CANNES, France – The hypnotic Thai film "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" won the top honor at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday, while Academy Award winners Juliette Binoche and Javier Bardem earned acting honors.
"Uncle Boonmee," directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, traces the dreamlike final days of a man dying of kidney failure as the ghost of his dead wife returns to tend him and his long-lost son comes home in the form of a furry jungle spirit.
"I would like to thank my mother and my father, who 30 years ago, they took me to a little cinema in our little town, and I was so young and didn't know what it was on the screen," said Weerasethakul, who previously won the third-place jury prize at Cannes with his 2004 film "Tropical Malady." "I didn't know the concept of cinema. With this award, I think I know a little more what cinema is, but it still remains a mystery. I think this mystery keeps us coming back here and to share our world."
Binoche, an Oscar winner for "The English Patient," won best actress for the cryptic love story "Certified Copy," directed by past Palme d'Or winner Abbas Kiarostami.
During her speech, Binoche pleaded for the release of Kiarostami's countryman, detained Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi — who had been asked to be on this year's nine-member jury.
"I hope he will be here himself next year," Binoche said, as she clutched a nameplate emblazoned with the director's name. "It's hard to be an artist and an intellectual, and the country needs you."
Bardem, an Oscar winner for "No Country for Old Men," shared the Cannes best-actor prize, earning his honor for Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Biutiful," a grim portrait of a dying father supporting his family with a variety of criminal rackets in Barcelona. Also playing a father in crisis, Elio Germano shared the best-actor award for Italian filmmaker Daniele Luchetti's "Our Life," a drama about a widower with three sons.
"I'm very happy that we are sharing the best actor," Bardem said at a news conference alongside Germano, adding it should happen more often "so less people lose. It's very hard for people to lose in the sense of, in a festival, you can't really say what's best. I mean, it's nine people's opinion, and I've been on the jury here, and I can assure you that it's very, very difficult to put nine people in agreement to like anything."
The second-place grand prize went to French director Xavier Beauvois' solemn drama "Of Gods and Men," based on the true story of seven French monks beheaded during Algeria's civil war in 1996.
Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's stark film "A Screaming Man" received the third-place jury prize. The film chronicles the tragic consequences for a father after he loses his cherished job as a swimming pool attendant to his son amid his country's civil war.
French actor-filmmaker Mathieu Amalric won the directing award for "On Tour," in which he plays the manager of a troupe of American burlesque strippers performing around France. Amalric invited his five stripper stars to join him on stage as he accepted the prize.
The screenplay honor was presented to South Korean director Lee Chang-dong for "Poetry," his gentle portrait of a grandmother (Yun Junghee) struggling to write a poem as she copes with the onset of Alzheimer's and her troublesome grandson.
The festival's Camera d'Or award for a first-time filmmaker went to Michael Rowe's "Leap Year," a romance that plays out in Mexico City.
South Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo's "Ha Ha Ha," a drama of alternating memories shared by two friends over drinks, won a secondary competition called "Un Certain Regard."
Films from two British past Palme d'Or winners — Mike Leigh's "Another Year" and Ken Loach's "Route Irish" — were shut out for prizes.
Also coming away empty-handed was the lone American film among the 19 contenders, Doug Liman's "Fair Game," a drama about former CIA operative Valerie Plame that stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
Leigh's film received some of the festival's best reviews, so its shutout came as a surprise.
"Each and every one of us has some favorites that didn't make it," said "Alice in Wonderland" director Tim Burton, who headed the nine-member jury that chose the winners.
"We tried to invent more prizes," joked fellow jury member Kate Beckinsale.
Critics generally were unimpressed with the lineup Cannes presented at the 12-day festival along the French Riviera. A handful of films stirred some buzz but most of the entries premiered to lukewarm receptions. That contrasted with last year's powerhouse slate, which had included films from Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion and Pedro Almodovar.
The two top winners last year, "The White Ribbon" and "A Prophet," went on to earn Academy Award nominations for foreign-language film.
This year's festival also was lighter on star power, with a few non-competition films such as "Robin Hood" and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" providing the main celebrity sightings, including Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and Michael Douglas.
After the awards ceremony, the festival closed with the premiere of French director Julie Bertuccelli's mother-daughter drama "The Tree," starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won the best-actress prize at Cannes last year for Lars von Trier's "Antichrist."