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the front-runner at Cannes

the front-runner at Cannes

As Cannes prepares for a final fling of glitz and glamour on Sunday with the award ceremony, Spanish veteran Pedro Almodovar's film Volver leads the pack in the race for the coveted Palme d'Or prize. The ceremony will bring to an end 12 hectic days of films, parties, and wheeler-dealing over oysters and champagne along the Croisette waterfront, with critics agreeing that, while not a vintage year for cinema, it was a good one.

Allan Hunter of Screen International said the main disappointment was the absence of a film that created genuine buzz among the 4,000 journalists and critics in town. "The wow factor appears to be all that is missing in a year that hindsight may judge to have been better than average." Todd McCarthy of Variety agreed, calling it a "so-so vintage" at a festival he considered "oddly muted."

Four of the 20 competition films have yet to premiere, including possible contenders for the best film award, so latecomers are another unknown quantity in a festival notoriously hard to predict. Also ready to spoil Almodovar's party is the Cannes juries' reputation for favoring weighty arthouse fare that few ordinary cinemagoers will ever actually see. "The problem that people have with Almodovar is they think there are no philosophical themes in his work, which is barmy," said Mark Cousins, a leading author on cinema.

Volver is one of the competition's most commercially viable films and stars an inspired Penelope Cruz as a hardworking woman who encounters what appears to be her mother's ghost looking to lay to rest the quarrels of the past. With it in the leading pack is Babel, by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, which features impressive performances from Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in a sweeping story of barriers--personal, social, cultural, and political.

Also on cinephiles' lips are Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates, Red Road by first-time British film maker Andrea Arnold, Lights in the Dusk by Finland's Aki Kaurismaki, and French films Charlie Says and Days of Glory. Briton Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about the Irish struggle for independence from the mainland in 1920, got the competition off to a strong start, while Lou Ye's Summer Palace from China was warmly received. French critics have not written off Belgian director Lucas Belvaux's The Right of the Weakest.

U.S. films largely disappointed audiences, failing to live up to the hype. Opening the festival this year was out-of-competition The Da Vinci Code, Ron Howard's eagerly anticipated adaptation of the Dan Brown bestseller, which underlined what the director called the "disconnect" between critics and the general public. Despite lousy reviews and snorts of derision among the Cannes cogniscenti, the $125 million picture went on to storm the box office last weekend in a near-record opening.

Of the three U.S. films in competition, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette was the critics' favorite, and despite some boos at the press screening of the vibrant film, starring Kirsten Dunst, many French critics lavished it with praise. Southland Tales, by cult hit Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly, was described as long, unwieldy, and confusing and scored lowest in unofficial critical rankings in Cannes.

Only marginally ahead was Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation, a drama adaptation of Eric Schlosser's bestselling critique of the major burger chains. Weighty themes were prominent in 2006, with Oliver Stone in town to show 20 minutes of his forthcoming World Trade Center starring Nicolas Cage, and Irwin Winkler presenting clips from Iraq war drama Home of the Brave. (Mike Collett-White, Reuters)

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