Critic’s Picks: 10 Must-See Films at the Venice Film Festival

'Gravity,' 'Under the Skin' and 'Moebius' are among our critic's most hotly anticipated titles on the Lido this year.

Venice is perhaps the least widely attended of the Big Five film festivals, especially for American journalists who find it both expensive and unnecessary to cross the Atlantic for a slate of films that may surface just a few days later at Telluride and/or Toronto. Certainly many of my most anticipated Venice titles (listed below) will make their way to other festivals down the road, although crucially, not all of them will.

SEE ALSO: Venice Film Festival Unveils Lineup

Those who do make it to Venice, as I’ve been fortunate enough to do for the past three years, will find it a charming respite from the typical chaos and commotion of a major festival: less frenzied than Cannes, more carefully curated than Toronto, and absent the frigid climes of Sundance and Berlin. For all the buzz and excitement that attend the films making their early bids for awards-season prominence, the atmosphere is strangely relaxed. Festival-goers get around on bicycles. The generous scheduling and relatively manageable lineup (slimmed down even more last year by artistic director Alberto Barbera) make it surprisingly easy to catch up with films you might have missed and still have time for a quick Bellini with a colleague.

None of which would matter were the festival’s program not so consistently strong and worthy of sustained attention. It was in Venice that I had two peak experiences with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” and part of the pleasure of grappling with such exceptional, serious work was the experience of banging the drum early on, knowing what the Toronto audiences had to look forward to. But to dismiss Venice as an early Toronto preview is to do it a disservice: It was also here that I saw the scorching “Black Venus,” the previous film from recent Palme d’Or winner Abdellatif Kechiche, which went on to play the New York Film Festival but swiftly disappeared down a black hole, rarely to be screened or discussed again. With any luck there’s a film that good or better in this year’s lineup, and it will get the audience it deserves. Here are just a few I’m looking forward to (in alphabetical order):

Popular on Variety

“Child of God”
I missed James Franco’s “As I Lay Dying” at Cannes, where it drew largely favorable reviews, but his American modernist literary tour continues with this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel. After recent studio attempts to do McCarthy justice, successfully (“No Country for Old Men”) and not (“The Road”), it’ll be fascinating to see how well this maddeningly uneven and idiosyncratic talent approximates the terse, distinctive rhythms of the author’s prose.

It’s been an unconscionable seven years since Alfonso Cuaron’s superb “Children of Men,” and expectations are sky-high for this long-overdue follow-up, nursed in part by early trailers that have effectively sold the deep-space thriller as an experience too harrowing to imagine, with Cuaron’s signature long takes playing an especially key role. Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the Warner Bros. release will make its North American debut at Toronto following its opening-night slot at Venice.

This latest provocation from the controversy-courting Kim Ki-duk has been slotted out of competition, which could have something to do with last year’s Venice awards kerfuffle, when a technicality prompted the jury to give the Golden Lion to Kim’s “Pieta” over “The Master.” Or it could have something to do with “Moebius'” apparently beyond-outre content: When your film is too kinky and violent for even the Korean censors, (1) it’s seriously screwed up, and (2) I want to see it.

“Night Moves”
Apparently bearing no relation to Arthur Penn’s 1975 film of the same title, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film stars Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard as a gang of eco-terrorists (shades of “The East”?) plotting to blow up a dam. On the whole, this distributor-seeking picture sounds like a pluckier, more commercial enterprise than her 2010 Venice-preemed Western, “Meek’s Cutoff,” although hopefully it will retain the meticulous and absorbing attention to detail that is one of Reichardt’s hallmarks.

A rare debut by an American writer-director in competition, Peter Landesman’s film re-creates the JFK assassination, largely from the perspective of those attempting to save the president’s life at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital. With an ensemble that includes Zac Efron, Colin Hanks, Marcia Gay Harden, Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Bob Thornton, this reportedly grueling but intriguing-sounding Exclusive Releasing pic will make its North American premiere in Toronto.

The last time Stephen Frears was here he struck gold with “The Queen,” which launched its successful Oscar campaign with a festival prize for Helen Mirren’s performance. The director is rumored to have another stellar lead turn in this drama starring Judi Dench, and the backing of the Weinstein Co. should ensure considerable attention at Venice, Toronto and beyond. With any luck, after his middling recent run with “Cheri,” “Tamara Drewe” and “Lay the Favorite,” Frears is back on his game.

Under the Skin
The brilliant British director Jonathan Glazer has been even more absent from the scene than Cuaron, and around this time last year, audiences were disappointed to learn that his newest film would not be making the fall festival rounds. Better late than never: The story of an extraterrestrial (Scarlett Johansson) harvesting the bodies of male hitchhikers sounds no less strange and disquieting than his criminally underrated 2004 drama, “Birth.”

The Unknown Known
Back in the vein of “The Fog of War,” Errol Morris hosts another deep-dish conversation with a widely despised former U.S. secretary of defense, this time with Donald Rumsfeld. Given the pedigree and subject, it’s not inconceivable that this documentary — the first-ever to play in competition at Venice — will also make it to Telluride and New York.

The Wind Rises
Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki is something of a Lido loyalist, having debuted “Ponyo” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” at Venice and received the festival’s Golden Lion for career achievement in 2005. “The Wind Rises” (pictured), a WWII story adapted from Miyazaki’s own manga, has expectedly proven a major commercial success in Japan and looks to be a possible competition highlight; certainly this is a filmmaker who has trained audiences to expect nothing less than enchantment.

The Zero Theorem
Beyond his Oscar-winning performances for Quentin Tarantino, Christoph Waltz hasn’t really found a bigscreen role truly suited to his eccentric talents. Hopefully that will change with the unveiling of this sci-fi oddity from Terry Gilliam (his first since 2009’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”), starring Waltz as a reclusive computer genius embarking on a project to uncover the very meaning of existence. Previewed recently at Comic-Con, the film is still without a U.S. distributor.

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