CANNES, France (Reuters) - The Cannes film festival jury led by Robert De Niro faces a tough choice on Sunday as it picks the winner of the Palme d'Or top prize, with movies from Finland, Spain, the United States and France all in the frame.
Guessing the winner of the world's biggest cinema showcase, overshadowed this year by the shock exit of Danish director Lars Von Trier for joking that he was a Nazi, is notoriously tricky.
The race in 2011 is seen as unusually open-ended, however, with U.S. maverick Terrence Malick a slight favorite for his metaphysical epic "The Tree of Life" starring Brad Pitt.
Also heavily favored by Cannes' notoriously picky critics are Finnish film maker Aki Kaurismaki's comedy "Le Havre," silent, black-and-white romance "The Artist" from France and Spaniard Pedro Almodovar's thriller "The Skin I Live In."
A further five movies won passionate, though not unanimous support, underlining how this year's selection has upped the ante after some disappointing competitions in recent years.
"My choice for Palme d'Or would be Aki Kaurismaki's 'Le Havre', with Pedro Almodovar's 'The Skin I Live In' and the Dardenne brothers' 'Kid With A Bike' runners-up," said Mike Goodridge, editor of movie publication Screen.
"My betting is that a Robert De Niro-led jury will go for 'The Tree Of Life'," he added.
In addition to the films, the A-listers came out in force, the parties were loud and lavish and the giant market saw bustling trade in signs that the financial crisis that dampened recent festivals was finally fading from view.
The movies were reduced to a sideshow on Wednesday, when Von Trier joked at a news conference about being a Nazi and Hitler sympathizer in an outburst which prompted the festival to take the unprecedented step of throwing him out the following day.
Von Trier told Reuters the decision came as a shock and reiterated that he was sorry if he had caused offence. He added, however, that his ignominious exit from a festival where he won the Palme d'Or in 2000 could enhance his credentials as a rebel.
His competition movie "Melancholia," starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as sisters facing annihilation in a cosmic collision, remained in competition, meaning that, in theory at least, it could win prizes including the Golden Palm.
A more likely winner was semi-recluse Malick, who presented his long-awaited take on life and death in a sweeping tale featuring footage of space, dinosaurs and volcanoes.
The movie divided critics, as did Von Trier's film that tackled equally big themes in a more pessimistic way.
Two light-hearted stories were among the favorites, unusual for Cannes where somber, downbeat films tend to dominate.
"The Artist" is a bold romance that transports viewers back to the 1920s pre-"talkie" era in Hollywood, while Kaurismaki brought "Le Havre," a touching, stylized comedy about an old shoe shiner who rescues an African immigrant from capture.
Belgium's Dardenne brothers have a chance of a record third Golden Palm with their popular "The Kid With A Bike," while another movie about troubled childhood, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" by Lynne Ramsay, led the field among female directors.
Almodovar took a walk on the dark side with a twisted thriller about a surgeon, played by Antonio Banderas, out for revenge and Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan impressed viewers with his slow, beautifully crafted "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia."
Dane Nicolas Winding Refn was in the race with violent chase movie "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling, while Paolo Sorrentino turned Sean Penn into a washed up, depressed Goth rocker in "This Must Be the Place."
Last to be screened was "The Source," Radu Mihaileanu's film of an Arab woman taking on the men in her village in a story reflecting the spirit of "Arab Spring" uprisings.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White and Nick Vinocur; editing by Philippa Fletcher