Cannes: Too much rain, too few women, but great movies

A wet and controversial Cannes has still produced some excellent films, says Geoffrey Macnab

Every year, around 1,800 films are considered for the main competition in Cannes. It's easily the most prestigious film festival in the world and slots are very keenly sought after. That's why festival director Thierry Frémaux 's choices are so keenly scrutinised. This year, Frémaux made a bad start by announcing a 22-strong competition without a single female director. The din created when the festival started last week has never quite died down. When 2012 is looked back on, the lack of women film-makers will be remembered – and so will the rain that started in earnest at the weekend and didn't let up for several days.

Frémaux is an astute programmer who generally manages to to strike a clever balance between European art-house, Asian and US indie cinema. There have been plenty of fine films on view over the last 10 days. Nonetheless, prior to the screenings late in the week of such anticipated titles as Walter Salles's On the Road and David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, the consensus was that Cannes 2012 hadn't been a vintage edition. There were no signs of big breakout films like last year's The Artist, which screened unheralded as a late addition to competition and nine months later went on to win a Best Picture Oscar.

One front-runner for awards this weekend is surely Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, the director's best film since his 1998 Cannes jury prize winner Festen. Mads Mikkelsen, more used to playing Bond villains and Viking warriors, gives an exceptional performance as Lucas, a middle-aged divorcee working in a nursery in a close-knit Danish town who is wrongly accused of child abuse. The community turns against him. His old friends are ready to kill him. It's impossible for him to clear his name because a young girl has made an allegation against him and everybody believes in the truthfulness of the child.

The Hunt has the same pared-down storytelling style as Festen, although it's not a Dogme film and Vinterberg was happily telling journalists in Cannes this week that Dogme was dead. The film has the intensity and drive of a very taut thriller but, at the same time, broaches some disturbing issues – the way a peaceful community can turn very violent, the uncritical acceptance of the truthfulness of children, the power of gossip.

Similarly themed, albeit much longer and far more dour, is Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills. This again is about an innocent person being persecuted. Based on a true story, the film is about a young woman who is tortured to death by nuns who are trying to drive out an evil spirit they've decided she is possessed by. What is startling is that we're not at the 17th-century Salem witch trials nor in the 1630s France of Ken Russell's The Devils but in the middle of modern-day Europe. Mungiu has an intriguing way of framing, always showing characters and action in the background and holding shots for a small eternity. On a formal level, the film is very impressive indeed but it's also austere and forbidding.

Mungiu is one of several film-makers in competition who have previously picked up major awards. He is competing against fellow former Palme d'Or winners Jacques Audiard (whose Rust & Bone is likely to launch young Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as a new star), Ken Loach (whose The Angels' Share was arguably the biggest crowd-pleaser in the competition), Michael Haneke (whose Love is a strong favourite for awards) and Abbas Kiarostami.

Both in and outside competition, it has been a good festival for the Brits. Loach was widely liked. Ben Wheatley's macabre comedy Sightseers (in the Directors' Fortnight section) looks set for immediate cult status. Festival-goers were very impressed with the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's silent boxing movie The Ring (showing in Cannes Classics.) Meanwhile, one of the best received documentaries in the festival has been Katrine Boorman's small-scale but revealing and very tender documentary Me and My Dad, about her father, the director John Boorman.

As ever, it's quite impossible to second-guess where jury president Nanni Moretti and his team will award their prizes this weekend, but Haneke and Loach are surely well in the frame.

Cannes do well: The 4 best films

The Hunt
Thomas Vinterberg's return to form – a harrowing and very dramatic story about a man wrongly accused of child abuse.

Some critics were in tears at the end of Michael Haneke's film about old age, frailty, love and death.

Beyond the Hills
A heavy-duty European art-house movie about exorcism, forbidding but formally very impressive.

Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik's scabrous, foul-mouthed mobster movie had some of the best dialogue and most vivid performances of this year's Cannes crop.