An occasion for much excitement and/or cinephile envy, one week from today the Venice Film Festival kicks off in a blaze of gondolas and Cornettos (actually neither of these things, here’s the full line-up). Not only is it a major event in the cinematic year on its own merits —being the oldest film festival in the world and one of the Holy Trinity of European festivals along with Cannes and Berlin—it also ushers in the whole Fall Festival season, with the boutique-y Telluride running parallel during its first weekend, and the mighty, massive Toronto kicking off during week two.
Even with that kind of competition, Venice has always managed to put together a diverse and interesting slate in which smaller, international, arthouse-y films frequently rub shoulders with high-profile star-driven English-language titles. This is especially true as of late with its opening slot, which in the last couple of years has showcased the world premieres of Alfonso Cuarón‘s “Gravity” and Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s “Birdman” —both of which went on to be major players at the Academy Awards. It remains to be seen if Baltasar Kormákur‘s “Everest,” which inaugurates the festival’s 72nd iteration can pull off the same feat, but beyond that, this year’s selection is, if anything, even more impressive than last year’s, giving us those of us lucky enough to be going even more to anticipate. Here are the 12 films we’re most excited for, with at least as many again just missing the main list in the honorable mentions section.
Watching Charlie Kaufman‘s maddening-but-absolutely-goddamn-genius “Synecdoche, New York” back in 2008, it was easy to be struck by the sheer unlikeliness of such a wildly uncommercial project ever seeing the inside of a theater. It’s not too surprising that it’s taken a while (a few false dawns and eventually a Kickstarter campaign) to see him back behind the camera. Praise be and hallelujah, because here comes “Anomalisa,” complete with a high-brow punning title and a vaguely meta-sounding premise to boot. A stop-motion animation co-directed by Duke Johnson (who was behind some of the animated segments of “Community” as well as Adult Swim‘s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole“) it follows a motivational speaker (voiced by David Thewlis) who is experiencing a bout of existential funk (aka “a Kaufman”) until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). We could quibble that live-action is our Kaufman delivery method of choice, but we’re just grateful we get to visit his mad head once more in any format.
“Beasts of No Nation”
A long-gestating, dearly held passion project from a director who has brought a marked degree of passion to all of his projects thus far, we’ve been anticipating Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s “Beasts of No Nation” since we first heard about it—and that was long before his triumphant take on season 1 of “True Detective.” Starring Idris Elba, the only name actor in a cast of mostly unknowns, and based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, it tells the story of Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) a child soldier in thrall to the charismatic commandant of a rebel militia (Elba) caught up in his country’s civil war after his parents are murdered. The film, which sparked a distribution bidding war won eventually by Netflix will only be Fukunaga’s third feature, after “Sin Nombre” and “Jane Eyre” but with Dan Romer (“Beasts of the Southern Wild“) scoring and some great posters and a strong trailer promising great things, we could not have higher expectations.
“A Bigger Splash”
Reportedly Italian director Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love“) held back from Cannes to avoid getting lost in the shuffle of high-profile, starry English-language films from his countrymen (Matteo Garrone‘s “Tale of Tales” and Paolo Sorrentino‘s “Youth“). Cannes’ loss may very well be Venice’s gain however, as for cast alone “A Bigger Splash” would be worth suiting up for. Tilda Swinton reunites with the filmmaker after her swoony turn in “I Am Love,” as a director married to a rock star (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose life is upturned by a visit from an old flame (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter (Dakota Johnson). It’s loosely based on the pretty great if slow-paced Alain Delon/Romy Schneider film “Swimming Pool” from 1969, and with plenty of scope for Guadagnino’s favored sensual themes and visual eye (the title recalls David Hockney‘s famous painting) we’re not surprised Fox Searchlight has already snapped this one up.
Like every other movie lover over the age of 20 with a semi-functioning memory, we want our Johnny Depp back. And in “Black Mass,” Scott Cooper‘s take on the story of notorious Boston-ganglord Whitey Bulger, it looks like he might have his most promising role in years. A near-unrecognizable Depp plays Bulger, while hot property Dakota Johnson brings her Venice tally to two in support as part of the only ensemble that can really rival “Everest“‘s: Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Corey Stoll, Juno Temple, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard and Julianne Nicholson. It’s only Cooper’s third feature after “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace,” but hopefully the sprawling epic crime tale will see him move up a league and ensure that 2015 goes down as something other than “the year of “Mortdecai‘” for Depp. The script is co-written by “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Get On Up“‘s Jez Butterworth, which bodes very well, while we’ll also be keeping our ears open for Junkie XL‘s first post-‘Fury Road‘ score.
“The Childhood of a Leader”
With so many established names premiering on the Lido this year, we’ve been hard pressed to make space for some of the intriguing-sounding debuts, but one exception is “Childhood of a Leader.” That’s partly because the debuting director is ubiquitous indie actor Brady Corbet, partly because the script is such a challenging one for a first-timer, and partly because of the cast, which features Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Liam Cunningham and Berenice Bejo. Loosely inspired by the lives of various 20th century dictators, the story follows an American family living France in the years immediately post WWI, and in particular the son whose experiences are shaped by and contribute to the rise of fascism. Co-written by Corbet’s “The Sleepwalker” director/co-writer Mona Fastvold, it’s certainly ambitious, but Corbet’s worked with everyone from Oliver Assayas to Ruben Ostlund to Mia Hansen-Løve to Lars Von Trier to Lisa Cholodenko to Noah Baumbach in recent years, and has no doubt been taking notes…
“The Danish Girl”
The potential Oscariness of any Venice title is an unfair and rather demeaning matrix on which to gauge a film in advance, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Step forth, “The Danish Girl,” from 2011 Best Director Tom Hooper, starring 2014 Best Actor Eddie Redmayne and inevitable future nominee Alicia Vikander, based on David Ebershoff‘s award-winning novel concerning the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. All that gloss and dazzle aside, the early pictures of Redmayne look remarkable, and although we’ve not been quite so crazy about Hooper’s work since his great “The Damned United,” we can hope that delivering a love story that has a little more edge and topicality than “The King’s Speech” or “Les Miserables” might enliven things. And anyway, with Redmayne and Vikander getting support from Matthias Schoenaerts (again), Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw, the cast alone would have us in the door.
In a Venice year marked by a particularly interesting documentary selection, predictably enough one of the hot tickets will be a biodoc regarding a filmmaker, this time devoted to splashy maestro Brian De Palma. But where this is kicked up a notch, even from the likes of last year’s Venice title “Altman,” is that “De Palma” is a surprise project co-directed by Jake Paltrow, whose “Young Ones” we liked quite a bit, and Noah Baumbach, whose two 2015 titles “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America” we’re pretty high on, and on whom we’ve just run a full retrospective. Not a lot further is known about the project except that it chronicles De Palma’s life and career from the perspective of two filmmakers who have spent time with him over the course of the last ten years, and while initially he and Baumbach might seem like odd bedfellows, remember that they did this illuminating talk together last year at NYFF, so maybe this project should not have come as such a surprise after all.
A title we had pegged for a possible Sundance bow, but one we’re happy to see crop up here, Drake Doremus‘ third feature after “Like Crazy” and “Breathe In” sees the director put a new twist on the familiar territory his previous films have mined. With a great cast including Kristen Stewart, Nicholas Hoult, Guy Pearce (returning for the director after “Breathe In”), “Diary of a Teenage Girl” breakout Bel Powley, Kate Lyn Sheil and Jacki Weaver, and scripted by “Moon” writer Nathan Parker, the film is a science fiction story set in an emotionless future society where an outbreak of disease causes repressed feelings to resurface. It’s always interesting to see new talents spread their wings, and Doremus’ well-observed, beautifully performed relationship drama groove could start to feel like a rut if it’s not changed up, so this is a very welcome new direction, even if, in its love story premise, it should also play to his proven strengths.
As mentioned above, in netting the open slot for Venice 2015, Baltasar Kormákur has a couple of hard acts to follow after Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu had such blazing successes with “Gravity” and “Birdman” respectively. But even if it falls somewhat short of those high watermarks, at the very least “Everest” seems likely to deliver a thrilling adventure story, as it follows a climbing expedition that runs afoul of a massive storm on the slopes of Mount Everest and must battle for survival. And it has simply one of the broadest quality ensembles of the year, starring (deep oxygenated breath) Jake Gyllenhaal, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson and Martin Henderson. Boasting a screenplay co-written by Simon “127 Hours” Beaufoy and William “Gladiator” Nicholson, and given Kormákur’s own talent for delivering exciting perils-of-nature action in “The Deep” we’re expecting Venice 2015 to get off to an icily thrilling start.
“In Jackson Heights”
Not just for anyone would we be putting a 3 hour 10 minute documentary about Queens so high on our anticipated list, but then veteran director/documentary icon Frederick Wiseman is hardly anyone. Since he’s hit something of a late-period stride with his last two similarly lengthy but highly rewarding films “At Berkeley” and “National Gallery,” we can expect more of the same poised, observational style brought to bear on the eponymous neighborhood, one of the most culturally diverse locales in all of the U.S.. Most famous probably for his examinations of individual institutions, from those mentioned above all the way back to the shockingly provocative exploration of a prison for the criminally insane in 1967’s “Titicut Follies,” every new Wiseman film is an event, and the seemingly broader remit he has set himself here (harking back to other films of his that deal with whole communities, such as “Belfast, Maine“) only makes us more eager to experience what his curious, non-judgemental but unswervingly incisive camera has discovered this time.
If even our enthusiasm for all things Tom McCarthy, including his first three directorial features “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win Win,” couldn’t survive last year’s “The Cobbler,” we’re willing to bet/hope that it was an anomaly and that this solidly cast, absorbing-sounding true-life tale will put him back on top. Part expose, part newsroom story, it traces the Boston Globe‘s groundbreaking investigation into the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic church, and stars Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery and Billy Crudup. It’s the kind of story that could easily become salacious or hyperbolic, but what we’ve seen so far suggests that McCarthy, who cowrote the script with “West Wing” writer Josh Singer, is keeping it intelligently low-key. The second of two Boston-set films in the lineup alongside “Black Mass,” it also shares cinematographer Masanobu Takanayagi (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Grey“) with the Scott Cooper/Johnny Depp film.
Quietly building an impressive resume, Danish director Tobias Lindholm really placed on our radar with the terrific but underseen “A Hijacking,” which may have suffered a little due to being released not long before a similar but starrier English-language hijacking story hit screens in “Captain Phillips.” However, he’d already proven his mettle with his debut film, the bruising prison story “R,” as well as with his many writing projects, with Thomas Vinterberg (Lindholm co-wrote “The Hunt” and the upcoming “The Commune“) and without (20 episodes of the Danish TV show “Borgen,” for example). His repertory company returns both behind the camera and onscreen —”A War” once again stars his regular leading man, the terrific Pilou Asbaek, and “A Hijacking”‘s Soren Malling. We expect another grippingly intelligent, visceral, immersive film about morality and integrity in a violent survival situation, in this story of a Danish army commander in Afghanistan who makes a split-second decision in the heat of battle that sees him accused of a war crime at home.
These are the highest of the highlights, but many more films in the lineup have grabbed our attention too: Amy Berg‘s Janis Joplin documentary “Janis“; Julie Delpy’s next directorial outing “Lolo“; Atom Egoyan‘s Christopher Plummer-starring revenge story “Remember“; Dito Montiel‘s post-apocalyptic “Man Down” starring Kate Mara, Shia La Boeuf, Gary Oldman and Jai Courtney; the exciting-looking “Taj Mahal,” which stars Stacy Martin and Alba Rohrwacher; and “Go With Me,” starring Anthony Hopkins, Julia Stiles and Ray Liotta.
Less starry but certainly intriguing are new titles playing In Competition from Sue Brooks, Oliver Hermanus, Jerzi Skolimowski, Aleksandr Sokurov, Pablo Trapero and Marco Bellocchio, and we’re also genuinely curious to see what performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson has in store with “Heart of a Dog.” You can look out for reviews of these titles, and some other leftfield surprises as well, next week.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival runs September 2nd-12th 2015.