VENICE - Movies from the United States, Indonesia and Japan are tipped by critics as the favourites to win this year's Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival, due to be announced on Saturday.
American comedy "Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance", directed by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and starring Michael Keaton of "Batman" fame, opened the festival with a punch and immediately stole the show.
Critics were universally wowed by the brilliant dark comedy, which delves into the cinema and theatre worlds to explore the drug that is fame through the story of a washed-up actor once famous for playing the "Birdman" superhero.
The film couldn't be more different to fellow front-runner "The Look of Silence", Joshua Oppenheimer's shocking second documentary about the murder of over a million communists following Indonesia's 1965 coup.
Picking up where his acclaimed "The Act of Killing" left off, Oppenheimer follows a man who confronts his brother's killers and critics suggested the director, who missed out on an Oscar in 2012 by a whisker, could pick up the top prize for this moving follow up.
"Making 'The Look of Silence' frightened me, I think it frightened us all," a softly-spoken Oppenheimer told AFP in a beach-side interview in Venice.
Violence and war are also at the heart of Cult Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto's film "Fires on the Plain", which both thrilled and shocked Venice, and might snap up the Lion for pushing the depiction of horror to new extremes.
The remake of Kon Ichikawa's 1959 classic about defeated Japanese troops in the Philippines at the end of World War Two explores the lure of cannibalism and features shots of dismembered limbs and maggots devouring rotting flesh.
Jury head Alexandre Desplat, a French film score composer whose dozens of works include the music for "The King's Speech" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows", told AFP the Lion would go to an "unusual" film which unites "flawless method and a humanist theme."
Drones, dogs and the mafia
Best actor prize is tipped to go to Keaton for his powerful depiction of a man tormented by inner demons in "Birdman", or Michael Shannon for his pitiless real estate broker in Ramin Bahrani's "99 Homes", a dramatic tale of bankruptcy, greed and despair.
Other favourites for the award include Al Pacino for his portrayal of an ageing locksmith pining for a lost love in David Gordon Green's "Manglehorn", and "Lord of the Rings" star Viggo Mortensen as a teacher who befriends an Algerian dissident in David Oelhoffen's "Far From Men".
The world's oldest film festival has brought stars such as Owen Wilson, Tim Roth and Ethan Hawke to the seaside resort of the Venice Lido, speeding in by water taxi before attending a flurry of glamorous beach parties.
Hawke plays the lead in Andrew Niccol's "Good Kill" about remotely-operated drones in the war on terror, but while his portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder has been praised, critics have said the film is let down by a stilted script.
A total of 20 films are competing, including Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky's "The Postman's White Nights" - his fifth film running for the Lion in Venice - a warm-hearted tale about the loneliness of life in a remote community.
First-time feature "Sivas" by Turkey's Kaan Mujdeci - a coming of age story a young boy who befriends a dog he saves from a dog fight - divided critics, as did Fatih Akin's "The Cut", which tackles the early 20th-century mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.
While Francesco Munzi's mafia drama "Black Souls" was warmly received, Mario Martone's biopic of poet Giacomo Leopardi in "Il Giovane Favoloso" and Abel Ferrara's depiction of outspoken Marxist intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini met with mixed reviews.
The festival has featured dozens of world premiers out of competition as well, including horror-comedy master Joe Dante's gore-packed "Burying the Ex" and Peter Bogdanovich's riotous romantic farce "She's Funny That Way".