BERLIN (Reuters) - Duds stuck in the memory more than discoveries at the Berlin film festival, where critics were underwhelmed by the quality of the main competition line up.
As the 11-day annual showcase of international cinema draws to a close with the awards ceremony on Saturday, there are four or five out of 19 entries seen as contenders for best picture.
They are led by "London River," French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb's tale of an odd couple united in their search for two children missing after the 2005 suicide bomb attacks in London which killed 52 people.
Britain's Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyate of Mali gave compelling performances, and the picture's subject matter could boost its chances in the eyes of the jury.
Not everyone liked it, however, and there was no clear favorite for the coveted Golden Bear award in 2009.
"With no single stand out masterpiece, handicapping the Berlinale Golden Bear winner ... is proving a difficult task," Scott Roxborough wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.
"Whatever the choice, be certain it will be praised and damned in equal measure by critics here."
Broadly popular was "About Elly," about middle-class Iranians whose trip to the Caspian Sea turns to tragedy as they seek to uphold social customs by layering lie upon lie.
"The Messenger," starring Woody Harrelson as an army officer assigned to inform next of kin about soldiers killed in combat, won warm praise, while Renee Zellweger in the witty 1950s comedy "My One And Only," a late entry, is also in the running.
For other big Hollywood names the reviews were not so kind.
"Mammoth," directed by Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson and starring Gael Garcia Bernal, tackles the pros and cons of this year's hot-topic issue globalization, but its aggregate score in a poll of critics fell short of "poor."
Faring little better was minimalist fashion spoof "Rage," in which not even Jude Law playing a cross-dressing model called Minx could save director Sally Potter from a critical mauling.
And "Happy Tears" had a far-from-happy reception, despite Demi Moore and Parker Posey playing the lead roles.
As usual, the geographical spread of competition films in Berlin and hundreds of other pictures screening in peripheral sections was impressive.
Within the main line up, reviewers said "Gigante" from Uruguay told a simple tale effectively and China's "Forever Enthralled" was a visually sumptuous take on the life of Mei Lanfang, a Peking opera star who defied Japanese troops.
Also on the jury's radar is likely to be "Everyone Else," a German entry, "Little Soldier," about a Danish female soldier who returns home after serving abroad, and revenge saga "Katalin Varga," British director Peter Strickland's debut feature film.
Mournful Peruvian tale "The Milk of Sorrow" is seen as an outside bet, while Polish veteran film maker Andrzej Wajda's "Sweet Rush" and Greek-born Costa-Gavras's "Eden Is West" have yet to screen.
Outside the main competition, critics singled out "John Rabe," about a German who saved thousands of Chinese from invading Japanese forces in 1937.
Several films tackled the topical issue of big business, particularly the ethics of banks and food companies, and the core of government policy across most of the Western world -- market capitalism -- was challenged time and time again.
Enough stars hit Berlin's red carpets in 2009 to keep director Dieter Kosslick, and the international media, happy.
Zellweger, Moore and Bernal were joined by Keanu Reeves, Clive Owen, U2's The Edge, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, who was in town for a peace award. Steve Martin is expected to be in the city on Friday to present "The Pink Panther 2."
The Berlin festival also hosts the European Film Market, and trade publications Hollywood Reporter and Variety said that while far from disastrous, the economic crisis had a noticeable impact on the buying and selling of movies.
To read more about our entertainment news, visit our blog "Fan Fare" online at http:/blogs.reuters.com/fanfare