My Favorite Films of the 76th Venice Film Festival - In Love, In Space
by Alex Billington
September 11, 2019
"When I met you, it was like, you weren't scared of anything." The fall festival season has begun! What are the best of the films I've seen so far? While the Toronto Film Festival is still underway, the 2019 Venice Film Festival has wrapped up. All the big awards were handed out over the weekend (and Joker won the Golden Lion!) and things are settling down after 11 days of excitement. To recap my experiences watching 25 films at the festival this year, below I present my list of my Top 5 Favorite Films from the 76th Venice Film Festival. These are my favorite films, not necessarily the best ones at the 2019 festival, but the films that I enjoyed the most - for various reasons. As always, I can't see everything at the festival, and not everyone will enjoy the same films, but I'm happy to report that most of my colleagues felt the same way about these five.
This is my third year attending the Venice Film Festival, after many years in Telluride. I would love to go to both festivals, but Venice has my heart at the moment. Riding the boats every day, watching the sunset burn the sky with orange hues every evening, eating delicious Italian food whenever there is a free minute or two (I highly recommend Osteria Alla Staffa) is what makes it so memorable. The warm humid air of Venice in late summer, the buzz and electricity of the festival, the excitement as the lights go down and the projector starts up in the theater. It's all such an endearing part of the experience there, and I really love settling into this festival. You never know what you'll discover, what might take my breath away, what I'll end up hating, or what'll make me cry because it's so lovely. Without any further delay, here are my Top 5 films from 2019:
Marriage Story - Directed by Noah Baumbach
"She knows when to push me… and when to leave me alone." Pretty much a perfect film, and my favorite of the festival. It's the culmination of all that Noah Baumbach has made before, one of his finest films that is so brutally honest and so beautiful and so heartbreaking and yet still so joyful to watch. I love the way he frames it around this "what do I love about him/her?" letter and uses that as the basis to remind people that yes, you once did love this person you are now divorcing, and that is important to remember. And they do through hell, but there is love still there between them. There are a few transcendent scenes, mainly Adam Driver singing and the big fight moment midway through. Both scenes made me want to stand up and give it a round of applause right there in the theater. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both at their very best, both giving it their all and giving us well-rounded emotional performances that are truly worthy of all the acclaim and accolades they will be receiving. I really loved this film, and I've been waiting years for Baumbach to hit us with something as exceptional as The Squid and the Whale and this is finally it. Bravo.
Babyteeth - Directed by Shannon Murphy
Another one that exceeded my expectations, and that's hard when it's something I was already hoping to love. Babyteeth is an outstandingly fresh, intelligent, sensitive film dealing with a story we've seen before - a teenage girl with cancer. But instead of focusing on the disease and fighting it, the film is about her "first love" romance with a young troublemaker, a wild boy named Moses, played by Toby Wallace (who won an award). It balances levity and genuine humanity with fresh filmmaking. It's not exactly new, but the way it's presented is so compelling and all the characters are wonderfully complex, with one of the best soundtracks of songs at Venice (makes me want to dance!). Eliza Scanlen is stunning as Milla, and Ben Mendelsohn is at his very best in a long time (really). It's an emotional film that has a heart of gold, spending more time focusing on the joys of life than the things that make us sad. Just wait until you get a chance to see this one.
Ad Astra - Directed by James Gray
It should come as no surprise that I loved another space movie. But still, you never know (I did not much care for High Life). James Gray's big space adventure Ad Astra is well worth the wait. It's glorious. An awe-inspiring, magnificent journey through space - from Earth all the way out to Neptune. As a big time space geek, it ticks every last box (in terms of being scientifically accurate, showing how cold and lonely and vast space is, etc). A sensational movie that is as spectacular visually as it is thrilling. It's a stunning, meditative, contemplative voyage into deep space. Not as much of an action movie (despite a few scenes), much more of a ruminative look at the meaning of life. I love how it moves so smoothly - wasting no time taking us from planet to planet, going deeper and deeper. It doesn't end up the way I was hoping, but I still admire what Gray is trying to say with this movie - that love matters most and we have to solve our own problems. And the original score by classical master Max Richer is to die for, I just want to listen to it on repeat non-stop.
The Burnt Orange Heresy - Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi
The more I think about it, the more I love The Burnt Orange Heresy. The third act is bad and almost ruins the film, but the rest of it is built upon such compelling mystery and intrigue. I feel like every single line in the film might be deceptive, or a lie, you have to read between the lines to really figure out what's going on. And that's exactly what I love about it. I started squirming in my seat with sheer delight when the "Zima Blue" references began (please ask me more if you want to discuss this once you've seen it) and I think the film is a rather brilliant critique on art, art criticism, and the meaning of truth in a world that is fascinated by anything but the truth. The lead performances by Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki are good, enough to keep me captivated, but I wanted more time with Donald Sutherland than we get. I really can't wait to see the film again and dig deeper into the dialogue in a few particular scenes, to see if I can peel back the layers and understand what exactly is being conveyed. Don't write this one off, even with that awkward third act, I think it's a truly absorbing and mysterious film about the art world and about the mythology of artists.
The Kingmaker - Directed by Lauren Greenfield
"Perception is real, the truth is not." One of the scariest quotes from this film, spoken by Imelda Marcos, who blatantly hides her disgusting obsession with power pretending to be innocent and for-the-people. The Kingmaker is photographer / filmmaker Lauren Greenfield's elegantly crafted new documentary about the political dynasty in the Philippines. Yet another maddening look at how those with wealth & power will never give it up, coming up with new ways to maintain their dominant command of power. It's one of these films that just makes me so angry about how much wealth still rules the world and how they manipulate the masses so much (to be in their favor). And how they keep getting away with it. But I still really like the way this doc is put together, it has a more compelling narrative than Greenfield's other film Generation Wealth, but is just as fascinating to watch. There is something about it that goes beyond just telling "her story" to shine a light on all kinds of corruption and injustice, and how ruthless politicians are using deception and misinformation to (re)build their following nowadays. It's an important film for informed citizens to watch.
A few of my other top films this year include Katrin Gebbe's Pelican Blood (my full review), Todd Phillips' Joker (my full review), and Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat (my full review). Many of the other films here I found good, but not necessarily great, or were lacking something. Or just too tedious and drawn out. I absolutely hated the film No. 7 Cherry Lane made by Yonfan, I walked out after an hour - some of the worst animation I have ever seen, with some of the worst voice acting I have ever heard, most scenes involving the characters slowly describing whatever is happening. It is abysmal and not even worth thinking about beyond this brief mention. I also do think Ciro Guerra's Waiting for the Barbarians and Pietro Marcello's Martin Eden have many admirable traits, and I've enjoyed reading the positive reviews of both.
Overall, it seems as if this year was a bit weaker than the past few years. There's always highlights (the few I have mentioned above), and it sounds like there's a few other gems I missed in other sections (Golshifteh Farahani in Arab Blues, and the documentary The Mafia Is No Longer What It Used to Be, to name a few I've heard buzz about). But most of the films aside from these highlights didn't have much to offer, or came across as too artistically experimental to be enjoyable in any way. Of course, every festival takes a risk and tries to bring in the best film they can, and not all of them will be outstanding, but too many of them this year are forgettable. Some aren't even trying, others are trying too hard, many of them start with a good idea but end up throwing everything away by the end. But no matter what, I'm glad I could be there, and I'm glad I could watch all of these films. It's such warm and relaxed festival to experience world cinema's latest.
You can find all our Venice 2019 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2019 Venice Film Festival, my third year back covering this iconic film festival. Hopefully I will return again.
Here's my final list of all the films I saw at the 2019 festival with initial reaction. Links go direct to reviews.
Alex's Venice 2019 Films:
1. The Truth (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda) - Just Okay
2. Pelican Blood (dir. Katrin Gebbe) - Liked It
3. The Perfect Candidate (dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour) - Loved It
4. Ad Astra (dir. James Gray) - Loved It
5. Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach) - Loved It
6. The Kingmaker (dir. Lauren Greenfield) - Loved It
7. Seberg (dir. Benedict Andrews) - Hated It
8. Ema (dir. Pablo Larraín) - Liked It
9. Citizen K (dir. Alex Gibney) - Liked It
10. Joker (dir. Todd Phillips) - Loved It
11. American Skin (dir. Nate Parker) - Liked It
12. Wasp Network (dir. Olivier Assayas) - Hated It
13. Woman (dirs. Yann Arthus-Bertrand & Anastasia Mikova) - Liked It
14. The Laundromat (dir. Steven Soderbergh) - Loved It
15. 45 Seconds of Laughter (dir. Tim Robbins) - Liked It
16. The King (dir. David Michôd) - Liked It
17. Martin Eden (dir. Pietro Marcello) - Just Okay
18. About Endlessness (dir. Roy Andersson) - Just Okay
19. Guest of Honour (dir. Atom Egoyan) - Just Okay
20. Babyteeth (dir. Shannon Murphy) - Loved It
21. Saturday Fiction (dir. Lou Ye) - Just Okay
22. The Domain (dir. Tiago Guedes) - Hated It
23. Waiting for the Barbarians (dir. Ciro Guerra) - Liked It
24. The Burnt Orange Heresy (dir. Giuseppe Capotondi) - Loved It
25. Corpus Christi (dir. Jan Komasa) - Liked It