With the Venice International Film Festival set to start this Wednesday – essentially kickstarting awards season as a whole, as well – everyone’s talking about the potential biggest awards contenders of the year, but it’s worth taking a closer look at the contenders for Venice’s Golden Lion in particular, as this is one of the most prestigious “Best Picture-esque” awards given away prior to the winter awards ceremonies (much like Cannes’ Palme d’Or), and it can clue us in to what will be one of the biggest critical darlings of 2022. And while the winner of the Golden Lion doesn’t always factor in to the industry’s awards races in a major way (last year’s winner Happening was passed over by France to be their International Feature Film submission, though it is in contention for other categories this year following its US release), Venice has trended a bit more Academy-friendly in recent years.
In 2017, they awarded The Shape of Water, which went on to win Best Picture (along with Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design); in 2018, they awarded Roma, which was largely seen as the runner-up in Best Picture to Green Book (and still won Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best International Feature Film); in 2019, they awarded Joker, which received a nomination for Best Picture and two wins for Best Actor and Best Original Score; and in 2020, they awarded Nomadland, which won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. This year, the biggest contenders are presumed to be Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths and Todd Field’s TÁR, but with other notable names like Darren Aronofsky, Noah Baumbach, and Luca Guadagnino in contention, this could be a much closer race than expected.
The Banshees of Inisherin (dir. Martin McDonagh)
The Banshees of Inisherin is writer-director Martin McDonagh’s first film since 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – an awards season darling in its time, and his first film to premiere at Venice – and even though some critiqued the provocative political commentary he put forth in that dark dramedy, Banshees is hopefully set to help him regain favor with the masses – especially after its first trailer was received so warmly. The film follows a conflict that arises between two friends (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) when one of them (Gleeson) abruptly ends their friendship, causing alarming consequences for both of them. If that synopsis sounds like a “slighter” story than we’ve come to expect from McDonagh, remember that he always has a few tricks up his sleeve, so it’s likely not as “simple” as it seems on the surface, and fans of dark, dry humor will likely find much to enjoy no matter what.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Despite his astounding awards haul (four Oscars!), Alejandro González Iñárritu has always been a bit of a divisive figure in film critic circles. Some think he’s a genius bringing about the second coming of cinema; others are put off by the supposed “pretentiousness” of his films and feel he thinks too highly of himself. Still, love him or hate him, you can’t deny that the guy is force to be reckoned with as a filmmaker, and his track record speaks for itself. Bardo seems to be one of his headiest affairs yet – “the chronicle of a journey between [reality and imagination], two illusions whose borders are indecipherable,” according to his Venice director’s statement about the semi autobiographical piece that also confronts the illegal immigration crisis – but given that this is Iñárritu’s third time at Venice (after 21 Grams and Birdman both premiered here), it’s clear that he’s a favored figure at this fest, and if he delivers with what is one of his artiest affairs yet, he could be hard to beat for that Golden Lion.
Blonde (dir. Andrew Dominik)
After 12 years in development, Blonde – a “biographical psychological drama” about the life of Marilyn Monroe (based on a fictionalized assessment of the actress’ time in Hollywood found in the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates) – will finally hit Netflix this fall, but not before first premiering at the Venice Film Festival. The film is already the source of much controversy (aside from being a semi-fictionalized take on a real person’s life – without her say – it’s said to feature graphic sexual content, including an assault on Monroe that, by all accounts, never happened), but there remains considerable interest in Ana de Armas’ thrilling transformation into Monroe nevertheless, and writer-director Andrew Dominik (who himself has come under fire as the male director of such a sordid fictional story about a famed – and notoriously mistreated – female actress) is a respected figure in the film community, having also premiered The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford at Venice in 2007. Methinks the heat on this one might hurt it, but Venice might not be as put-off by it as American audiences.
Bones & All (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Like many directors on this list, Luca Guadagnino is no stranger to Venice (he premiered his first film, The Protagonists, there in 1999, along with I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and Suspiria), but this year, he arrives with what could be one of his most challenging films to date. Bones & All, sometimes referred to as a “cannibal love story,” centers around the love that blossoms between a young woman “on the margins of society” named Maren (Waves‘ Taylor Russell) and a disenfranchised driver named Lee (Timothée Chalamet), as they embark on a 3,000-mile odyssey through the backroads of America – and as Maren simultaneously struggles with “shameful” cannibalistic urges that could put her romance with Lee at risk. If the source material is any indication, this could be quite a gnarly little genre drama, but given that European audiences tend to be less conservative about the content found in their films (particularly in art films), we could see this have a stronger reception overseas than over here, giving it a leg up in this race.
The Eternal Daughter (dir. Joanna Hogg)
The Eternal Daughter is writer-director Joanna Hogg’s first film to premiere at Venice, along with her first feature since her highly acclaimed The Souvenir duology. Here, she reunites with The Souvenir star Tilda Swinton, in what is being described as a “ghost story about a middle-aged daughter and her elderly mother [who] must confront long-buried secrets when they return to their former family home, a once-grand manor that has become a nearly vacant hotel brimming with mystery.” Knowing Hogg, this likely isn’t your standard ghost story (probably something more in the vein of A24’s A Ghost Story, which is amusing given that the distributor is handling this film as well), so it will be interesting to see her more “artistic” addition to such a crowded subgenre. When done right, genre-esque films can really resonate at Venice (like the aforementioned Golden Lion-winning The Shape of Water), so who knows how high The Eternal Daughter can fly.
No Bears (dir. Jafar Panahi)
If Venice makes a political pick for the Golden Lion, there’s a case to be made for Jafar Panahi’s No Bears. There was already reason to trust that this would be another knockout from the beloved Iranian filmmaker (who has been to Venice once before, with 2000’s The Circle) with its compelling logline about the film’s portrayal of “two parallel love stories in which the lovers struggle with hidden and unavoidable obstacles, the forces of superstition, and the mechanics of power,” but following Panahi’s arrest and six-year prison sentence in July (on the charges of “propaganda against the [Iranian] regime,” said to be in reference to his support of filmmakers demonstrating online against the police brutality in Iran), Alberto Barbera – the artistic director of Venice – has openly stood in solidarity with Panahi and campaigned for his release from prison, showcasing the considerable support he has here. If Venice really wants to make a “statement” this year, a Golden Lion for No Bears would certainly be one way to accomplish that.
The Son (dir. Florian Zeller)
The Son is writer-director Florian Zeller’s feverishly awaited follow-up to 2020’s fantastic The Father (a film that was nominated for six Oscars and won two for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay) and an adaptation of Zeller’s 2018 play of the same name. The film centers around a familial conflict involving a father named Peter (Hugh Jackman), whose life with his new partner (Vanessa Kirby) and their newborn baby is thrown into disarray when his ex-wife (Laura Dern) shows up with their teenage son, Nicholas (newcomer Zen McGrath), who is struggling with depression. A family drama in the vein of those that used to dominate the Oscars in the late 70s and early 80s (Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, etc.), The Son is easily the most “mainstream” movie on this list, but there’s an artfulness to Florian Zeller’s filmmaking that still appeals to cinephiles as well, and the emotional pull of The Son in particular could be too overwhelming for Venice voters to resist.
TÁR (dir. Todd Field)
TÁR, writer-director Todd Field’s first film in 16 years, looks to be nothing short of a triumph, if that tremendous teaser trailer is any indication. Featuring yet another powerhouse performance from the brilliant Cate Blanchett, the film follows the fictional Lydia Tár, a renowned musician and composer who is in the process of “recording the symphony that will take her formidable career to new heights.” Even though Field’s first two features were definitely challenging and emotionally complex endeavors, TÁR seems to be his most artistically daring undertaking to date, something that may prevent it from fully catching on with the Academy, but should be Venice’s bread and butter. In fact, while many assume Bardo is the current frontrunner for the Golden Lion, my personal bet is on TÁR for the time being, based on the effusive early praise for the film that has leaked from those who have been lucky enough to already see it and the striking Kubrickian style on display.
The Whale (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Darren Aronofsky is actually the only filmmaker on this list who has already won a Golden Lion, which occurred in 2008, for his rapturously praised psychological sports drama The Wrestler. He has since premiered his films Black Swan and mother! there as well, but The Whale – his contender this year and his first film in five years following the heavily divisive mother! – has far more in common with The Wrestler than it does those other two more genre-tinged features, centering around the strained relationship between a father and daughter (much like The Wrestler) only this time, the father in question is not a former wrestler, but a 600-pound binge eater (played by Brendan Fraser, in what many have deemed his “comeback role”) who left his family for his gay lover and then adopted disordered eating habits out of pain and guilt. Stranger Things MVP Sadie Sink stars as his daughter, and even though this is said to be a smaller and “stagier” film than most of Aronofsky’s other features, the sure-to-be sensational acting and writing on display should make it a critical smash nonetheless.
White Noise (dir. Noah Baumbach)
Three years after Marriage Story brought him his big “Oscar breakthrough” (and first Venice premiere), Noah Baumbach is back with the highly anticipated White Noise, an adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel of the same name and Baumbach’s first feature to not be based on an original story of his own. Those familiar with DeLillo’s novel are likely surprised to see such a surrealist and supposedly “impenetrable” story receive the big screen treatment, but Baumbach is such a skilled filmmaker that we’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and remain optimistic about his attempts to adapt this apocalyptic satire regardless, and its placement as the opening film of this year’s Venice International Film Festival inspires confidence as well. Given that it speaks to many issues in contemporary America, it might not resonate as deeply with European viewers as it does with audiences over here, but we’ll have to see what Baumbach does with it to be sure.