The 72nd Berlinale film festival awards its top prizes on Wednesday including its Golden Bear for best picture and a gender-neutral acting gong after a reduced in-person run under the pandemic.
The 11-day festival, which ranks along with Cannes and Venice among Europe's top cinema showcases, conducted a shorter competition this year with strict regulations for audiences just as coronavirus infections peaked in Germany.
The Hollywood reporter said that the competition's "small casts, contained sets and limited location shoots provide a glimpse of a new Covid-era cinema".
There are 18 films from 15 countries vying for this year's Golden Bear, which will be awarded at a gala ceremony from a jury led by Indian-born American director M Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense").
The contenders span a range of moods from "Both Sides of the Blade", a tense French love story directed by Claire Denis and starring Juliette Binoche, to "Robe of Gems", a gritty Mexican crime mystery.
Critics lavished praise on Binoche for her performance in the French film, where she is caught between two men -- her longtime husband Jean and her elusive ex Francois.
The Hollywood Reporter called it a "smart, moody, superbly acted melodrama", while Britain's Screen Daily said Binoche and co-star Vincent Lindon, who plays Jean, were "at the top of their game".
In "Robe of Gems", writer and director Natalia Lopez Gallardo explores the trauma inflicted on families in Mexico when relatives go missing.
The Guardian called it "dazzlingly accomplished and confident... The film that everyone is talking about this year in Berlin".
Critics also praised "Before, Now and Then", a family drama set in 1960s rural Indonesia from Kamila Andini, the first woman from her country to direct a film in competition at the Berlinale.
The Hollywood Reporter said it was a "precisely calibrated" and "emotionally nuanced" film that "both looks and sounds stunning".
Chinese film "Return to Dust" also impressed with its understated love story between two social outcasts who make the best of an arranged marriage as they build a simple life together in the countryside.
Screen Daily called it 39-year-old director Li Ruijun's "most affecting and accessible work to date", saying it "packs a quiet emotional punch", while US movie news site Deadline noted the "wonderfully atmospheric" rendering of life in bleak rural China.
'Challenging but riveting'
On a rather less understated note, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl served up a dark, sexually explicit drama "Rimini", which tells the story of a washed-up pop singer who makes his living performing for pensioners and bedding lonely women for money.
Variety called it "challenging but riveting", while the Guardian said protagonist Richie Bravo was "so horrible he may be brilliant".
Also exploring questionable sexual escapades, "That Kind of Summer" from Canadian director Denis Cote follows three women on a summer retreat for sex addicts as they attempt to make peace with their demons.
Deadline said it was "entertaining" but "it remains unclear what (Cote) wants to discover or tell us about these unreformed Lolitas".
Another contender for the top prize is Andreas Dresen's "Rabiye Kurnaz vs George W. Bush", the true story of a mother's battle to bring her son back from Guantanamo Bay.
Spanish film "One Year, One Night" also reconstructs real-life events as it focuses on a young couple who survived the 2015 attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.
Elsewhere, Charlotte Gainsbourg was feted for her performance as a single mother in 1980s Paris in the Mikhael Hers drama "The Passengers of the Night".
And Michael Koch's meditation on death and loss set in the Alps, "A Piece of Sky", was hailed by Deadline as "both beautifully made and a thing of beauty in itself".