By Mike Collett-White and Silvia Aloisi
VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - The Venice film festival launched a series of strong movies in 2011, including several early Oscar contenders, but critics said the cinema showcase lacked a standout contender for the Golden Lion award.
Madonna, George Clooney, Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon were among the A-listers to walk the red carpet, giving Venice the visibility it needs to compete with other festivals around the world.
There was positive buzz around Roman Polanski's "Carnage", Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", Clooney's "The Ides of March" and Steve McQueen's "Shame".
As Hollywood's focus moves from summer blockbusters to potential prize winners ahead of the Academy Awards in February, William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" also proved popular.
Outside the English-language world, Hong Kong entry "A Simple Life" and "Faust" from Russia were also in the mix for the Golden Lion for best picture at Saturday's closing ceremony.
"We came here with great expectations and high hopes and I don't feel it has quite lived up to that, no film has blown me away," said Jay Weissberg, a critic at trade publication Variety, reflecting the view of many in Venice.
In recent years, movies like "Brokeback Mountain", "The Queen", "The Hurt Locker" and "The Wrestler" wowed viewers, and while not all won the top prize, they gave the festival the talking points it needed.
POLANSKI, CLOONEY IN FRAME
In an informal poll of film critics published by Variety, Polanski's Carnage was marginal favorite for the big prize.
The comedy of manners is based on a play, and the big screen adaptation is set in real time in a New York apartment, giving it a stage-like effect.
Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play two couples whose children are involved in a brawl, and what starts off as a civilized discussion descends into a drunken slanging match.
Waltz had many of the best lines as an attorney whose Blackberry constantly buzzes, while Winslet's spectacular projectile vomit scene was a highlight in Venice.
The Oscar-winning actress described shooting the scene as "absolutely hilarious", adding: "My kids came to work ... for the vomit day and I'm so thrilled that they were there because they literally haven't stopped talking about it since."
Clooney presented thriller "The Ides of March", in which he stars alongside Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a popular take on corruption in U.S. politics.
Hollywood heartthrob Matthew McConaughey took a break from romantic comedies in "Killer Joe", a comic modern-day Western about a cop who doubles as a hitman.
Two lead performances were singled out by critics as worthy of awards attention, although both movies in which they starred may struggle to win over Academy Award voters.
Irish actor Michael Fassbender won rave reviews for his portrayal of Brandon in McQueen's Shame, about a sex-obsessed, emotionally isolated New York executive.
Mike Goodridge of Screen Daily described Fassbender as "devastating as the gradually crumbling Brandon; he is worthy of the best actor prize at Venice and many prizes beyond."
But he added that the film's unflinching portrayal of sex as an illness could limit its awards potential.
Also singled out was Gary Oldman, who portrays George Smiley in Alfredson's acclaimed adaptation of John Le Carre's Cold War spy classic "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy".
"This beautifully modulated piece of underacting deserves to make him a strong contender at next year's Oscars," wrote Chris Tookey in the Daily Mail.
Yet some felt that however well acted and evocative the movie was of Cold War paranoia, it may prove too British to cause waves in the United States.
Hong Kong film maker Ann Hui won admirers in her ode to the elderly "A Simple Life", while the well-received Italian entry L'Ultimo Terrestre (Last Man on Earth) would be the first home win in Venice since 1998.
Sokurov, a festival favorite and considered a master by many, brought his strange, absorbing interpretation of Goethe's Faust, a movie which divided audiences in Venice.
The German-language picture featured an impressive performance from Anton Adasinsky as the creepy, aged and obese moneylender/Mephistopheles.
A headline in the Italian La Stampa daily proclaimed: "The devil has put his hands on the Golden Lion".
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)