A dark U.S. comedy, Michael Moore's attack on capitalism and a harrowing Israeli war movie are among the critics' favorites to win the coveted Golden Lion for best film at the Venice festival.
Film festival juries are notoriously difficult to second-guess, and juries and critics often disagree, but Venice 2009, with 25 movies in the main line-up, has generally been seen as a better year than the disappointing 2008.
And with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Isabelle Huppert, Viggo Mortensen and Egyptian veteran Omar Sharif walking the red carpet, the world's oldest cinema festival has had its fair share of stars.
Todd Solondz struck a chord with his dark comedy Life During Wartime, a sequel of sorts to his acclaimed Happiness that follows the dysfunctional Jordan family through a tale of abuse, pedophilia and suicide using biting satire and humor.
The Hollywood Reporter called the American the true heir to Woody Allen, and when asked about the comparison Solondz told Reuters: If I looked like Tom Cruise they just wouldn't say such a thing.
Also uniting opinion was Lebanon, in which Israeli film maker Samuel Maoz seeks to recreate the claustrophobia and fear of being a 20-year-old conscript soldier during the 1982 conflict by shooting most of the action from inside a tank.
Maoz was so traumatized by his memories that it took him 25 years to muster the strength to make the movie, which the New York Times called an astonishing piece of cinema.
Michael Moore drew laughter and cheers with Capitalism: A Love Story, an excoriating attack on what he sees as rampant greed on Wall Street that helped bring the world's economy to its knees and condemned millions to poverty and joblessness.
Several competition films also seen as contenders for the main prize when director Ang Lee, Golden Lion winner in 2005 and 2007, announces the awards on Saturday, have divided critics.
The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bleak, post-apocalyptic novel, drew mixed reviews, although Mortensen in the lead is in the running for the best actor award as is Britain's Colin Firth in A Single Man by designer Tom Ford.
Lourdes, directed by Austria's Jessica Hausner, has been praised for the restraint and humor with which it dealt with themes of miracles and faith.
Iran played a leading role at the annual cinema showcase, with Women Without Men in competition and Green Days, featuring footage of the recent protests in Tehran, premiering outside the main lineup.
Screen International described as richly atmospheric and for the most part riveting French entry White Material, starring Huppert as a matriarch determined to keep her family's coffee plantation in Africa going, come what may.
Fatih Akin's comedy Soul Kitchen was popular while four Asian movies drew mixed reactions: Between Two Worlds from Sri Lanka; Japan's Tetsuo the Bullet Man; Lola by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza and Accident from Soi Cheang.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was one of two movies by German director Werner Herzog in competition, but despite the star power of Cage it was not seen as a contender.