Venice 2014: Get ready for buzzworthy ‘Birdman,’ Andrew Garfield and Al Pacino

As previously reported by my HitFix colleagues, 2014″s fall festivals represent something of a battle royale for various heavyweight Oscar hopefuls. The oldest fest in the big four, venerable Venice, is up against younger North American counterparts Toronto, Telluride and New York in the perennial fight to deliver a truly memorable Competition. Which films will be left standing once the critics have had their way with them? Contenders hoping to emerge victorious from La Biennale”s royal rumble include Alejandro González Iñárritu”s opening nighter “Birdman” starring Michael Keaton, David Gordon Green”s Al Pacino vehicle “Manglehorn” and Andrew Garfield vs Michael Shannon in Ramin Bahrani”s real estate showdown “99 Homes.”

As far as awards season goes, for me the big hitter to beat from Cannes is “Foxcatcher,” an extraordinary and illuminating piece of filmmaking from Bennett Miller, a director I”ve not been personally persuaded by before now. In the documentary category, however, after what many regard as the snubbing of Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn”s “The Act Of Killing” by the Academy, all eyes will be on companion piece “The Look of Silence.” The film reportedly approaches the Indonesian genocide from a different angle, and will screen in Competition at Venice.

There would appear to be two main contenders for man of the match in the acting category. Ethan Hawke, fresh from reminding us what an engagingly mercurial screen presence he can be in Richard Linklater”s “Boyhood,” has re-teamed with “Gattaca” writer/director Andrew Niccol for “Good Kill.” I like Niccol”s work – his ideas are usually strong (“The Truman Show”), even if the execution doesn”t always come off (“S1m0ne,” “In Time”). He”s at his best when a moral conundrum is involved, which will surely be the case with this drone fighter drama, so here”s hoping it”s a meaty role for Hawke. If not, at least we know the actor's second role of the fest should give him something to get his teeth into: he”s playing Iachimo in a modern dress version of “Cymbeline,” a play that is to my mind one of Shakespeare”s most underrated.

Al Pacino, himself no stranger to the rhythms of the Bard, will be tackling a more contemporary literary legend in out-of-competition premiere “The Humbling,” based on Philip Roth”s worst novel (disclaimer: I haven”t read all of Roth”s work, but it”s far too difficult and depressing to imagine a scenario in which “The Humbling” isn”t it). Perhaps more promising is Pacino”s pairing with that spry chronicler of Americana, David Gordon Green, in Competition entry “Manglehorn,” which looks to sit closer in tone to “Joe” or “Prince Avalanche” than “Your Highness” or “Pineapple Express” in Green's elastic filmography.

As something of a defender of “As I Lay Dying” when it premiered at Cannes in 2013, I”m actually cautiously optimistic to see James Franco return to the Lido with another William Faulkner adaptation. This time, he”s tackling the author's first major work, “The Sound and the Fury” (starring Franco, Scott Haze, Tim Blake Nelson, Joey King, Ahna O'Reilly, Seth Rogen and Jon Hamm), though the film”s out-of-competition berth isn”t 100% encouraging. A case of sound and fury signifying nothing? Let”s hope not. The multi-hyphenated Franco is also set to be honored by the festival and will accept the Glory to the Filmmaker prize for innovation, which feels appropriate; even when he”s bad, Franco tends to innovate, for instance as the first Oscar host to appear obviously high.

Speaking of arch provocateurs, I”m excited to see that a new cut of Lars von Trier's “Nymphomaniac” is set to ruffle any remaining feathers that the original couldn”t quite reach. Other hot titles playing out-of-competition include Joe Dante's “Burying the Ex,” Peter Bogdanovich's “She's Funny That Way,” and Lisa Cholodenko's hugely promising HBO adaptation of Pulitzer prize winner “Olive Kitteridge,” starring Frances McDormand.

Aside from the more headline grabbing work of Hollywood”s great and good, the Competition brings together a diverse selection of world cinema for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” composer Alexandre Desplat”s jury to mull over (incidentally, the design of the invite to the Variety party this year is “Budapest”-themed, presumably in tribute to Desplat). Two films with Turkish roots are vying for the Golden Lion in the form of Fatih Ak?n”s “The Cut” (starring Tahar Rahim) and Kaan Müjdeci”s Sivas, while Turkey”s neighbor to the East, Iran, brings “Ghesseh-ha” (aka “Tales”) from one of the Competition”s two female directors, Rakhshan Bani-E'temad (the other is French writer-director Alix Delaporte). Sweden, Russia, Japan and China also get one director each in the mix, while France almost verges on greedy with four directors hoping to take home the festival”s top prize. It would of course be remiss of an Italian festival not to showcase home grown talent: this year”s representatives of the home team are Mario Martone, Francesco Munzi and Saverio Costanzo.

Then there are the other strands of the festival. Duane Hopkins, whose sensitive but dark 2008 Cannes Critics” Week debut “Better Things” seems overdue a follow-up, will premiere “Bypass” in the Horizons programme, while fellow Brit Guy Myhill”s “The Goob,” screening as part of Venice Days, has attracted a certain amount of buzz on the ground in London. I”m equally intrigued by the apparently almost wordless “Labour of Love,” a Bengali self-funded first feature from Aditya Vikram Sengupta screening in Venice Days. Also bowing in Venice Days, dark Israeli comedy “The Farewell Party,” in which a group of friends at a Jerusalem retirement home build a machine for self-euthanasia, is allegedly ripe for an English language remake. And Larry Clark has found a home in this strand for “The Smell Of Us,” which looks kind of like “Kids”-does-Paris.

It won”t be possible to catch them all. When humorist Robert Benchley arrived in Venice, he telegraphed home: “Streets flooded. Please advise.” I can only ask, with a similar sense of amusement at the overwhelming scale of the programme, that if there are films amongst the flood of offerings that you are particularly keen for us to cover, please advise.

P.S.: The more regular eagle-eyed readers will spot this is my first byline for this site, so I hope it”s not hugely pompous to give you a quick and optional overview of who I am; do feel free to skip this bit. Firstly, I”m thrilled to be writing for you. I”m an English critic based in London and for the last 10 years have written or broadcasted for the BBC, Channel 4, Time Out London, Sight & Sound, The Telegraph, Empire and Film4, where I”m currently Editorial Director. I”ve covered SXSW, Sundance and Cannes many times, and I also write and produce, most recently on Charlie Lyne”s teen movie doc “Beyond Clueless,” which we took to SXSW and HotDocs this year.

I have visited Venice twice before. As a teenager, our high school took us on a chaotic “EuroTrip”-esque bus tour involving a stay in a hotel that turned out to be slap bang in the middle of the red light district. We hung out of the windows in our PJs, cheering on the prostitutes and their clients in the car park. On my 25th birthday, I returned and did the romantic vacation thing – gondolas, galleries, the whole “La Serenissima” bit. Since film festivals are generally a cocktail of chaotic meat market mixed with the highest of artistic aspirations, I”m hoping my third trip will represent a thematic synthesis of my first two impressions, as well as providing some clear slam dunks for awards season.

The 2014 Venice Film Festival kicks off Wednesday, Aug. 27. Keep it tuned to HitFix and In Contention for the latest as it happens!

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