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The Best And Worst Of The 2015 Venice Film Festival

The Best And Worst Of The 2015 Venice Film Festival

While our colleagues in Canada are currently in the thick of TIFF madness and doing God’s work there (here’s our ever-expanding TIFF coverage link), as a Euro-dwelling Venice attendee, the last big festival of 2015 is now a wrap. Film-wise, it was a peculiar year, with quite a few of the most buzzed titles not quite measuring up to expectation, but as ever there was gold in ‘them thar hills’, if perhaps rather less of it in the form of 13 ½ inch-tall statuettes given out in February. There are still a few pieces to come to complete our overall coverage of the festival, but for now here’s my take on the highlights and lowlights of the 72nd Venice International Film Festival.

Best

5. “A War
I’m not at all sure why Tobias Lindholm‘s well-received last film, the tense, gripping “A Hijacking” which also premiered in Venice, did not buy him a promotion out of the Horizons sidebar and into the main competition this time out. “A War” again debuted in Horizons, and, festival politics aside, it marks a confirmation of Lindholm’s native ability with stories of men in no-escape, violent situations, as well as a progression: here it’s more about psychological imprisonment than actual, literal incarceration. Boasting another terrifically sympathetic performance from soon-to-be ‘Game of Thrones‘ star Pilou Asbaek (he’ll be playing Euron Greyjoy), it deals in sober, thrillingly intelligent fashion with the moral ramifications of a completely understandable and relatable split-second decision that has tragic, potentially criminal, consequences. Moving from a typically brilliant and bruising first half (if Lindholm ever decides he wants to make a Hollywood action film, he would kill it) into a more procedural and courtroom-driven second, he even has time and care for the family life of the conflicted soldier, and for how that brings other elements into play beyond merely the workings of military law, and his own conscience. What do we ask of the men and women who serve abroad? Can we truly blame them for making calls that we ourselves would probably have made in the same position? The faultlessly performed and directed “A War” poses vital and provocative questions about the role of personal morality in modern warfare. [Review here]

4. “Free In Deed
On the one hand, I was almost disappointed when Jonathan Demme, chairman of the Jury for this years Horizons (Orizzonti) sidebar, called out “Free In Deed,” Jake Mahaffy‘s Tennessee-set social realist faith healing drama as the big winner in the section. It debuted late in the festival, after many critics had already left, my screening was sparsely attended and there appeared to be precisely no buzz about the film on social media or around the festival campus when I posted my review. I had that smug feeling of having made a legitimate “discovery,” and of riding in like a white knight to champion a little film that no one else knew about. On the other hand, that’s a totally ridiculous and self-serving reaction and actually I was of course delighted that a small, difficult but brilliant film like this will get the boost that a win provides. Inspired by a true and tragic story of faith healing gone wrong, what’s so remarkable about it, aside from across-the-board great performances from its professional and non-professional cast (Edwina Findlay, from “The Wire” and Ava Du Vernay‘s “Middle Of Nowhere” is probably the biggest revelation) is that even a Godless heathen like myself can be made to empathize. So where the headline version of this story—Faith Healing ‘Exorcism’ Of Severely Developmentally Challenged Child Results In Death—might ordinarily make us shake our heads patronizingly and roll our eyes at the backwardness and superstition implied, “Free In Deed” reminds us that faith can be a refuge and a vital support structure for marginalized people abandoned by authority and denied access to the services that a civilized society should provide to all its citizens. [Review here]

3. “Spotlight
There were a few commentators who suggested that well, yes, of course film journalists would go nuts for a film that portrays journalists in so heroic a light as Tom McCarthy‘s terrifically absorbing procedural. I’d like to meet a single film reporter who looks at “Spotlight” and even remotely equates its front-line life-or-death stakes investigative journalism with what we do—i.e. sit in the dark watching movies, taking illegible notes and wondering how many times is too many to use the word “oeuvre” (Ans: once. But sometimes it’s unavoidable.) The finest film to date in director McCarthy’s oeuvre (heh) it’s good to see him back on form after the distressing mess that was “The Cobbler” and it provides a wonderful showcase for the fine art of ensemble acting, with a cast that work so well off each other that it feels unfair to play favorites. Suffice to say, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup, Stanley Tucci and more provide intelligent, restrained (apart from maybe one or two slightly histrionic moments from Ruffalo) often remarkable interpretations of their real-life counterparts, the Boston Globe team who uncovered a huge conspiracy by the Catholic Church in Boston surrounding clerical sexual abuse in the diocese. Both a deeply engaging, unshowy thriller and a tribute to the value of a disappearing mode of journalism and the men and women who practised it, “Spotlight” is also one of the best evocations since “All the President’s Men” of how the truth, doggedly pursued no matter how ugly, can set us free. [Review here]

2. “Beasts of No Nation
There can be no clearer illustration of the fact that Oscar narratives take up too much oxygen at film festivals than that Cary Fukunaga‘s excoriating yet lyrical adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala‘s novel premiered to such widespread acclaim on day 1 of Venice, and then promptly disappeared from what we like to pompously call “the conversation” (it’s the only one!) Because it’s absolutely true that the film is unlikely to be an Oscar player, but that’s for all the best reasons: it’s uncompromising, brutal and gruelling, as the story of a child soldier caught up in conflict in a war-torn African nation should be. But it’s quite beautiful too, in a way that does not romance or sentimentalize the issue, with Fukunaga’s camera at all times capturing the horrors and the grisliness of a renegade soldier’s life, but as seen through a child’s eyes. The central performances are great, with Idris Elba outstanding as The Commandant, but newcomer Abraham Attah (Venice Best Young Actor winner) steals the show entirely, and the intensity of the filmmaking is masterfully sustained and marked by flashes of the surreal and even the playful. That a film like this, made with passion and intelligence, can generate fewer column inches than something as staid and uninspired as “The Danish Girl,” purely because Tom Hooper‘s movie is at least partially a sly play for another set of Academy Awards, is a pretty shameful assessment of state of festival criticism. [Review here]

1. “Anomalisa
It’s been far too long since we got a glimpse inside the mind of fabulous eccentric Charlie Kaufman—though to be fair his 2008 directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” gave us less a glimpse than a long, unblinking stare and probably provided Kaufman non-fans with more than enough of his brand of morose, meta, man-in-crisis madness to last at least seven years. But screw the naysayers, “Synecdoche” is complete genius, and so “Anomalisa” was high on my anticipated list with one potential concern: it’s an animation, and one wondered if that might have marked a compromise choice because Kaufman simply couldn’t get the financing to do a new live-action film. One was an idiot to worry. Co-directed by animator Duke Johnson, the winsome and very gently weird “Anomalisa” is actually surprisingly accessible, with the fuzzy-felt style stop-motion puppetry adding a visual warmth and inventiveness to a story that could perhaps feel a little clinical or intellectual if done live-action. And the Kaufman we know and love to watch self-loathe is here in spades too. “Anomalisa” is melancholic, almost despairing at times especially if you take it as the story of the central male character, philandering family man and author Michael, voiced by David Thewlis. But there is also optimism and generosity in its treatment of the perfectly ordinary Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh in what might be a career-best performance, no joke) who sort of becomes the real heroine by the end. Featuring dream sequences, high-concept formal devices (all the other characters are voiced by Tom Noonan) and some truly hilarious, pretentiousness-puncturing insights into everything from the tyranny of luxury hotel service to the selfishness of the male midlife crisis, what truly makes “Anomalisa” immediately stand as one of my favorites of the year is that bizarrely, everyone in it kind of gets exactly what they deserve. Even Michael’s gift-demanding kid who receives a Japanese mechanical doll that, erm… leaks. A little gutted I didn’t get to review this one, as I’m probably even higher on it than Rodrigo’s extremely positive write-up from Telluride, “Anomalisa” picked up the second-biggest prize of the festival, but for my money should have been crowned Golden Lion. [Rodrigo’s review here]

Honorable Mentions
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow‘s immensely enjoyable documentary “De Palma” [review] was one of the best times I had in Venice, and Frederick Wiseman‘s “In Jackson Heights” [review] is a superlative exploration of the thrumming rhythms of life in the titular New York neighborhood. I had thought that “Free In Deed” (see above) would be my final great film of the festival, but then the very last film I saw, Venice Days closer “The Daughter” [review] proved a very pleasant surprise. Otherwise I liked both Silver Lion Best Director winner “The Clan” [review] and eventual Golden Lion winner “From Afar” [review] though neither would have necessarily been my choice for those prizes. “Rabin: The Last Day” [review] is the first Amos Gitai movie I’ve ever really felt able to embrace fully: it’s dense, absorbing and highly educational about Israeli politics in the last couple of decades, and Luca Guadagnino’s bizarrely booed “A Bigger Splash” [review] is an entertaining slice of sunshine noir featuring a terrifically outsize performance from Ralph Fiennes, and easily the festival’s best dance sequence.

Most Disappointing/Worst

It’s not all ravioli and raves, though. This year’s Venice lineup was characterized, in contrast to last year’s which featured “Birdman” and “The Look of Silence” (and both of those on the first day, no less), by high-profile films that ended up disappointing against expectations, and a fair few all-out clunkers to boot. Opener “Everest” is a serviceable 3D popcorn disaster movie [review], but I’d begun to forget it almost before I’d left the theater. Scott Cooper‘s “Black Mass,” [review] widely touted as Johnny Depp‘s comeback vehicle was even more disappointing as hopes had been that much higher; it’s by no means a terrible film, but it’s marred by a surface approach that is as alienating to any sense of real connection to the story as Depp’s mask-like prosthetics and dead-snake contact lenses. Tom Hooper‘s “The Danish Girl” [review] is exactly as staid and prettified as we might have feared, though turning in a film this complacently Oscar bait-y about a transgender character is its own sort of admirable.

And none of those films let me down quite as much as the depressingly precious “Equals” from Drake Doremus, [review] a sci-fi love story that manages to be both cloyingly lovey-dovey and utterly antiseptic. Atom Egoyan continues to be possessed by the spirit of some filmmaker other than the one who made “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter” with “Remember,” [review] which is almost redeemed by a stellar Christopher Plummer performance until you realize what a travesty it is that it wastes such a stellar Christopher Plummer performance. And I haven’t really got the heart to add much more to my lengthy pans of Daniel Alfredson‘s “Go With Me” [review] and Dito Montiel‘s “Man Down,” [review] except to point out that each features at least one great actor (Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman respectively) who should really know better than to turn up in this sort of subpar material and get all of our hopes up.

WTF

And finally the absurdly divisive directorial debut from Brady Corbet, “The Childhood of a Leader,” [review] deserves a category all of its own. The trades reviews were mostly scathing, while there were others who declared it their film of the festival, a polarizing reaction that I experienced within myself too. There’s no way I can actually genuinely endorse it as a good film, but its ambition and kamikaze confidence is astonishing. And in Scott Walker‘s enormous, roiling, dissonant score, used to ear-splitting, insanity-inducing effect at certain times, it has inspired the perfect music to accompany the imminent apocalypse, so there’s that. A double winner in the Horizons section, I can, despite my reservations about actually sitting through the damn thing, totally understand Corbet receiving the Lion of the Future award. But that he also picked up Horizons Best Director, over the terminally undervalued Tobias Lindholm, for example, seems excessive: “The Childhood of a Leader” defiantly announces that Corbet will yet probably become a great director, but it isn’t totally convincing evidence that he is one right now.

Final Thoughts

This is a gorgeous festival. It’s only my second year attending but Venice has a very special mixture where it has all the glamorous shenanigans of Cannes, but in a less frenetic and overheated atmosphere. And where last year I had a memorably sublime experience on a vaporetto after watching Andrei Konchalovsky‘s weird and amazing “The Postman’s White Nights,” this year also provided a little extra-curricular adventure in the form of a long, tipsy walk back along the Lido beach in the small hours of Sunday morning (shout out to our Senegalese savior who unlocked a crucial gate to allow us to actually make it home at a semi-decent hour).

Lastly, it was a particularly good year for being completely at odds with the hot-take booing/cheering culture that exists here. The boos for “A Bigger Splash,” the catcalls at “The Endless River,” the critical raves for Aleksandr Sokurov‘s wilfully indulgent and pretentious “Francofonia” and the lusty hurrays that greeted Jerzy Skolimowski’s slapdash “11 Minutes” all served to remind me once again of one of the great mysteries of the medium: that we can all be sitting in the dark together, watching the same images unfolding on the same screen, and yet be having such completely different experiences. Venice, you’re nuts, but I love you.

You can find all Venice coverage at this link, with still a couple of interview pieces and a few more reviews to come. Thank you all for reading, and arrividerci.

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