Waiting for the Palme: Who's in Position to Win Big at Cannes?

The other night, at dinner with some friends, our waiter forgot to bring something we'd asked for. When we politely reminded him, he said, "It is the end of the festival! Things fall out of our brain!"

And how. When the dual Un Certain Regard winners were announced last night, I was stunned to realize that I'd seen both of them, even though I was able to catch very few Un Certain Regard pictures overall. Andreas Dresen's Stopped on Track is one of the least-depressing dying-of-brain-cancer movies I can imagine; Dresen has an unbelievably light -- though not glib -- touch when it comes to dealing with this somber subject, so I'm hardly surprised the jury decided to honor his movie.

I'm more puzzled, though, over their recognition of Kim Ki-Duk's Arirang, which is two hours of Kim psychoanalyzing himself before the camera, a free-range exploration of his neuroses, anxieties and ego trips that would seem to benefit him more than the viewer. Kim wrote, directed, stars in, shot and edited Arirang -- my pal, Leslie Felperin of Variety, dubbed him the Vincent Gallo of Korea -- and the thing is definitely a curiosity, for Kim fans at least. (Interesting fact: He made his own espresso machine for the no-frills shack in which he lives.) But it's the weirdest movie at Cannes that I forgot I saw.

On to the competition films -- the winners will be announced at the closing ceremony this evening: In my mid-festival roundup, I wondered if The Tree of Life would be the movie to beat. But that very day, a sneaky possible front-runner crept into the picture: Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre has charmed and impressed many of us critics -- it's surely among Kaurismäki's best, possibly even a quiet breakthrough for the notoriously dour (yet extremely funny) Finnish filmmaker. There's some buzz that the jury, too, might find favor with it, particularly since it's rumored that The Tree of Life has only one real champion on the jury. It's all hearsay -- later tonight, we'll know more.

Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In is entertaining, if mechanical, and there's some muttering here that it could take the Palme d'Or, partly because Almodóvar is "due." Other possibilities still on the table include the Dardenne brothers' The Kid with a Bike, which stuck with me longer than I thought it would, and Michel Hazanavicius' glorious silent-movie homage The Artist. Some critics here are positing that Turkish filmmaker (and festival favorite) Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia -- whose single pre-awards screening I unfortunately missed -- could take the top prize.

In the days since I've seen it, I've learned that Paolo Sorrentino's assertively whimsical spiritual road-trip movie This Must Be the Place has its fans among critics here. I found the picture unbearable, but what the jury might think is something else again. There are people here who think it's just weird enough to win.

So what can we assume won't win -- also assuming, of course, that surprises are always possible? Nicolas Winding Refn's superb '70s-style existential thriller-romance Drive isn't what you'd instantly peg a Palme d'Or-type movie -- it's unapologetically commercial, though it's far better made than most contemporary mainstream pictures. And Lars von Trier may have had a chance at the top prize with Melancholia, before his naughty-schoolboy antics blew up in his face. Melancholia could still win, but there are so many strong pictures in competition this year that its chances are looking dimmer.

And then there are the movies that no one is talking about, the orphans that some of us have conveniently "missed" in order to take much-needed naps (outside the screening rooms, one hopes). Few people I've spoken to have much to say about Naomi Kawase's Hanezu, or the film that played in competition yesterday, Radu Mihaileanu's The Source. Alain Cavalier's insular talker Pater may have its fans among the French critics here, but I found it dull and meandering, and it hasn't taken root with any of the English-speaking critics I've spoken with.

One of the first competition films to screen here was Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin (which one wag here renamed What's the Matter with Marvin.) But now, in Cannes-time, Ramsay's picture is ancient history: Everyone stopped talking or thinking it about days ago, though it's still possible that Tilda Swinton could take the best actress award. The film is hardly dismissible -- it's intelligently made and has plenty of emotional weight -- but not many critics here have taken it to heart. Again, who knows? Critics and festival juries are different beasts, and this year's jury, led by Robert De Niro, may surprise us all. In a few hours' time, we may be toasting the total bewildering audacity of This Must Be the Place.