It was a bad year for business, a so-so year for celebrities, but a good year for movies at the Cannes Film Festival.
There were fewer dealmakers in the market, fewer stars on the red carpet — but on screen, the selection was one of the strongest in recent years.
Top prize, the Palme d’Or, went late Sunday to Austria’s Michael Haneke for “The White Ribbon,” an austere study of evil in pre-World War I Germany, while the runner-up was French director Jacques Audiard’s gripping prison drama “A Prophet” — both films that drew widespread praise.
“I feel beautiful,” said Haneke, whose films include the cryptic “Hidden” and the chilling “Funny Games.” '‘This is the best prize you can get in the cinema, so I’m delighted.”
The festival began buoyantly May 13 with Pixar’s 3-D animated adventure “Up” before plumbing depths of tragedy, pain and horror.
Danish director Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” gave audiences graphic scenes of genital mutilation — and a talking fox — that drew reactions from respect to revulsion. The jury awarded Charlotte Gainsbourg the best-actress award for her terrifying turn as a grieving mother who descends into madness.
“I’m so proud of having been able to work with Lars von Trier,” Gainsbourg said. “I admire his work, and I admire everything he did with this film.”
Filipino director Brillante Mendoza took the directing honor for the police corruption drama “Kinatay,” which horrified many viewers with its explicit scenes of murder and dismemberment.
The jury was unapologetic for rewarding divisive films.
“Sometimes good art is hard,” said British writer Hanif Kureishi, part of the nine-member jury, although he admitted “Kinatay” was “not something I want to see again.”
In a banner year for Asian films, South Korea’s Park Chan-wook depicted a priest grappling with a moral dilemma after he is turned into a vampire in the stylish and energetic “Thirst.”
The film shared the third-place jury prize with British director Andrea Arnold’s gritty teen drama “Fish Tank.”
On a lighter note, Britain’s Ken Loach made an atypically sunny comedy, the soccer-themed “Looking for Eric,” while Spain’s Pedro Almodovar offered a color-drenched melodrama about love and loss in “Broken Embraces,” starring a radiant Penelope Cruz.
Quentin Tarantino rewrote history with “Inglourious Basterds,” which had Brad Pitt leading a band of Jewish Nazi-hunters during World War II.
Two directors defied authorities at home to bring their films to Cannes. China’s Lou Ye shot “Spring Fever” secretly because he has been banned from filmmaking by the Chinese government. The film took home Cannes’ screenplay prize.
Lou said he hoped that from now on, “I hope all the young filmmakers will be free to make their films.”
Iran’s Bahman Ghobadi came with “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” a lively portrait of Tehran’s underground music scene co-scripted by the director’s partner, U.S.-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi.
Several actors gave standout performances, including teenager Katie Jarvis in “Fish Tank”; Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as love-struck John Keats and Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star”; Tahar Rahim as a quick-learning convict in “A Prophet”; and Christoph Waltz, who won the best-actor prize for his scene-stealing role as a multilingual Nazi officer in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Pitt and Angelina Jolie swept into Cannes for the “Basterds” premiere, and Paris Hilton popped up everywhere, but overall there were fewer A-list stars and fewer headline-grabbing studio stunts — although Jim Carrey posed on a lawn of fake snow to promote the forthcoming “A Christmas Carol.”
The festival also premiered the final performance of Heath Ledger in Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” which screened to a muted reception outside of the Cannes competition.
Amid the recession, there were fewer buyers this year, although hot titles quickly found distributors, including U.S. deals for “Looking for Eric,” '‘Antichrist,” '‘The White Ribbon” and “A Prophet.”
Even in a recession, Cannes remains a mecca for movie-lovers — a place in which, as Tarantino said, “cinema matters. It’s important.”
“I am not an American filmmaker,” Tarantino said. “I make movies for the planet Earth, and Cannes is the place that represents that.”