Cannes Festival

Some welcome controversy was injected into the contest by a drama that compares Algerian militants to the French resistance

It was an OK Cannes this year. Which, from a critic's point of view, means it was very nearly a terrible Cannes.

The last thing you want Cannes to be is just adequate. Ideally, you want a banquet of timeless masterpieces, but failing that, a buffet of extremely good films will do, which was the case in last year's line-up (Haneke, Campion, Audiard et al). This year offered no out-and-out catastrophes, and a few gems. But by and large, Cannes gave us known directors doing what they do, with few surprises: overall, the competition showed as little energy as the increasingly jaded press.

Thank goodness, then, for the competition's one genuine hot potato which turned up at the eleventh hour. Rachid Bouchareb's Hors-la-loi (Outside the Law) was predicted to be a controversial ticket, with the director of war story Days of Glory offering a drama about Algerian militants in France in the 1950s. Already attacked by French right-wing politicians, this co-production between five countries, including France and Algeria, was the one competition film that went in fighting. It stars Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila as three immigrant brothers whose family has suffered at French colonial hands, beginning with the notorious Setif massacre in Algeria in 1945. Two brothers become FLN militants fighting for Algerian independence, the third a pimp and boxing promoter. A tense, energetic historical drama on a grand scale – somewhere between Bertolucci and Michael Mann – Hors-la-loi is hugely ambitious and goes full out to provoke, not least with its comparison of the FLN and the French Resistance. You'll be hearing more about it, especially if it scoops some awards at tonight's closing ceremony.

Bouchareb's was one of several political films on show. Ken Loach was a last-minute addition to the competition – which is like getting a surprise extra helping of spinach with your meal – and his Route Irish was a clunky, overstated thriller about abuse among private security firms in Iraq. It is angry and on the side of the angels, but leaden as hell. Meanwhile, Doug Liman's thriller Fair Game, with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, is Hollywood's dullest, smuggest response yet to the Iraq war.

The other good political films were French. Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men was based on the killing of several French monks in Algeria in 1996: superbly acted, it was a sober but compelling plea for religious and political tolerance. Then, sprawling over a magnificent five hours plus, there was Carlos, a made-for-TV docudrama about the legendary terrorist (aka the Jackal). Covering two decades, it showed director Olivier Assayas tackling modern political chicanery and hostage-taking action with the kind of verve you associate with Paul Greengrass. It knocked both Steven Soderbergh's Che and the recent Mesrine diptych out of the ring; if it weren't playing out of competition, its authoritative star, Edgar Ramirez, would be a shoo-in for Best Actor.

Other directors did pretty much what they do, with greater or lesser variations, for better or worse. Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) made his comeback with sombre melodrama Biuitful and, frankly, it was hidius. Japan's Takeshi Kitano returned to the yakuza gangster genre, but his aptly-named Outrage was at once boring, brutal, racist, sexist and well-nigh incomprehensible. And honestly, how many severed fingers do you really need in one film?

Veteran wind-up merchant Jean-Luc Godard provided his usual masterly mystification. Film Socialisme was a three-part free-associative scramble, the best section being the first, set on a Mediterranean cruise ship, and mixing sampled literary texts with electrically hued footage. Patti Smith appears briefly, getting rather less screen time than a llama. The subtitles in what Godard calls "Navajo English" – e.g. "Islam westof east" [sic] – won't do its export chances any good, as if Godard cared. The film's final caption reads, "NO COMMENT", and Godard showed he meant it by deciding to give the festival a miss at the last minute.

In competition, other highlights included Certified Copy by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami – a Tuscan-set comedy-drama in which two apparent strangers (Juliette Binoche and English opera singer William Shimell, making an imposing screen debut) act out a simulation of a marriage on the rocks. It was lightweight Kiarostami, but with a sharp philosophical sense of fun.

Two stand-out films defined the nuttier end of the selection. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was a musing on reincarnation by Thailand's Apichatpong Weerase-thakul. This supernatural drama is set in a forest where a princess has sex with a talking catfish, and a family is visited by two friendly phantoms, one bearing a striking resemblance to Chewbacca from Star Wars. This oddball and hypnotically atmospheric film, I suspect, is the one likeliest to tickle jury president Tim Burton. The other wild card was the Ukrainian-made My Joy. It's by Sergei Loznitsa, known as a documentarist, but an unknown quantity as a fiction maker. Ostensibly, My Joy is the story of a lorry driver who takes a wrong turn and ends up on the back roads of what you might call the old weird Russia – an eerie wasteland of madness and random violence. This madly digressive story was blacker than black, the closest we've seen to Russian David Lynch.

And the festival's one feelgood cult-in-the-making? Watch for an Italian film called Le Quattro Volte, a four-seasons rural tableau about natural goings-on in a Calabrian valley. At one point, director Michelangelo Frammartino stages a single-shot extended one-shot sight gag that defies description: meticulously set up and executed with stunning precision, it involves a dog, a choirboy, a herd of goats, an Easter parade, some Roman centurions and a runaway lorry. Shown earlier this week, it was not only the best fun in the fest, but the best film I've ever seen about goats. In short, a maaaa-sterpiece.