It’s a very specific kind of disappointment when a film festival jury chaired by filmmakers or actors you greatly admire makes choices that seem wildly uncharacteristic or perhaps reveal questionable taste. Who could forget the gasps when the Coen Brothers picked DHEEPAN out of an exceptional Cannes lineup or, even more traumatic still, when George Miller and his jury handed the Palme d’Or to I, DANIEL BLAKE a year later? Truth is, brilliant filmmakers don’t necessarily make good calls judging films.
With this in mind, it’s a particular joy and relief to see that the great Annette Bening, whom I’ve loved and revered as a performer for years, has demonstrably classy taste in movies. As the president of the competition jury at the 74th Venice Film Festival, she read out a list of names earlier at the awards ceremony that is pretty damn solid, with not one bad/subpar film among them.
Well, the mad genius of Darren Aronofsky did not get any love as MOTHER! went home empty-handed, but that movie was perhaps always going to be too controversial to satisfy consensus. The smaller the group of voters, the easier it is to rub enough of them the wrong way. Some were expecting Bening to make a statement by awarding the only competition film by a female director, ANGELS WEAR WHITE, which did not happen either. But the decision to crown Guillermo Del Toro’s wonderful, boldly female-centric fantasy drama THE SHAPE WATER as the best film of the festival probably sent out an even stronger message of inclusion and female empowerment.
The only real surprise for me regarding this jury’s choices is awarding Xavier Legrand the best director prize for his debut feature CUSTODY, when someone like Aronofsky is available. But judged on its own singular merits, CUSTODY is a thoroughly engaging film with an intense AF ending, that’s for sure.
Elsewhere the jury proved particularly discerning allocating the right prizes to the right persons/films. Martin McDonagh’s intricately plotted, superbly layered screenplay for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI has been rightfully singled out. As were Charlotte Rampling and Charlie Plummer’s contributions to their respective films (HANNAH/LEAN ON PETE). The fact that by by recognizing Rampling (in a French-language film), the jury effectively withheld support for two of Bening’s direct rivals at the Oscars (McDormand & Hawkins) becomes secondary when you consider the inarguable magnificence of Rampling’s performance.
As for the Oscars, I’ve noted previously that there isn’t much correlation between Venice winners and the Oscars. Films like DOWNSIZING and SUBURBICON were never expected to win anything here, so the fact that they did not isn’t that big a deal in terms of their prospects stateside. That THE SHAPE OF WATER didn’t need to win the Golden Lion but won it anyway, however, is major. It shows intense cross-over appeal that could eventually make TSOW unstoppable.
Finally, aside from prizes and Oscar considerations, here are my personal top 10 films seen at the 74th Venice Film Festival:
4. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
5. THE SHAPE OF WATER
7. LEAN ON PETE
8. SWEET COUNTRY
10. ANGELS WEAR WHITE