Superhero movies be damned, festival season is underway. Indeed, by the time you read this, this writer will be winging his way to (hopefully) sunny Italy to spend ten days or so resolutely avoiding getting anything like a tan at the 69th Venice Film Festival. The first under the new leadership of Alberto Barbera, it's lived up to his promise of being a less glitzy, more sober take, with no major studio fare to be found, and a line up that emphasizes international auteurs over the American and British filmmakers who dominated in previous years.
Even so, it's an incredibly exciting slate, featuring two of the most widely-anticipated premieres of the year, new films from a number of maverick directors, and hopefully plenty of pleasant surprises too. To get you ready for our coverage (which will kick off on Tuesday), we've picked ten of the films we're most looking forward to seeing on the Lido. Keep checking back for the next week or so to read our reviews of all these, and more.
Synopsis: After returning home from WWII, a charismatic intellectual (Philip Seymour Hoffman) launches a faith-based organization and taps a young drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) as his right-hand man.
What You Need to Know: While the handful of secret sneak screenings have stolen some of its thunder –and presumably pissed off the Venice organizers, who generally insist on world premieres — there are still few films we're looking forward to on the Lido as much as the official premiere of "The Master" (the film has been showing "unfinished" i.e. without credits in its sneaks so far). Paul Thomas Anderson's first film since "There Will Be Blood" saw him elevated to the top ranks of American auteurs in the critical establishment, it reteams him with long-time muse Philip Seymour Hoffman, as well as marking the first non-bearded-rapper-version-of-himself acting performance in four years from Joaquin Phoenix, in a turn that many are already tipping for Oscar glory. We've had one review already, but we'll be taking another look in Venice, before the film heads to TIFF, and then swiftly goes into limited release.
When? Plays Venice on September 1st and goes into limited release on September 14th.
"To The Wonder"
Synopsis: An American in Paris enters a hot-and-heavy affair with a European woman. He returns home to Oklahoma and marries her but when the relationship founders, he rekindles a romance with a hometown girl with whom he's had a long history.
What You Need To Know: With the director's shortest ever gap between movies (eighteen months, dwarfing the five year gap between "Badlands" and "Days Of Heaven") and with his shortest running time in thirty years, "To The Wonder" feels like it could be an atypical Terrence Malick film. But at this point, who knows. Whereas it feels like everyone and their mother have seen "The Master," "To The Wonder" remains a mystery. It's believed the story is fairly autobiographical — Malick himself also absconded to Paris and came back with a wife in tow, only to split with her and marry his childhood friend and current wife, Alexadra “Ecky” Wallace — but what form the final film will take is still up in the air. Early word tossed around was that this film would be even “more experimental” than “The Tree of Life” although that remains to be seen.
When?: Plays Venice on September 2nd. The film is still seeking a U.S. distributor.
"Something In The Air"
Synopsis: Set amidst the revolutionary atmosphere of the early 1970s, this follows a high-school student with artistic aspirations caught up in left-wing violence.
What You Need To Know: We've long been fans of Olivier Assayas, but after the one-two punch of Playlist favorites "Summer Hours" and his epic "Carlos," we'd basically walk over broken glass to see his latest. The film is seemingly both timely, in its reflection of recent unrest around the world, and personal, boasting a partly-autobiographical story that has a pretty wide scope, with shooting taking place in France, Itay and Britain. Indeed, producer Nathanaël Karmitz said last year, "It's not a French story. It's about the world in the 70s." Given the way Assayas captured the period in "Carlos," it's certainly an enticing proposition, even (or indeed especially) with a cast mostly made up of newcomers – Lola Créton ("Bluebeard," "Goodbye First Love") seems to be the biggest name involved.
When? Sept 3rd. IFC Films have picked up the rights for the U.S., but haven't yet dated the film.
"At Any Price"
Synopsis: A farmer plans to expand his business, but his racing driver son has no desire to follow in his father's footsteps.
What You Need To Know: If there's a stranger combination in film this year than Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani — favorite of Roger Ebert and helmer of lovely, delicate humanistic pictures normally focusing on immigrants — and Zac Efron, star of the "High School Musical" series, then we haven't been paying enough attention. After the acclaimed likes of "Goodbye Solo" and "Man Push Cart," Bahrani is dancing with recognizable names this time out, with Efron, Dennis Quaid, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown and Kim Dickens, for a film that seemingly focuses on a realistic, deglamorized take on the American farming industry, while also including some racing sequences. Bahrani's work to date has been fairly small scale, but this sounds like he's working on a bigger canvas, and we're very intrigued to see how he takes both to that, and to a bigger name cast. Could this be the film that sees Efron accepted as a proper actor?
When? August 30th. The film will head to TIFF afterwards and though Sony Pictures Classics just acquired the film, they haven't yet set a release date.
Synopsis: Four broke co-eds rob a coffee shop to fund their spring break trip in Florida, but are arrested, only to be sprung from jail by a local gangster.
What You Need To Know: "At Any Price" is not the strangest-sounding American film in competition. One would have to go some way to find something more peculiar than "Spring Breakers," the latest film from independent cinema's enfant terrible Harmony Korine. After the deliciously bonkers "Trash Humpers" the director seems to be delivering something that vaguely approximates traditional narrative, and working with an eye-brow raising cast including James Franco as the corn-rowed gangster, with teen stars Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson (along with Korine's wife Rachel) are the young co-eds. Is it going to be some kind of lurid, Russ Meyer-esque exploitation picture? Or is it something more in line with Korine's other work? Either way, we've heard some really good buzz, so we're gasping to see it.
When? Look for our review on September 4th. There's currently no U.S. distributor.
Synopsis: A thriller involving the relationship between Christine, a powerful ad executive, and her shy assistant Isabel, which takes on both sexual and dangerous dimensions after Christine steals a campaign that Isabel created.
What You Need To Know: It's five years since Brian DePalma's last film ("Redacted," which won him the Best Director award at the festival), and a decade since his last watchable one (2002's "Femme Fatale"), but the director was clearly eager to get back on the saddle. He has turned around "Passion," a remake of Alain Corneau's final film, 2010's "Love Crime," in less than six months. With Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as the central duo, this certainly looks like a return to the DePalma of old — bloody, suspenseful and titillating. We were a little put off by the teaser trailer last week, which had the slight stink of Cinemax on it, and made it seem as if the performances from McAdams and Rapace could be a little flat. But given the genius of much of his career, we're certainly going to give DePalma the benefit of the doubt at this point.
When? September 7th. No U.S. distributor so far.
Synopsis: A documentary about the making of Michael Jackson's seminal album Bad to mark the 25th anniversary of its release.
What You Need To Know: Spike Lee's documentaries don't always get the same notice as his fiction films, but after the likes of "4 Little Girls" and "When The Levees Break," we're always going to pay attention. Lee's latest entry into the form (his second film alongside this year's "Red Hook Summer") doesn't deal with such weighty subject matter, but it's certainly about something close to Lee's heart — the late pop superstar Michael Jackson, and his 1987 record Bad which featured hits like the title track, "Dirty Diana," "Man In The Mirror" and "Smooth Criminal." Lee's film includes behind-the-scenes footage, along with interviews with both Jackson's collaborators and famous fans like Kanye West and Cee Lo Green. We're still awaiting a seminal doc on Jackson, and this could certainly be the one, given Lee's talent, and love of the artist.
When? Screens August 31st on the Lido. Sony will release the film later this year.
Synopsis: A young girl is murdered while in elementary school, but her friends are unable to identify the killer, despite seeing his face. 15 years, the girl's mother sets out to find out why.
What You Need To Know: Is it madness to start off a week at a film festival with a four-and-a-half-hour Japanese-language thriller? Perhaps, but when the first film on the screening schedule is the latest from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa ("Pulse"), his first since 2008's "Tokyo Sonata," we certainly have no intention of missing it. Only a few months back, we wondered when we'd something new from Kurosawa, and as it turned out, he'd been working on "Penance," a five-part TV series also envisioned as a marathon theatrical experience. Following five lives ripped apart by murder, this seems to play to both Kurosawa's genre-type strengths, and the quieter ones he displayed with "Tokyo Sonata," and we've certainly got our fingers crossed that it'll be worth the extensive running time.
When? August 28th. The film also plays TIFF, but no distribution deals are in place just yet.
Synopsis: Three estranged sisters return home for the birthday of their overbearing mother.
What You Need To Know: Swedish helmer Jesper Ganslandt won a lot of cinephile fans with his 2009 film "The Ape" (which also played at Venice), and for his return, he's delving into his country's cinematic heritage for a film that's described as "an aggressive, almost angry deconstruction of Ingmar Bergman's family dramas." The set up isn't terribly original, but from the trailer we've seen, it looks like impressive, bold work, and the acting, from a cast that includes Carolina Gynning, Helena af Sandeberg, Alexandra Dahlstrom and Marie Goranzon, looks like it could be very strong. It's a bit of a roll of the dice, but to our eyes at least, it looks like one of the more interesting international pictures at Venice.
When? Sept 2nd. It will also play TIFF, but not distributor just yet.
Synopsis: A violent young man who works for a loan shark is confronted by a woman who claims to be his long-lost mother.
What You Need To Know: Korean director Kim Ki-duk ("Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring," "3-Iron") has been very busy, with "Arirang" and "Amen" both premiering at festivals with the last year. His 18th film started lensing in February and involves a loan shark who is reunited with a woman who claims to be his mother. Given the controversial, brutal nature of some of his work ("The Isle"), we're not exactly expecting an easy watch, but certainly one with the eye-opening images and considerable power of Ki-duk's earlier work. Min-soo Cho and Jung-jin Lee take the lead roles.
When? September 3rd, before heading to TIFF. No distributor at the moment.
Honorable Mention: Mira Nair can be hit and miss to say the least, but we're hopeful her "Reluctant Fundamentalist," which opens the festival, will be a return to form after "Amelia." Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber star. We're intrigued by Sarah Polley's documentary "Stories We Tell," while American independent cinema also brings "The Iceman" with Michael Shannon and Chris Evans, and "Disconnect," starring Jason Bateman, Paula Patton, Andrea Riseborough and Alexander Skarsgard.
As for foreign fare, Marco Bellochio's "Dormant Beauty," with Isabelle Huppert, definitely looks interesting, while we're looking forward to Raul Ruiz's last film "Linhas De Wellington," a period epic directed by his wife Valeria Sarmiento. And for a change of pace, steampunk kung-fu movie "Tai Chi 0" could be a fair bit of fun.