The Berlin film festival entered the home stretch Wednesday with a Northern Irish escape thriller and a German tragedy on religious fundamentalism cited as favourites for the Golden Bear top prize.
Critics said the 64th Berlinale, Europe's first major cinema festival of the year, has proved uneven but a few contenders have broken out from the pack.
British production "'71" tells the story of an English soldier played by rising star Jack O'Connell who is deployed in Belfast at the height of the Troubles.
He becomes separated from his unit during a riot and must find his way back to his barracks through a labyrinth of Catholic paramilitary strongholds.
London's Daily Telegraph called the debut feature from the Paris-born director Yann Demange of hit British television drama "Top Boy" "stunningly well-crafted" while film industry bible Variety hailed it as "a vivid, shivery survival thriller".
The German drama "Stations of the Cross" also piled up rave reviews as a devastating portrait of a teenage girl in an ultra-conservative Catholic community.
Sibling filmmakers Dietrich and Anna Brueggemann said the picture was rooted in their own exposure to devout Catholicism growing up but called it a more general commentary on various forms of religious fanaticism.
Hollywood Reporter reviewer Boyd van Hoeij deemed it a "remarkable and formally rigorous arthouse item" and pronounced lead actress Lea van Acken "a phenomenal find".
US director Wes Anderson got the 11-day festival off to a strong start on Thursday with his all-star historical caper "The Grand Budapest Hotel".
Movie industry website Indiewire called Ralph Fiennes' lead character, a crafty concierge of the old school, a cross between Cary Grant and Oscar Wilde.
"Anderson's colourful period piece reflects the sensibilities of its creator at the height of his artistic confidence," it said of the director of "Fantastic Mr Fox" and "Moonrise Kingdom".
The three pictures topped critics' polls in both British film magazine Screen and Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel Wednesday, with the last four of the 20 competition films still to screen.
An international jury led by Hollywood producer James Schamus ("Brokeback Mountain") will hand out the main prizes at a gala ceremony on Saturday.
- 'Forgiveness is a miracle' -
Previous Golden Bear winner Claudia Llosa, who brought the prize home to Peru in 2009 for her second film "The Milk of Sorrow", returned to Berlin Wednesday with her first English-language feature.
"Aloft" stars Jennifer Connelly as Nana, a widowed mother of two boys, one of whom is suffering from a life-threatening illness.
When a man known as "the architect" sets up an intricately designed centre for spiritual healing nearby in the frigid reaches of northern Canada, Nana seeks his help.
But a tragedy leads Nana to abandon her family and set out on her own as an artist and healer, in a story told through a series of enigmatic flashbacks.
Years later, her abandoned son Ivan (Cillian Murphy) finds her with the help of a documentary filmmaker (Melanie Laurent) to confront the pain of the past.
Llosa, a niece of Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, picks up some of the magical realist techniques of "The Milk of Sorrow" about women who suffered horrific abuse during the uprising of the Maoist group Shining Path and the ensuing paramilitary crackdown.
"We're living now in times, in a world that is full of unbelief. We don't know what to trust anymore," Llosa said.
"Just the act of forgiveness is already a miracle."
She said making an English-language film had required even more teamwork than usual on a film.
"Of course it's a challenge, working in a language that is not your mother tongue," she said. But she said the international cast had helped her when she was at a loss for words.
Also in competition Wednesday were "The Third Side of the River" about an Argentine doctor who leads a double life with two families and its impact on his eldest son, and the hard-boiled crime story "Black Coal, Thin Ice" by Chinese director Diao Yinan.