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Cannes '08: It's over, but what just happened?

In the end, it was entirely appropriate that "What Just Happened" got the last flicker of light from the projector at this year's Festival de Cannes. It's about a troubled movie, starring Sean Penn, that plays to a rainy Cannes within a real-life troubled movie that closes a rainy Cannes. This in a year when the fake film's star (Penn) served as president of the official selection jury, and the real film's star, Robert De Niro, presented the Palme d'Or -- all during the wettest Cannes in years.

It's art imitating life imitating art and so on. For the film, which was recut after failing to sell at Sundance (in retrospect a big mistake taking it to the wrong festival in the first place), it was a re-premiere on the closing night in Cannes, and its several-minute standing ovation must have been sweet for the filmmakers, director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Art Linson, who based the film on his own autobiographical book of life in the producing trenches.

Even though movies about Hollywood are often considered too inside for mainstream success, this one has lots of knowing laughs and some teriffic performances, including De Niro in the Linson-like role and especially Canadian actor Michael Wincott as a tantrum-throwing auteurist director. Should this film find decent distribution and a release before the end of the year, Wincott's performance is the kind of comic gem that could draw awards attention on its own.

So even on its final night, Cannes '08 continued to provide some intriguing possibilities as we move forward.

As noted in our preview piece, "No Country for Old Men" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" got lots of traction last year coming out of their competition slots in Cannes '07. Together they went on to garner 12 nominations and four Oscars for Miramax, including best picture for "No Country."

This year another Miramax film opened the festival, but Fernando Meirelles' "Blindness" did not generate the same kind of critical enthusiasm and was quickly forgotten as the competition accelerated. The film, which opens Stateside at the kickoff of awards season in September, will have to shed its shaky Cannes image quickly if it's to have any shot in the upcoming awards races. Julianne Moore's brave lead performance could be a contender depending on how the best actress race shapes up this year.

One nominee in the best actress race this year is clearly Angelina Jolie for Clint Eastwood's dark and mesmerizing "Changeling." Even though she didn't win a prize in Cannes, losing to one of those quirky, completely unexpected jury choices we so often see in fests (Sandra Corveloni, who plays the mother in the Brazilian youth drama "Linha de Passe"), her fierce turn as a mother who goes after a corrupt police department when her son is kidnapped is sure put her back into the Oscar hunt for the second year in a row after an Oscar nomination eluded her for 2007's "A Mighty Heart."

Like "Mystic River" in 2003, Clint's fifth competition entry and fifth loss (other than a consolation prize for, well, being Clint), the critically praised "Changeling" should win widespread awards talk and numerous Oscar nominations. One film company head (and academy member) with absolutely no corporate ties to the studio (Universal) told us, without a doubt, that a November-released "Changeling" would be a major contender for best picture, actress, director and many other categories.

Complicating matters is an embarrassment of potential Oscar riches, for not only Universal but also "Changeling's" production company, Imagine, and co-producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. They also have Howard's sensational film version of "Frost/Nixon," the Broadway play by Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), opening Dec. 5 and directly positioned for maximum award attentions.

Howard could, and probably will, find himself in competition with Eastwood in the directing category. His funny, complicated and fascinating film (we've seen it – it's completed but so far avoiding the fest circuit and bypassing election season) is brilliant, even matching his Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind."

Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost, the man who conducts a series of TV interviews with the former president, are equally superb re-creating their Broadway and West End triumphs. Both are best actor candidates unless the studio decides to try to squeeze one or the other into supporting, which really seems unlikely. Langella won the lead actor Tony for the role.

Although Frost and Nixon were nowhere to be found on the Croisette, Vicky, Cristina and Woody certainly were as Woody Allen came back to comedy with a vengeance in his Spain-set out-of-competition entry, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," starring Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.

This critically praised film represents Woody's best since "Match Point" and his best comedy in many a Manhattan moon. Bardem will probably get Golden Globe comedy attention, while the hilariously on-target Cruz, as his volatile ex-wife, is guaranteed a supporting actress academy nod, if not the Oscar itself.

We also caught another Cruz film, "Elegy" (Aug. 8, Goldwyn), in the market screenings with her equally fine and heartbreaking dramatic performance opposite Ben Kingsley as a woman involved in a sensuous affair that turns tragic. This is her year.

Depending on how Weinstein Co. plays it (the film opens Sept. 5) "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" could go even further, with screenwriting and directing nominations not out of the question for Allen.

As for the three award potential Cannes entries that are without distribution deals in place as of this writing, James Gray's "Two Lovers," a throwback to romantic dramas like "Love With the Proper Stranger," "The Apartment" and "Marty," is said to be near one and if released in '08 could draw attention for first-rate performances from Gwyneth Paltrow and especially Joaquin Phoenix, his best since "Walk the Line."

Mixed reaction didn't help "Charlie Kaufman's seriously strange directorial debut, "Synechoche New York," but never count out the man who has won Oscar nominations for the equally audacious "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" and the Oscar itself for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." A strong lead performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman could draw awards attention as well if the film finds a home in time.

Then there's "Che." This way-overlong, undercooked Steven Soderbergh anti-epic has been discussed at length (and because of its length at 4.5 hours) but would seem to be a long shot academy-wise even if it is shown as two separate films as planned or in a cut-down version of the original shown Wednesday night at the Palais.

No distribution deal has been announced, although Harvey Weinstein seemed to be lobbying for it last week at his Amfar charity event, calling it "a masterpiece." Many others, however, were scratching their heads.

Benicio Del Toro was a unanimous jury pick for best actor, and his performance does fall in line with the current trend of rewarding performers for playing real-life personalities, but because of problems associated with the film he has to be deemed a long shot.

A better bet would be to sell the $60-plus-million movie to cable and go for the Emmys next year a la "Broken Trail."

One area Cannes really shed light on as the '08 awards season gets into gear for the fall festival kickoffs is the contest for best foreign-language film.

France's first Palme d'Or win in 21 years (and first popular one in more than 40) came for Laurent Cantet's down-to-the-wire entry shown on the last day, an extremely fine and accessible teacher-student drama, "Entre Les Murs" ("The Class") or, as we'll call it, "To Monsieur With Love." The prize would seem to cement the film as the country's entry for the Oscars over the most popular French film in history, "Beinvenue chez les Ch'tis," especially becayse Cannes honcho Thierry Fremaux sits on the selection committee.

Its Palme d'Or win probably shouldn't be too surprising. After days of watching murders, rapes, Filipino hardcore sex, war, torture, corruption, suicides and any number of minimalist movies with 20-minute shots of people cleaning restrooms or pigs being slowly slaughtered (it was a bad year to be a pig in Cannes), a film that raises hope about future generations was probably a shoo-in.

Meanwhile, the No. 2 and 3 films, Matteo Garrone's "Gomorra" and Paolo Sorrentino's "Il Divo," set up a battle royal for the Italian selection committee, with the former, a Mafia story, probably having the edge over the more politically dense "Divo."

One thing is for sure, Norway can count on a nomination for its crowd-pleasing Un Certain Regard entry, Bent Hamer's "O' Horten," which was just picked up for U.S. distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. A better, more poignant look at the bittersweet process of aging is not to be found anywhere, and it should have great appeal to many in the academy who can identify with its main character, a train conductor (Bard Owe) trying to fill his days after retirement.

If he were in the movie business he could volunteer for the academy's foreign film selection committee and spend his twilight days watching great movies like the one in which he stars.

Twelve days, too many films but never enough, Cannes '08 now seems like a dream or more specifically, to quote Juliette Binoche in her Oscar acceptance, "a French dream."

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