VENICE (Reuters) - A late flurry of independent U.S. pictures at the Venice film festival has blown the competition wide open ahead of the awards ceremony on Saturday.
Mickey Rourke has given what critics are calling the performance of his life in Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" in which he plays a lonely, washed out wrestler whose story poignantly mirrors the Hollywood outsider's own troubled past.
The film, the last of 21 movies in the main competition to premiere, is a contender both for the top actor award and the coveted Golden Lion for best picture, critics say.
Anne Hathaway also impressed in her unusually dark role in "Rachel Getting Married," Jonathan Demme's touching wedding drama that has been lauded in Venice.
A third late entry, "The Hurt Locker" by U.S. director Kathryn Bigelow, leads an informal poll of Italian critics who were impressed by its portrayal of the perils faced by a bomb disposal unit in Iraq led by a reckless sergeant.
In a Venice competition that finished strongly after disappointing critics for much of the 11-day event, the U.S. trio faces stiff competition from revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, who charmed viewers with "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea," his re-telling of "The Little Mermaid" fairytale.
Were Miyazaki to walk off with the Golden Lion, it would be the fourth year in a row an Asian director had done so.
Ethiopian entry "Teza" is in the frame for the top prize, and would be the first African picture to win in Venice, the world's oldest film festival.
Haile Gerima's powerful tale of an intellectual who flees violence and alienation in his native Ethiopia and Germany, would be a generally popular winner on the Lido waterfront.
The Italian press is hoping for a first home win in 10 years with "Birdwatchers," a depiction of indigenous Guarani-Kaiowas with no prospects other than working in slave-like conditions for rich farmers and posing for tourists' cameras. "It's a good tip for the Golden Lion, because it has a liberal agenda, it is well shot and turns the tables in that the tribal communities are the main protagonists rather than background color," said Lee Marshall of Screen International.
Venice has a reputation as a launchpad for successful award campaigns for serious, independently produced films, but in a year when director Marco Mueller has been under fire for his selection, few Academy Award contenders emerged.
One was Hathaway, who until now is best known for her girl-next-door performances in films like "The Princess Diaries" and "The Devil Wears Prada."
"It's the beginning of September and if I started being concerned about (award) buzz now I would never make it through Christmas," Hathaway told Reuters in Venice.
Also impressive was Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron in "The Burning Plain," an intense story of love and betrayal in the directorial debut by Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga.
Rourke, who received a rare standing ovation at a press conference, is generating early Oscar chatter.
"Rourke creates a galvanizing, humorous, deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great, iconic screen performances," wrote Todd McCarthy in Variety.
Rourke told Reuters in an interview that "The Wrestler" was "the best ... movie I've ever made."
The Coen brothers opened this year's festival with "Burn After Reading," which was out of competition but ensured that Hollywood A-listers Brad Pitt and George Clooney were on the red carpet in a festival otherwise lacking star power.
The Italian media in particular has been fretting that Venice may lose out to rival festival Toronto, which starts only days later and is considered by big studios as a cheaper way of promoting a picture than the expensive canal city.