Once upon a time in Cannes...

A rambling Turkish philosophical thriller led the field, says Jonathan Romney

The Cannes Film Festival closes tonight, and it has been an especially strong year. Even so, it's taken till this final weekend for critics to start muttering the M-word – "masterpiece". The longest, and arguably the slowest, film in the competition, the Turkish entry Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is also the most substantial offering here, and a definite front-runner for the Palme d'Or.

The latest from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the film recounts a shambling police investigation, with the first hour cloaked in darkness and the crime scene reached only 90mins in – raising some sarcastic cheers. But this complex, beautifully crafted film has it all – laced with black humour, it's a character piece, a landscape study, a police procedural thriller and a philosophical contemplation.

Films that UK audiences can expect to see soon include Drive, a slick and bloody thriller that delighted genre buffs here: it stars Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. It's a safe bet that Woody Allen's fantasy Midnight in Paris will be an upmarket hit.

Another treat was This Must be the Place, an outré offering from Italy's Paolo Sorrentino. It features a wildly eccentric performance from Sean Penn – made up to resemble Robert Smith of The Cure – as a retired rock star chasing a Nazi war criminal. The film crackles with style and invention.

The festival ends this evening with the family saga Les Bien-Aimés, starring Catherine Deneuve. Other favourites for the Palme d'Or include The Skin I Live In by Pedro Almodóvar.

So who really triumphed? Sean Penn finally proved that he had a sense of humour by going Goth. The Artist's double act, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béjo, now look poised to go international. Kirsten Dunst's lead in Melancholia showed that she's not just Hollywood's perennial girl next door. The director Jafar Panahi, outlawed by the Iranian government, had his new film, a video diary of life under house arrest, smuggled out of Iran in a cake.

And what of the losers? Mel Gibson incurred a storm of boos for failing to sign autographs. While the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was mercilessly impersonated in Denis Podalydès' satirical biopic The Conquest.

'Melancholia' – Lars von Trier

The now disgraced Dane started his film with seven minutes of undiluted dream beauty – and the end of the world, which proved he meant business. Otherwise, in his follow-up to the art shocker 'Antichrist', Von Trier reined himself in and made a surprisingly suggestive film that was the closest he's come to a Bergman-style statement.

'This Must Be the Place' – Paolo Sorrentino

Italy's most eccentric director – the man behind the grotesques of 'Il Divo' – brought us a bizarre US-set road movie that was the competition's most inventive and eccentric offering, bar none. Sean Penn donned pancake and lip gloss to play a jaded rock star on the trail of a Nazi war criminal.

'The Kid with the Bike' – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Two-time winners of the Palme d'Or, the Belgian realist masters the Dardenne brothers returned in beautifully understated form with a relatively feel-good story about a lonely 12-year-old boy looking for a parent – and a bike. A modern Oliver Twist, featuring terrific performances from Euro-screen queen Cécile de France and galvanising newcomer Thomas Doret.

'Le Havre' – Aki Kaurismäki

Finland's king of poker-face comedy, Aki Kaurismäki, returned with an old-fashioned tale of a shoeshine man and a young African immigrant. Sweet-natured, and intensely sophisticated under its cod-naïve façade, this tribute to the French cinema tradition was also the most political film in competition, and a heart-melting pleasure.

'We Need to Talk about Kevin' – Lynne Ramsay

A no-holds-barred comeback from the British talent Lynne Ramsay, with a powerfully imagistic reading of Lionel Shriver's bestseller about a woman and her violently delinquent son. Tilda Swinton was on wired form, and the leitmotif of blazing red was guaranteed to rattle jaded nerves.

'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia' – Nuri Bilge Ceylan

This lengthy crime drama is the definite slow-burner of the competition, with its share of head-scratching moments. But Ceylan's austerely no-frills work is also the most serious and intellectually stimulating entry in contention, and shows why the Turkish director is increasingly talked about in the same breath as Bergman and Tarkovsky.

'Snowtown' – Justin Kurzel

This highly accomplished, massively disturbing drama was the feel-bad succès de scandale of the Critics' Week sidebar. The fictionalised story of a notorious Australian serial-killer case, 'Snowtown' was anything but a pleasant experience, but it was certainly an arresting one – an authentic snapshot of earthly hell at the bottom of the social ladder.

'Michel Petrucciani' – Michael Radford

The British director Radford – 1984, Il Postino – turned to documentary with this riveting portrait of a French jazz great. Born with brittle bone disease, and raised on Bill Evans and Duke Ellington, the 3ft-tall pianist Petrucciani forged himself a phenomenal transatlantic career, and had a pretty wild life, too. Radford's film celebrates him with revealing interviews and blazing performances.

'The Artist' – Michel Hazanavicius

Some critics frowned at such a joyously silly film being in the competition, but this French-made silent spoof was a superbly inventive tribute to Hollywood's golden years. The French box-office king Jean Dujardin is a hoot, and the film will do great things for its zippy ingénue Bérénice Béjo. Expect a popular hit along the lines of "Belleville Rendezvous".

'The Skin I'm In' – Pedro Almodóvar

The latest mind-bending narrative by the man from La Mancha, and his loopiest for some time. Antonio Banderas played a sinister plastic surgeon in a film packing more narrative twists than anything else here. Some reviews have already spilled the beans about its outrageous central twist, so try not to read too much before the UK release in August: its perversity is worth the wait.

Duds and disappointments...

'Restless' – Gus van Sant

After reinventing himself as an art-house master with the Palme d'Or winner 'Elephant', US indie grandee Van Sant gave us this incomparably twee youth romance with Mia Wasikowska as the most hygienically fragrant terminal patient since la dame aux camélias.

'Poliss' – Maïwenn

A sometimes punchy docu-drama about the Paris police's child protection unit, Maïwenn's competition entry could have been a contender. But the director-actor blew her chances by putting herself in the film as a lovelorn photographer – an outrageously distracting display of vanity that blew the film's credibility to smithereens.

'Hara-Kiri' – Takashi Miike

They should have handed out hara-kiri swords instead of 3-D glasses at this stately snorer. The erstwhile shock-jock director went for a decorous costume tragedy that chloroformed at least one critic.

'House of Tolerance' – Bertrand Bonello

This was another opiated snoozer – a creepily nostalgic portrait of life inside a fin de siècle brothel. This exceedingly arch offering was a solemn stew of underwear and ennui, spiked with poker-faced lines such as, "This room smells of champagne and sperm".

'The Tree of Life' – Terrence Malick

The rarest bird among American cineastes, Malick returned with a film about life, the universe and making peace with your dad. It was unmistakably a riveting watch, with the director letting loose his wilder visionary aspirations. But, albeit ambitious and sometimes beautiful, it was too humourlessly religiose to pass muster as a credible cinematic statement.

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