By Michael Roddy and Gareth Jones
BERLIN (Reuters) - Films ranging from a coming-of-age docudrama using the same actors over a 12-year span, a feature about radical Catholics and an unflinching look at Northern Ireland's troubles stand out as possible winners at the annual Berlin film festival.
Twenty titles will compete for the Golden Bear award on Saturday night at the 2014 Berlinale although some critics have called the line-up a letdown despite the screening of more than 400 films from around the globe.
"It's been a disappointing Berlinale and there isn't all that much I think for the jury to ultimately really consider," said Jay Weissberg, Europe-based critic for trade publication Variety.
His picks as frontrunners were Richard Linklater's docu-drama "Boyhood", the harrowing "Kreuzweg" (Stations of the Cross), which depicts a young girl's collapse under the pressures of growing up in a strict Catholic family, and a drama about a British soldier in Belfast in the movie "71".
Gory thriller "Black Coal, Thin Ice", one of three Chinese films in competition, also earned positive reviews this week.
Weissberg thought the Texas-born Linklater's film, which follows siblings Mason and Samantha, played by actors Ellar Coltrane and Linklater's daughter Lorelei, as they grow from early childhood to university age, would find particular favour with the jury's president, American producer James Schamus.
He also thought Linklater's opus, despite containing a host of peculiarly American cultural references, including a black Pontiac GTO muscle car driven by the kids' divorced father and Coltrane's character Mason receiving a U.S. savings bond for his graduation, would not alienate viewers or a festival jury that has a reputation for spurning American cinema.
"It works its charms and it's a wonderful idea," Weissberg said. "There's enough there that anybody can identify with it."
His praise was strongly echoed in the European press.
"No film in sight can match "Boyhood" in staking a claim to the Golden Bear," German daily Die Welt said on Friday, though it also noted the festival's tendency to favour films from eastern Europe or countries such as Turkey or Iran.
Last year, Romania's "Child's Pose" took the top prize. No U.S. movie has won in Berlin since Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" in 2000.
There was some grumbling among festival followers that the Berlinale, renowned for offering up politically controversial films, had instead this year apparently kowtowed to Hollywood, screening Wes Anderson's Ruritanian romp "Grand Budapest Hotel" as the festival opener and also providing the international premiere of George Clooney's "Monuments Men".
Friday saw the screening of the last two films in the main competition - veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada's "The Little House", a romance set in Tokyo before and during World War Two, and "Macondo" about Chechen refugees in Austria.
"Macondo" uses non-actors to tell the story of Ramasan, an 11-year-old Chechen boy living with his widowed mother and two sisters in a refugee settlement on the outskirts of Vienna.
Iranian-born Austrian director Sudabeh Mortezai explores the themes of identity, masculinity and the difficulty of cultural and ethnic integration in her documentary-like film.
"I get angry sometimes about the whole integration issue. There are people who say, 'All these foreigners should just integrate'. I want to explore the issue from the boy's perspective, to see what it is really like growing up like this," she told a news conference.
The film's title is the nickname of the settlement, which really exists and is currently home to some 2,000 people from 20 countries, especially Chechnya, Afghanistan and Somalia.
"The people living there are part and parcel of the whole film," said Mortezai.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)
(This story was refiled to remove garble from the second paragraph)