By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 7, 2012 at 4:10PM
The Venice Film Festival is done for another year. Actually, that's far from true: the festival doesn't wrap up til tomorrow, when top gong Golden Lion, and other prizes, will be awarded. And since we departed on Wednesday, a few more high-profile films have been unveiled, including Brillante Mendoza's "Thy Womb" (word on which is fairly middling), Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep" (which we hear is the actor/director's best since "Quiz Show," and Brian DePalma's "Passion" (thanks to Jamie Dunn for reviewing that for us on the Lido).
Although we can't say we've had much to compare it to, we've found the last two years in Venice to be a blast: going to work every day on a boat takes some beating, and we can't imagine that many festivals can compare with the faded glamor of this festival, or the diverse and exciting range of world premieres.
All that said, Alberto Barbera's first year (back) in charge could probably only be deemed a middling success. Last year saw us give three top grades (to "Wuthering Heights," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "Alps," but there were also some real disasters ("W.E." and "A Burning Hot Summer"). This time, the selection was deemed, not least by us, to be more or less down the middle -- few, if any, train wrecks, but also few films that truly knocked critics' or audiences' socks off. And that's something that's reflected in the list of complete reviews from Venice (from best to worst) that you can find below.
Still, there are bound to be teething problems when a festival gets a change of leadership, and there was something to like in even the most disappointing films we saw -- the performance of Riz Ahmed in festival opener "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," or those of Jason Bateman and Frank Grillo in "Disconnect." All in all, it was a thrilling and challenging week at the movies. You can read about our five favorites below, along with links to our complete coverage, ranked from best to worst, at the bottom.
For various reasons (mostly business), it took us a couple of days to get around to reviewing this Danish/Norwegian under-the-radar gem, which we basically walked into on a whim. So we were as surprised as anyone to realize, as we wrote it up, that "A Hijacking" had sneakily become our favorite film of the festival. A docudrama-style tale about the fictional capture of a Danish cargo freighter, and the months-long, drawn-out process to free its crew, director Tobias Lindholm (a recent collaborator of Thomas Vinterberg, and co-writer of cult TV series "Borgen") fails to sensationalize the material, or include anything that doesn't feel entirely truthful. Grippingly shot, beautifully acted and enormously powerful, it was the best surprise we've had all year.
When a director heads into the documentary world, it's tempting to think of it as a digression, a chance to stretch the legs and have a little fun before doing something more substantial. That's what we were expecting from Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell," anyway. What we got was the best film yet from the director of "Take This Waltz," a deeply personal mystery of a movie that straddles the boundary between documentary and autobiography, Polley movingly revealing a secret from her own family's past, one that, remarkably, stayed under wraps until the day of the first Venice screening. If you've managed to avoid it, we can't encourage you enough to keep it that way -- we saw it at the ideal time, when no one else knew of the film's secrets, and it'll reward you if you go in cold. One of the most widely adored films at both Venice and Telluride (where it was one of RP's favorites as well), it now also feels, a week on, like one of the best films of the year.
A brief confession: "The Tree Of Life" didn't do much for me. Visually stunning, of course, and fitfully brilliant, but it also felt a little like the emperor's new clothes to me, Malick getting a pass on things like a thirty-minute progression from the dawn of time to the present day that had been scorned by Charlie Kaufman in "Adaptation" a decade earlier. So why is it that we loved "To The Wonder" when so many found it to be Malick drifting into self-parody and pretentiousness, the exact same thing we felt the director's last film was guilty of? Ultimately, we simply connected more with the subject matter, found the unfashionable sincerity to be more deeply felt, and the actors given more to do. It may be that we have a different taste in Terrence Malick movies than most, but regardless, we came out of the film walking on air.
We nearly didn't go to see Ulrich Seidl's second film of the year, and the second of a trilogy ("Paradise: Hope" will complete it next year -- one suspects a Berlin premiere is in the cards in February), because the first part, "Paradise: Love" hadn't yet screened outside of Cannes. As it turns out, the film stands on its own just fine, and turned out to be a savagely funny, surprisingly tender look at religious obsession and marriage, one which managed to get the festival, and the filmmaker, criticized for blasphemy. Any film that features a woman masturbating on a crucifix is going to face that charge, and Seidl clearly doesn't feel warmly toward religion (it would make a curious double bill with the defiantly spiritual "To The Wonder"). But to get caught up on the more controversial aspects would be to overlook a filmmaker in total control of his craft, and a film that, while imperfect, contains a number of scenes that have haunted us ever since, and two outstanding and courageous central performances. Not an easy watch by any means, but certainly made us keen to seek out more of Seidl.
Maybe we simply had lower standards as kids than you guys, but there was a certain amount of outrage in the comments section that I gave "The Master" a B. For future reference, a B, as indicated in the review, is, for me at least, a film that does an awful lot right, but that a few things holding us back from truly taking it to our hearts. So don't get me wrong: there was a lot I loved about Paul Thomas Anderson's latest -- the stunning visuals, the hypnotic editing rhythms, the outstanding, career-best performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. It's also the point at which Anderson stepped free, for the most part, of his more obvious influences -- Altman, Scorsese, Kubrick -- to make a film that it feels as though it couldn't have come from anyone else. There's a distance to the film that made it harder to really take into our hearts than some of those above, but the overwhelming reaction of everyone we talked to after the screening was a desire to see it again, and we'll certainly be at the front of the queue -- there's every chance that it'll grow in stature on second viewing.
Every Film We Saw In Venice, From Best To Worst
1. "A Hijacking" (A)
2. "Stories We Tell" (A-)
3. "To The Wonder" (A-)
4. "Paradise: Faith" (B+)
5. "The Master" (B)
6. "Something In The Air" (B)
7. "At Any Price" (B)
8. "Spring Breakers" (B)
9. "Bad 25" (B)
10. "Penance" (B-)
11. "Dormant Beauty" (B-)
12. "Tai Chi 0" (B-)
13. "Linhas De Wellington" (B-)
14. "Enzo Avitabile: Music Life" (C+)