By Mike Collett-WhiteCANNES, France | Mon May 21, 2012 5:55pm EDT
(Reuters) - The Cannes film festival is buzzing this year with a string of hit movies in the official lineup, a procession of stars on the red carpet and plenty of eagerly awaited titles still to come.
The unseasonably cold, wet weather has done little to dampen spirits among the famously picky critics and journalists on the French Riviera to interview, photograph and film everyone from A-list celebrities to obscure auteur directors.
While the distractions for the 4,000-strong media presence seem endless amid stunts, parties and big movie deals, the backbone of the festival remains the main competition, this year comprising 22 movies with a strong U.S. presence.
But it is two European film makers, both previous winners of the coveted Palme d'Or for best picture, who have set the pace as Cannes hit its halfway point on Monday.
Austrian Michael Haneke, who won in 2009 with "The White Ribbon" and wowed audiences four years earlier with "Hidden", has done it again this year with "Love" ("Amour"), a somber, French-language drama about an elderly couple facing death.
While Cannes thrives on Hollywood hype and celebrity, it also has a reputation for showcasing serious, hard-hitting dramas made by respected directors for little money.
Once they wiped away the tears, critics gave Love a five-star reception for its unflinching portrayal of a woman's illness and death, and how she and her devoted husband cope with the final weeks.
Jonathan Romney of Screen International called it a "masterpiece" and many Cannes veterans have made it the movie to beat at this year's festival.
"Amour is surely now early favorite for the Palme d'Or," wrote Donald Clarke of the Irish Times. "If we were previously in any doubt, Haneke is confirmed as the premiere European director of his generation."
Its two stars, both in their 80s, have also basked in glory for moving portrayals of old age, the ravages of illness and facing one's mortality.
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills", another popular entry this year, is a disturbing tale based on a true story of a young woman staying at a remote monastery whose violent fits are interpreted as signs of the devil.
An exorcism is performed, but the well-meaning priest is in danger of doing more harm than good in Mungiu's examination of the clash between the religious and secular and between earthly and spiritual love.
His "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" scooped the Palme d'Or in 2007, and an informal poll of critics published at the festival puts him neck-and-neck with Haneke at the head of the field.
French director Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone", starring Marion Cotillard as a Marineland worker who loses her legs in an accident, packed an emotional punch that resonated with many, though not all, viewers.
Danish child abuse drama "The Hunt", from Thomas Vinterberg and starring the impressive Mads Mikkelsen as a man wrongly accused and ostracized, is also seen as a contender.
Wes Anderson's opening comedy "Moonrise Kingdom" starring Bruce Willis, Bill Murray and two young stars, was an upbeat start to this year's festival, although it may be too light-hearted to win over the Cannes jury.
The violent prohibition-era movie "Lawless", featuring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain, fell slightly flat in the eyes of many critics.
Willis, Murray, Hardy, Chastain and Sean Penn have all walked the red carpet so far, and still expected in Cannes are Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart and Kanye West.
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)