BERLIN - Richard Linklater's coming-of-age tale "Boyhood" seemed the odds-on favourite to capture the Golden Bear top prize at the Berlin film festival Saturday, but dramas from Northern Ireland and Germany were hot on its heels.
Critics and audiences swooned over Linklater's latest picture, a moving, leisurely paced story made over a 12-year period with the same actors including Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and the director's own daughter Lorelei.
If it doesn't capture the gold among the 20 international contenders, commentators said a Silver Bear award for best actor for its star, Ellar Contrane, or a best director gong for Linklater could be on the cards.
"It is 164 minutes short and, mildly put, fantastic," Berlin's daily Der Tagesspiegel wrote Friday, joining a chorus of praise for "Boyhood" in a year with only a handful of standout pictures.
"(The film) is wonderfully funny again and again and often so beautiful you could cry."
The Berlinale, as the 11-day event is known, also saw impressive feature debuts from two filmmakers who may well be invited on stage at the gala ceremony Saturday night.
Yann Demange's "'71", an escape thriller set at the height of Northern Ireland's sectarian violence, wowed viewers with its hair-raising pace and keen insights into a spiral of violence.
"The Troubles have rarely been more troubling onscreen than they are in ''71', a vivid, shivery survival thriller that turns the red-brick residential streets of Belfast into a war zone of unconscionable peril," film bible Variety said.
The Paris-born Demange is the director of hit British television series "Top Boy".
On the last day of competition, festival-goers cheered "Macondo" by first-time filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai, who gathered a cast of Chechen refugees as lay actors for a documentary-style drama set in Vienna.
"Kreuzweg" (Stations of the Cross) about a teenage girl in Germany who falls victim to a fundamentalist Catholic sect drew high marks for tight direction and a knock-out performance by lead actress Lea van Acken.
- A few turkeys -
The competition got off to a strong start on February 6 with the world premiere of Wes Anderson's lushly designed historical caper "The Grand Budapest Hotel" starring Ralph Fiennes.
Of three Chinese films in competition, the hard-boiled film noir "Black Coal, Thin Ice" by Diao Yinan fared best with its stylish take on the tale of an alcoholic ex-cop who falls for a femme fatale murder suspect.
Reviewers also hailed a performance by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard in the pitch-black Norwegian mobster comedy "In Order of Disappearance".
Industry magazine The Hollywood Reporter said Skarsgard shines as "an aggrieved father who almost singlehandedly turns the icy mountainsides and fjords of small-town Norway into a criminal graveyard".
Skarsgard also starred in Lars von Trier's sex addiction epic "Nymphomaniac Volume I" which the Berlinale screened out of competition in an extended director's cut.
But it would hardly be a film festival without a few turkeys to infuriate sleep-deprived critics.
Previous Golden Bear winner Claudia Llosa stumbled with her follow-up to 2009's "The Milk of Sorrow" about women traumatised by war in her native Peru.
Her first English-language feature, "Aloft", with a stellar cast including Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy and Melanie Laurent crashed and burned, with film website Indiewire dismissing the drama about spiritual healers as "mopey".
Greek underworld drama "Stratos" looked on paper to be a biting commentary on the country's desperate economic straits.
But incessantly repetitive dialogue and a meandering plot stymied the venture, Geoff Andrew of the British Film Institute complained.
The keenly awaited all-star "The Monuments Men" directed by George Clooney about the recovery of Nazi loot also fell flat, even in Germany where the issue has been front-page news for months.
National daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said the film, which screened out of competition, took a light touch with the serious material but ended up "shamelessly calculated in its sentimentality" and "not very funny".
Last year, the tragedy "Child's Pose" about a son from Romania's new monied class who kills a poor child in a car accident claimed the Golden Bear.
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