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Venice Lineup Promises More Than Just Oscar Bait

'The Danish Girl,' 'Spotlight' and 'Black Mass' lead the awards-season charge on the Lido, but the fest has quirkier attractions on offer

The Venice Film Festival’s late-summer scheduling — a fixture since its inception 83 years ago — gives it sprocket-opera status it wouldn’t hold if it swapped places with, say, the Berlinale. (And not just because the skinny sandbar of the Lido is a lot less alluringly balmy in February.) As the American awards season has expanded, in the last couple of decades, into a six-month industry of promotion as restless as the speculation that surrounds it, this most venerably refined of festivals has become its near-accidental starting block.

Expense and distance protect it from the fever-pitch Oscar conversation that intensifies at Telluride and Toronto mere days after Venice raises its curtain, but these aren’t soundproof barriers: In an era when a film’s fate can be sealed on Twitter mere minutes after it first screens, contenders are swiftly anointed and annihilated in the Italian heat. Reigning Best Picture winner “Birdman” was declared a concrete nominee the morning of its first press screening in Venice’s hangar-like Sala Darsena; the year before, “Gravity” was greeted with similar breathless conviction.

Like “Black Swan” in 2010, those films opened the festival, emphasizing its desirability as a launchpad for A-list awards hopefuls — an advantage one can arguably put down to timing more than the prestige of Venice itself. Weigh them up against Cannes’ last two openers (“Standing Tall” and “Grace of Monaco,” in case you’ve forgotten), and a layman could be forgiven for wondering why the French fest is still seen as a world-beater.

Yet Venice’s entire program has either a lot more or a lot less — depending on your perspective as a cinephile or showbiz pundit — to offer than its glitzy tentpole premieres, which belie an excitingly esoteric programming sensibility. With Cannes still the festival of choice for top-tier auteurs — the Hanekes, the Almodóvars, the Dardennes — who give its Competition something of an old-boys’-club slant, Venice is forced to get resourceful, supplementing its major names with fresher, stranger, less expected ones. (Not to mention heavyweight prestige titles surprisingly shrugged off by Cannes selectors: “Vera Drake” and “Brokeback Mountain,” Golden Lion winners both, were both plucked from the reject pile.)

So it is with this year’s eclectic Venice lineup, which jumbles potential commercial blockbusters with Oscar bait of the toniest order, and established arthouse royalty with sharply elevated up-and-comers. Baltasar Kormákur’s fact-based mountaineering thriller “Everest” is a suitably starry choice for opening-night duty this year, its red-carpet-friendly cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke. At this stage, few are attributing the Universal release with the awards potential of a “Gravity,” though early critical murmurings are positive.

Everest” is premiering in a noncompeting slot, a safe recourse for mainstream titles that want the prestigious connotations of a European festival showcase without the possibility of being branded an awards loser right off the bat. (Not that anyone pays much mind: “Birdman” wasn’t remotely harmed by losing out to last year’s Golden Lion champ, Roy Andersson’s absurdist comic patchwork “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” — which, you may not be surprised to learn, left Venice with not a shred of Oscar buzz.)

Also taking the cautious out-of-competition route is a more hotly fancied awards hopeful: Thomas McCarthy’s “Spotlight” stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in a portrayal of the Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Perhaps unveiling such a hot-button pic in the land of the Vatican City seemed enough of a risk to take on. It’s joined in the safe zone by another Beantown-based biopic: Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass,” starring Johnny Depp as notorious Irish mobster and FBI informant Whitey Bulger. Expectations are high for Depp’s against-type performance; having lost a measure of critical esteem since scoring three Oscar nominations in the 2000s, this could spur a redemption narrative.

Unless, of course, Eddie Redmayne gets in the way. Taking its chances in Competition is the festival’s biggest coup from an Oscar-watcher’s perspective: Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” in which Redmayne targets a second consecutive Best Actor win by playing Lili Elbe, one of the first reported recipients of gender reassignment surgery. The elite Euro-fest circuit is new territory for Hooper, an Oscar winner who split critics but scored a populist victory with “Les Misérables” in 2012. The odds are against Alfonso Cuarón’s jury (a healthily mixed, unpredictable group that also includes Elizabeth Banks, Lynne Ramsay and Pawel Pawlikowski) handing their top prize to something this handsomely pre-vetted, though a Best Actor win on the Lido would get Redmayne’s repeat campaign off to a perfect start.

Bar the intriguing wild card of Cary Fukunaga’s Netflix-backed child-soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation” — for which Idris Elba, as a volatile African warlord, may be chasing Best Supporting Actor consideration — Oscar predictors will find little else from Venice to ponder, as the noise shifts back to North America.

Away from the awards scene, however, this year’s lineup is rich in international drawcards and curiosities, including one star attraction that isn’t Toronto-bound: Italian helmer Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash,” a slinky-looking study of showbiz royalty at play, starring Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson and the ubiquitous Matthias Schoenaerts. (Johnson and Schoenaerts are both Venice double-dippers this year, co-starring in “Black Mass” and “The Danish Girl” respectively.) Six years ago, Guadagnino’s Swinton-starring “I Am Love” enraptured Lido crowds after premiering in a lower-profile sidebar; Fox Searchlight, who will release the pic May 13 in the U.S., will be hoping for, well, a bigger splash in Competition.

Also on this Venice attendee’s most-anticipated list: “Looking for Grace,” Australian director Sue Brooks’ long-awaited follow-up to 2003’s “Japanese Story”; “The Endless River,” the latest from young South African talent Oliver Hermanus; and “Heart of a Dog,” a personal cinematic essay from singular multi-disciplinary artist Laurie Anderson. All are in Competition, beneficiaries of Venice’s aforementioned generosity to filmmakers outside the contemporary auteur canon; even Drake Doremus, a former Sundance champ for “Like Crazy,” was a less expected inclusion for his Kristen Stewart-starring sci-fi “Equals.” Also contributing some fantasy from the U.S. independent fringes will be Charlie Kaufman, with his first animated effort “Anomalisa.”

Veteran auteurs in the mix include Aleksandr Sokurov, whose “Francofonia” will vie for gold four years after his fevered, frenzied “Faust” took top honors at the fest, and Marco Bellocchio, whose reportedly vampire-infused drama “Blood of My Blood” premieres a full half-century after his debut feature “Fists in the Pocket” graced the Lido. And that’s to say nothing of an unusually robust documentary selection outside the competition, with Frederick Wiseman (“In Jackson Heights”), Tsai Ming-liang (“Afternoon”), Sergei Loznitsa (“The Event”), Amy Berg (“Janis”) and even Noah Baumbach (“De Palma,” co-directed with Jake Paltrow) all fleshing out the lineup.

This year, anyone tuning out of the Venice conversation once the supposed Oscar candidates have played could miss some of the most interesting chatter.

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