The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

What to look forward to at this week’s Venice Film Festival

Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer

One of my favorite events of awards season has always been the film festivals, especially from the international “Big Three” (Cannes, Venice, Berlin). In a time when the broader awards bodies have become more homogenized, more predictable, and more beholden to corporate interests, there’s something pure and steadfast about the continued existence of major events that host film premieres from the most exciting filmmakers from around the world, and judged not by thousands of voters echoing other thousands of voters, but by a select jury of accomplished professionals with their own biases and preferences known only to themselves. The films competing often have no outside marketing push or major studio backing. In most cases, these festivals are the marketing, which means competition is fierce, unpredictable, and fascinating to observe.

These competitions do not (at least not usually) serve as “Oscar predictors” or set up Academy momentum for competitors. There are exceptions; there is no question, for example, that a then-unknown Austrian TV actor’s Prix D’interprétation Masculine Award at the Cannes Film Festival nine years ago was what set him on the path to awards season dominance for the same performance. Not to mention The Shape of Water‘s own road to Best Picture starting at Venice just last year. But for the most part, these three international events, that can be just as glamorous and star-studded and entertaining as any evening at the Dolby Theater, remain thrillingly in their own pocket of cinematic back-patting. They’re not looking for the next Best Picture. They’re looking for what will be remembered as a classic years from now.

We’ll be seeing first reactions to the opening film any minute, now.

And would you look at that — the 75th Venice Film Festival kicks off today with the premiere of Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. Right now you’re probably already seeing a flood of first reaction tweets and social media “hot takes” from your favorite critics and awards season pundits.

Or are you…?

The opening film might not be subjected to this, but otherwise it looks like the festival organizers haven’t been happy about those immediate reactions from critics and will be curbing them this time. Whether or not they’re actually “poisoning” the well or fear some kind of undue influence on the later public screenings or something else entirely, I’ll leave that up to you to decide. But it’s worth noting Venice was more lenient on critics dashing out “quick thoughts” on a movie seconds after its press screening concluded. At Cannes, they just went ahead and banned them entirely.

Thankfully, that was the only sore spot of controversy for a festival otherwise enjo-oh wait, there’s more! Yes, as it turns it out, inclusion (or lack thereof) is at the forefront once again as the 21-film competition lineup was announced and a grand total of one movie directed by a woman was selected. Granted, the one they chose is quite a doozy – more on that later – but it seems a little hard to believe that no other woman submitted a movie worthy of competition, especially since they made up just over one in five of the total submissions this year. I expect this outcry will not go away without some sort of response by the Venice organizers, and hopefully their official one comes off better than Alberto Barbera’s arrogant, tone-deaf defensiveness. Maybe a signed commitment like what Cannes agreed to? Time will tell, but insisting that one of the largest and most-curated film festivals in the world has a totally blind process where they have no idea who made Suspiria before they picked it just ain’t gonna cut it as an excuse.

But right now, let’s talk about the movies that did make it in competition. Because several of them are worth being excited for, and this festival will be the source of our first impressions of many of them.

Adriana Gomez-Weston has already covered some of the most high-profile films appearing in competition that already have release dates, like The Sisters Brothers and The Favourite, so I want to take the opportunity to draw attention to some of the films not on everyone’s sights, starting with the sole competitor helmed by a woman, and the one I am most interested in: The Nightingale.

This is the only image we’ve seen from The Nightingale so far.

Four years after The Babadook‘s Jennifer Kent announced herself as an exciting new filmmaker to watch with one of the best horror films of the decade, she has mostly been under-the-radar quietly producing this Aboriginal revenge tale starring Sam Clafin and a cast of relative unknowns (though Game of Thrones fans probably recognize Aisling Franciosi). I’m always encouraged when filmmakers use their sophomore feature to branch out from whatever genre they broke through with, and the sole image we have of the movie promises something as haunting and peculiar as her explosive debut.

Speaking of sophomore efforts, actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet will be showing off his rags-to-riches musical Vox Lux, about a fictional pop musician’s rise to stardom. Even though The Childhood of a Leader didn’t exactly set the world on fire, the one teaser trailer for Vox Lux that has been released so far gives off pretty serious Velvet Goldmine vibes, and if there’s one thing we need more of from cinema, it’s movies that remind us of Velvet Goldmine. Oh, and apparently Sia has some original songs in it, so Oscar watchers should keep an eye on those.

László Nemes follows up his divisive Oscar-winner Son of Saul with Sunset, a period piece set in Budapest just before World War I. It stars yet another unknown in the lead role, but apparently a prominent supporting role is filled by Vlad Ivanov, who some of you might remember as the brutish abortion doctor in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, or as Franco the Elder in Snowpiercer. I was definitely in the pro-Son of Saul camp, so I hope his success with that film won’t end up being a fluke. Surprisingly, this is not even the only pre-WWI period piece competing for the Golden Lion — Mario Martone’s Capri-Revolution concerns Italian dissidents just before war breaks out.

This will be Alfonso Cuarón’s first film set in his native country since Y Tu Mamá También.

On the opposite end of the experience spectrum is Roma, a small-scale family drama set in Mexico from none other than Alfonso Cuarón. This is, amazingly, his first feature since making history nearly five years ago as the first Hispanic filmmaker to win the Academy Award for Best Director. This story must have meant something special to him if he decided to tackle it over the myriad big projects with huge paydays that were almost certainly offered to him after Gravity. Netflix snapped up distribution rights for what looks to an aggressive Oscar push this year.

Paul Greengrass is also competing with 22 July, about the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway, and…look, I’ll try to approach this with an open mind, but I’m sick of Greengrass making docu-thrillers about scary/tragic international events his “niche.” It’s starting to come off exploitative and obsessive. It doesn’t help that he frequently distorts the events in question to puff up or tear down the individuals involved – depending on who cooperates with him the most in pre-production – from downplaying the heroism of the Maersk Alabama’s Chief Engineer in Captain Phillips to portraying Christian Adams as some cowardly appeaser in United 93. Whatever my objections to Greengrass’s artistic trajectory, we won’t need to worry about distribution with this one: Netflix has also picked this up for an October release.

Perennial festival competitor Olivier Assayas makes the rounds this year with his first comedy since Irma Vep twenty years ago (or maybe since demonlover fifteen years ago if you have a particularly strange sense of humor). Working once again with Juliette Binoche, Non-Fiction concerns two women in the publishing industry who undergo a mid-life crisis and rapid changes in their profession. In addition to Venice, this is screening at the New York Film Festival later this year.

I just cannot even with that title…

The Coen Brothers (Barbera, are you honestly telling me you had no ideyou were watching a Coen Brothers film when you curated the competition slate?) are also trying to win their first Golden Lion with a movie called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is just an awful title; the kind of title that only directors as established as Joel and Ethan Coen could get away with. It’s an anthology western surrounding the titular character, and no matter how it’s received in Venice we’ll have a chance to see it for ourselves in October.

We also have the newest film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who unfortunately experienced a sophomore slump eight years ago. Never Look Away looks way more in line with The Lives of Others than The Tourist, and I think we can all agree it’s probably better that way.

Hey, were any of you fans of Willem Dafoe’s exquisite performance in The Florida Project? Thought he should have won the Oscar for it? Well, you may get a chance to see him go for it again with Julian Schnabel’s next meditative, unconventional biopic about a struggling artist, At Eternity’s Gate, which is about Vincent Van Gogh. Why, yes, they do have acting awards at this film festival. It’s called the Volpi Cup, though it should be noted that although there have been quite a few men who have won it who later went on to be nominated for an Academy Award, none have ever won both for the same performance…yet.

And yet there are more enticing movies vying for the top prize! What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? sports an amazing title, but also an interesting distinction; it is the only documentary of the competition this year, and it’s sure to light its own fire with a subject as heated as racially-motivated killings of African-Americans in the south over the last few years. Any fans of the creepy, cult classic sci-fi thriller Tetsuo: The Iron Man should be on the lookout for Shinya Tsukamoto’s newest period drama, Killing, about a rōnin with a dark past. Mike Leigh is also delving into period drama again with Peterloo, about the… well, the title is pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? Mexican arthouse darling Carlos Reygadas debuts his latest meditation on life and death, Nuestro Tiempo; indie filmmaker Rick Alverson i working with his biggest canvas and cast ever in the medical drama (thriller?) The Mountain, and David Oelhoffen’s crime drama Close Enemies is competing as well, and I have to assume one has to be more interesting than its tired unlikely-allies-on-opposite-sides-of-the-law premise suggests.

Quite a selection! Which one do you predict will impress del Toro’s jury the most? Which film are you personally most excited to see for yourself? Let me know in the comments.