The fiftieth year of the film festival showcased likely candidates, including ''The Sweet Hereafter'' and ''L.A. Confidential,'' to carry cinema into the next millennium

When the moment arrived to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cannes film festival, a startling array of directors gathered on the stage of the Grand Salle Lumiere. Antonioni and Coppola, Wenders and Imamura, Lynch, Soderbergh, Campion and Leigh — it was a living testament to the cinema of the last three decades. Yet a question hung in the air: What about the next decades? Would there be filmmakers visionary enough to fill the shoes of an Antonioni or a Coppola? Was this, in effect, a celebration or an elegy?

The answer came several days later, at the premiere of Atom Egoyan’s spellbinding The Sweet Hereafter. Imagine the following: a school-bus accident in the Canadian wilderness — a wintry cataclysm that kills 14 children. A tormented attorney (Ian Holm) who tries to heal the community, and himself, by seeking a culprit. And then, something darker, a father who gently shatters the ultimate taboo. The link between innocence and evil is the theme of The Sweet Hereafter, a hypnotically structured, meditative mystery that instantly moves Egoyan to the front rank of world filmmakers. Anyone who saw Exotica (1995), his kaleidoscopic puzzle movie about strip clubs, Lolita fantasies, and murder, will recognize the intricate gamesmanship, the themes of forbidden sexuality and loss. But that movie had a poker-faced chill; this one is saturated in emotion in a way that recalls the David Lynch of Blue Velvet. Adapting Russell Banks’ novel, Egoyan creates a metaphysical soap opera whose most haunting — and sure to be controversial — element is its vision of incest, which Egoyan dares to portray as an extension, however twisted, of real paternal love. Its connection to the bus accident? That’s the elusive mystery. In The Sweet Hereafter, there’s a disturbance in the universe, a crack the movie seems almost desperate to heal.

A different kind of maze lures the viewer into L.A. Confidential. Adapted from one of James Ellroy’s labyrinthine crime novels, Curtis Hanson’s electrifying thriller is the first movie to capture the author’s dense, funky, madly paranoid ’50s L.A. underworld — the cops as dirty as the scum they’re out to catch, the plots that zig and zag in so many directions they’re like action films for the brain. In a triumphant casting coup, two Australian actors play hardcore American cops: Russell Crowe is the brutishly honorable Bud White, and, in a star-is-born performance, Guy Pearce is the ambiguous white knight Exley, who commands the world, and the screen, with his lightning intelligence. Ellroy’s virtue is sometimes his vice: The story is so dense it can seem arbitrary. Still, L.A. Confidential brings the rancid thrill of corruption cracklingly alive.

Cannes may be the only place left for the cult of Wim Wenders, whose naive, scattershot The End of Violence was perhaps the festival’s most high-profile embarrassment. As a Hollywood producer forced to confront the mayhem he so glibly portrays in his films, Bill Pullman is like action mogul Joel Silver recast as a tortured artiste. Pretentious, meandering, defiantly preposterous, The End of Violence shows a once vital filmmaker running on the emptiness of his own ”cosmic” narcissism.