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CANNES, France (Reuters) - Terrence Malick won the Palme d'Or in Cannes for "The Tree of Life," but the 2011 film festival will be remembered above all for the shock expulsion of Danish director Lars Von Trier for his Hitler jokes.
The 55-year-old Dane, a previous winner of the coveted top prize in 2000, confessed to being surprised by a ban which many movie goers at the world's biggest cinema showcase questioned.
The unprecedented move by Cannes organizers cast a shadow over the entire festival, widely praised as a strong year with top directors, audacious movies, a long list of A-listers on the red carpet and a bustling market place.
"I think it has been a strong Cannes, although it's not been perhaps as good as we'd all hoped when we saw the selection on paper," said Jay Weissberg, critic at trade publication Variety.
"I do think Von Trier has overshadowed this festival, but I believe in a very temporary way. It's bad for Cannes, but I don't think this is something that will last for long.
"As usual, Cannes needs a talking point and they got it in a much bigger way than they had been anticipating. I thought it was really rather ridiculous. Most people think they went too far and that a warning would have sufficed."
The notoriously provocative Von Trier, presenting his movie "Melancholia," launched into a monologue at a press conference on Wednesday during which he joked he was a Nazi, sympathized with Hitler and declared Israel a "pain in the ass."
Kirsten Dunst, who picked up the best actress prize on Sunday at the closing ceremony for her role in the film, squirmed with embarrassment during the briefing and Jewish groups in France and the United States complained.
Von Trier apologized, but it was too little too late. Cannes did allow Melancholia to remain in competition, however.
"The Tree of Life" was only Malick's fifth picture and expectations had been high among cinephiles who consider him a master of his craft. Critics were sharply divided, however, and its victory in Cannes will not please everyone.
The movie stars Brad Pitt as a stern father who alienates his eldest son, and it features long sequences of planetary explosions, expanding galaxies, volcanoes and dinosaurs in a majestic portrayal of the beginning of life.
"Melancholia" felt like its companion piece, but the finality of its ending, when a planet collides with Earth to end all life, meant it was as downbeat as Malick's was uplifting.
It remains to be seen whether Von Trier's expulsion from Cannes, which meant he had to stay at least 100 meters away from the main festival building, will affect the film's distribution.
"Von Trier's relationship with festivals themselves has been possibly permanently damaged, but then he's so unpredictable, so you never know," said Weissberg.
"Melancholia's chances of opening in the United States have been hit. It could be very difficult."
The runner-up Grand Prix went to two movies -- the slow-moving, lovingly crafted "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" by Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the moving child drama "The Kid With a Bike" by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
The duo narrowly missed out on an unprecedented third Golden Palm at the festival.
Best actor went to Jean Dujardin for "The Artist," a popular re-make of a silent, black-and-white romance that transported audiences back to the "pre-talkie" era in Hollywood.
Denmark's Nicolas Winding Refn won best director for his high-octane thriller "Drive," and best screenplay went to Israeli director Joseph Cedar for "Footnote."
Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Jamie Foxx, Janet Jackson and Gwen Stefani were among the big names hitting the party circuit or performing in Cannes this year, adding to the feel-good buzz.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White and Nick Vinocur; Editing by Matthew Jones