Best of the Fest - 6 Favorite Films from the 2021 Venice Film Festival
by Alex Billington
September 22, 2021
Each year, I am incredibly lucky and privileged to return to the spectacular city of Venice in Italy to attend the Venice Film Festival and catch the latest films premiering there. Venice is over and looking back at the line-up, it's time to present my quick picks of my favorite films from Venice 2021. This was my fifth year in a row back to Venice, I even stopped by last year during the pandemic, and I spent every single day at screenings all day. They always show two new films in the morning, along with lots of other screenings in the evening to catch. In total, I watched 28 films at Venice this year, and while it wasn't the best selection, I'm always glad to have the chance to watch them anyway. The fest kicked off with Pedro Almodóvar's latest, Parallel Mothers (watch the trailer), which I didn't care much for. Then continued on for another 10 days, and I was there right up until the end. You probably already know what I flipped for, but let's recap anyway.
As always, I keep my Letterboxd page updated with screenings and comments daily. And I have also been posting thoughts, photos, and more updates on my main Twitter account @firstshowing during the fest. And I've been writing reviews for a number of films as well, already published during the fest. I was also a guest on the Turkish TV channel TRT World to discuss the festival and a look back at the films. There are so many other films I want to talk about at some point, including two interesting documentaries (both flawed but still entertaining to watch): Django & Django, a look back at the movies of Italian spaghetti western director Sergio Corbucci, featuring Quentin Tarantino talking about him; and Ennio: The Maestro about legendary composer Ennio Morricone, which runs almost 3 hours and includes endless fascinating stories. But I'll save these for another day, as there's always so much more to talk about with all of the festival films.
Below are my Top 6 films from the 2021 Venice Film Festival; these are the films that I enjoyed the most, or left the greatest impact on me at the fest, and I hope everyone else appreciates them as well. My favorites:
The Power of the Dog - Directed by Jane Campion
For the record - The Power of the Dog is my Golden Lion winner this year. It should've won, I really think Jane Campion deserved it. And I really think The Power of the Dog is one of the best films of the festival, not only an engrossing story about toxic masculinity and male fragility, but an achievement as a film in the way of cinematography and performances and score and everything else about it. It's a complex film about how everyone has a dark side that they don't really know how to deal with, and how this toxicity can spread to others and make everyone struggle even more. Some of THE best shots I've seen in any film this year, they're so good they may end up on best of the decade lists. The more I think about this, the more I analyze it, the more I find in here and the more I appreciation the filmmaking. The score by Jonny Greenwood and the cinematography by DP Ari Wegner are to die for. Benedict Cumberbatch at his best playing a character that I wasn't sure he could play at first, but by the end I was ready to give him a standing ovation.
Dune - Directed by Denis Villeneuve
As odd as it may seem that the year's biggest Hollywood blockbuster is playing at a prestigious film festival, it definitely deserved to be there. No question. Dune is THE movie event of the year! And I'm so glad I had the chance to watch it in Venice, in my favorite venue, sitting in the best seat in the house. With the volume ALL the way up. Denis Villeneuve knocked this out of the park, it's a grand slam. It was a breathtaking experience watching this in Venice, with the floors shaking thanks to Hans Zimmer's incredible score and the epic sound design of the sci-fi action movie. As everyone knows, Dune is near impossible to adapt from a book into a movie. After all these years, Villeneuve has finally done the impossible. This movie is as grand and magnificent as the original book demands, and it feels like we're actually being introduced to a real galaxy full of different civilizations. All of them ruled by the spice of Arrakis. The chills I had and hold-your-breath moments I experienced watching this reminded me of watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's a worthy comparison, and I can't wait for Villeneuve to move onward and bring us Part Two sooner than later.
The Lost Daughter - Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal
I still can't believe this is the first film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised after all her acting work with talented directors. It's a film that understands the language of cinema and how to capture distinct voices in ways that only experienced filmmakers know how. But that's exactly why this film was so invigorating to discover, one of my favorites out of everything I saw during the festival. The Lost Daughter is an unsettling, honest exploration of bad parents - not just one, but two of them on a vacation in Greece. One of the most intelligent films I've ever encountered. A remarkably deep story that's challenging in many ways, built around a complex set of women - led by the always-astounding Olivia Colman, along with Jessie Buckley and Dakota Johnson. I adore the music in the film by Dickon Hinchliffe, another score that fits just perfectly. I hope others will see how powerful it is to tear through taboos and challenge us with honesty and authenticity. It's rare we get a film that is this intellectual and this captivating all at once.
Spencer - Directed by Pablo Larraín
Oh my sweet, sweet soufflé d'abricot, I LOVED this. Kristen Stewart at the best she has ever been. Pablo Larrain's Spencer is an extraordinary "fuck you" to the Royal Family and that is half the reason I loved it. A ravishing, exhilarating story about a woman who can't breathe, realizing she needs to break free from the royal shackles. I cackled, I smirked, I applauded loudly. Maybe even cheered a bit. The script is glorious and just so damn delicious. All the food! All the visual metaphors! I couldn't bear the dread, ohhhh the DREAD. You can feel it in every last frame, knowing what's coming to her years later, it's impossible to ignore that impending fate. And the score, my god that SCORE by Jonny Greenwood! It could not be more different than his score for The Power of the Dog, but it's just as unforgettable and delectable. It's another film where everything is on-the-nose obvious, which might bother some, but not me. I enjoyed every last second of this.
Full Time (À Plein Temps) - Directed by Eric Gravel
This is the best French film I've watched all year so far. An energetic, gripping tale of a woman struggling to maintain her life in a fast-paced modern world where everything relies on the trains departing on time. Full Time won numerous awards in Venice, and deservedly so - the performance by Laure Calamy as Julie is extraordinary. She is a single mother trying her best to care for her two kids and get to her intensive job in Paris, even though she lives far away in a small village. Just when she's about to get her break with a great job opportunity, strikes shut down public transportation, and she's forced to figure out any path possible to get there and back. I love the electro-heavy score by Irène Drésel, it's exactly the kind of modern score that fits in with a modern film like this. And I just love how engaging the film is taking us on this journey as we follow Julie trying to live her life. The entire film I could seriously feel all the tension and all the stress she's trying to manage, and I just wanted her to get home and finally get some relief. What a fantastic film.
Sundown - Directed by Michel Franco
Another peculiar film that was a complete surprise at the festival. Even the synopsis didn't even hint at what the film is really about. I was taken aback by this film right away at the screening in Venice, but it has been growing on me more and more as I think about it. I've also noticed that a lot of other critics don't seem to understand what's going on in this film, especially with Tim Roth's understated yet superb performance. He's an emotionless, careless frump in this because that's part of the performance, and discovering why he feels this way and how there's so much guilt that was wiped him out, is part of the experience of watching this film. Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco continues to make confounding films that mess with my head, and make me think about perspectives and questions I've never considered before. It's complex, challenging cinema at its best – even if it is a (seemingly) simple story of one man who doesn't want to leave Acapulco.
Overall, this was a strong year in Venice though not exactly the most memorable. All of the best films at the festival premiered in the first five days, after that it was a bunch of mediocre and strange picks. I couldn't stand the Italian film Freaks Out, a miserable WWII superpowers action fest filled with awful cliches that runs an hour longer than it should have. And it was playing in the main competition?! Why? It doesn't make any sense. But to kick off the festival in the first few days with Spencer and Dune and The Lost Daughter and The Power of the Dog was more than satisfying, and kept me happy the rest of the festival anyway. The full set of films I saw during the festival is listed on my Letterboxd as part of my daily diary. Venice, even with some management issues or a mediocre line-up, is still one of the finest film festivals in the world. It's such warm and relaxed place to experience world cinema. I'm always so lucky to cover it as press every year.
And that's it for Venice 2021 (aka #Venezia78), wrapping up our updates from the festival. The French film titled Happening (L'événement) directed by Audrey Diwan won the Golden Lion - find the full list of 2021 awards winners here. My coverage wraps up with this list of favorites and thoughts on the films this year. I'm very much looking forward to returning to Venice next year, it's one of my favorite fests in the fall and I'm always so happy to return to this beautiful city and catch up with new films from around the world.