Alex's 8 Favorite Films at the Invigorating 2022 Venice Film Festival
by Alex Billington
September 22, 2022
Each year, I am honored to have a chance to return to the beautiful city of Venice in Northern Italy to attend the Venice Film Festival and catch the latest films premiering there. This year's festival is now finished, so it's time to present my picks of my favorite films from Venice 2022. This was my sixth year in a row back to Venice, I even stopped by back in 2020 during the pandemic as I didn't want to miss it. In total, I watched around 26 films at Venice this year, and while it wasn't the most memorable line-up despite some all-timers, I'm always glad to have the chance to watch all these films anyway. The fest kicked off with Noah Baumbach's latest, White Noise (watch the trailer) adapted from Don DeLillo's novel, which bites off more than it can chew though it's still an entertaining film. The festival runs for a full 10 days and I'm watching as much as I can while I'm there, though I can't see everything and I'm trying to avoid the worst films 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 the films as well, already published over the last few weeks. There's always more to talk about anyway: I did not really care for the Golden Lion winner, the doc All the Beauty and the Bloodshed - I found the dual narratives disparate resulting in a filmmaking clash that took away from the film's better story about activism. I enjoyed Paul Schrader's Master Gardener but it's more of the same from Schrader (full review here). I also enjoyed Luca Guadagnino's Bones and All, but it's not one of my favorites this year, something about it didn't really connect with me emotionally. And Iñárritu's Bardo (watch the trailer) is a fascinating, epic film that I'm glad I saw - but it didn't win me over. I'm always up for chatting about any of the films from the festival, even the ones I didn't like can be discussed in more depth.
Below are my Top 8 films from the 2022 Venice Film Festival; these are the films that I enjoyed the most, or those that I couldn't stop thinking about, and I hope everyone else gives them a look, too. My favorites:
TÁR - Directed by Todd Field
This is my #1 of the festival - the best of the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Todd Field's TÁR should've won the Golden Lion, it absolutely deserves it. An exhilarating, breathtaking, gorgeous film about an acclaimed conductor - but that's just the start. Cate Blanchett gives a "for the ages" towering performance as Lydia Tár, a woman obsessed with power and dominance and control, no longer worried about her creativity or humility. Blanchett deserves as much praise as Brendan Fraser in The Whale for one of the most shocking and exhilarating performances in any film this year. I think the question so many of us are wondering: how did Todd Field come back to make his first film in 16 years and it's THIS INCREDIBLE?! TÁR is a stunning film about the downfall of one woman who can't see how her own ego is destroying her. Unstoppable power hungry people must come crashing down one way or another, and we're lucky to be able to follow her on this ride. I hope everyone else picks up on all the nuances and tiny details in this that make it more than just a simple story - this film is Kubrick level deep and it's absolutely worthy of that comparison.
The Whale - Directed by Darren Aronofsky
This is one of Darren Aronofsky's best films. I can't stop thinking about it. Not just the story of Charlie, but all the things being said in it. There's commentary on religion, on writing, on relationships, on happiness. The Whale is another Aronofsky knock out – an emotional, heart-wrenching, deeply felt story told diligently by a master filmmaker who knows how to get the finest performances out of his actors. I was overwhelmed by emotions, wiping away tears for an hour after. Of course, everyone should be talking about Brendan Fraser and his monumental performance. It's the kind of phenomenal role that will be praised forever and ever. His emotion is so deep, so pure, so honest, that it's hard to even believe there's an actor hiding beneath all those prosthetics. I really hope that everyone who watches The Whale is moved by Fraser's performance, because this is the kind of compassion and understanding he wants people to nurture from this story. I also adore the passionate score by Rob Simonsen - will be adding the album to my collection once it's released.
Athena - Directed by Romain Gavras
A spectacular film in every possible way. The opening scene is a "how the hell did they do this?!" all-timer, and the rest of it is nerve-wracking brilliance. I love a good revolutionary film and this RULES. It's the first time in a while watching a film that I think "I have no fucking idea how the hell they shot this scene" I am just in awe. Over and over and over this kept happening, not just with the opening. Were all those fireworks real?! How did they get everyone in sync for each take?! How much of it is VFX - maybe none of it is?! This has mindblowing cinematography, nonstop intensity, with an incredible score, so much zeal & spirit packed into every frame. Can't wait it watch it again. I'm now a huge fan of Karim (!!), played by Sami Slimane, he's my favorite character in this film. Athena is a spectacular cinematic creation setting the bar for what talented filmmakers Romain Gavras & Ladj Ly can pull off working together to make an awesome film. It's a Netflix release, but if you have a chance to catch this theaters don't hesitate - just GO and have a blast.
Blonde - Directed by Andrew Dominik
Even if it's hard to watch because it's so brutal, this is one of the most artistic and creatively innovative films I've seen all year. Of course, I wouldn't expect anything less from Andrew Dominik and he has delivered another ambitious, bold, visually sumptuous film that is earning divisive reactions. I'm glad I stuck around until the end of the festival to watch this on the big screen at its world premiere - there's something dreamy and alluring about the style that makes it an especially unique big screen experience. The highlight of this film is Ana de Armas - her performance is impeccable, entirely convincing but also deeply emotional and powerful in her dual roles. She's playing both Norma Jeane and Marilyn Monroe, representing the duality of the life she lived. It's an extraordinary film that uses the power of cinema to question our own involvement in society's misogyny and leering, while also showing how we all still participate in the objectification of women. The cinematography from DP Chayse Irvin also deserves acclaim - it's dream-like and enchanting.
A Compassionate Spy - Directed by Steve James
What a story!! I really enjoyed watching this film - something about it makes it just so riveting to get caught up. It also features extensive recreations to show us the early days of Ted Hall while he was at university. We already know Steve James is a master documentary director, and this is another fascinating story in his filmmaking oeuvre. Ted Hall was an American scientist who got a job working at Los Alamos developing the atomic bomb - eventually giving details to the Russians very early on, all because he didn't think it was good that only America had this power/knowledge and no one else did (yet). This is a VERY timely story for today despite the fact that it's about something that happened almost 80 years ago. His compassion for the Russians, his understanding of world events and politics, his recognition of how dangerous America could be as an abusive world power, is all so apt and still meaningful today as much as it was during/after WWII. What a fascinating story that I'm glad is finally being told with such great care and concern by Steve James.
Nuclear - Directed by Oliver Stone
Who would've thought an Oliver Stone documentary about nuclear energy would end up one of my fest favorites? Don't worry, this isn't a PBS film, even though it is an educational doc. It is a seriously well-made, entertaining, engaging film. Stone's Nuclear is an informative and persuasive documentary film about the truth regarding nuclear power and how it's not actually something to fear. It is, also, the solution we need now in order to stop using fossil fuels (a major factor in the destruction of our planet / human health across the world) and hopefully save Earth while we can. Most of us don't think of nuclear power as it connects to climate change, and that is addressed in this film, but Stone wants to change the conversation. Today. While we still can make a difference. So let's start talking about it. One of the best segments in the film is the way Stone very simply shows how we've all been duped and swindled into believing this energy solution is bad, it's presented with such clarity that it makes me wonder what else we're being tricked into believing. I just hope this film actually changes people's minds and helps change the world - we really don't have much time.
Blue Jean - Directed by Georgia Oakley
Playing in the Directors' Fortnight ("Giornate degli Autori") sidebar at the festival this year, Blue Jean is a remarkably resonant and engaging film from the UK - written and directed by filmmaker Georgia Oakley. Another worthwhile discovery in one of the sections that usually doesn't get much attention, this one left an emotional impact on me for many reasons. The story follows a lesbian woman living in the 1980s working as a gym teacher. There's a few really wonderful scenes that will be hard to forget once you've seen them in the context of this story. Above all, the extraordinary performance by Rosy McEwen as Jean is the best part about this. She's transcendent! An exceptional talent! It's also just an empowering story of being confident in yourself and not letting anyone step on the person you are - F them. It's beautifully shot and it all flows nicely, never getting caught in any odd corners or going off the rails. Highly recommend watching this film.
A Man (Aru Otoko) - Directed by Kei Ishikawa
A sneaky surprise. I'm glad I caught this film - the mystery within and the reveal is so intriguing that I kept thinking about it for days after, mulling it over. It's an intricate, nuanced film that is all about identity - but with a twist as we will all approach this story with negative connotations, but that's the catch. There's more to think about than just that. From Japanese director Kei Ishikawa (Listen to the Universe, Arc), his new film A Man is such a smart, delicate, meticulously crafted Japanese thriller pondering identity and family. The film's revelation isn't a huge jaw-drop twist or anything, but it makes you think about how our identity works and whether or not it's truly possible to change it. The storytelling is clever and keeps you intrigued while watching. I dig the style and this has so many impressive shots in it from DP Ryuto Kondo. Along with a few strong performances based around subtle details in each of the characters. The old guy in the prison is a real highlight. Really glad I took the time to watch this one - a worthwhile Venice Film Festival discovery.
Recapping the entire festival, it was a solid year with a number of highlights but once again not the most memorable selection overall. By now I am used to this with Venice - there's always a handful of films that I wonder how they even ended up at this festival and why they're showing here at all. Venice programs such a wide variety of exciting cinema that of course they'll inevitably have a few duds in the mix. Not everything that is super artsy turns out good, and some filmmakers are obsessed with structure and story more than anything else. Outside of the Main Competition, there weren't a lot of impressive films - half of what Venice showed either seemed like political picks or red carpet picks, chosen because some big name celebrity will walk the red carpet at the premiere. The full set of films I saw during the festival is listed on my Letterboxd as part of my daily diary. Even watching a few bad films, I'm always happy to return to Venice. It's such invigorating and exciting place to be watching new films. I'm always so lucky to cover it as press every year.
And that's it for Venice 2022 (aka #Venezia79), wrapping up our updates from the fest. The documentary film titled All the Beauty and the Bloodshed directed by Laure Poitras won the Golden Lion - find the full list of 2022 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 again, one of the best festivals in the world. I'm always ready to spend more time in this iconic Italian city and dive head first into the world of cinema.