VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - The Venice film festival ends on Saturday with the award of the coveted Golden Lion for best picture, but critics struggled to name their favorite in a year that had plenty of good films but few, if any, great ones.
The 2011 competition lineup boasted 23 movies, ranging from George Clooney’s political thriller “The Ides of March” to the odd-ball, low-budget Greek tragedy “Alps.”
Outside the main line-up, and ineligible for awards, were Steven Soderbergh’s all-star “Contagion” and Madonna’s second feature as director, “W.E.,” about Wallis Simpson and her affair with Britain’s King Edward VIII.
Those two pictures bumped up the star-power -- a vital ingredient to a successful film festival -- and Madonna, Clooney, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Al Pacino were among the A-listers on the red carpet this year.
One notable absentee was Roman Polanski, unable to travel for fear of being extradited to the United States for a sex crime, but his “Carnage” was nonetheless among the favorites for the top prize.
The adaptation of a play takes place in real time in a New York apartment, giving it a theatrical feel, and the comedy of manners and sharp critique of U.S. middle class mores impressed the critics.
Clooney’s The Ides of March, also based on a play, starred Clooney himself, Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a slick take on corruption in U.S. politics.
Popular literary adaptations included Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s reworking of Goethe’s “Faust” and Briton Andrea Arnold’s visceral interpretation of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.”
Swedish film maker Tomas Alfredson took on John Le Carre’s notoriously complex Cold War spy classic “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and won almost universal praise for a taught, well-acted drama full of tension.
In Gary Oldman he also got one of the performances of the festival as George Smiley, the British spy immortalized by Alec Guinness in the 1970s British television series.
“This beautifully modulated piece of underacting deserves to make him a strong contender at next year’s Oscars,” Chris Tookey wrote of Oldman in the Daily Mail.
Irishman Michael Fassbender was also tipped for the best actor award for his performance as a sex addict in “Shame,” itself a frontrunner for the Golden Lion.
And Matthew McConaughey took some viewers by surprise with an unusually dark turn as a cop turned bad in “Killer Joe.”
Hong Kong film maker Ann Hui won plaudits for her ode to the elderly ”A Simple Life,“ while Italian entry L‘Ultimo Terrestre” (Last Man on Earth) would be the first home win in Venice since 1998.
Soderbergh’s Contagion, while out of competition, was a critical hit for its well-structured account of a disease that spreads around the world claiming millions of lives.
Madonna’s W.E. was less well received, although some reviewers pondered whether she was being judged unduly harshly because of her fame as a pop star.
Head of the jury Darren Aronofsky knows all about the ups and downs of launching movies in Venice.
He won the competition in 2008 with “The Wrestler” and two years later “Black Swan” went on to earn a slew of Oscar nominations, and a best actress Academy Award for Natalie Portman.
But his “The Fountain,” in competition in Venice in 2006, was a critical flop.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato