VENICE - The Venice film festival closes on Saturday with the award of the Golden Lion for best picture, and U.S. director Todd Solondz is a favorite for his comedy "Life During Wartime" as is the harrowing war movie "Lebanon."
Michael Moore's attack on corporate greed in "Capitalism: A Love Story" struck a chord with audiences and the public, as did fashion designer Tom Ford with his debut feature "A Single Man" starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.
Also among the frontrunners were "Lourdes," an examination of miracles and faith, "The Road," an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, Fatih Akin's madcap comedy "Soul Kitchen" and Iranian protest drama "Women Without Men."
But with film festival juries notoriously difficult to second-guess, including this year's panel led by two-time Golden Lion winner Ang Lee, critics believe the race for the top prize in 2009 is wide open.
They also praised the selection of 25 competition films, and dozens more pictures outside of a main line-up that eclipsed a disappointing 2008 edition.
"Most critics will remember the 66th Venice film festival as a certainly worthwhile -- though not classic -- edition in which everyone took home at least half a dozen or so titles to remember," said Derek Elley of Variety trade publication. "And by today's festival batting averages, that ain't half bad."
Venice director Marco Mueller also managed to attract enough stars to keep the media happy, with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif walking the red carpet at the world's oldest film festival.
Yet with such a large overlap with the Toronto film festival, which opens just a few days later, Venice may struggle to attract journalists and Hollywood studios looking to reduce costs by traveling to Canada rather than Italy.
"Life During Wartime" is a sequel-of-sorts to Solondz's acclaimed 1998 feature "Happiness," and uses comedy and satire to explore abuse, loneliness, paedophilia and incest.
"Lourdes," directed by Austria's Jessica Hausner, is a study of a woman, played by Sylvie Testud, who experiences a "miracle" at the religious site in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
In "Lebanon," Israeli film maker Samuel Maoz seeks to recreate the claustrophobia and fear of being a 20-year-old conscript during the 1982 conflict by shooting the action inside a tank.
Moore drew laughter and applause with "Capitalism: A Love Story," an assault on what he sees as rampant greed on Wall Street which helped bring the world's economy to its knees and condemned millions to poverty and joblessness.
Journalists cheered Ford's "A Single Man," adapted from a Christopher Isherwood novel and starring Firth as a gay professor mourning his lover's death. Firth is among the frontrunners for a best actor prize.
In "White Material," French actress Isabelle Huppert plays a matriarch determined to keep her family's coffee plantation in Africa going, come what may, while German director Werner Herzog had two films in competition, including "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" starring Nicolas Cage.
Asian movies which drew mixed reviews included "Between Two Worlds" from Sri Lanka, Japan's "Tetsuo the Bullet Man," "Lola" by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza and "Accident" from Hong Kong's Pou-Soi Cheang.