Baykali Ganambarr, Best Young Actor in Venice.
Venice and Toronto, the two great film festivals that unofficially kick off the awards season, have delivered a swag of prizewinners that should sail through to the Oscars. There were also some highly anticipated films that fell flat, as well as those oddities that hardened festival buffs will remember for decades to come.
But the biggest news – aside from Indigenous actor Baykali Ganambarr’s Best Young Actor win at Venice for his role Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale – is that the crumbling old edifice of the Venice Film Festival, written off as recently as three years ago as so sadly declined it might soon sink into the nearest canal, is absolutely back.
Toronto may have bulk (350 premieres, which makes an overall assessment of the festival impossible) but Venice has elegance, history and, as of now, a programme of quality that still allows time for discussion over dinner.
Last year, Guillermo del Toro premiered The Shape of Water in Venice and it won the Golden Lion before going on to claim many more prizes all the way to the Oscars, where it won Best Film. This year, the world’s oldest film festival had an embarrassment of riches, described by festival director Alberto Barbera as “a once-in-a-decade line-up”.
Alfonso Cuaron with his Golden Lion Best Film award for Roma, in Venice.
This year's winner, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (refused by Cannes because it was made for Netflix), was a beautiful story of the growing bond between a middle-class Mexican mother and her indigenous maid: two women betrayed, in different ways, by men. The jury, headed by del Toro, was applauded for its choice.
Olivia Colman at Venice Film Festival.
Any of the runners could have justifiably won, however. Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, a modern Gallic take on the western with Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly as a pair of contract killers, was nigh on perfect. Olivia Colman’s best actress performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite – in which director Yorgos Lanthimos’ surreal wit brings out both the absurdity and venom of wealth and power – is probably the best character creation this year.
Tilda Swinton plays both an ambivalently wicked witch and a bearded psychiatrist.
Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, with Natalie Portman as a Madonna-like diva, was a wild conception that, while perhaps not entirely realised, reached for the stars with brazen courage. The same could be said of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, a reconception of the Dario Argento horror B-classic, with the director’s muse Tilda Swinton playing both an ambivalently wicked witch and a bearded psychiatrist.
Of the disappointments, the most notable was Mike Leigh’s stodgy account of a massacre of democracy demonstrators in 1819, Peterloo; with every possible historic personage given a walk-on part for luck, it was like watching a waxworks come to life. Among the oddities, mention should go to The Mountain, a '50s road movie by cultish young American director Rick Alverson with Tye Sheridan falling into the hands of Jeff Goldblum as a thinly disguised version of Walter Freeman, the surgeon who popularised the lobotomy; the film itself descends into a kind of madness.
Steve Carell in Toronto.
Swinging over the Atlantic to Toronto, the standout films included Felix van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, with Steve Carell playing the agonised father of a meth-addicted Timothee Chalamet (screenplay by Australian writer Luke Davies), and Paolo Sorrentino’s meticulous dismantling of Silvio Berlusconi in Loro, starring the matchless Toni Servillo.
The film everyone had been waiting to see since Cannes … was no more than a glittering muddle.
But the film everyone had been waiting to see since Cannes – Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s first English-language film, The Death and Life of John F Donovan, starring Game of Thrones' Kit Harington as a disillusioned star who corresponds with a small boy – was no more than a glittering muddle.
Still, the balls kept coming over the net. Michael Moore lashed out at Trump, Hillary Clinton and even Obama in his disorganised but rousing Fahrenheit 11/9; Steve McQueen’s take on Lynda La Plante’s Widows, one of two major films featuring Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, included some literally explosive set pieces but sagged where a heist movie should be taut.
Elizabeth Debicki in Toronto.
If Beale Street Could Talk, the new film from Barry Jenkins adapted from James Baldwin’s novel, was probably the festival's most anticipated film apart from Dolan’s. The story of a young man falsely accused of rape certainly retains its urgency, but it didn’t engage the senses in the way Jenkins’ exquisite Oscar-winner Moonlight did.
In true Canadian spirit, the main festival prize is voted by the audience; it went to Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, in which Viggo Mortensen gives a kinetic performance as a Bronx bouncer driving a gay African-American pianist (Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali) on a tour of the segregated South in the '50s. Expect to see this good-hearted film up for best picture in February.
Nicole Kidman in Toronto.
Another likely contender is Sebastian Lelio’s English-language remake of his own Gloria, this time featuring Julianne Moore as the frisky middle-aged divorcee. Destroyer, with Nicole Kidman almost unrecognisable as a drunken detective bearing a truckload of guilt for a failed job, should vie with Gloria for a best-actress nomination.
Several Australian films took a bow in Toronto. Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai, with Dev Patel as a waiter helping protect guests at the Taj during the real-life 2008 terrorist attacks, combined a cracking pace with a sense of political proportion; nothing could better illustrate the class chasms in India than the culture of a luxury hotel.
The much smaller Emu Runner, directed by Imogen Thomas with the Brewarrina community in northern New South Wales, dealt charmingly with a child’s bereavement; Nekrotronic, directed by Sydney brothers Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner, was a variant on the zombie theme in which a monstrous demon (Monica Bellucci) seeks power by sucking people’s souls through their phones. One strictly for the gamers, I’d say.
Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, who won the Special Jury Prize in Venice for ‘The Nightingale’.
Benjamin Gilmour’s war-guilt drama Jirga, which screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival and opens in cinemas later this month, was also selected. And while it was actually an American film, there should be a nod here to Aussie Joel Edgerton’s drama Boy Erased, with Kidman again as a mother from the Christian right who condemns her son to a gay conversion camp.
One area in which Toronto excelled – and Venice definitely did not – was in its support of women filmmakers. Venice had precisely one film directed by a woman in competition (Kent’s The Nightingale) compared to a third at Toronto as well as a festival-backed rally for women filmmakers. In such a full programme, however, it's difficult for anything to achieve prominence from a standing start; there are just too many big names clamouring for attention.
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