LONDON (Reuters) - The Cannes film festival is gearing up for what critics say should be a vintage year, with Hollywood stars out in force, revered directors there in droves and political controversy thrown into the mix.
The world's biggest cinema showcase has suffered from studio cost-cutting and lackluster lineups in recent years, but news that Terrence Malick's eagerly awaited "The Tree of Life" is in the main competition has cinephiles licking their lips.
Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Sean Penn, Mel Gibson, French First Lady Carla Bruni and jury president Robert De Niro are among big names expected to walk the red carpet and hit the French Riviera party circuit.
And in addition to Malick, movie lovers can admire the latest works from Pedro Almodovar, two-time Cannes winners the Dardenne brothers, previous Palme d'Or laureates Lars Von Trier and Nanni Moretti and Japan's prolific director Takashi Miike.
"It's the strongest lineup in ages," said Mark Cousins, a film critic and regular Cannes attendee.
"It's the Malick that most excites. Some film makers make films about their home town, or their country, but Terrence Malick makes films about what it's like to be alive."
The Tree of Life stars Pitt and Penn in a family saga set in the Midwest during the 1950s. The long wait for its arrival, and a trailer featuring mysterious cosmic scenes, have raised expectations for what is only Malick's fifth feature.
Penn also appears in Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's in-competition "This Must Be The Place," in which he portrays a retired rock star who sets out to find his father's executioner, an ex-Nazi war criminal living in the United States.
Kicking off the May 11-22 marathon of screenings, press interviews, deal-making and late night revelry in the palm-lined Mediterranean resort will be Woody Allen's romantic comedy "Midnight in Paris," starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams.
Much of the media's focus is likely to be on former model Bruni, who has a small role in the film and is at the center of intense speculation in France over whether she is pregnant.
By coincidence, Cannes also includes biopic "La Conquete" (The Conquest), which portrays Bruni's husband, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, during the 2007 election and the collapse of his previous marriage to Cecilia.
Women feature more prominently in the main competition than usual, although they still only account for four of 20 entries.
Scotland's Lynne Ramsay presents "We Need To Talk About Kevin," based on Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel and Australian Julia Leigh directs "Sleeping Beauty," described as a "haunting erotic fairy tale."
French actress/director Maiwenn Le Besco has directed "Polisse" about a photographer who begins an affair with a cop, and Japan's Naomi Kawase brings "Hanezu No Tsuki," four years after her "The Mourning Forest" won the runner-up Grand Prix award in 2007.
Belgium's Dardenne brothers have a chance to become the first directors to scoop the coveted Palme d'Or three times with "The Kid With A Bike" and festival favorite Almodovar will aim to lift his first Golden Palm with "The Skin I Live In."
Denmark's Von Trier is back two years after his "Antichrist" became the most talked-about film at Cannes for years for its graphic violence and sexual content.
This time he is in competition with "Melancholia," starring Kirsten Dunst as a bride celebrating her marriage as a planet threatens to collide with Earth.
Rubbing shoulders with the "auteurs" of high art will be Hollywood's big guns -- blockbuster sequels "Kung Fu Panda 2" starring Jolie and Jack Black and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" with Depp and Cruz will boost the star power.
And economic recovery following the global financial crisis may also breath life into the giant Cannes market place where film rights are bought and sold and which acts as an engine room propelling the famous festival.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White