spotlightThe first few days of the Venice Film Festival offered up a series of starry U.S. titles as the long march into awards season officially kicked off last Wednesday. Two of the best received — Spotlight and Black Mass — hightailed it out of town after their world premieres, headed for Telluride where the reception was just as enthusiastic as it had been on the Lido, as my colleague Pete Hammond reports. But those movies were not in competition here, and with Hollywood now looking toward Toronto, the rest of this week will see the island particularly focused on contenders for the Golden Lion.

francofoniaThus far, among the highly praised competition films are Focus/Working Title’s transgender love story The Danish Girl, and Francofonia, an 87-minute drama/documentary/video art installation that defies linear description. Alexander Sokurov’s French-German-Dutch co-pro is subtitled “An Elegy For Europe,” and is partly a dramatized look at the efforts of two men to save precious artworks at the Louvre during the Nazi occupation of France. Reviews have been quite strong on the latest from the helmer who gives “art house filmmaker” a new meaning — Sokurov also directed 2002’s one-shot trip around the Hermitage Museum, Russian Ark. He won the Golden Lion in 2011 with Faust.

Tom Hooper Alicia Vikander Eddie RedmayneAs for The Danish Girl, that 10-minute standing ovation on Saturday energized the audience and the cadre of Universal and Working Title execs who held an intimate dinner for the cast and filmmakers following the screening. While there is a lot of attention on lead Eddie Redmayne, praise also has been heaped on Alicia Vikander, the increasingly rising star of A Royal Affair, Ex-Machina and the upcoming Burnt. The Danish Girl screens in Toronto on Saturday, meaning there could be some ornery travel decisions given that the Venice prizes will be handed out that same night local time.

A Bigger Splash Ralph FiennesOther titles making waves on the Lido include A Bigger Splash from I Am Love helmer Luca Guadagnino, who has been known to divide the opinions of his compatriots. On Sunday, he caught a few boos for a bit of farce at the end of the film which didn’t sit well with some of the Italian press. They found it offensive, particularly to Sicilians and the police. But Guadagnino countered it was his wink to Falstaff. The issue appears to be isolated and buzz overall is quite strong — especially for Ralph Fiennes in a wild turn as a manic/tragic record producer. Fox Searchlight has this dated for May 13 next year so it will be interesting to see if that changes after awards shake out on the Lido.

margueriteAlso pleasing crowds is Marguerite from French helmer Xavier Giannoli. This was the first domestic acquisition out of Venice when Cohen Media Group picked it up last week. It’s inspired by the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the wealthy opera singer wannabe who had a cringe-worthy voice and an entourage that couldn’t bring themselves to tell her. Catherine Frot’s lead turn is a charmer. This pic has a head start over Stephen Frears’ own take on Jenkins which stars Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant and is coming from Pathé.

beasts of no nation movieNetflix’s Beasts Of No Nation drew strong notices for Idris Elba’s turn as a warlord recruiting child soldiers in Africa, and I would keep an eye on Pablo Trapero’s The Clan, despite some mixed Lido notices. The Argentine hit about the famed and feared Puccio family is produced by el clanSpain’s Almodovar brothers as they specialize their El Deseo shingle on films from Argentina and the rest of the world. It’s a box office smash at home and is likely to be the Oscar entry from that country. The Secret In Their Eyes’ Guillermo Francella makes a rare departure from comedy here as the head of the family. This one is going to Toronto, too.

Among films yet to screen are Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion Anomalisa; Marco Bellocchio’s Blood Of My Blood; and Atom Egoyan’s Remember.

Jury Photocall - 72nd Venice Film FestivalThe jury, led by Alfonso Cuaron, and including Elizabeth Banks, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Diane Kruger and Pawel Pawlikowski, has Oscars, box office smashes and myriad festival prizes among them. But Venice juries are typically tough to read — Birdman hailed its last vaporetto with no major statues in hand last year and went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. While they will keep their leanings close to the vest until Saturday night, the panel does seem to be having a fine old time; I’ve spotted several of them out dancing till the wee hours and lunching together at their hotel in between screenings.

That’s one of the great things about Venice and its spot on the festival circuit. Most everyone is easygoing and accessible on this sunny island where attendees ride bikes along the shore to reach the main staging area and screening rooms. And, there’s time to really see movies as compared to other fests that make it a struggle. Although there’s some lamented overlap between Venice, Telluride and Toronto, it also makes for a certain amount of welcome breathing room for all, while still having the ability to launch major works.