At halftime, there's drama over top films

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CANNES -- Passing the midpoint of the Festival de Cannes' In Competition screenings, Wong Kar Wai's romantic road picture "My Blueberry Nights," which kicked things off to mixed reviews, is looking better and better in the rear-view mirror.

The cool, cerebral tone poem starring Norah Jones on an American road trip to love, with Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman along for the ride, could float in the jury's collective memory like a melody from Ry Cooder's guitar.

For a chance at the Palme d'Or, however, it will have to overtake the high-powered Romanian vehicle "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which delivers a storming tale of bravery in the face of pitiless repression along with first-rate filmmaking and bravura performances.

Leading the acting race is Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca as a young woman who makes enormous sacrifices in order to help her pregnant friend obtain an illegal abortion. Set during the final years of the communist regime, Cristian Mungiu's film excels in detailing the small ways that faceless power bleeds down to punish the weak and defenseless.

Another strong entry in both the best picture and director category is Gun Van Sant's "Paranoid Park." Van Sant is a Cannes favorite, and "Paranoid" is flat out the best film he has brought to the Croisette. Its experimental style is the kind of thing festival juries love.

Any time the Coen brothers bring a film to Cannes, it's wise to keep the awards betting open. Joel Coen has been named best director three times -- for "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), "Fargo" (1996) and "Barton Fink" (1991), which also won the Golden Palm. This year's "No Country for Old Men," which is credited to Joel and brother Ethan, is required viewing for its thrilling setup of a crime chase involving three very different men.

Josh Brolin plays a good ol' boy who stumbles across a satchel of drug money, with Javier Bardem as an eccentric but implacable killer who wants his money back. Tracking them is an old-time West Texas sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones. Such is the skill of the Coens that they move quickly past plot difficulties to maintain nail-biting suspense right until the end, when the picture suddenly becomes all talk and no action. Bardem's bad guy could stick in the mind of prizegivers, probably all the way to the Oscars.

Korea's Kim Ki-duk provides a love story typically from left field in "Breath," in which a young wife has an affair with a man on death row. It's colorful, but it doesn't make a lot of sense.

Christophe Honore's "Love Songs" is a tough call for anyone trying to predict jury reactions. Americans generally found it "very French," but the French generally loved it, as did many at its initial press screening.

A musical drama about love, tragedy and renewal of love, the movie features splendid cinematography by Remy Chevrin. The film is just different enough to gain traction with a jury.

Raphael Nadjani's Israeli entry "Psalms" is a deeply felt story of a woman and her two sons adjusting to the sudden disappearance of the boys' father. Its limited emphasis on matters of prayer will prevent widespread appeal.

The early film many were eagerly anticipating, Andrei Zvyagintsev's "The Banishment," was a crushing disappointing. The Russian director won Venice with his first film, "The Return," in 2003. Alas, all thoughts of awards were undoubtedly banished from jury members' minds once they got a load of the stiff acting, ponderous filmmaking and unnecessarily long running time.

It's an even greater mystery how Ulrich Seidl's shabby and exploitive "Import Export" made it to Competition. Slow and ill-constructed, its story of East/West cultural clashes never gets beyond the gutter.

Given the generally mediocre collection of Competition films so far, some festivalgoers were scratching heads over the films that didn't make it into the top tier of the official selection. These would be "The Band's Visit," "My Brother Is an Only Child" and "Blind Mountain," which were selected for the still prestigious Un Certain Regard section.

Eran Kolirin's splendid "Band's Visit" is an absolute gem. When a group of dignified Egyptian musicians on a trip to Israel end up in the wrong town, the band encounters a night of magic.

Daniele Luchetti's "Only Child" features an outstanding performance by young Elio Germano.
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