My Favorite Films of the 75th Venice Film Festival - First Man Scruggs
by Alex Billington
September 20, 2018
Give your soul to the dance. Give your soul to the cinema. The fall movie season is well underway, kicking off with all the big film festivals - Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. I returned for my second year to Venice to attend the 75th Venice Film Festival and watched a total of 26 films in eight days before flying over to TIFF to catch a few more. The films I saw in Venice really stood out above the rest, better than almost every else from earlier this year (give or take other Sundance & Cannes films). This iconic festival is known as the very first film festival, and they have a legacy to live up to by bringing the best films from around the world every year. The fest is over, the awards have been handed out, but the films will still live on. To wrap up my coverage of Venice, here's my favorite films of the festival - those films that have remained on my mind.
Last year I wrote about how the Venice Film Festival stole my heart (after years of attending the Telluride Film Festival during the same weekend) - it's a wonderful cinephile festival and I'm happy to keep returning every August. Venice is an easy festival to navigate, with lovely cinemas. I never once had any problems with the projection or audio, everything was top notch and presented perfectly (always a relief). I didn't get to see every film playing at Venice this year, of course, but I tried to see as many as I could (my full list is at the bottom of this post). I caught Alfonso Cuarón's Roma at the very first screening, and I'm glad that it won the Golden Lion, but it's not one of my personal favorites. You can listen to even more discussion about Venice in this podcast episode recorded after the first weekend. It's time to get into my my Top 6 films from 2018:
The Nightingale - Directed by Jennifer Kent
Easily my favorite film (and really, the film which should've won the Golden Lion) of the 75th Venice Film Festival is Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale, the sole competition film directed by a woman in this year's line-up. I love this film for many reasons but mainly because it's genius, a perfectly constructed, ambitious, moving story of racism and sexism and abuse in Tasmania in the 1800s. It also features two of my favorite performances, two of the best performances of the year, by the two leads: Aisling Franciosi as Clare, and Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, her Aboriginal guide she befriends on her path towards revenge. Even the performance by Sam Claflin, who plays an evil, disgusting pig of a man, is impressive in how deep Claflin had to dig to play such a vile person. I will be raving about this film for the rest of this year, and into next year until it's officially released. Jennifer Kent is an extraordinary director, she rules. Read my full review.
Vox Lux - Directed by Brady Corbet
Step aside, A Star is Born, this is the best popstar film of the year. Vox Lux is a remarkably bold, confident, exciting feature film about how popstars really aren't making the world a better place. This is actor Brady Corbet's second feature film as a director, and he proves that he is certainly very talented and incredibly ambitious in making big, crazy, daring films that go against the grain. And it's because he has something to say, and he gives us a film that says this so viscerally, in such a shocking but awe-inspiring way. I loved it. All of it. The first half is great, but it keeps going strong all the way through to the grand finale, there's so much being said and so much we have to think about because it's easy to dismiss if you don't agree with it. Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy are stellar, and the film is worth seeing because it's an impressive work of cinema that shows us the other sides of the truth we don't want to believe in. Read my full review.
First Man - Directed by Damien Chazelle
That's one small step for man, one giant leap for Damien Chazelle. It should come as no surprised that I loved First Man, considering Chazelle's previous two films before this were in my Top 10 of the year. First Man is an exhilarating film, that is both intimate and thrilling, yet also expansive and endearing. We've seen plenty of films before about astronauts and the Apollo missions, but this one takes on a new approach and delivers an exceptional cinematic experience that we haven't quite had before. The intense sound design, the claustrophobic cinematography, and the understated performances all work in sync to present a film that is as nerve-wracking as the actual Apollo/Gemini missions, yet also as engaging and as poignant as Chazelle's past films. It's good to see him do something a bit different than before, yet still stick the landing, and still win over audiences young and old. That final Moon sequence is literally breathtaking. Read my full review.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Buster Scruggs! I actually prefer this western a bit more than other one from Venice this year, The Sisters Brothers, just because it's six stories in one and because it's the frickin' COEN BROTHERS. They know what they're doing! This ain't their first rodeo, that's for sure. And they knock this one out of the park. As entertaining as The Sisters Brothers is, this film has much more to say, in terms of criticizing society (and humans) and commenting on how we can be better or let ourselves drown in our own misery. I do believe all six stories are as strong as the other, even though some are a bit cut down, but they're all awesome to watch. Most of all - the quality of the filmmaking is top notch, and each one has that same superb quality, in terms of set design and costumes and acting. I keep thinking about these stories, and I can't wait for everyone else to experience them. And yes, I would kill to see more of Tim Blake Nelson as Scruggs. Read my full review.
Suspiria - Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Tremble tremble!! The witches are back… This might be a controversial choice as one of my favorite films of the fest, given how divisive the reactions have been so far, but I am still in awe of this film. Guadagnino's Suspiria is completely different from Dario Argento's original, in good ways and in bad ways. It's definitely not as scary or thrilling, it's not as colorful. But it has so much to offer in the way of layers upon layers of context and political/social commentary and filmmaking ingenuity. Maybe I just think Luca Guadagnino is pretty much one of the best filmmakers working now, and he knows how to design and film something so immersive, yet still artistic. The final climactic scene in this will inspire countless essays, but that's just one element. The rest of the film: the way it's shot, the grungy set design, the tiny nuances in every performance, all the little touches in the backgrounds, are all part of Guadagnino's ingenuity. It's an intensely compelling and gripping film in its own ways, and I love it for exactly what it is - not what it isn't. Read my full review.
The Favourite - Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
What an experience I've had with Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. I used to hate his films, now I love them (for many other critics, it seems to be the opposite). Maybe because he's experimenting with English-language scripts, yet still keeping his funkiness intact? I'm not sure. The Favourite is his most fun, playful film he's made so far. It's not as dark or frightening as his past work, it's much more humorous and absurd and broadly entertaining. The three main performances – Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, and Emma Stone as Abigail – are all exquisite and so much fun to watch. Each one brings their own quirks and weirdness to the table, and it makes for a much more convincing film to watch them all at their best. Oddly, this film has minimal depth and is mostly surface-level amusement, but it's magnificent in all the ways that really count. Another film that has stayed on my mind ever since. Read my full review.
Overall, I had a wonderful experience with all 26 films I saw at the Venice Film Festival this year. Even the films I didn't like, I'm glad I saw anyway. I really enjoyed the three-hour German film Never Look Away (aka Werk Ohne Autor) – even though it's a bit Hollywood schmaltzy, it's seriously moving and inspiring (especially for artists). The new Julian Schnabel film, At Eternity's Gate, on Vincent Van Gogh is good, but it didn't impress me that much. The performance by Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh is fine, but it's not as moving as expected, and there's some weird choices he makes with the cinematography that kept me at a distance. I also really enjoyed Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction, as a light-hearted comedy packed with meta references about writing and tweeting and creating meaningful art. Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is a wonderful film, but I didn't have much of an emotional connection, which is why it didn't make it on my favorites list.
As for the films I didn't like, Rick Alverson's The Mountain is boring and bland and doesn't have anything interesting to say. I hated the new Orson Welles film, The Other Side of the Wind, it's wasteful nonsense and misogynistic and a massive trainwreck. They should've left this alone and never tried to finish it, there's just no point - there's nothing clever or unique in it at all. I also hated Mike Leigh's Peterloo, one of the most boring films I've ever seen, and so extremely fake and overly-dramatic. It's pretty much a grade school history lesson somehow being praised as artistic cinema, but that's being too generous. Roberto Minervini's documentary about African-Americans titled What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? is an opportunistic, voyeur-esque outsider's look at America's troubles and it's so horrible. This felt like an Italian filmmaker getting aroused by the chance to catch police violence on camera. Ugh, so bad. Not everything at these festivals is good, but that's expected. I still have to take a chance and go watch all these films anyway.
You can find all our Venice 2018 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2018 Venice Film Festival, my second year back covering this legendary festival. I'll be back again next year.
Here's my final list of all the films I saw at the 2018 festival with initial reaction. Links go to reviews/tweets.
Alex's Venice 2018 Films:
1. First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle) - Loved It
2. The Mountain (dir. Rick Alverson) - Hated It
3. Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón) - Liked It
4. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) - Loved It
5. Non-Fiction [Doubles Vies] (dir. Olivier Assayas) - Liked It
6. The Other Side of the Wind (dir. Orson Welles) - Hated It
7. A Star is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper) - Liked It
8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen) - Loved It
9. Peterloo (dir. Mike Leigh) - Hated It
10. Aquarela (dir. Viktor Kossakovsky) - Just Okay
11. Suspiria (dir. Luca Guadagnino) - Loved It
12. Close Enemies [Frères Ennemis] (dir. David Oelhoffen) - Just Okay
13. Charlie Says (dir. Mary Harron) - Just Okay
14. What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? (dir. Roberto Minervini) - Hated It
15. The Sisters Brothers (dir. Jacques Audiard) - Liked It
16. Sunset (dir. László Nemes) - Liked It
17. At Eternity's Gate (dir. Julian Schnabel) - Liked It
18. Dragged Across Concrete (dir. S. Craig Zahler) - Just Okay
19. The Accused [Acusada] (dir. Gonzalo Tobal) - Liked It
20. Monrovia, Indiana (dir. Frederick Wiseman) - Just Okay
21. Never Look Away [Werk Ohne Autor] (dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) - Loved It
22. Vox Lux (dir. Brady Corbet) - Loved It
23. Our Time [Nuestro Tiempo] (dir. Carlos Reygadas) - Just Okay
24. American Dharma (dir. Errol Morris) - Hated It
25. 22 July (dir. Paul Greengrass) - Hated It
26. The Nightingale (dir. Jennifer Kent) - LOVED It