September 11, 2023
WRITTEN BY: QUENTIN
With the closing ceremonies of the 80th Venice Film Festival taking place over the weekend, it’s easy to say that it’s another great festival in the books for Bitesize Breakdown. Unfortunately, due to travel dates, I was unable to see everything I wanted to, namely missing out on Memory, starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard; J.A. Bayona’s Society of the Snow; and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist.
That said, I still managed to watch 27 new releases, a restored version of William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist, and eight VR-driven short films and installations on Immersive Island. All in all, it was a terrific but slightly exhausting time, and I look forward to doing it again next year.
Until then, check out everything I saw during my time on The Lido, ranked, as well as a list of the major award winners.
Golden Lion for Best Film: Poor Things
Grand Jury Prize: Evil Does Not Exist
Silver Lion for Best Director: Matteo Garrone, Me Captain
Special Jury Prize: Green Border
Best Screenplay: El Conde
Volpi Cup for Best Actress: Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla
Volpi Cup for Best Actor: Peter Sarsgaard, Memory
Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor: Seydou Sarr, Me Captain
27. AGGRO DR1FT
Without hyperbole, Aggro Dr1ft is not only one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, it is among the worst pieces of content I’ve seen on any screen ever. It is so bad that if you told me director Harmony Korine made this movie terrible on purpose as a social experiment to troll pretentious film festival attendees in Toronto, Venice, and New York (yes, it’s screening at all three major festivals), I’d believe you. From the awful sound mixing to the challenging infrared gimmick to the mundane monologues, it's almost immediately exhausting before continuing on for what feels like an interminable 80 minutes.
26. THE WONDERFUL STORY OF HENRY SUGAR
Full disclosure: I’m not a Wes Anderson fan. I find his work to be style over substance, resting entirely on his personal brand of twee whimsy, candy-colored pastels, and hipster aesthetics. So, it should come as no surprise when I say that I hated The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Even at just 38 minutes, it was painful to endure. The actors don’t so much give performances as they are reading Roald Dahl’s story to you, acting it out in the way you might act out a bedtime story for your kids, while Anderson bludgeons you to death with his trademark style.
25. GASOLINE RAINBOW
Maybe it’s the old curmudgeon in me, or maybe it’s that this movie incorporates so many film elements that I actively do not enjoy, but Gasoline Rainbow was a 110-minute endurance test. It’s a fake documentary that is shot in a meandering and improvisational style, featuring a cast of first-time, non-professional teenage actors playing themselves. I hate all those things. Now, this is where the age aspect comes in: do I think all teenagers are annoying? Or just these teenagers? Hard to say, but every dumb thing they said and every dumb decision they made grated on me. I couldn’t leave the theatre fast enough.
24. PET SHOP DAYS
Described as a mystery thriller, Pet Shop Days provides little in the form of intriguing mysteries or engaging thrills. It’s a derivative story of terrible people doing criminal things, and of a lost twentysomething finding himself through his relationship with the bad boy. On top of that, the characters are woefully underdeveloped and extremely unlikeable, not to mention that there are several half-baked subplots that don’t add anything substantive. Aside from Willem Dafoe, who is the only person who comes out unscathed, almost everything…from the performances to the direction to the writing…is unsteady.
23. THE RESCUE
This review is possibly a little unfair. The Rescue, aka El Rapto, was my thirteenth screening over the course of three days, and it’s a very slow-moving, dialogue-driven, Spanish-language drama set in the 1980s. With that in mind, even at only 90ish minutes, I struggled to maintain any semblance of interest in this movie. I didn’t find the dry story or characters compelling, and I was mostly just waiting for it to end. The acting is fine, I guess, but that’s not exactly an endorsement. So, are my feelings based on the context of the situation or the movie itself? I’ll let you decide.
22. THE BEAST
The Beast is the type of film that the snootiest of film critics will call a “must see” while regular people find themselves bored out of their minds. It’s big on ideas and, I suppose, it has decent performances, but it’s extremely lifeless, failing to truly engage the audience due to its somewhat confusing and labyrinthine story. It has elements of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Black Mirror, and classic French romance films, but they never coalesce into something worthy of the effort it takes to fully get on board. It’s not unlike a David Lynch movie in that regard.
21. THE PALACE
Controversy surrounding director Roman Polanski aside, The Palace isn’t a very good movie (though, I do think the buzz is overly critical precisely because it is a Polanski picture). He’s clearly going for a satire on the wealthy, combining the commentary of Triangle of Sadness with the day-in-the-life story structure of Hail, Caesar!, but despite a few clever joke setups, they never actually come with a punchline. So, you’re left watching a collection of underwritten characters in undercooked situations, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never does.
20. EL CONDE
In its entirety, El Conde isn’t a movie that I enjoyed. Despite the intriguing and outlandish logline, it’s surprisingly boring, but it’s possible that it works better for people who have some knowledge of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, of which I have very little. Perhaps that is why the satire didn’t hit for me. That said, director Pablo Larrain was able to create a surreal and haunting atmosphere that is well suited to the content, but this mix of Knives Out and Roma falls into the “movies I respect more than like” bucket.
19. THE PENITENT - A RATIONAL MAN
While the oddly titled The Penitent – A Rational Man wrestles with philosophical and often interesting questions about religion, the legal system, mental health, psychiatry, and the press, David Mamet’s screenplay is so preachy and the dialogue so circular and repetitive that it becomes tedious to watch. Further exacerbating that problem is a penchant for over-acting, especially from Luca Barbareschi (who also directed) and Catherine McCormack. All in all, I think between all the big ideas Mamet wants to address, as well as having the lead actor also be the director, it simply tries to do too much.
18. THE FEATHERWEIGHT
Personally, I’m not a fan of the fake documentary approach to filmmaking, and while I appreciate Robert Kolodny’s effort to make an earnest faux documentary (not mockumentary), The Featherweight lacks the narrative punchiness to last the whole fight. From a technical viewpoint, there is little to find fault in. The performances serve the format well, and Kolodny’s ability to make it feel like a genuine documentary from the 60s is remarkable. However, the constraints of the genre make it incredibly dry and limit the dramatic heft. There is certainly an interesting story here, but I would have much rather seen it as a standard biopic.
17. IN THE LAND OF SAINTS AND SINNERS
Although it’s nice to see Liam Neeson kinda sorta step away from his usual parade of cheap action thrillers, In the Land of Saints and Sinners is undone by the fact that it has two competing and underdeveloped storylines. Both stories have interesting aspects, and had the movie chosen to focus on one, it could have worked really well for a number of reasons. However, as is, it’s a slow-moving thriller that is low on thrills, probably destined to be released directly on a streaming service. To its credit, though, Kerry Condon is fiery and fierce. The movie could have used more of her.
16. MICHEL GONDRY, DO IT YOURSELF
While I found Do it Yourself to be an enlightening look into the methods and mind of visionary director Michel Gondry, this documentary is probably best left for those who are already fans of the filmmaker. There are no shocking revelations or lurid details, just the portrait of an artist who has made some of the most creative music videos and movies around. Seeing his interactions with collaborators Jack White and Spike Jonze is charming, and it’s a loving tribute overall, but more than anything, it made me want to rewatch Be Kind Rewind and old videos from The White Stripes, which isn’t a terrible takeaway.
Despite being well acted and delivering thoughtful commentaries on racism, caste systems, and personal grief, Origin is as dry as a college lecture. Nothing about Ava DuVernay’s direction is bad, but it’s not particularly dynamic either. It’s not her fault, though. The message is certainly important and, from a scholarly perspective, incredibly fascinating, but it’s not built for a feature length narrative. This would have been much better and perhaps more impactful as a documentary because, as is, it’s like watching someone act out a doctoral thesis paper. Personally, I can’t say I enjoy movies that feel like homework.
14. THANK YOU VERY MUCH
Documentaries on well-covered subjects can be tricky because they need to find a new angle to explore and its own reason for existing. Having already seen two Andy Kaufman documentaries, as well as the terrific biopic Man on the Moon, I wasn’t sure I needed another dive into Kaufman lore. However, in what should be the definitive doc on the comedian, director Alex Braverman manages to provide additional insights, mostly through new interviews and archival footage, while also not beating a dead horse on things covered in the other documentaries. Was it necessary? Debatable. Is it enjoyable? Very much so, even winning best documentary at the festival.
13. FINALLY DAWN
As a person who likes movies about movies, Finally Dawn, while not perfect, worked well enough to keep me engaged throughout. Mixing a coming-of-age story with some light Hitchcockian menace, Babylon, and an old-world Italian cinema vibe sounds like a lot, but newcomer Rebecca Antonaci (with the help of Lily James, Willem Dafoe, and Joe Keery, no doubt) holds it all together with a great performance at the center of the story. That said, given that there is a constant air of escalating tension inherent to the proceedings, the ending is extremely underwhelming, fizzling out as if writer-director Saverio Costanzo simply ran out of ideas.
While not a bad movie by any means, Ferrari never makes a case to justify its existence. Yes, from a craft perspective, it’s obviously very well done, from Michael Mann’s direction to the performances of Adam Driver and Penelope Cruz; however, the main story is about a man that isn’t particularly interesting. Enzo Ferrari (Driver) is never shown to be a ruthless tyrant, a savvy businessman, or a brilliant car designer. He’s just a dude who has marital problems. Ferrari is only truly compelling during the too few race sequences, which are beautiful and picturesque (two scenes in particular elicited audible gasps from the audience).
As a veteran who has many connections to the U.S.’s War on Terror, Hollywoodgate is an eye-opening documentary that is equal parts maddening, frustrating, enlightening, and even comical. Director Ibrahim Nash’at shows incredible restraint by not interjecting his own views, letting the Taliban be their own voice, and they often shoot themselves in the foot despite their best attempts to make themselves look civilized. It’s simple but effective, and it opens the door to hard questions and harsh realities about Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the U.S.’s decades long occupation, the most important of which is this: what was the point?
10. THE PROMISED LAND
Let me tell you how good of an actor Mads Mikkelsen is: For more than two hours, this man had me fully engaged in a Danish-language period piece about a guy trying to grow potatoes on a piece of land deemed unfarmable. Granted, the sturdy screenplay, sweeping visuals, and Nikolaj Arcel’s confident direction help him along, but I’m not sure this movie succeeds with anyone other than Mikkelsen at the center of it. This is a grown-up film for grown-ups, reminiscent of Minari in some ways, and it feels tailor-made for the prestigious film festival circuit.
Although Dogman has some elements that will make you unintentionally chuckle at their ridiculousness (mostly in the interactions between man and dog), director Luc Besson’s latest is a gritty and grimy tale of trauma, violence, and ultimately redemption…something of a mix between Joker and Dr. Dolittle. Despite a story that is a little schizophrenic, it’s easily the best work Besson has delivered in decades, and he owes it all to the terrific performance of Caleb Landry Jones. Jones is captivating in a role that requires him to be equal parts heartbreaking and fearsome, and although he won’t get it, his work here deserves recognition.
8. THE CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL
Though not flashy, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is a thoroughly engaging courtroom drama. Presented like a single-room stage play, it’s content to simply let its actors do what they do best: act. It asks interesting questions about military rank structure, the uniform code of military justice, and the ramifications of decisions made by those in command through the various testimonies, which allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about the case at hand. Given that it was directed by William Friedkin, it’s no surprise that this stripped-down version of A Few Good Men is old school movie making at its finest.
7. HUMANIST VAMPIRE SEEKING CONSENTING SUICIDAL PERSON
When people talk about discovering hidden gems at film festivals, Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person is exactly what they are talking about. The most authentically indie-feeling movie at Venice Film Festival, Humanist Vampire puts a modern spin on vampire mythology to deliver a fresh, funny, and darkly sweet coming-of-age story that touches on familial pressure, adolescent expectations, teen depression, and young love. In the Q&A that followed my screening, director Ariane Louis-Seize (who won the GdA Director’s Award) referenced Let the Right One in and Lady Bird as some of her inspirations for this movie, and I can’t sum it up any better than that.
6. DAY OF THE FIGHT
Day of the Fight was the biggest surprise of Venice Film Festival for me. I had zero expectations going in because, honestly, the cast (outside of Joe Pesci) and a first-time director didn’t inspire a ton of excitement. That said, this movie is beautifully done. It’s shot in crisp black & white and is carried on the heartbreaking shoulders of Michael C. Pitt, who gives a tremendous performance. It’s a boxing movie, so there are some predictable story beats, but it doesn’t play out 100% as expected, and the catharsis delivered through Mikey’s (Pitt) journey is well earned. Writer-director Jack Huston is one to watch.
Although it drags a bit in the middle (and I admit a proclivity to liking almost all things related to Elvis Presley), Priscilla is easily director Sofia Coppola’s finest film to date. By flipping the script to tell the other half of the story, we come to learn more about the, at times, beautiful but often troublesome relationship between Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) and The King (Jacob Elordi). It’s obviously more subtle, empathetic, and sensitive than last year’s Elvis, but no less affecting as it paints an honest portrait of young love, insecurities, and seeing your way through to the other side.
4. THE KILLER
With only his second movie since 2014’s Gone Girl, director David Fincher returns to his dark thriller roots with the noirish The Killer, a lean assassin flick that pairs the slick planning sequences usually seen in heist movies with the deliberate tone and methodical pacing of Mindhunter. A tightly written revenge story, it features a dryly funny Michael Fassbender as he delivers Dexter-style monologues about how to be a successful assassin. Even if it is relatively straightforward, especially by Fincher standards, it’s no less compelling than some of Fincher’s best works, landing in the top tier of Netflix Originals.
Truth be told, I had little interest in Maestro since I have no personal connection to Leonard Bernstein. Even as the movie began, I was unsure about it for the first 20-30 minutes. However, credit given where credit is due: it’s exquisite. Bradley Cooper disappears into the role of Bernstein so deeply that you often forget you’re watching an actor, and he’s matched beat-for-beat by Carey Mulligan. Maestro is certainly more of a “film” than a “movie,” so I’m not sure how well the general public will take to it, but for me, this is another win for Cooper both in front of and behind the camera.
2. HIT MAN
Further proving what most people noticed in Top Gun: Maverick, Hit Man reiterates that Glen Powell is a bonafide star as he nimbly bounces between different personas in what may end up as the best pure comedy of the year. Director Richard Linklater, who has already directed several classics, gifts us another one with an effervescent romance crime movie that is dark, hilarious, intelligent, and charming all at the same time. Yes, it’s a sort of rom-com, but it maintains razor sharp edges, refusing to fall down the well of cliché and cheesy genre tropes. It’s like Linklater’s version of a Coen Brothers movie.
1. POOR THINGS
Poor Things is a hilariously dark and incredibly horny fairy tale oddity that is deserving of every award it is sure to win this year. The world created by director Yorgos Lanthimos is gorgeously brought to life through powerhouse performances from the entire cast, but especially Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in career-best showings. On top of that, themes of feminism and self-discovery, as well as a commentary on the patriarchy, are executed brilliantly. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, it’s near perfect, and is easily the best movie of the year so far.
Photo Credits: Venice International Film Festival