10 Highlights of the 76th Venice International Film Festival

The oldest film festival in the world has recently become the launching pad of serious awards contenders. From Gravity (2013) to A Star is Born (2018), the Venice Film Festival is a reliable place to assess the films we’ll all be talking very soo..

It didn’t go without controversy this year, with only two films directed by women and the inclusion of both Roman Polanski (convicted of statutory rape in 1977) and Nate Parker (charged but acquitted of rape) angering fans and critics alike. Polanski even won the Grand Jury Prize for An Officer and a Spy, despite the filmmaker’s absence in fear of being arrested and extradited back to the US.

Here are some of the highlights from one of the world’s oldest and greatest film gatherings…

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Marriage Story

Hailed as a career-best for Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories) and positioned as Netflix’s big 2020 Academy Award hope, Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as an arty couple going through a divorce. He’s an avant-garde theatre director, she’s a former teen movie starlet, and they’re blessed with an adorable young son and the perfect Brooklyn boho life… until their marriage slowly starts to unravel.

Playing out like a hipster Kramer Vs Kramer (1979), the couple has to decide if their son stays with his father in New York or moves to California where his mother works on a science fiction TV show. Filled with angsty monologues, extended courtroom scenes, and sharp one-liners, expect nominations for both Johansson and Driver. The ensemble cast includes Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta.

Released: 15 November 2019 (UK) & 6 December 2019 (Netflix).

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waiting for the barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians

Colombian director Ciro Guerra (Birds of Passage) adapts J.M Coetzee’s 1980 novel of the same name, which tells the story of a magistrate presiding over an unidentified colonial outpost in the middle of the desert. The Nobel laureate adapts his original novel for Guerra’s English language debut. Played by Mark Rylance, his relatively easy life is ruined by the arrival of state security officers, led by Johnny Depp and featuring Robert Pattinson. The officers have arrived to investigate the possibility of an attack by indigenous forces and capture the so-called barbarians.

Rylance’s magistrate is left to deal with the fallout of the vicious war crimes and falls for an abused, semi-blinded indigenous woman (Gana Bayarsaikhan), finding himself torn between freeing her and owning her. This film promises to be as provocative, complex and emotional as the bestselling novel.

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seberg

Seberg

French actress Jean Seberg packed a lot into her 40 years. She made some of the most iconic films of the 20th-century (Breathless, Saint Joa, Bonjour Tristesse), had three husbands, two kids, then got blacklisted and investigated by the FBI for donations to non-white groups, before her probable suicide in 1979. Seberg was forced out of Hollywood for supporting the NAACP and using her fortune to buy uniforms for Native American school kids.

Kristen Stewart brings the American actress to life in this political thriller that focuses on the FBI inquiry into her connection with activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie).  Margaret Qualley, Jack O’Connell, and Vince Vaughn round out the cast but it’s Stewart’s performance that makes the biggest impact.

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the truth

The Truth

After winning the Palme d’Or for Shoplifters, Kore-eda Hirokazu immediately dived into The Truth. Based on a 15-year-old unproduced play by Kore-eda, The Truth stars Juliette Binoche as a woman returning to Paris after her famous actress mother (Catherine Deneuve, essentially playing herself) publishes a controversial memoir. Deneuve’s Fabrienne’s memoir paints her as a beloved and committed mother but Binoche’s Lumir remembers her childhood very differently, where work, art and the dogs had priority over her daughter. The now New York-based screenwriter returns home with her jobbing television actor husband (Ethan Hawke) to discover the truth.

Deneuve and Binoche deliver wistfully comical performance as a mother-daughter duo in a film that understands families are complex and old feuds rarely die.

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The King

Netflix’s third entry into the Venice Film Festival (alongside Marriage Story and The Laundromat) is directed by David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) and is loosely adapted on Shakespeare’s Henry plays. Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) plays a young Prince Hal who is on his way to becoming one of the most famous kings in British history, Henry V.

Resentful of his father and frustrated by his royal obligations, Hal shuns his duties in favour of a party lifestyle until he finds himself prematurely sat on the throne. Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) is taunting the young king, forcing him to debate the merits of war with his loyal advisor (Joel Egerton who also co-writes). Chalamet continues to prove his Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me By Your Name wasn’t a fluke

Released: Selected UK cinemas and Netflix this autumn.

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Babyteeth

Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects) is a seriously ill teenager who falls in love with a small-time drug dealer (Toby Wallace), who’s seven years her senior, in Shannon Murphy’s feature-length debut. Her new boyfriend Moses soon burgles her parents (Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn) home and is prompted to stay for breakfast. By embracing bad parenting, they are doing the best for their daughter who is battling cancer, giving her the chance to live a little in the short time she has on Earth. Toby Wallace was awarded the ‘Marcello Mastroianni Award’ for ‘Best Young Actor or Actress’ at the festival for his portrayal of Moses.

One of the two films directed by women showing at the film, Babyteeth has all the ingredients of a cult indie dramedy. It perfectly mixes the comedy of a 23-year-old junkie dating a 16-year-old middle-class girl and the drama of a family dealing with cancer.

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Wasp Network

Olivier Assayas follows up last year’s Non-Fiction with Wasp Network, inspired by a true story about a network of exiles who targeted communist Cubas in the 1990s. This deep-cover cabal of American state-funded spies operated out of Florida and was tasked with infiltrating American anti-Castro groups.

Edgar Ramírez plays René González who flees Cuba’s poverty for the art deco luxury of Florida. There he meets other exiles; Hernández (Gael García Bernal) and the gangster Roque (Wagner Moura). This is all whilst González’ wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) is left to fester in Havana, believing her husband to be a traitor.

Wasp Network understands the shift the followed the cold war, when the illegal trade in narcotics self-destructed and the likes of Hernández had been on foreign soil for so long, they have forgotten whose side they are on.

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Ad Astra

James Gray (Lost City of Z) offers an ambitious science-fiction drama starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. Frustrating delayed twice and threatened by the Disney-Fox merger, Ad Astra’s journey to the big screen hasn’t been a smooth one.

Set in the near future, Pitt plays Roy McBride who slowly is isolating himself from humanity and his wife (Liv Tyler). Roy works at International Space Antenna and is involved in a major incident that causes life-threatening electrical storms. This surge is linked to Roy’s father (Jones), who disappeared 16-years ago whilst trying to prove the existence of aliens. McBride sets out on a journey to find his father and uncover the secrets of the universe.

Ad Astra offers a depressingly realistic vision of space travel and the commercialization of intergalactic exploration. The cast also includes Donald Glover, Ruth Negga and Natasha Lyonne.

Released: 20 September 2019 (UK).

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About Endlessness

Droll Swedish director Roy Andersson has consistently committed to delivering a unique brand of tragicomedy and About Endlessness is no different. The Swede won Venice’s 2014 Golden Lion award for A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, and About Endlessness scooped up this year’s Silver Lion for ‘Best Direction’.

The film is dryly narrated by a young girl who speaks from an unknown future, with the narrative zipping through segments that deal with absurdity, loss, and history. All the characters sit in drab offices, stale train stations, and grey cafes, dealing with the silly banalities that keep us chugging through life. A man’s car breaks down, a dentist stares glumly into the bottle of a glass and a married priest is having a crisis of faith.

This Samuel Beckett-esque selection of elaborate vignettes won’t be for everyone but they will certainly stop and make you think about one’s own personal apocalypses.

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Joker

Not even released in cinemas yet and Joker is one of the most talked-about films of 2019. A gritty superhero drama by the guy who made the Hangover trilogy (Todd Phillips), starring Joaquin Phoenix, was always going to cause a ripple. Hailed by some as the best superhero of all time, but criticised by others for being a dangerous rallying cry for incel killers, this DC film is certainly going to be talked about straight through to award season.

In 1981, the rich are getting rich and the poor and getting poorer in Gotham City.  Troubled professional clown and wannabe stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck is one of life’s victims. He’s abused, mocked, and beaten on an almost daily basis, struggling to engage with his surroundings. There’s no CGI, no Batman, and no costumes… just a homicidal narcissist who’s sick of the world treating him like a punchline to their joke. Frances Conroy, Robert Deniro and Zazie Beetz also star.

Todd Phillips’ Joker took home the festival’s biggest prize, the Golden Lion for ‘Best Film’, so expect to see Phoenix nominated come awards season.

Released: 4 October 2019 (UK & US).

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