CANNES, France (Reuters) - The curtain comes down on the 2010 Cannes film festival on Sunday night with British director Mike Leigh and France's Xavier Beauvois firmly in the frame for the coveted Palme d'Or for best picture.
The awards ceremony ends the world's largest cinema showcase where economic uncertainties and the threat of volcanic ash disrupting flights contributed to a relatively low-key, celebrity-light year and capped business on the market.
Stars like Russell Crowe, Michael Douglas, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Lopez, Cate Blanchett, Penelope Cruz and Mick Jagger graced the red carpet and glitzy parties on-shore and off during the 12-day movie marathon, but they were fewer than usual.
The quality of films is equally important, and after a slow start the main competition lineup improved in the view of thousands of reporters and critics who crammed into screenings, press conferences, round tables and interviews.
Among the best liked was Leigh's "Another Year," examining the hidden drama of everyday lives in a London suburb. He has already won the Golden Palm for "Secrets and Lies" in 1996.
"This is Mike Leigh at his best in a long time," said film historian and Cannes veteran Mark Cousins, adding that the family drama could appeal just as much in Asia as in Europe.
Another favorite is "Of Gods and Men," Beauvois' stately retelling 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 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.
Another previous Palme d'Or winner in the running is Iran's Abbas Kiarostami with "Certified Copy" starring Juliette Binoche, a love story set in Italy that was booed by some at a press screening but championed by several top reviewers.
"My Joy" by Ukraine's Sergei Loznitsa was hailed by at least several critics as a dark and disturbing masterpiece reminiscent of Dostoevsky, but the fact that it was relentlessly somber and had little in the way of conventional plot alienated others.
Thai entry "Uncle Boonmee," eagerly anticipated by highbrow cinephiles, is shot in a flat, naturalistic style and features conversations with hair-covered spirits and talking cat fish.
"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, were generally but not universally popular.
Bardem would be a popular best actor winner, as would Elio Germano in "Our Life" from Italy. Both played troubled men struggling to cope with the pressures of fatherhood, one of this year's overriding themes.
"Poetry," by South Korea's Lee Chang-dong, featured a star turn by actress Yun Jung-hee, and she and Binoche are among the leading contenders for best actress.
The jury headed by U.S. filmmaker Tim Burton may also honor "Hors la Loi," whose treatment of the Algerian war of independence sparked a protest by military veterans.
Out of competition, Hollywood blockbuster "Robin Hood" rode into town with Crowe and Blanchett, and Oliver Stone presented "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," his topical picture about the financial crisis starring Douglas.
Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Angus MacSwan