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VENICE (Reuters) - Blame it on the Hollywood writers' strike, the weak economy, or just plain bad luck.
Whatever the reason, the 2008 Venice film festival has been described as one of the weakest in recent years, and, as it reaches the halfway stage on Monday, needs more hits to light up the main competition.
"What the festival has shown is that 2008 is simply a bad year for film," said Jay Weissberg of trade publication Variety.
"The overall impression here is one of disappointment and everybody is desperate for a really good film in competition."
The annual event on the picturesque Lido waterfront attracts the world's biggest movie stars and most accomplished film makers, and has earned a reputation for kicking off the awards season that culminates in the Oscars.
This year the stars have been thin on the ground and there has been little buzz about lead performances. More importantly, critics say, the movies on show have been generally poor.
Of the 21 films in the main competition that vie for the coveted Golden Lion at a prize ceremony on Saturday, two Japanese entries are in the running for the top award that has gone to an Asian director for the last three years.
Animation master Hayao Miyazaki's adaptation of the "The Little Mermaid" is the favorite so far, showing the 67-year-old has lost none of his energy and imagination.
"Miyazaki's 'Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea' is a refreshing thirst-quencher in a thus far dry lineup," said Deborah Young of the Hollywood Reporter.
Also popular was cult director Takeshi Kitano's "Achilles and the Tortoise," while Italian entry "BirdWatchers" -- about a confrontation between natives and wealthy white farmers in Brazil -- was warmly applauded at a press screening on Monday.
It is one of four movies from Italy in the main competition.
"The Burning Plain," the directorial debut by Mexico's acclaimed screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, divided critics, but Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger won plaudits in lead roles.
Festival director Marco Mueller has been under scrutiny this year for what some journalists call a Hollywood-light lineup.
He did ensure A-listers George Clooney and Brad Pitt were on the red carpet for the opening film, the out-of-competition "Burn After Reading" by the Coen brothers, but since then the star power has dimmed.
Some critics said that to focus on stars was to miss the point of the world's oldest film festival.
"Film festivals are about cultural diversity and curiosity, about seeing new things and discovering new trends, so I think the criticism of the selection is a bit unfair," said Manuela Grassi, who covers the festival for weekly magazine Panorama.
Nonetheless, Mueller faces growing competition from the Toronto film festival, which starts a few days after Venice and is seen by major studios as a cheaper alternative to the canal city for promoting films and generating awards buzz.
Actresses have so far stood out more than actors, notably Nina Hoss in German drama "Jerichow" and Dominique Blanc in French entry "L'autre" ("The Other One").
Three more U.S. films have yet to screen, including "Rachel Getting Married" by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme and starring Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger.
Kathryn Bigelow directs Iraqi drama "The Hurt Locker," a year after Brian De Palma's "Redacted" stunned audiences in Venice with its brutal reconstruction of events from the war, and Mickey Rourke stars in Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler."
Editing by Matthew Jones