CANNES, France (Reuters) - A mystical Thai movie exploring reincarnation won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival on Sunday, beating out pre-award favorites including Britain's Mike Leigh who left empty-handed.
"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" was directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who nearly did not make it to Cannes to present his film due to political unrest at home.
"I think Thailand needs some kind of hope in other ways because we ... are very depressed about the confrontation of different ideologies," he told reporters after receiving the Golden Palm for best picture at a glitzy closing ceremony.
Uncle Boonmee, eagerly anticipated by highbrow cinephiles, was shot in a flat, naturalistic style and featured conversations with hair-covered spirits and talking catfish.
U.S. filmmaker Tim Burton, head of the jury, described Uncle Boonmee as "a beautiful strange dream.
"The world is getting smaller and films get more Westernized or Hollywood-ized and this is a film for me that I felt I was watching from another country, from another perspective."
Weerasethakul, an Asian favorite in Cannes who won lesser awards with previous entries, beat frontrunner Leigh, whose critical hit "Another Year" was overlooked. Leigh won the Palme d'Or in 1996 with "Secrets and Lies."
"Of Gods and Men," French director Xavier Beauvois's meditative re-telling of the true story of seven monks murdered in Algeria during civil turmoil in the 1990s, took the Grand Prix runner-up award.
Along with Leigh, Beauvois had been tipped for the big prize for a picture that focuses on the rhythms of monastic life and tackles universal themes of faith and religious tolerance.
The awards brought to an end 12 hectic days of screenings and parties on the French Riviera, where economic uncertainty, a lack of star power and too few movies generating genuine buzz sapped the festival of excitement.
Last year Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," French prison drama "A Prophet" and Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winner "The White Ribbon" made for a vintage Cannes.
France's Juliette Binoche was named best actress for her performance in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy." She used her speech to attack the Iranian government for imprisoning another filmmaker, Jafar Panahi.
"There is a man who is in Iran today. His fault is to be an artist, to be independent and I'm thinking of him specially this evening," she told the packed Grand Theater Lumiere, holding a piece of card with Panahi's name written on it.
Panahi is on hunger strike in a Tehran prison, but comments in Cannes about his treatment drew criticism from an Iranian government official who complained to festival organizers.
The best actor category was shared between Spanish Oscar winner Javier Bardem, for "Biutiful," and Italy's Elio Germano for "Our Life." Both play troubled men struggling to cope with the pressures of fatherhood, one of this year's main themes.
"As our governments in Italy always accuse cinema of talking badly about our country, I want to dedicate this prize to Italy and to Italians who do everything to make the country better in spite of the governing class," Germano said.
France's Mathieu Amalric won best director for "On Tour," while "A Screaming Man," by Chad's Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, won the jury (third) prize. Korean entry "Poetry," directed and written by Lee Chang-dong, was named best screenplay.
Outside the main competition, blockbuster "Robin Hood" rode into town with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, and Oliver Stone presented "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," his topical picture starring Michael Douglas about the financial crisis.
Woody Allen brought "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," but critical reaction to all three among Cannes' famously picky audiences was muted.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)