Late entries dazzle in line-up for Cannes gold

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Suspense mounted in the rarefied world of international film Wednesday as late contenders for the Cannes Palme d'Or dazzled critics just days before the awards finale.

It might not sound like Cannes glam, but as the festival hit the halfway mark the tale of a happily married middle-aged couple by Britain's Mike Leigh lead the field of 19 movies chafing for the prize, international critics said.

But with Cannes known for leaving the best to last, movies from France, Iran and Korea premiering in the last stretch of the 12-day event kept the bleary-eyed crowd sitting up straight in their seats.

A true story of Catholic monks caught up in Islamist violence in Algeria by France's Xavier Beauvois, "Of Gods And Men", and a tortuous confrontation between a man and a woman by acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami in "Certified Copy" won plaudits from the Cannes crowd.

And an unlikely cocktail of poetry and teen gang-rape in Korean director Lee Changdong's "Poetry" won a strong round of applause.

The world's biggest annual film event so far has seen less hype and less Hollywood cash as rain and chill washed out beach parties and Iceland's troublesome volcano added travel chaos.

So the buzz over Leigh's ordinary people mirrors the festival's ordinary problems.

A slew of movies screening at the 63rd Cannes festival play out family and marital dramas, with the Iraq war, France's colonial fall-out in Algeria and the Russian front in World War II providing wider historical themes.

A previous Palme winner for "Secrets and Lies" in 1996, Leigh with his "Another Year" is currently the critics' unanimous choice for the Palme, to be handed out Sunday.

But as is often the case at Cannes, critics remain sharply divided over the rest of the field.

Panels of film supremos cited in trade papers Screen and Le Film Francais both tip Leigh as potential Palme winner to date.

Screen sees the Algerian themed "Of Gods And Men" as a runner-up while French critics picked for second place "Biutiful" by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Mexican director behind "Amores Perros" and "Babel".

His tragic tale of survival in the underbelly of the Spanish city Barcelona, starring Oscar-winner Javier Bardem, had trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter in raptures.

"Until 'Biutiful' showed up, the competition appeared to be a rush to the bottom," wrote Kirk Honeycutt. "It's hard to imagine anyone winning best actor honors other than its star, Javier Bardem."

That opinion was not shared by competitor Variety, who slammed the Mexican director's "bleak streak", saying one "can't shake off the sense of a prodigiously gifted film-maker stuck in a grim rut."

The film festival has traditionally mixed hot directors with arthouse fare while bringing small-budget movies from far-off places into the international movie spotlight.

Iran director Kiarostami's star in his first film shot abroad -- Tehran authorities are not fans of his work -- French actress Juliette Binoche stands out as a leading candidate for Best Actress. As does Britain's Lesley Manville, who gives a compelling performance as a boozy insecure single in Leigh's film.

From Korea, star actress Yun Junghee, making a comeback after 16 years in "Poetry", stunned audiences as did Jeon Do-youn, a previous Cannes winner who was acclaimed for her role in "Housemaid" by Im Sang-soo where class war is played out on a bedside pillow.

US striptease show-stoppers, who had Cannes raving in "On Tour" by French actor-turned-director Mathieu Amalric, could also pull an acting prize.

And acclaimed Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai's father-son drama "Chongqing Blues" won buckets of praise, in part due to lead actor Wang Xueqi's strong performance.

Dividing critics on the other hand is Japanese master Takeshi Kitano with a riot of gruesome violence in "Outrage", a Yakuza gangster film where he uses anything from fists to chopsticks and a dentist's drill to cow his enemies.

The Hollywood Reporter dubbed it "arguably his best film in a decade" but the Screen panel gave it a thumbs down, leaving it in second to last place.

Highly awaited are previous Palme winner Ken Loach with "Route Irish" on the most dangerous stretch of road in Iraq and US director Doug Liman with "Fair Game", based on a real-life Bush-era scandal also linked to the Iraqi war.

© 2010 AFP

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