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CANNES, France (Reuters) - British director Mike Leigh's family story "Another Year" and French religious drama "Of Gods and Men" are seen as favorites to win the coveted Palme d'Or for best film at this year's Cannes festival.
The 12-day cinema showcase on the French Riviera winds up with Sunday's awards ceremony which will determine which of the 19 movies in the main competition take away prizes.
After a slow start that had critics scratching their heads about the overall quality of the selection, later entries have lifted the mood in Cannes, where the economic crisis, lack of Hollywood stars and travel disruptions have weighed heavily.
With four films yet to screen, Leigh leads the critics' polls in Cannes. In 1996 he took away the big prize with "Secrets and Lies."
Another Year is his examination of the hidden drama of everyday lives set in a London suburb and starring regular Leigh cast members Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville. The Daily Telegraph called it "one of Mike Leigh's best films."
Close behind is "Of Gods and Men," French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois' stately re-telling of the true story of seven French monks mysteriously murdered in Algeria in 1996.
The film focuses mainly on the rhythms of monastic life and how the men face up to the growing threat of violent death as civil conflict escalates around them. It has the added appeal of tackling universal themes of faith and religious tolerance.
"It's got crucial things going for it -- a real generosity of spirit, a real sense of forgiveness, and nowhere is Islam blamed," said Mark Cousins, a film historian and Cannes veteran.
He said Leigh was one of the favorites for the Palme d'Or, although he preferred Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy."
Other frontrunners are "Biutiful," Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's picture of death and redemption starring Javier Bardem, and Doug Liman's "Fair Game" about the true story of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame.
Naomi Watts plays Plame in a movie based on her memoirs of the same name, with Sean Penn taking on the role of her husband Joseph Wilson.
Biutiful was one of the titles in Cannes this year to sharply divide critics and journalists, although Bardem's performance is widely seen as a best actor contender.
Another hotly debated entry was Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami's picture starring Juliette Binoche.
Kiarostami, who used his platform at the festival to criticize the jailing of fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi, is another former Palme d'Or winner with "Ta'm E Guilass" in 1997.
Ken Loach, who took the award in 2006 with Irish historical drama "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," was a last-minute addition to the lineup with "Route Irish," a thriller about security guards working in Iraq.
"Poetry," by South Korea's Lee Chang-dong, was the best-received of the Asian films screened so far, and Yun Jung-hee in the main role is in the frame for the actress award.
Out of competition, Hollywood blockbuster "Robin Hood" rode into town with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, and Oliver Stone presented "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," his topical picture about the financial crisis starring Michael Douglas.
Woody Allen walked the red carpet for "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Mick Jagger helped promote a new documentary on the Rolling Stones, and celebrities Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton hit the party circuit.
Yet to screen in competition are Rachid Bouchareb's "Outside the Law" (France-Algeria), Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (Thailand), Nikita Mikhalkov's "Burned By the Sun 2: Exodus" (Russia) and Kornel Mundruczo's "Tender Son - The Frankenstein Project" (Hungary).
Reporting by Mike Collett-White and James Mackenzie, editing by Paul Casciato