PEDRO ALMODOVAR’S story of a plastic surgeon bent on exacting vigilante justice and TERRENCE MALICK’S period piece about three Midwestern brothers – starring BRAD PITT – are among 19 movies vying for the top prize at this year’s CANNES FILM FESTIVAL.

The lineup announced Thursday for the 64th edition of the festival is exceptionally strong, with much anticipated new films by the creme de la creme of auteur filmmakers.

They include Denmark’s LARS VON TRIER, with MELANCHOLIA, Turkey’s NURI BILGE CEYLAN, with ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA and Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, with SET ME FREE. Finnish director AKI KAURISMAKI’S LE HAVRE, Italian NANNI MORETTI’S HABENUS PAPAM and French Romanian filmmaker RADU MIHAILEANU’S LA SOURCE DES FEMMES also looked like early strong contenders for the coveted PALME D’OR.

Festival managing director THIERRY FREMAUX told a news conference yesterday that he expected this year to be “quite a rich and fruitful edition” of the famed festival. Submissions for the fest, which fell last year to 1665 films, were back up to 1715 this year, he added.

GILLES JACOB, the festival’s president, said this edition aimed to explore the future of filmmaking in the age of the iPod, the iPad and other mobile devices.

It’s about “asking questions about cinema’s future — particularly the future of movie theatres — at this time when people are consuming more and more images on small screens, computer screens, laptops,” he told yesterday’s news conference, held at a gilded Paris hotel. With the new technology, “we’re going to have an ever increasing need for content.”

Rumour has it that TERRENCE MALICK’S TREE OF LIFE was initially meant to premiere at last year’s edition of the festival but that it wasn’t finished in time. The latest film by the acclaimed director is billed as a story of the loss of innocence and also stars SEAN PENN. TERRENCE MALICK won the CANNES BEST DIRECTOR prize in 1978 for DAYS OF HEAVEN.

Festival regular PEDRO ALMODOVAR’S THE SKIN I LIVE IN – featuring ANTONIO BANDERAS as the plastic surgeon – follows on the director’s 2009 melodrama BROKEN EMBRACES, which screened at the Riviera fest. He won CANNES’ BEST DIRECTOR prize in 1999 for ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and took BEST SCREENPLAY in 2006 for VOLVER.

JODIE FOSTER’S THE BEAVER is to be screened out of competition, as will the latest installment in the blockbuster PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series: ROB MARSHALL’S ON STRANGER TIDES.

The festival’s opening film MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is also showing out of competition. The latest WOODY ALLEN movie is set – appropriately enough – in the City Of Light.

American actor ROBERT DE NIRO presides over the jury for this year’s main competition, with other members to be announced shortly, organizers said.

Serbian director EMIR KUSTERICA has been appointed to head the UN CERTAIN REGARD jury, which showcases lesser known filmmakers than the main competition. Other top entries include Frenchman ROBERT GUEDIGUIAN’S THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO and South Korea’s HONG SANGSOO, with THE DAY HE ARRIVES. His HAHAHA took the UN CERTAIN REGARD’S top prize last year.

MICHEL GONDRY, the French director of the 2004 hit ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, is to preside over the short film competition.

The Riviera festival runs MAY 11 – 22.

Last year, the hypnotic Thai film UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES won the PALME D’OR, while ACADEMY AWARD winners JULIETTE BINOCHE and JAVIER BARDEM earned acting honours.

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