A British biopic of an iconic artist, an intimate Turkish look at a troubled marriage and a Hollywood wrestling drama led the pack Tuesday for the top prize at Cannes.

Halfway through the competition, critics cheered for a few stand-out pictures among 18 contenders vying for the coveted Palme d’Or in what they called a surprise-filled year at the world’s premier film festival. An international critics’ poll in British film magazine Screen had Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’ a whisker ahead of the slow-burn domestic drama ‘Winter Sleep’ by Nuri Bilge Ceylan of Turkey, whose career Cannes has long championed.

‘Foxcatcher’, starring US comic actor Steve Carell as chemicals fortune heir John du Pont generated excited buzz in the halls of the sprawling main venue, the Palais. It tied for third place in the survey with Canadian provocateur David Cronenberg’s vicious Hollywood send-up ‘Maps to the Stars’.

Based on the real-life 1996 murder of an Olympic wrestling medallist by du Pont, ‘Foxcatcher’ features Carell - nearly unrecognisable behind facial prosthetics - in an understated performance that is a far cry from his antics in TV’s ‘The Office’ and ‘40-Year-Old Virgin’. Scott Roxborough of the trade weekly Hollywood Reporter said the picture was ‘already getting Oscar buzz’ for Carell. And Justin Chang of movie business magazine Variety said the picture by Bennett Miller (‘Capote’, ‘Moneyball’) was an ‘acrid, anguished commentary on the temptations of wealth, the abuse of power and the downside of the human drive for success’.

‘Mr Turner’ was widely seen as a return to form by the 71-year-old Leigh, who won the Palme d’Or in 1996 for ‘Secrets and Lies’.

JMW Turner, the 19th century landscape painter credited with blazing a trail for modern art, is played by character actor Timothy Spall, best known for a recurring role in the ‘Harry Potter’ movies. Spall depicts Turner as an artist struggling with his inner demons in what critics called a bravura performance. German critic Jan Schulz-Ojala awarded it the maximum four stars while Peter Bradshaw of London’s Guardian newspaper called the picture ‘glorious’.