With this year’s diverse Toronto International Film Festival underway, and both the New York and London fests soon to follow, summer blockbuster malaise has given way — for critics, anyway — to the beginning of that months-long circus known as awards season. To get things rolling, here’s a look at 15 of the most buzzed-about titles to look out for from the just-wrapped Venice film festival — with the critics weighing in on new stuff from the likes of Miyazaki, Glazer, Gilliam, Cuarón and (yes, yet another) Coppola.
Though it screened out of competition, Alfonso Cuarón’s long-overdue return was met with arguably the loudest critical applause, and with the raves now extending to Toronto, the buzz on the Children of Men director’s tense space thriller Gravity is nearing fever pitch. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as astronauts cut adrift in the void after their shuttle is destroyed, with Cuarón delivering an experience that has thus far left critics breathless. When no less than James Cameron declares it “the best space film ever done,” you can consider the stakes effectively raised.
2. The Wind Rises
It goes without saying that a new Miyazaki will be at the top of any must-see list, but this time it’s all the more compelling — and terribly bittersweet — given the director’s shock announcement at Venice that The Wind Rises will be his final film. And this time he really, really means it. Miyazaki’s first feature since 2009’s Ponyo is a more personal, mature affair, continuing the director’s obsession with flight in its story of the designer of Japan’s WWII fighter planes. It’s already been an enormous hit in Miyazaki’s home nation, and reviews so far are strong. One can only hope he changes his mind about retiring. Again.
3. Night Moves
With Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt has been on a major roll — and it looks as though the director’s latest, the eco-action thriller Night Moves, is set to continue her critical winning streak. Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Saarsgard play environmentalists en route to demolish a dam, a premise that, by most accounts, has been elevated by the filmmaker’s trademark touch. Reichardt “takes this volatile story,” writes Xan Brooks in The Guardian, “and handles it with care and precision, as if transporting unstable nitroglycerin.”
4. Under the Skin
In what surely comprises some of the more inspired casting of late, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human form, wandering through Scotland in search of men to prey upon. If the pitch sounds like B-grade sci-fi, then director Jonathan Glazer — who hasn’t made a feature since 2004’s Birth — has by many accounts crafted a distinct original, with Film.com’s William Goss calling it a “surreal study of an outsider examining our world with a clinical fascination, driven by a cryptic purpose, more akin to David Bowie’s visitor in The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Under the Skin has proved otherwise divisive with Venice critics, however, which only makes it more exciting to see.
5. Tom at the Farm
Still just 24 and with four feature films to his name, French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan will be hearing the label “precocious” for some time to come — and with good reason. Last year’s epic, hyperstylized melodrama Laurence Anyways upped the director’s ambition and creative ante, and Tom at the Farm seems to have pared back the indulgence but not the talent. “A kinky queer noir detailing the dangers awaiting a gay Montreal hipster as he journeys to the homophobic heartland for his lover’s funeral,” writes Guy Lodge at Variety, “it’s an improbably exciting match of knife-edge storytelling and a florid vintage aesthetic.” Let’s hope the film gets a wider theatrical release in the US than Dolan’s last.
Since his “return to form” with this year’s well-reviewed Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green has found himself back in critics’ favor — and anticipation has been piqued for his latest effort, Joe. Nicolas Cage is apparently back on serious acting form as an ex-con who forms an unlikely friendship with a 15-year-old (Tye Sheridan, who won the young acting prize at Venice), and Green has made a dark, rural companion piece to to the more comedic Avalanche. Time‘s Richard Corliss says Cage’s performance “recalls why, before his megastardom, he was considered one of cinema’s most powerful and subtle actors.” It must be the beard.
For anyone who wanted to spend 90 minutes alone on a road trip with Bane, this is your movie. Eastern Promises writer Stephen Knight’s Locke is just that — a minimalist piece consisting of Tom Hardy traversing the English motorways while talking on his phone — and it is, at the very least, a feat of vocal prowess. “If you are asking an audience to listen to one man talking for an hour and a half,” offers Robbie Collin at The Telegraph, “you had better make sure he is worth listening to, and minute-by-minute, Hardy has you spellbound.” It’s comforting to know that Hardy’s voice will be comprehensible this time.
8. The Zero Theorem
A Terry Gilliam movie actually finding its way to the screen is such a rare event these days that even when the results seem mixed — and The Zero Theorem is reportedly in that category — they’re worth some curiosity. The veteran filmmaker’s first effort since the flawed-but-fascinating Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Theorem stars Christoph Waltz as a computer architect on the verge of solving the riddle of existence — or losing his mind. Gilliam has likened it to his 21st-century Brazil, which has been a problem for some: “At best,” claims Variety‘s Leslie Felperin, it “momentarily recalls the dystopian whimsy of the director’s best-loved effort.” Still, who knows when we’ll see his next movie?
9. Palo Alto
Not only does the Coppola family make fine wine, it just keeps cranking out the filmmakers — the latest being Gia Coppola, Francis’s granddaughter and Sofia’s niece. And if those aren’t industry connections enough, Coppola’s debut, Palo Alto, is based on a series of stories by James Franco, concerning the wayward lives of bored, affluent California teens. The usual charges of nepotism aside, plenty of encouraging notices have been forthcoming: writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy suggests it’s “the best feature film directed by someone named Coppola in a number of years.” It’ll be interesting to see how it measures against her aunt’s sublime teen-portrait debut, The Virgin Suicides.
10. Child of God
James Franco — yes, him again — takes a break from brokering world peace and wearing phallic noses to direct his 34th (okay, third) feature this year, and the word from Venice is positive. Having last tackled Faulkner, Franco adapts Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, a Tennessee-set story about a grieving young man descending into society’s murky moral fringe. At The Village Voice, Stephanie Zacharek likens Scott Haze’s Lester to “Denis Lavant’s sewer-dwelling troglodyte in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, only with about half the charisma.” Which, frankly, is still plenty more than most.
Steve Coogan shared the Best Screenplay award at Venice for his work on Philomena, which critics are mostly calling The Queen director Stephen Frears’s best work in some time. Comic Coogan plays it straight as a BBC journalist slumming on a human interest story about Judi Dench’s Philomena, a working class Londoner whose child was taken from her long ago. While it’s potentially middlebrow melodrama, plenty of critics have come away impressed with a film geared to please crowds. “It’s a terrifically moving film,” says Dave Calhoun at London’s Time Out, and “offers a healthy dose of cheekiness to counter the gloom.”
12. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
Fans of Japanese genre filmmaker Sion Sono — director of 2010’s cult fave Cold Fish — will no doubt be clamoring for Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, in which, as the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin handily summarizes, “two rival groups of gangsters agree to slaughter one another on camera for the benefit of a group of wannabe filmmakers, over a decade-long feud partly rooted in a toothpaste advert.” Such a typically demented premise will be enough to hook the faithful, though not all reviews have been enamored with the schlock and violence.
Then again, Sono’s genre splatter may well be family-friendly relative to the infamy of Ki-duk Kim’s worlds of twisted perversity. The South Korean auteur won the Golden Lion at Venice last year with Pieta, a cheery incest drama, and Moebius appears to be a variation on the theme. Still, audiences won’t be at a loss for provocation: “A gloriously off-the-charts study in perversity,” enthuses Variety‘s Leslie Felperin, “Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius is right inside the Korean king-of-wackitude’s wheelhouse of outrageous cinema.”
14. Stray Dogs
Graced with Venice’s Grand Jury prize, the latest from the acclaimed filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang will be high on the must-see list of every cinephile — or anyone, really, who wants to see an epic long-take of a man eating a cabbage his daughter had used for her doll’s makeshift head. “It takes no less than three shots and maybe two edits before you know — for absolute certain — that you’re in the close company of a master filmmaker,” raves David Jenkins at Little White Lies, while the Financial Times‘ Nigel Andrews says Stray Dogs‘ “poetry goes straight to the heart and solar plexus.”
Finally, a film that deserves special mention: William Friedkin’s 1977 thriller Sorcerer, which was screened, at long last in its director’s restored version, in honor of the New Hollywood veteran’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Friedkin’s too-oft overlooked remake of The Wages of Fear has been tangled up in release issues for years, but will finally see the light again in theaters, and on Blu-ray, in the near future. According to the filmmaker, it’s the “best print ever of Sorcerer.” It’s also a masterpiece, and should not be missed.