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CANNES, France (Reuters) - The Cannes film festival stumbled toward its close on Friday, still reeling from the shock expulsion of Danish director Lars Von Trier which has overshadowed an otherwise impressive year for movies and stars.
The world's biggest cinema showcase closes on Sunday with a glitzy awards ceremony, where the winner of the coveted Palme d'Or for best picture and other prizes will be revealed from a competition lineup of 20 features.
But the movies have been reduced to a sideshow since Wednesday, when Von Trier joked about being a Nazi and Hitler sympathizer in an outburst which prompted the festival to take the unprecedented step of throwing him out.
Von Trier told Reuters that the decision came as a shock and reiterated that he was sorry if he had caused offense. He added, however, that his ignominious exit from a festival where he won the Palme d'Or in 2000 could enhance his credentials as a rebel.
His competition movie "Melancholia," starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as sisters facing annihilation in a cosmic collision, remains in competition, meaning that, in theory at least, it could win prizes including the Golden Palm.
For many movie-goers, the scandal cast a pall over a festival that should have been remembered for its bold film selection, cast of A-listers on the red carpet and a market where the business of buying and selling movies was booming.
"Being a wine-lover, I'll say the 2011 Cannes is a good vintage, with a lot of variety," said Annette Insdorf, film professor at Columbia University.
Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Woody Allen and jury president Robert De Niro graced the red carpet, and were joined by a host of other music and movie luminaries on the whirlwind party circuit.
Terrence Malick was back with his eagerly anticipated fifth feature "The Tree of Life," four women were in the competition lineup after none last year and blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" saw Hollywood sail into town.
With 18 of 20 competition films screened to critics and the media, six or more are seen as genuine contenders for the Golden Palm, one of the most coveted film awards outside the Oscars.
Two maverick directors brought their big ideas to the screen this year, and both movies have sharply divided critics.
Semi-recluse Malick, who shunned the limelight in Cannes to the point where French reporters jokingly questioned his existence, presented his take on life in a family drama starring Pitt that featured footage of space, dinosaurs and volcanoes.
Danish provocateur Von Trier similarly polarized opinion among the notoriously picky critics at Cannes, though most agreed that Melancholia's scenes of a cosmic collision signaling the end of all life packed a powerful punch.
Two light-hearted tales were among the favorites this year, unusual in Cannes where somber, downbeat films tend to dominate.
"The Artist" is a bold black-and-white silent Hollywood romance that transports viewers back to the 1920s pre-"talkie" era, while Finland's Aki Kaurismaki brought "Le Havre," a touching, stylized comedy that delighted the crowds.
Belgium's Dardenne brothers have a chance of a record third Golden Palm with their popular "The Kid With A Bike," while another movie about troubled childhood, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" by Lynne Ramsay, led the field among female directors.
"Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" transported an ancient tale into 21st century 3D, and Spanish film maker Pedro Almodovar took a walk on the dark side with twisted thriller "The Skin I Live In" about a surgeon, played by Antonio Banderas, out for revenge.
Dane Nicolas Winding Refn looked to be in the race with his violent chase movie "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling, while in Paolo Sorrentino's "This Must Be The Place" Penn is a washed up Goth rocker complete with lipstick, eyeliner and camp voice.
Outside of the main competition hundreds more films were presented in other sections of the festival and on the market. Creating most buzz was "La Conquete," a biopic of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's victorious election campaign alongside his marital collapse.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White