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Venice Year 60 — Our First Peek at Oscar Contenders and Critics Faves

Venice Year 60 -- Our First Peek at Oscar Contenders and Critics Faves

Venice Year 60 — Our First Peek at Oscar Contenders and Critics Faves

by Anthony Kaufman

Maggie Gyllenhaal in a scene from John Sayles’ “Casa de los Babys”

There may be just enough Hollywood heavyweights and foreign auteur films to keep the public and press sufficiently amused, but the 60th Venice International Film Festival (opening tonight with Woody Allen’s latest, “Anything Else”) isn’t the fall premiere powerhouse that many people had hoped for. Catherine Breillat, Jacques Rivette, and Jane Campion are absent. Emir Kusturica, Ingmar Bergman, and Wong Kar-wai aren’t ready.

Multiple questions circle this special anniversary edition of the fest: Will American Oscar contenders — such as Robert Benton’s “The Human Stain,” the Coens’ “Intolerable Cruelty,” and Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” — live up to the paparazzi’s expectations? Will one of this year’s eccentric competition entries — with rare appearances from Germany, Israel, Poland, Russia and Serbia — prove to be a pleasant surprise? Will anticipated titles from star art-filmmakers like Tsai Miang-Lang (“Goodbye Dragon Inn”) and Bruno Dumont (“Twentynine Palms”) end up revelatory or reviled? The choices of the jury (a hodgepodge of international film luminaries you’ve never heard of) won’t be revealed until September 6. But a number of films-to-watch are already generating good word-of-mouth.

In addition to Dumont and Tsai’s new works, indie watchers and foreign buyers will be lining up for the premieres of Takeshi Kitano’s update of the classic blind swordsman epic “Zatoichi,” Jim Jarmusch’s long-in-the-works nine-piece omnibus “Coffee and Cigarettes,” and Marco Bellocchio’s “Good Day, Night,” an Italian psychological drama that will also play in the highly distinguished New York Film Festival program next month. Also on display is Canadian maverick Guy Maddin’s musical melodrama, starring Isabella Rossellini, “The Saddest Music in the World,” in a special program of more experimental work called New Territories.

New Iranian auteurs will also make a formidable presence on the Lido, with “Abjad,” the latest film from “Delbaran” director Abolfazl Jalili, “Silence Between Two Thoughts,” Babak Payami’s follow-up to “Secret Ballot”, and a special “eighth” addition to the standard seven-film Critics Week sidebar, “Joy of Madness,” directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 15-year-old daughter Hana Makhmalbaf, shot during the pre-production of her older sister Samira’s latest film “At Five in the Afternoon.”

Also in the Critics Week sidebar, one of the few new English-language independent films available at the festival, “Twist,” directed by Montreal actor Jacob Tierney and starring Nick Stahl, updates Oliver Twist’s boy peddlers to male prostitutes in present day Toronto, and Francophiles will likely check out “Variete Francaise,” Frederic Videau’s surreal drama starring himself and new French-It actress Helene Fillieres.

A large number of available films from Arab directors or with Arab themes will also screen, including Randa Chahal Sabbag’s latest “Le Cerf Volant,” a love story set on the Lebanese/Israeli border, Algerian director Abdelkrim Bahloul’s “Le soleil assassine,” Iraqi Kurdish filmmaker Hiner Saleem’s “Vodka Lemon,” and Jacques Doillon’s Morocco-set “Raja.” Even Egyptian actor Omar Sharif — who will be receiving a special tribute at Venice 2003 — will make a comeback in Francois Dupeyron’s “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran,” a hoped-for Oscar competitor from Sony Classics.

Anticipated wild cards include “Travelers and Magicians” from Tibetan monk Khyentse Norbu (“The Cup”), about a small-town official determined to leave his Bhutanese village for America, “Last Life in the Universe,” Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s tale of two accidental murderers in Bangkok, and “Camur,” from acclaimed Turkish director Dervi Zaim, whose last films “Somersault in a Coffin” (1997) and “Elephants and Grass” (2000) received praise for their outstanding neo-realist approach and political courage.

However, American distributors don’t see Venice as essential for business. While buyers could conceivably get a leg up on their competitors by seeing films a few days before they show up at the Toronto International Film Festival (where nearly all the titles will also appear), most U.S. distribs aren’t taking the time to check out Venice. “Why do in Venice what you can do in Toronto?” asks one acquisitions exec, while another buyer adds, “Once I saw the lineup I didn’t feel as bad about not attending.”

Moreover, most of the specialized studios are coming to Italy in the hopes of garnering early season buzz for their own productions. United Artists unveils Michael Winterbottom’s sci-fi romancer “Code 46”; Focus Features debuts “21 Grams,” Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s highly anticipated English-language follow-up to “Amores Perros,” along with Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” and IFC Films will premiere John Sayles’ “Casa de los Babys.”

Critics, on the other hand, look to the festival as part European vacation, part high-art screening series, with less crowds and distractions than its larger Canadian comrade. Writer Patrick McGavin, a frequent Venice attendee, calls the list of films “thrilling.” “The early American coverage has tended toward the ‘disappointing,'” he says. “I think that is the unfortunate reflex when there are relatively few studio or American titles of ‘interest,’ and the bulk is made up of hard core art titles.”

Foreign sales agents also praise Venice’s more highbrow program and business potential. “There are still quite a few buyers — mainly Europeans — that prefer to go to Venice instead of Toronto,” says Celluloid Dreams’ sales manager Tanja Meissner, who will be repping Amos Gitai’s “Alila” and Kitano’s “Zatoichi.” “As for Asians and South Americans we will possibly close the deals at TIFF. Thus Venice and Toronto are quite complementary and for us the most important venues before MIFED (in November).”

Fortissimo Film Sales’ Wouter Barendrecht, selling “Last Life in the Universe” and the latest installment of Peter Greenaway’s “Tulse Luper” project, agrees that Venice is good for some European business, but says the festival’s main function is critical buzz. “It is traditionally very much a critic-driven festival,” he says. “You should only send films there that will get critical support, whereas Toronto is much more an audience festival.”

Beyond business and art, Barendrecht ultimately values Venice as “one of the Grande Dames of Cinema,” he says. “Classy, stylish. Worth a visit.”

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