Sean Penn looked like he just rolled out of bed at the 11 AM press conference following the media screening of his second competition film of the week, This Must Be The Place, the first English-language film from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino ( Il Divo). He probably did, considering I spotted him having a great time in the wee hours at the Eden Roc afterparty following the big Cinema Against AIDS event at Hotel Du Cap Thursday night. These Cannes hours can be rough. He did well enough, though, trying to explain what drew him to Sorrentino’s entertaining if quirky but oddly touching story of a washed-up-at-age-50 rock star from the 1980s named Cheyenne who suffers from depression and malaise until he gets a chance at renewal upholding his late father’s honor. Early reviews I’ve read on the film range from “transformative” to “embarrassing” — in other words, mixed — with general consensus that David Byrne’s songs are keepers. Also, Penn’s go-for-broke performance, a risky and engaging and right-on-the-nose turn, is one for the ages even if you don’t personally think this movie must be the place to be.

And how’s this for meeting cute? Sorrentino won a prize for Il Divo at the 2008 Cannes festival when Penn was head of the jury. During a photo call on stage after the awards ceremony, Sorrentino suggested that they should work together someday to which Penn replied, “Anytime. Anywhere.” A year later the script arrives and Penn says ‘yes’ immediately.

So how did Penn create this glam rocker based on The Cure’s Robert Smith? “Paolo and I talked about aspects of depression. He had very specific ideas of physicality and the look of the character. You always have a challenge, but when somebody could provide an ownership of vision, you go with it. He’s one of the very few masters of film where as an actor you’re also an appreciator. He played piano, and I turned the pages.”

As for their chances for an award on Sunday night, Penn said, “It’s a year of wonderful films, and it’s good to be welcomed into that group. I have experience on that jury, and you’re left to the whim and whimsy of the people there and their feelings at the time.” He voiced hope they are once again in the mood to celebrate Sorrentino like Penn’s jury was.

But the actor shrugged off a question asking him to compare the experiences of the two films he has in competition this festival, the first being Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in which he has star billing but a much smaller role. He said they are two different films made years apart. He was not yet in Cannes on Monday morning for the Tree of Life press conference so didn’t have to answer questions then.

One of this year’s jurors Uma Thurman who was also up late at that Eden Roc party last night hanging out with fellow juror Jude Law and others, was excused from jury duties on Friday in order to go to nearby Monaco to attend a funeral. She’s not missing any movies and was scheduled to be back on Saturday to finish her committment to the festival.

As the festival winds down to just a handful of unseen competition entries Thurman should have no problem catching up. In addition to Friday’s 7:30 PM official screening of This Must Be The Place, there was a second feature at 10:30 PM for the premiere of the eagerly awaited (at least by me) contemporary LA-set noir, Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks in a change of pace villainous kind of role. Neither of the latter walked the red carpet (Mulligan is in a play Through A Glass Darkly in New York) leaving the heavy paparazzi lifting to Gosling who does a Steve McQueen cooler-than-cool star turn as a take-no-prisoners stunt driver by day and getaway driver for the criminal underworld by night. It’s all reminiscent of a 1960’s flick like Bullitt, but the director keeps it artier than that and this is one that could work for discriminating and mass audiences if Bob Berney’s FilmDistrict gets it right when it releases in September. Certainly the Black Tie crowd at the Lumiere ate it up, frequently interrupting the action for spontaneous applause and then giving one of the biggest ovations of the fest so far — clocked at nearly 15 minutes if you include the credit roll. With so much time to soak up the love, Refn started to entertain the crowd by kissing Gosling full on the lips,  twice.

I saw Fest Director Thierry Fremaux at the top of the Palais steps before the movie and told him I thought this has been, quality-wise, one of the best Cannes lineups in recent years. He told me some have said to him it is the “best in 30 years”. He remained discreetly quiet when I suggested that Lars von Trier has been the only bump in the otherwise smooth road of this Cannes.

Another kickass movie I caught today was South Korea’s thriller from Fox International, The Yellow Sea (aka The Murderer) in the Un Certain Regard competition, about a  guy who takes a seemingly simple job as a hitman is a Korean ‘Bourne’ and then some. Former Paramount Classics and Lakeshore exec David Dinerstein of  D Squared Films told me he is working on stateside releases for both this and the very well received Mexican Un Certain Regard contender, Miss Bala, a title I missed but which generated a lot of talk early in the competition.

And yet another competition, Director’s Fortnight, came to an end down the Croisette on Friday night when 3 awards were handed out with the biggest 2 of them going to the coming-of-age dramedy from Belgium, Les Geants (The Giants) that also happened to be premiering same night as the closing film of the competition. A turnaway crowd gave it an enormous standing ovation, and deservedly so. It is reminiscent of Francois Truffaut in his prime, particularly the talent he had for coaxing such naturalistic kid performances. Director Bouli Lanners doesn’t strike a single false note, and this one is a no-brainer for some U.S. distributor to grab.

Speaking of distribution pickups I received an email today from Music Box Films’ Ed Arentz who had apparently read my Wednesday column where I had kind things to say about the wryly funny French film, The Conquest, which details the 2007 rise to power of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and reminded me of Primary Colors. The film premiered at Cannes out of competition and then opened all over the country same day. I noted it was surprisingly one of the best times I have had with a film here this year and is actually a universal story any discerning adult audience could find intriguing. But due to the French connection, I thought it may have a hard time convincing distributors to pick it up outside of France. Wrong. Arentz said he enjoyed my remarks and that “we have picked up The Conquest. We’ll look to open prior to the primaries.” Music Box has had great success with foreign language films like Guillaume Canet’s sleeper hit, Tell No One, and of course Sweden’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy, and the two-part crime drama Mesrine, and currently the French farce Potiche — an eclectic slate of movies turned into success stories. I have a feeling The Conquest will be another.