Last September, months before winning the Academy Award for best picture, “The Shape of Water” received the Golden Lion, top prize at the Venice International Film Festival. It was a harbinger of accolades for Guillermo del Toro’s movie, but for Venice itself, it was a symbolic victory — an assurance that the world’s longest-running international film festival had come into its own as a major awards-season player.
“The Shape of Water” was not the first awards winner to debut at Venice. Like the Toronto and Telluride film festivals, Venice has often benefited from its early fall timing: “Gravity” (2013), “Birdman” (2014), “Spotlight” (2015) and “La La Land” (2016) all landed first on Venice’s Lido en route to a big Oscar-night haul.
Although Venice has long been one of Europe’s most important festivals, in the U.S. it has never boasted the same cachet or coverage as Toronto, Telluride or its chief European rival, Cannes. But that could change this year; a strong showing by Netflix and a bumper crop of titles that were once expected to play at Cannes in May and did not puts Venice in an especially prime position.
Running from Aug. 29 to Sept. 8, the 75th annual Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Venezia, as it is officially known, will host the world premieres of “First Man,” Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “La La Land,” as well as Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, “A Star Is Born” (that star being pop-music icon Lady Gaga).
Del Toro himself will be back in Venice as president of the main competition jury, giving him the chance to help anoint a new awards-season Goliath from the titles announced Wednesday morning by festival artistic director Alberto Barbera.
The main competition slate includes new works by “Call Me by Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino (a remake of “Suspiria” for Amazon), Alfonso Cuarón (the semi-autobiographical family drama “Roma”) and, in the biggest surprise, Joel and Ethan Coen. The brothers’ latest, the western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” began life as a limited anthology series but has been reconceived as a feature film and will receive a U.S. theatrical release later this year.
“Roma” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” hail from Netflix, as does another competition entry, “22 July,” Paul Greengrass’ dramatic reconstruction of the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway. While Cannes took a firm stand against Netflix this year, Venice has welcomed six of the streamer’s titles with open arms.
Among the competition entries, anticipation is running high for “The Favourite,” an 18th-century British costume drama from the gifted Greek satirist Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”); “The Sisters Brothers,” a comic western starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix and directed by France’s Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”); and “Suspiria,” a grisly remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic from Italian filmmaker Guadagnino.
As already announced last week, Chazelle’s space-race drama “First Man,” starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, will officially open the festival in competition. (Chazelle also kicked off the festival two years ago, with “La La Land,” and went on to win the directing Oscar.)
Also competing are “Peterloo,” an epic re-creation of a bloody 1819 massacre from British director Mike Leigh, who won the Golden Lion in 2004 for “Vera Drake”; Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction,” a Juliette Binoche-starring drama set in the Paris publishing world; and “Sunset,” a pre-World War I drama from Oscar-winning Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes (“Son of Saul”).
One of the festival’s most hotly anticipated titles isn’t even playing in the competition: Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” the latest iteration of that well-worn Hollywood touchstone, casts the first-time filmmaker opposite six-time Grammy winner and one-time Oscar nominee Lady Gaga. Also playing out of competition: the Mel Gibson-Vince Vaughn cop thriller “Dragged Across Concrete,” from the rising grindhouse auteur S. Craig Zahler, whose “Brawl in Cell Block 99” memorably enlivened Venice last year.
Despite its established role in kicking off the awards-season ecosystem — and more importantly, the consistently high quality of its program — Venice typically remains one of the calmer, more manageable destinations on the festival calendar. It can often seem like Cannes minus the madness, an opportunity to experience some of world cinema’s best and brightest without having to push your way through lines and crowds.
This is partly because relatively few North American journalists make the trip to the Lido each year, preferring instead to attend the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, which begin shortly after Venice and will play many of the same titles. To give you some sense of the tight scheduling and logistical madness involved: After screening in Venice, “A Star Is Born,” “The Sisters Brothers,” “Non-Fiction” and “Sunset” will go on to Toronto, while “First Man” and “Roma” will play both Telluride and Toronto, with nary a break in between.
As usual, the festival will inherit a number of titles — among them “Non-Fiction,” “Sunset” and “Peterloo” — that either were not ready in time for Cannes (which is held in May) or were rejected by Cannes outright.
Notably, however, a number of films, including “The Sisters Brothers” and “Suspiria,” are known to have bypassed Cannes altogether in favor of a more strategic Venice berth, likely because the motion picture academy and other awards-giving bodies increasingly favor films that premiere in the fall or later.
Cannes, much criticized for this apparent loss in star power and auteur prestige, was hoping to premiere at least two Netflix titles, “Roma” and “The Other Side of the Wind,” a long-gestating, painstakingly restored version of a project Orson Welles shot in the 1970s. But Cannes programmers alienated Netflix by banning the company’s titles from competition, in accordance with the demands of French exhibitors who feel threatened by the ever-growing streaming market.
Venice has no such restrictions against Netflix, and indeed put the streaming service on the festival map by premiering Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” in competition in 2015. In addition to slotting “Roma,” “22 July” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in competition, the festival will premiere “The Other Side of the Wind,” as a special event.
Further representing the streaming service, Morgan Neville’s Welles documentary, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” also is screening as a special event. And Italian director Alessio Cremonini’s “Sulla Mia Pelle” (“On My Skin”) will open the Horizons sidebar.
By giving Netflix perhaps its most robust, high-profile festival showing, Venice is sending a hard-to-miss statement: Unlike the younger but more hidebound Cannes, this festival will gladly break with tradition and embrace a new cinematic reality of less rigidly defined distribution methods.
But if Venice is stealing a bit more of Cannes’ thunder than usual, it also stands to reap some of the same scrutiny — and criticism — that Cannes has weathered over the years.
Only one of this year’s 19 competition titles is directed by a woman: “The Nightingale,” a revenge thriller from Australian director Jennifer Kent, who scored a major critical success years ago with “The Babadook.” Female filmmakers are better represented outside the competition, including Mary Harron, who will bring her Charles Manson drama “Charlie Says,” and the Italian French filmmaker Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who will premiere her family drama “The Summer House.”
Latin American cinema will have a decent competition showing with “Roma”; “Nuestro Tiempo,” from Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas; and “Acusada,” from Argentina’s Gonzalo Tobal, though only one competition title, Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s samurai thriller “Zan (Killing),” is directed by an Asian filmmaker.
Outside the competition, however, the festival will feature new Asian-directed titles such as “Shadow,” from China’s Zhang Yimou; “Your Face,” a nonfiction work from Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang; and “Graves Without a Name,” a documentary portrait of life under the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia’s Rithy Panh (“The Missing Picture”).
Other potentially noteworthy nonfiction titles include Errol Morris’ “American Dharma,” a conversation with former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon; “Monrovia, Indiana,” a portrait of a farming community from Frederick Wiseman; and “Process,” from Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa.
That Venice, like other festivals, so often is dominated by awards hype is both a blessing and a curse: It draws the requisite star wattage and some media attention to the Lido each fall, but worthy, under-the-radar titles are inevitably overshadowed.
Among the possible competition highlights: “Nuestro Tiempo,” the latest from the gifted Reygadas (“Silent Light”); “Vox Lux,” a musical drama starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law, from actor-turned-director Brady Corbet (“The Childhood of a Leader”); and Rick Alverson’s 1950s period drama “The Mountain,” starring Jeff Goldblum as a doctor who pioneered the lobotomy.
Julian Schnabel, last on the Lido with “Miral” (2010), returns to the Golden Lion race with “At Eternity’s Gate,” starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh.
And while the Oscar-winning triumph of “The Lives of Others” (2006) may seem like distant history, German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is back in competition with “Werk ohne Autor” (Work Without Author), which sounds like a promising dramatic return to the traumas of life under the German Democratic Republic.
A potential comeback at this particular festival would be especially meaningful: This is Von Donnersmarck’s first feature since the 2010 Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie vehicle “The Tourist,” a movie whose many sins included making Venice seem boring.