The accepted wisdom among Venice Film Festival attendees was that this year’s lineup was not one for the ages. But while we did feel the absence of just one more big, high-profile premiere (the inclusion of either “Inherent Vice” or “Gone Girl,” as were discussed at one point, would probably have completely transformed the overall impression of the slate), there was still an embarrassment of cinematic riches on offer, culminating in an unusually satisfying awards night where the festival’s top prizes went to three extraordinarily deserving winners. And there were also enough ho-hum, yeah-whatever films, startling disappointments and outright stinkers to make us feel like we experienced the full gamut of what the film world has to offer. And there was some amazing ice cream.
So now, with the coffee servers and pizza makers of the festival village enjoying their first lie-ins in weeks, and while film buff attention wanders across the Atlantic to Toronto, letting Venice get back to the business of merely being the most beautiful, impossible city in the world, we look back our own highlights and lowlights of the 2014 Biennale di Venezia.
The opening film of the festival, the highest-profile title and one of our most anticipated of the year, expectations could not have been higher for Alejandro González Iñárritu ’s “Birdman.” But it didn’t just meet those expectations, it surpassed them (our breathless review is here), delivering a dizzyingly successful about-turn from the director, and a career-comeback-making performance from Michael Keaton, as well as scene-stealing roles for its supporting cast, especially Edward Norton. We noted with surprise the cooler reception the film got at Telluride (though not from our own attendees)—in line with the few naysayers in Venice, it seems some critics found the film’s dazzling form outshines its content. In short, they maintained that it wasn’t about very much. With the greatest of respect, we totally disagree—the content is so lightly delivered, with such self-depracating humor and deftness of touch, that it perhaps feels too purely enjoyable to be “worthy.” But it is there—as a film about the folly, angst and hubris of creative endeavor, about aging and fame, about the clash between our public personae (our “Birdmen”) and our private, perhaps scared and insecure selves—that “Birdman” delivers thoughtful, provocative content in spades. It just does so with such unpretentious dash and mischief that the result is supremely enjoyable and accessible. From the outset it felt like an unlikely choice for any Venice awards, and indeed it was shut out even in the category it might have had the biggest chance (Keaton for Best Actor), but that should be taken more as a reflection of Venice not particularly liking to award the Big Hollywood Movie that’s probably going to figure in the Oscar race, than any comment on its quality. It’s a blast.
Continuing the avian theme from “Birdman,” ‘Pigeon‘ may have been a predictable winner of the Golden Lion, particularly after early favorite “The Cut” screened to such poor notices, but that doesn’t mean it was anything less than deserved. During his acceptance speech for this hugely popular win, Swedish legend Roy Andersson spent quite a bit of time praising Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” as one of the chief inspirations for his own filmmaking career. On the surface, this seems odd, as there is nothing neo-realist in Andersson’s meticulously constructed, non-naturalistic and highly stylized vignettes on the absurdity of existence. But if you watch Andersson’s work bearing in mind his stated aim to “find poetry in the banal,” it makes a lot more sense. ‘Pigeon’ (review here) is a worthy conclusion to a tremendous trilogy that successfully locates the mordantly funny, the existentially bleak and occasionally the winsomely lyrical in the mundane, and vice versa. It may have, for us, fallen slightly short of the transcendence achieved throughout his last film, “You, The Living,” but it’s still an utterly unique, beautiful and deeply odd film. Perhaps the fact that it is not our favorite from the trilogy (which also includes “Songs from the Second Floor”) and we still cheered loud and long when it won, shows you just what a different plane Andersson is operating on. We are already looking forward to our Andersson party where we screen all three back-to-back and it warps our view of the universe, in the best possible way, for weeks afterwards.
“The Look of Silence”
Did Venezia 2014 really boast a lesser lineup than years past, or was it simply that in the one-two punch of “Birdman” and “The Look of Silence” on its first day, the whole rest of the festival couldn’t help but feel like something of an anticlimax? Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to the shattering “The Act of Killing” is a less jarringly explosive film, but in its quieter way, the devastation it wreaks is just as profound. ‘Silence’ (review here) focusses on one man’s quest, not even for justice or retribution, but just to be able to ask the men responsible for the brutal, senseless death of his brother to explain their motives, face-to-face. The steadfastness of his approach, but also how little he expects or desires except to be able to look these men in the eye and ask, without rancor or rage, why they did what they did, makes Adi the most compelling of subjects. The film may mark a shift in Oppenheimer’s gaze from perpetrator to victim, but really it’s another artifact of his ongoing tribute to the cathartic power of storytelling, and his continuing quest to locate some humanity in men who have committed inhuman acts. A powerful companion piece to his last masterpiece, “The Look of Silence” can also help to pick up the pieces of your broken faith in humanity after “The Act of Killing,” by showing the amazing, quiet resilience of those on the “wrong” side of the Indonesian genocide.
“The Postman’s White Nights”
One of the most perplexing, unusual and difficult-to-review of all the Venice titles (our attempt is here) we were particularly delighted when “The Postman’s White Nights” won Best Director for Andrei Konchalovsky, if only because that gives it a better shot at getting distribution and it’s a film we need to be able to discuss with as many people as possible. Coming to it the day after its first screening, the advance word on it as “a social realist film with semi-documentary trappings” totally did not prepare us for our experience. Frankly, on occasion it felt frustratingly slow, an unadorned portrayal of the mundanity of life in a remote lakebound region of Russia, an area untouched by the modern world. But then, tiny moments of oddness started to occur at irregular intervals, disrupting the monotonous rhythm, and somehow lending the film shades of an unearthly, uncanny, almost science fiction-y vibe. Thematically and stylistically, it’s nothing at all like Haneke, but the way it worked on us as an opaque, difficult viewing experience that grew in resonance as it went on and built up to a buzz in the nerves that lasted for hours after, was similar. It will be too sparse and slow for many, but ‘Postman’ effected an amazing shift in us: we started out looking, from our everyday perspective at an alien way of life, but by the end we ourselves felt like the aliens, minutely observing human behavior from a vast, ironic distance.
By about the halfway mark, many had noticed that the Venice lineup, while rich in many other ways, was lacking in terms of standout female roles, to the point that the Best Actress category was looking to be severely underpopulated. But then along came Lisa Cholodenko’s 4-hour HBO miniseries, starring Frances McDormand (review here), to singlehandedly redress that balance—it’s a shame it was Out of Competition, because otherwise McDormand would probably have been a shoo-in (in the event the award went to Alba Rohrwacher for “Hungry Hearts,” which we unfortunately did not see). But the show is much more than merely a showcase for McDormand’s spiky, abrasive, intelligent title character. In addition to providing the great Richard Jenkins with the equally unforgettable role of Olive’s gentle husband Henry, as warm and sentimental as Olive is forthright and unyielding, “Olive Kitteridge” does right by even its smaller characters, women and men alike. Bill Murray’s widower is perhaps the perfect late-period Bill Murray role; Zoe Kazan continues to prove what an interesting and able newcomer she is, more than holding her own opposite the veterans; while Rosemarie deWitt and Peter Mullan, among others, make manifest the truism that not all great roles are big ones. If it were just a vehicle to deliver the performances of these great actors, “Olive Kitteridge” would be a wonder, but it is also a complex, delicately told and quite brilliantly directed family story, spanning decades and life stages with grace and depth. Less plot than character-driven, “Olive Kitteridge” is so insightful about its characters that it never lags, and ultimately provided us with one of our most enriching Venice experiences.
Honorable mentions: There were nearly as many titles that almost made this short list, and that we were tempted to include if only because they weren’t quite such consensus choices. Ulrich Seidl’s brilliant, evocative “In the Basement” was one we’d love to give a bit more shine to in the hopes it gets a wide release; Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” doesn’t need the plug, but is an excellent, excoriating film with some great performances that deals with a timely, topical subject; and David Oelhoffen’s Algeria-set Viggo Mortensen-starrer “Far From Men” is the period, Western-inflected desert epic that Fatih Akin’s “The Cut” so demonstrably wasn’t (see below). And finally, we ran counter to the critical majority in our enjoyment of David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn” as a flawed, but original and ambitious film featuring simply the best Al Pacino performance we’ve seen in ages, but it’s an assessment we stand by absolutely.
Of the films we’re most gutted to have missed, “Hungry Hearts” is high on the list having not only snagged Best Actress for Alba Rohrwacher, but also Best Actor for Adam Driver. And we heard only good things about Chinese film “Red Amnesia,” the Serbian “No One’s Child” and the Audience-Award-winning, assisted suicide dramedy “The Farewell Party.” We very much hope to catch up with all of those soon.
“The Smell Of Us”
Ugh. Running the risk, as we always do when critiquing this type of film, of being accused of prudishness or “not getting it,” allow us to restate our deep, deep dislike for Larry Clark’s latest film (you can read more of our reasons here—we really can’t bring ourselves to relive it all again). Suffice it to say that here, not only has old dog Larry Clark not learnt any new tricks, it feels like he’s forgotten his old ones—previous titles of his have been shocking and valuable in what they reveal about the lives and preoccupations of disaffected and alienated teenagers. They have felt, however distasteful, like they illustrate something true. “The Smell of Us,” however, which relocates the “action” to Paris and incorporates an occasionally stomach-turning on-camera role for Clark himself, doesn’t ring true to any real experience of life, except maybe the world of Clark’s own imagination, which is not a very salubrious place to be. Shocking, explicit, graphic and even morally questionable, we can take, and have taken, from Clark before. But with “The Smell of Us” he has crossed a line into unforgivable territory—that of irrelevance.
“Imbecymbeline” as we unkindly mentally dubbed it, more than just being a flat-out failure, is also a waste: of a worthwhile premise, of a chance to reclaim one of Shakespeare’s “difficult” plays, and of an eclectic, stacked cast. Instead, director Michael Almereyda is content to transpose the play’s utterly daft, archaic and creaky plot to an unrecognizable present day where it just doesn’t work, and to mistake the insertion of an entire Apple Store’s worth of products into the mise en scene for commentary on modern life. As though we’ll somehow be able to understand the characters’ motivations better if they’re told through text messages and Google Maps. These clanging anachronisms only serve to distract, as do many of the cameo-level appearances, which seem only there so that the name actor can prove he can fence with The Bard’s dialogue (Bill Pullman’s two scenes are a particularly egregious example). Including such glib notions as Dakota Johnson‘s Imogen choosing “Fidel” (“Fidele” in the play, meaning “faithful”) as the name for her male alter ago in response to looking at a T-shirt picture of Che Guevara (?!), and Ed Harris’ Cymbeline being the “King” of the world’s least convincing biker gang, “Cymbeline” (review here) really makes the case that, in contrast to that old chestnut of being drugged into the mere appearance of death, some Shakespeare plays should die and stay buried. Or at they should least be resurrected by more capable hands.
If not the worst film we saw in Venice, then by some distance the most disastrously disappointing, we can clearly recall the moment during Fatih Akin’s would-be Armenian genocide epic when it all started to go wrong: it was with the first words spoken in the first scene. Not only did it point to a linguistic confusion (the Armenians speak English, everyone else speaks their own native tongue) which the film never reconciles, and which only becomes more alienating as time wears on (especially when Tahar Rahim’s central character ends up in English-speaking America), it also showed the stilted awkwardness of Rahim’s performance. This is a huge issue as he is the centerpiece of the film, but even when mute, his character is a blank, almost dopey presence, difficult to engage with even though his plight is, on paper, one of the most tragic and heartbreaking of stories. Most of all, though, we were just so shocked and disappointed that Akin, whose trademark to date has been an irrepressible, bristling filmmaking energy, should turn in something so turgid and dramatically inert.
On a happier, more personal general note, my first trip to the Venice Film Festival was perhaps the most thoroughly enjoyable time I’ve had at a major festival ever. With a much less frenetic pace than Cannes or Berlin (or than our colleagues in Toronto are currently no doubt experiencing), Venice feels friendlier and easier to negotiate than many other big festivals, plus you can’t ignore the fact that it has simply the most ridiculously beautiful city in the world as a backdrop (and the world’s most outrageously gorgeous ballroom-style press room). One moment, when traveling from the Lido to Venice proper, standing on the Vaporetto, heading for the Sinking City’s antique skyline outlined by the setting sun, with “The Postman’s White Nights” still buzzing through my brain, just may be the pinnacle of my whole festival-going career to date. Heartfelt thanks for that, Venice, and for “Birdman” and Roy Andersson and Joshua Oppenheimer and all the gnocchi and gelato. You can follow this link for all our coverage and reviews from Venice 2014, and thank you too for reading.