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CANNES, France (Reuters) - The world's biggest film festival kicks off in Cannes on Wednesday, bringing Hollywood A-listers, obscure arthouse directors, international media and fans together for 12 party-packed days on the French Riviera.
Posters are up around the resort town in southern France, marquees line the seafront, yachts are gleaming despite unseasonal drizzle and hotels await their famous guests.
As well as films in the official selection, hundreds more are screened in the bustling market, a key feature that underlines Cannes' importance to the industry.
The main competition of 22 films begins with a star-studded premiere of Brazilian entry "Blindness," appropriate for a festival that is showcasing South American cinema.
The movie directed by Fernando Meirelles of "City of God" renown stars Julianne Moore and Gael Garcia Bernal in a story of a civilization crumbling as it is hit by a blindness epidemic.
At the same time as the morning press screening, a few hundred yards (meters) along the palm-lined Croisette beachfront, the studio behind animation comedy "Kung Fu Panda" has organized a stunt to publicize the picture.
The combination of hard-hitting cinema and brazen blockbuster promotion, which some critics argue is a sellout to Hollywood, is typical of the festival, which ends on May 25 when the coveted Palme d'Or for best film is awarded.
Critics were wary of making early predictions.
"I don't anticipate because it doesn't do any good," said Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt.
"The guy whose film you really want to see is the one who disappoints you most and someone you've never heard of is the one that just leaps off the screen at you."
Joining Meirelles in competition is another Brazilian entry "Line of Passage," by Walter Salles, and two Argentinian productions -- Pablo Trapero's prison drama "Leonera" and thriller "The Headless Woman" by Lucrecia Martel.
They are up against Clint Eastwood's "Changeling," starring Angelina Jolie, and Steven Soderbergh's "Che," a two-part, four-and-a-half hour epic on Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, with Benicio del Toro in the title role.
The other two U.S. entries are James Gray's "Two Lovers," featuring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix, and Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The biggest show in town this year is likely to be the latest installment of the Indiana Jones series, again starring Harrison Ford as the whip-wielding archaeologist in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" by Steven Spielberg.
Also out of competition, Woody Allen presents "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" starring Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem.
Italy has an unusually strong presence in Cannes, with two competition films reflecting the darker side of its recent past.
"Gomorra" is directed by Matteo Garrone and based on Roberto Saviano's book about how the Neapolitan mafia works and makes its money, while "Il Divo," by Paolo Sorrentino, tells the story of controversial former prime minister Giulio Andreotti.
Outside the main lineup comes "Sangue Pazzo" based on the story of two actors who fall foul of partisan rebels fighting fascism at the end of World War Two.
Previous winners of the Palme d'Or vying for the prize again in 2008 are Belgium's Dardenne brothers, Soderbergh and German director Wim Wenders.
Israeli director Ari Folman is contesting the main award with "Waltz With Bashir," an eagerly anticipated animated documentary about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila camp massacres by members of the Christian Israeli-backed Lebanese Forces militia.
Pop star Madonna, Argentinian soccer hero Diego Maradona and U.S. boxer Mike Tyson are also expected at the festival.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)
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