By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 9, 2013 at 12:55PM
It's farewell for another year to mosquitos, vaporettos and incomprehensibly rude Italian film critics who insist on checking their email mid-screening, because the 70th Venice Film Festival wrapped up on Saturday. For a festival that had seen quite a few twists and turns, it felt appropriate that it ended with Bernardo Bertolucci pulling a few surprises, shunning the more lauded films in the line-up to bestow the Golden Lion on "Sacro GRA," the first Italian film to win the top prize in fifteen years and the first documentary to ever manage the feat.
Elsewhere, Greek film "Miss Violence" also proved popular, taking both the Silver Lion and the Best Actor prize for Themis Panou, while Tsai Ming-Liang's "Stray Dogs" won the Grand Jury Prize, Elena Cotta took Best Actress for "Via Castellana Bandiera" (which we unfortunately didn't see), Tye Sheridan was awarded Best Young Actor for David Gordon Green's "Joe," Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope picked up Best Screenplay for "Philomena," and Philip Groning's "The Police Officer's Wife" won a Special Jury Prize.
Not necessarily who we'd have given the prizes to in all cases (as is often the case, many of our own favorites were out of competition, or in sidebars), but it's a diverse collection of winners that reflect a festival that may not have had the heavy hitters of last year, where Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick headlined the competition, but reflected a line-up that had real breadth of excellence. Only a few films truly disappointed—the choice of saggy, poorly executed JFK ensemble drama "Parkland" in competition was truly baffling—but almost everything had something to recommend them, and the top rank of films we saw were truly stellar.
We're still recovering from a festival where we saw and reviewed significantly more films than we have in previous years, but to wrap our annual Venice coverage, we've picked out our five favorites of the festival below. Plus below, you can find links to all the reviews from the last couple of weeks, ranked in order of how much we liked them, and see the full list of award winners. If you were there, let us know your own favorites in the comments section, and see you on the Lido next year.
5. "Stray Dogs"
The most difficult watch in a festival full of a few tough views, Tsai Ming-Liang's long-awaited return was impenetrable even by his standards, but ultimately proved to be one of the most nourishing experiences we had in the whole festival. Following a single father who works as a human billboard in Taipei, and his left-to-their-own-devices kids, with the presence of their mother represented by three different actresses, the film has the barest thread of story (Tsai has admitted that he no longer has any real interest in narrative), and seems determined to provoke less patient audience members into walking out, with a series of shots that last upwards of ten minutes without all that much movement in them. But those who lasted the distance were reminded that Tsai is a true master, and if his hints of retirement come true, it'll be a serious loss to world cinema. He's absolutely in control here, each shot bubbling with meaning, each cut perfectly calibrated. Some wag commented on Twitter during the festival that when a film is described as 'soporific,' it means that the critic fell asleep during the screening, but here, we'd mean the word as a compliment; Tsai conjures up a surreal tone closest to the moments after waking where you try and work out if your dreams were real or not, and it's a feeling that lingers long after the credits roll. "Stray Dogs" might not have been our absolute favorite of the festival, but we'll never forget it in a million years. Read the full review here.
4. "Miss Violence"
In any normal circumstance, "Miss Violence" would be the most visceral experience you could have at a film festival. The audience in our screening gasped and wailed as it became clear how far it was going to go, and there was open, cathartic cheering at the film's conclusion as one particular character got what was coming to them. Afterwards, viewers emerged, in the best way, feeling like they needed a shower to shake off director Alexandros Avranas' wallow in the darkest possible side of Greek family life. In fact, the film somehow wasn't the most visceral film in the festival (see below), but it was still an impossibly powerful and technically immaculate piece of work that announces the arrival of a fully formed talent in the shape of Avranas. The film opens with a stunning opening sequence, as an 11-year-old girl exits her own birthday party and jumps off the balcony, killing herself, and from there, Avranas slowly pulls back the curtain on the horrifying truth behind her family. It might be indebted in many aspects to "Dogtooth," with which it shares both thematic and stylistic links, but it's arguably more fully achieved than even that film—the helmer's win of the Silver Lion for Best Director might not have been popular in the room, but to our mind, it's well-deserved. As was the Best Actor victory for Themis Panou, who creates a unique and complex monster as the family's patriarch. "Miss Violence" is undoubtedly a wallow in the darker side of humanity, but few things this year gripped us in the same way. Catch up with the full review over here.
3. "At Berkeley"
In theory, the 70th Venice Film Festival was something of a banner one for documentaries: two in competition, one of which, "Sacro GRA," won the Golden Lion, several others in sidebars or out of competition, and a number of films-about-filmmaking in the Classics strand, including "A Fuller Life," "Bertolucci On Bertolucci" and "Double Life: James Benning and Richard Linklater" (the latter two we didn't make it to, but heard good things about, and hope to catch up with in the near future). We were actually a touch disappointed with most of the docs we did catch, but the quality of "At Berkeley" made up for sags elsewhere. The latest—and making a serious argument for being the greatest—work of 83-year-old non-fiction veteran Frederick Wiseman, the four-hour epic peeks at every possible facet of the University Of California Berkeley, a great public university facing increasing funding challenges. Wiseman shows the great work being done at the university across all fields, but while it's undoubtedly in favor of higher education for as many as possible, just holds back from being a polemic. Instead, as the various seminars and lectures on subjects as diverse as Walden and rocket science, it's a film of ideas, darting effortlessly between debates on society, race, class, politics and much, much more, while adding up to something that feels like a coherent piece of work. It adds up to a portrait of America in the 21st century, and for all of its expansive length, you won't feel like you'd cut a moment. Read the review in full here.
For a film that was nearly universally well-received, the mood among the press corps was strangely downbeat as they filed out of "Gravity." It was the very first film of Venice, and the festival seemed to open on such a high that the worry was that everything else over the next ten days would end up paling in comparison. That ended up not quite being the case, but as audiences at both Telluride and TIFF have subsequently discovered, it's a genuinely phenomenal piece of work, and one of the best films to come out of the studio system in years. As long-time fans of Alfonso Cuarón, it's truly thrilling to see the "Children Of Men" director granted the kind of absolute freedom he has here, both in terms of budget and for his camera, Emmanuel Lubezki's extraordinary cinematography floating untethered, giving what feels like the closest simulation of actually being in space that you could ask for. Not that it's meditative—first and foremost, the film's a thrill ride, and an almost impossibly tense one—we sat next to the critic of a major British newspaper at our screening who was literally biting his nails through most of the film, and he was far from the only one. But it's not an empty rollercoaster ride either, with the fine performances of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney ensuring that humanity shines through the dark expanses of space. It's a long time since we've seen a blockbuster that engages with big questions—of death, of grief, of loneliness, of human existence—in the way that this does, and that makes it something to be cherished. Read our full initial reaction, and watch the latest trailer here.