CANNES, France — Tim Burton and a jury of his peers in the world of cinema have a tough task ahead: sorting through a mixed bag of 19 entries competing for top honors at the Cannes Film Festival.
Burton heads the nine-member jury that was busy Saturday watching the last of the films competing for the Palme d'Or, the main prize at the world's most prestigious cinema showcase. The 12-day festival ends Sunday night with a ceremony to announce winners selected by director Burton and his jury – which includes actors Kate Beckinsale, Benicio Del Toro and Giovanna Mezzogiorno, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and composer Alexandre Desplat.
Among the handful of films that earned largely favorable reviews are the British ensemble drama "Another Year" from director Mike Leigh, a past Palme d'Or winner for "Secrets and Lies, and French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods and Men," a tale of martyrdom based on the true story of seven monks beheaded during Algeria's civil war in 1996.
Two other past Palme d'Or winners also are in the running – Britain's Ken Loach ("The Wind that Shakes the Barley") with his Iraq War thriller "Route Irish" and Iran's Abbas Kiarostami ("Taste of Cherry") with his cryptic love story "Certified Copy," starring Juliette Binoche.
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose "Babel" won him the Cannes directing prize in 2006, is competing again with the well-received "Biutiful," featuring a stellar performance from Javier Bardem as a father supporting his family through various criminal rackets in Barcelona.
South Korea's Lee Chang-dong also earned warm reviews for "Poetry," his gentle drama about a grandmother who finds solace writing poems amid the onset of Alzheimer's and troubles with her broody grandson.
The lone American film in competition – Doug Liman's "Fair Game," starring Naomi Watts as outed CIA operative Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson – received solid but restrained praise. Liman said he already felt rewarded that Plame and Wilson, who came to Cannes for the premiere, liked the film.
"Any awards that flow this way really flow to Joe and Val, and Naomi Watts, who delivers the performance of a lifetime," said Liman, adding that the film's standing ovation after its premiere already was prize enough. "Just being accepted into competition and being given the kind of premiere we were given, I'm not sure we could ever ask for more than that."
The competition was heavy on emerging talent, unlike last year's Cannes festival, whose contenders included films from such established directors as Loach, Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodovar, Ang Lee, Jane Campion, Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, whose "The White Ribbon" won the Palme d'Or.
This year's big names mostly screened their films outside the competition, among them Ridley Scott with opening-night premiere "Robin Hood," Oliver Stone with "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," Woody Allen with "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" and Stephen Frears with "Tamara Drewe," a light, breezy tale that Cannes crowds cheered amid the generally gloomy tone of the awards contenders.
"Tamara Drewe" stars Gemma Arterton as a former ugly duckling who returns to her hometown as a striking beauty after a nose job. Frears offered a candid wisecrack to explain why his comedy was not competing for prizes with the heavy dramas.
"It's not in competition because it simply didn't seem appropriate. And also, I didn't want to lose," Frears said. "At one stroke, I avoided that humiliating end. These are serious people here. It's very, very cheeky to turn up with a film like this."