Venice: Fest Drawing To A Close; Soaring Open, Damp Middle & Some Standouts

The shindig on the Lido that is the Venice Film Festival draws to a close tonight after 11 days of films, stars, sun – and a lot of uncharacteristic rain. The weather put a damper on the proceedings which were a little less glitzy than in the past couple of years, and some films fell flat. But, there were a handful of breakout movies that are likely to figure in awards season as it kicks into gear.

As it did last year, the festival got underway with a smash. In 2013, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity began its stellar trajectory after opening the festival out of competition. This year, Cuaron’s pal Alejandro G Inarritu’s Birdman soared in its debut with raves pretty much across the board. I asked Inarritu afterwards if we could expect a movie from his and Cuaron’s amigo, Guillermo del Toro, to do opening honors next year. “Yes!” he laughed, “It’s the Mexican cartel taking over Venice!” He was joking of course, but it’s true that the past two openings have packed a punch – and shared extraordinary camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki.

Because Birdman was in competition, the Fox Searchlight/New Regency movie that stars Michael Keaton in a bravura performance has a shot at prizes tonight. On the fest’s critics’ poll, it’s the second highest rated, nipping at the heels of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look Of Silence (more than half the films on the poll failed to score three stars). The follow-up to Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing is a documentary in what is the second year that non-fiction films have been eligible to compete. It would not be without precedent to see it score a major win here – the Golden Lion went to documentary Sacro Gra last year.

The Look Of Silence was one of the only pictures to have a domestic deal closed — or at least announced — during Venice with Drafthouse and Participant teaming to acquire it. Not a lot of business gets done in Venice, although a concurrent film market has picked up steam for mostly European buyers in the past three years. There were very few domestic buyers on the ground here, a sign that the overlap with Telluride and Toronto is still felt. Venice is also an extremely expensive place to send a team. Most Hollywood folks stay at the top-rate Excelsior on the Lido, while some lay their heads at the Danieli on the mainland where a lot of the party action happens. There’s a vaporetto shuttle between the two that’s built into the room cost, but if you’ve got to hop one urgently, you’re looking at $100 and up, one-way. A publicist who handles a cross-section of indies also told me this week that many of the major international TV outlets were not in town leading this person to question the cost effectiveness of trying to drum up traction here.

Among other titles that did gain momentum were Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes which went on to a strong showing at Telluride and will also play Toronto where it’s expected to find a deal. Good Kill received a mixed reaction from festgoers, but Anglo critics were more bullish. Outside of the competition, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling features a buzzed-about performance by Al Pacino who was one of the biggest names on the Lido. Coming into Venice, the film had little advance word and Levinson told me after the gala screening, “People were shocked that it was so funny and dramatic and Al was so amazing. It was a great experience.”

Also in town were Owen Wilson and Kathryn Hahn for Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball throwback She’s Funny That Way. I hear some buyers were charmed by that one. And Joe Dante’s zombie romcom Burying The Ex was also a hit. By most accounts, those were the closest kind of feel-good movies to last year’s Philomena (although that film was in competition).

Alexandre Desplat, who scored Philomena, is president of the jury here this year which could portend a slightly more mainstream set of awards than Bernardo Bertolucci’s jury handed out in 2013. We’ll find out for sure in a couple of hours.

In the meantime, diehard festgoers will start packing up and board boats in the morning for the airport. Venice may not on the surface have seemed as jam-packed or buzzy as in recent years, but it’s still one of my favorite festivals. The organization is well handled, screenings are well-timed and almost never over-subscribed, and the geography is easily and quickly navigable (unless if, like me, you have one hand in a cast and can’t ride a bike down the Lido meaning everything takes a little longer). Even the passage in front of the main cinema where the red carpet events are held is never the massive zoo that the Palais and Croisette are in Cannes. Some gawkers do set up camp in front, while others mill about eating gelato at all times of day, and the festival rolls along.

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