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From Cannes to screens near you

CANNES, France - Come what may with the awarding of the Palme d'Or on Sunday night at the 66th running of the Cannes Film Festival, it has been nothing short of a tour de force performance by American films this year.

CANNES, France - Come what may with the awarding of the Palme d'Or on Sunday night at the 66th running of the Cannes Film Festival, it has been nothing short of a tour de force performance by American films this year.

The entire American flotilla is heading for U.S. audiences, starting Sunday with HBO's telecast of Behind the Candelabra. The movie, directed by Steven Soderbergh, stars Michael Douglas - a favorite for best actor here - as Liberace, seen through the eyes of his former significant other, Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon.

Among the thousands drawn here this year was Philadelphian Ray Murray, 58, buying 11 films to distribute through his Market Street-based Artsploitation Films.

A projectionist at TLA in the 1970s, a principal at the Roxy in the 1980s, head of Philly's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival since its inception in 1995, and a former director of the Philadelphia Film Festival, Murray founded Artsploitation in 2000 to distribute international teen and genre films - mostly because they're inexpensive and play well. Artsploitation titles have included Animals, about teen boys coming of age (Spain); Wither, a Swedish film about kids finding a demon in the basement; and Clip, a Serbian lesbian teen story.

"These kinds of films don't always get a strong reception in the U.S.," said Murray, whose acquisitions for DVD release include Matterhorn, by Dutch director Diederik Ebbinge. "But I always stay to the end of the market. It feels like death. But you can get some really good deals on films."

This year, Murray went outside the busy Cannes market to buy a film playing in Cannes' official Directors' Fortnight section. Les Apaches is a French film set in Corsica, by a Corsican director, about teens breaking into a summer home, stealing items, and setting off a chain reaction with some hoods.

Did it perfectly catch the zeitgeist? There were not one but two reported jewelry heists at Cannes hotels this year, one worth $1 million in Chopard rent-a-star jewelry.

You couldn't have asked for better promotion for The Bling Ring, a film by Sofia Coppola, which played in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival. In it, Harry Potter's Emma Watson busts a career move into crime and leads a band of snotty high school girls on a looting and coke-tooting binge through the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and others, underscoring the Coppola take on American decadence. The hotel jewelry heists, however - faintly reminiscent of the grand old days when cat burglars had style (Cary Grant in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief) - got more attention from the press.

The most talked-about film for the top prize has been the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Isaac as a Greenwich Village folk singer circa 1960 who has the bad luck to be a beat ahead of his time. The film behaves like a folkie-a-clef, and some part of the fun is identifying the '50s folkies - there go Peter, Paul & Mary, here come the Clancy Brothers.

Put the Greenwich Village folk and the Vegas gay world up against a few international films, and there's the making of a jury fight, or at least prizes to be spread around.

Contenders include:

French director Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color, three hours of a girl-girl love affair that goes bad between art student Léa Seydoux and schoolgirl Adèle Exarchopoulos, whose graphic sex scenes were all anyone talked about for three days.

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's sumptuous La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) in which Toni Servillo tours Rome as a society journalist taking the pulse of a dying civilization, evocative of La Dolce Vita 50 years ago, with better clothes.

The Iranian The Past, by Asghar Farhadi, who won the best foreign-language Oscar two years ago with A Separation. This time, he less ambitiously but as painstakingly shows an Iranian marriage that has come undone in Paris.

Chinese director Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin, which weaves together the stories of a miner, a sauna receptionist, and others to portray China as a nation of wealth sinking into violence.

With a higher-quality jury than in some years - presided over by Steven Spielberg, and including directors Ang Lee and Cristian Mungiu and actors Nicole Kidman and Daniel Auteuil - there's room for the members to tussle over whether to go American or international.

A dark-horse contender for the top prize is James Gray's The Immigrant, with Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix in an Ellis Island drama set in the '20s. Prostitution, love, and corruption are knit together in a story that cleverly mirrors the modern moment.

The biggest surprises include Robert Redford in All Is Lost, in which he says nary a word as he fights to survive a sailing accident, and James Franco's workup of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. And at 76, Bruce Dern is making a comeback as an old coot on a road trip with his son, played by Will Forte, in Alexander Payne's Nebraska.

The biggest loser? Nicolas Winding Refn, who two years ago was hailed as a master for Drive, with Ryan Gosling. This year, his ultraviolent Only God Forgives, set in some Thai version of hotel hell with Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas in a vaguely Oedipal death lock, was more Bangkok for the buck than anyone has the stomach for. Or spleen, kidneys, or eyes.