BERLIN (Reuters) - Dark Hollywood epic "There Will Be Blood," already awash with prizes and nominated for eight Oscars, takes on a light-hearted low-budget British comedy for top honors at the Berlin Film Festival this year.
Critics rate Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" as the strongest challenger to "Blood" for the coveted Golden Bear award for best film out of 21 competition entries, as the 11-day festival draws to a close with an awards ceremony on Saturday evening.
Also in the running is "Lake Tahoe," a Mexican study of a boy's grief, "The Elite Squad," about corrupt policemen in Brazil fighting drug crime, and "Standard Operating Procedure," a U.S. documentary about abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
It may be no coincidence that reviewers sitting through a typically dark selection of movies in Berlin were taken with "Happy-Go-Lucky," an unusually bright slice of life from a director more often described as "gritty."
Hollywood Reporter's review called it "a lovable film that ends like the best confections, leaving an immediate wish for more of the same, please."
A win for Leigh would mean he completes the hat-trick of top prizes at the three big European cinema festivals, having won the Palme d'Or in Cannes and Golden Lion in Venice.
In the lead role of Poppy, the infectiously optimistic London teacher who brings good cheer wherever she goes, is actress Sally Hawkins, among the favorites to win the best actress prize in Berlin.
Just ahead of the film in Screen International's unofficial critics' ranking is "There Will Be Blood," Paul Thomas Anderson's powerful drama of oil, cruelty and greed starring the Oscar-nominated Daniel Day-Lewis.
While popular in Berlin, the fact that the film is already out in the United States and basking in critical acclaim may limit its chances of success on Saturday.
"Standard Operating Procedure" is a documentary looking at the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. soldiers, using interviews with troops involved and reconstructions of incidents that were photographed and sparked an international scandal.
"The Elite Squad" from Brazil investigates corruption and crime within the Brazilian police force as it takes on ruthless drug warlords. The film, which sharply divided opinions in Berlin, has already been a major box office success in Brazil.
High in the ratings is Mexico's "Lake Tahoe," about a boy who meets a series of colorful characters as he tries to fix his car, and "Kabei - Our Mother," a touching story about a woman whose husband is arrested and must provide for her two daughters in World War Two Tokyo.
Penelope Cruz was singled out for her performance in "Elegy," and both German entry "Cherry Blossoms - Hanami" and France's "I've Loved You So Long" were popular.
Rounding off the entries seen as possible winners are "In Love We Trust," in which a divorced couple in Beijing try to save their sick child, and Italy's "Quiet Chaos," which tells the story of a grieving executive played by Nanni Moretti.
As always in Berlin, many of the headlines came from movies outside the main competition.
Music was a major theme, with Martin Scorsese's "Shine a Light" getting its world premiere. The concert film of the Rolling Stones ensured the veteran British rockers and acclaimed U.S. director were on the red carpet for a starry first night.
Patti Smith was also in town for a documentary about her life and Madonna presented her directorial debut "Filth & Wisdom."
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