Until a few years ago, the Venice International Film Festival wasn’t viewed as much of an awards-season bellwether. After the success of “La La Land” and “The Shape of Water,” it’s hard to imagine it as anything else. And while this year’s edition of the world’s oldest film festival boasts Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria,” and Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” that’s all the more reason to dig a little deeper.
It’s also worth anticipating Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate,” and Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as siblings in “The Sisters Brothers.” But with all of those offerings generating hype across the fall festival season, the under-the-radar options look all the more enticing. Here are 10 of them. The festival runs August 29 – September 8.
“Charlie Says” (Orizzonti)
Mary Harron, director of “American Psycho” and “Alias Grace,” has the latest take on the Charles Manson mythos, with Matt Smith (“The Crown”) as the infamous cult leader; unlike most Manson movies, this one focuses on the women he brainwashed. Suki Waterhouse, Hannah Murray, and Susan Bacon play three members of the Manson Family who were initially sentenced to death for their roles in the Tate-LaBianca murders, with Harron detailing their relationship with the graduate student sent to teach them when their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. The world may never lose interest in this case, and Harron has found a new angle to explore it.
“Dragged Across Concrete” (Out of Competition)
S. Craig Zahler’s third feature as writer/director is screening Out of Competition, which is good news for all the films vying for the festival’s coveted Most Artful Brutality award. (Note: Not a real thing.) Anyone who’s seen “Bone Tomahawk” or “Brawl in Cell Block 99” knows this one won’t be for the faint of heart, but it’ll almost certainly be worthwhile for those whose sensibilities lean toward the indelicate end of the spectrum. “Brawl” star Vince Vaughn reteams with the director alongside Mel Gibson in this 159-minute drama about two suspended police officers whose descent into the criminal underworld is sure to be bloody.
Wong Kar-wai produced this Tibetan drama, which follows a chance encounter between a trucker who’s accidentally run over a sheep and a hitchhiker who plans to murder someone who wronged him years earlier. That premise almost makes Pema Tseden’s film sound like a darker take on “Melvin and Howard,” with the two men’s destinies becoming inextricably linked after meeting each other on the road.
Giornate degli Autori, an independent sidebar modeled after Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, is now in its 15th year with nearly 20 offerings. One of the most promising is Sudabeh Mortezai’s “Joy,” about a young Nigerian woman whose attempts to eke out an existence for herself and her daughter in Vienna lead her to the world of sex trafficking. Mortezai’s second narrative feature after 2014’s “Macondo,” the writer-director said her film wants to show the lives of trafficked women “as subjects of their own stories” while eschewing the typical white-savior narrative.
“The Mountain” (Competition)
Alfonso Cuarón, the Coen Brothers, and Yorgos Lanthimos are in competition, but don’t overlook Rick Alverson. The “Entertainment” and “The Comedy” writer-director makes his Lido debut with the help of Jeff Goldblum, Tye Sheridan, Denis Lavant, Hannah Gross, and Udo Kier in what’s sure to be another darkly comic subversion of narrative norms — not least because this one’s about a lobotomist. Goldblum plays the doctor in question, with Sheridan as a teenager who seeks him out after losing his mother. Something tells us this one won’t adhere to the Hippocratic Oath.
“Nuestro Tiempo” (Competition)
Love him or hate him, Carlos Reygadas remains resolutely himself. The Mexican auteur, who won Best Director laurels at Cannes for “Post Tenebras Lux” six years ago, returns with another patience-testing drama (173 minutes!) that’s again likely to divide critical reception. So why be excited? Anyone who’s seen more than one Reygadas film has likely made up their mind about him by now, but his imperfect films ruminate on the meaning of family in a way that few others do — and if his latest (English title: “Our Time”) produces anything half as beautiful as the opening sequence of “Post Tenebras Lux,” it’ll all be worth it.
“Process” (Out of Competition)
Long a favorite among diehard cinephiles and festivals, Sergei Loznitsa still remains underrated. Three months after “Donbass” won him the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Director at Cannes, the Ukrainian auteur returns to the festival circuit with a documentary about a farce of a trial that took place at Stalin’s direction in Moscow in 1930. Loznitsa, who also directed nonfiction accounts of the Holocaust and the recent civil unrest in his home country, has said that he intends his latest to show “24 frames of lies” per second — hardly the recipe for a breezy jaunt, but Loznitsa’s track record suggests “Process” could be quietly essential.
“Three Adventures of Brooke” (Giornate)
Yuan Qing’s debut feature sounds like a cross between Éric Rohmer and Hong Sang-soo, with its narrative split into its heroine’s three small journeys. Set in a small Malaysian town and apparently featuring the natural phenomenon known as “Blue Tears,” “Three Adventures of Brooke” sounds like a trip worth taking.
“Vox Lux” (Competition)
Venice Film Festival
This one’s sure to have some hype due to Natalie Portman’s presence, but don’t sleep on writer-director Brady Corbet. The actor-turned-filmmaker made one of the most memorable behind-the-camera debuts in recent memory with “The Childhood of a Leader,” which picked up two prizes upon its Venice debut three years ago; this time, he’s looking at a pop star rather than an authoritarian-in-training, though his sophomore effort will likewise offer glimpses of more than one period in its heroine’s life. In addition to a supporting cast led by Jude Law, Stacy Martin, and Jennifer Ehle, the music itself is reason to get excited: Scott Walker is scoring “Vox Lux” and Sia provided original songs, their contrasting styles should prove highly memorable. Notably, “Vox Lux” still doesn’t have a distributor.
“Zan (Killing)” (Competition)
“Silence” actor Shinya Tsukamoto directed this period piece, which concerns the plight of impoverished samurai in 19th-century Japan. Like all great samurai pictures, it follows a wandering ronin, one of those masterless swordsmen longing for the days of yore, when tradition still ruled the land. “Killing” isn’t Tsukamoto’s first time tackling this kind of material, as he previously directed “Nobi;” he wrote that the idea of his latest came from pondering the idea of “a young ronin who stares at his sword with ardor.” Many great films have been born of less.