From dark fantasy tales by Guillermo del Toro, to the flat out horrifying new film from the man behind Black Swan, this year’s Venice Film Festival lineup was as hot as ever.
Last August, the Venice Film Festival on Italy’s most art-filled island played host to some of the biggest movies that would come to define the year that followed. Everything from the Golden Globe-sweeping La La Land to films like Hacksaw Ridge, Jackie and Arrival all had their world premieres there.
Fast forward a year, and we have a whole new exciting line-up of awards friendly movies to gawk at. From lethal horror films to coming-of-age stories set on horseback, these are the five films from this year’s 74th Venice Film Festival that you’ll be hearing lots about in the months to come.
During the course of his decades-long career, Darren Aronofsky has been responsible for some of the most shocking, powerful and award-winning films that American cinema has ever seen.
But even from his humble roots, with movies like the drug parable Requiem for a Dream, through to his more recent efforts such as Black Swan and The Wrestler, he’s continued to be a singular director who showcases the human psyche brilliantly on screen.
His latest effort, mother!, is a film that sent some critics into rapturous applause and others booing in anger. Featuring Oscar royalty Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, it’s a terrifying and intelligent film that runs deeper than its plot line suggests.
It starts in a rural country home, when an unnamed couple have their peaceful existence interrupted as a man arrives at their door, claiming to be new in town and seeking a place to stay.
The husband – a poet desperate for a creative breakthrough following a long stint of writer’s block – welcomes him in. While the two of them get along well, the wife notices something strange. The next morning, the doctor’s wife invites herself over for an extended stay too.
An art film wearing a psycho-horror mask, mother! is an incendiary film that makes you feel like you’re living in a nightmare. Love it or hate it, you can’t knock Aronofsky’s ambition.
'Lean on Pete'
Much gentler but equally affecting, Lean on Pete is the latest film from independent British director Andrew Haigh.
Having tried his hand at complex love stories in the past (his first two features Weekend and 45 Years were celebrated for their portrayals of queer and aging relationships respectively), his latest effort brings together a stellar cast to showcase the value of family and kinship.
Set in the sun scorched American Midwest, it tells the story of 15-year-old Charley – a boy who’s spent most of his life following in the muddy, unambitious footsteps of his drunkard dad. When he settles in a town next to a horse racing track, his passion for the sport and the animals is reignited, leading him to join forces with trainer Del, played by an excellent Steve Buscemi, and jockey Bonnie, played by Kids’ star Chloe Sevigny, to look after Lean on Pete: an equine stooge whose ailing track record could lead to his slaughter if he doesn’t get his act together.
Films like Lean on Pete tend to be somewhat soulless and predictable; plucky, tearjerking stories of kids and their pets. But Andrew Haigh’s film hits something harder, and taps into the idea of being young, down-and-out and desperately seeking purpose in a place that seems hellbent on destroying you.
Sweet? Sure, but Lean on Pete puts you through enough dark life experiences to make you feel satisfied and smarter by the time the credits roll. Not only that – but its cool as hell, fashion-friendly lead star Charlie Plummer won the Best Young Actor prize at the festival’s award ceremony.
'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'
If you enjoyed the dark, Colin Farrell-starring caper In Bruges and its (admittedly weaker) follow up Seven Psychopaths, you’ll be glad to know that Martin McDonagh’s latest Oscar hot tip is practically perfect.
Winning the Screenplay award at this year’s festival, the mouthful titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a pointed, jet black drama-cum-comedy about redemption, murder and the ignorance of a corrupt, Red State police force.
Frances McDormand, who you might know best for her hysterical performance in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading and Fargo, plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother whose channeling her energy into making her town’s police chief do more in finding the man who raped and murdered her daughter.
In order to get the public’s attention, she invests every penny she has in renting out three billboards bearing these cutting words: “Raped while dying, and still no arrests…. how come, Chief Willoughby?” Her intentions are bold, and are making many people in the town uncomfortable, but Mildred doesn’t care.
She’s made a case shelved by the force for so long completely un-ignorable, and the bumbling bunch of cops don’t know what to do about it apart from try and tear her down.
It sounds bleak, and it often is, but as the story unfolds, we bear witness to a town full of cleverly developed characters who all have something intriguing to throw into the debate.
McDormand is undoubtedly the film’s beating heart, delivering some exquisite lines of biting dialogue that led the audience to erupt into rounds of applause.
She’s supported by a trio of fine actors who are either endearing or totally reprehensible, too: Lucas Hedges as her slightly ashamed son, Woody Harrelson as the pressured Willoughby, and Sam Rockwell as a brilliantly idiotic officer who has absolutely no idea what he’s doing.
'Racer and the Jailbird'
This might be a left-field choice for many critics, but there was definitely something about Belgian director Michael Roskam’s charmingly made and clever action romance Racer and the Jailbird that won us over.
Starring two of the hottest stars in Francophone cinema, Matthias Schoenaerts, who you may have seen in The Drop, and Adèle Exarchopoulos, the underused young star of the epic queer drama Blue is the Warmest Colour, it’s a wild descent into a world of organized crime, race car driving and, in the context of all of the madness, timid and strange phobias.
Premiering Out of Competition, the film follows its two leads, race car driver Bibi and car trader Gigi as they meet on a whim and fall swiftly in love. What Bibi doesn’t know is that her boyfriend’s occupation is simply a cover up: instead, he makes his money by robbing banks and thieving .
All it takes is one botched attempt for his criminal career to go pear-shaped, leading to a ten-year prison sentence that separates the two as they try desperately to stick together.
What’s brilliant is the way it switches up the idea of dominance in relationships, painting the male protagonist as a down-and-out criminal with a sort of pathetic fear of dogs while his girlfriend kills it in her own career.
The action and driving sequences are often breathtakingly well formed, and Schoenaerts is typically great. But it’s the awesome Exarchopoulos, delivering her best performance since her Palme d’Or winning breakout role in Blue is the Warmest Colour, who really steals the show.
Urgent, confidently made and, at times, batshit crazy, Racer and the Jailbird was certainly an outsider at Venice, but by god you definitely have a great time watching it.
'The Shape of Water'
Guillermo del Toro is one of those great filmmakers who manages to make beautiful arthouse cinema (Pan’s Labyrinth) and bombastic, blockbuster robot movies (Pacific Rim) with an equally deft hand.
His follow-up to the vampiric thriller Crimson Peak is an artistic meeting of the two: a big budget, steampunk fantasy with an inventive love story at its core.
Set in a 1960s American lab during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner stuck in a clockwork routine whose life is upended when she encounters a top secret creature that’s being experimented on.
It stands on two legs like a human, has gills, green scales and, like Elisa, doesn’t speak, but somehow the pair find themselves having much more in common than you may have expected. The film showcases the way their strange romance blossoms, and the intimidating officers that are hellbent on making sure their amphibian discovery isn’t seen by the wider world.
At a festival that has previously rewarded the work of auteurs unsung in the world of mainstream cinema (last year’s winner was a four hour long, black and white drama from Filipino director Lav Diaz), Guillermo del Toro winning the festival’s highest accolade, the Golden Lion, for a multiplex-friendly, fantasy love story might seem a bit strange.
But The Shape of Water is so immaculate; so touching; so creative, that you can’t help but root for its win here and the success it will undoubtedly have in future.
Next up, J.J. Abrams is set to write and direct Star Wars: Episode IX.