child, has also emerged as a front-runner in the race for festival gold.
Money, sex and stretch limos abound in Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis" which has Robert Pattinson as a billionaire financier looking for a haircut as a killer stalks him.
But the film got mixed reviews from Cannes critics, as did an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's cult novel "On the Road" directed by Brazilian Walter Salles and starring Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen.
"Moonrise Kingdom", a bittersweet American family romp by Wes Anderson with an all-star cast about the thrill and sting of first love, delighted audiences as it opened the festival on May 16.
Geopolitics got a look in with "After The Battle", an Arab Spring drama by Egypt's Yousry Nasrallah, while Italy sent a tragicomedy by Matteo Garrone starring a prison inmate as a fishmonger who loses himself in a quest to become a reality television star.
The last two competition films to premiere on Saturday were "Mud", a Huckleberry Finn-like tale by Jeff Nichols about two boys, a fugitive, and the Mississippi river, and Korean Im Sang-Soo's "The Taste of Money".
© 2012 AFP
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