The party’s best – 6 favorite films from the Venice Film Festival in 2021
by Alex Billington
September 22, 2021
Every year I am incredibly lucky and privileged to return to the spectacular city of Venice in Italy to participate in Venice Film Festival and catch the latest movies premiered there. Venice is over and looking back at the lineup, it’s time to present my quick choices of my favorite movies from Venice 2021. This was my fifth year in a row back to Venice, I was even past last year during the pandemic, and I spent every single day at screenings all day. They always show two new movies in the morning along with lots of other shows in the evening to catch. In all, I saw 28 films in Venice this year, and even though it was not the best selection, I am always happy to have the chance to see them anyway. The party started with Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Parallel mothers (see trailer) which I did not care about. Then continued for another 10 days and I was there right to the end. You probably already know what I was looking for, but let’s summarize anyway.
As always, I keep my Letterboxd page updated daily with views and comments. And I’ve also posted thoughts, photos and more updates on my main Twitter account @firshow during the party. And I have also written reviews for a number of films already released during the party. I was also a guest on the Turkish TV channel TRT World to discuss the festival and a look back at the films. There are so many other movies I want to talk about at some point, including two interesting documentaries (both flawed but still entertaining to watch): Django and Django, a look back at the films of Italian spaghetti western director Sergio Corbucci, in which Quentin Tarantino spoke about him; and Ennio: Maestro about the legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who runs for almost 3 hours and contains endless fascinating stories. But I’ll save them for another day, as there’s always so much more to talk about with all the festival films.
Below are mine Top 6 films from the Venice Film Festival in 2021; these are the movies I enjoyed the most, or left the biggest impact on me at the party, and I hope everyone else appreciates them too. My favorites:
The power of the dog – Directed by Jane Campion
For the record – The power of the dog is mine Golden Lion wins this year. It should have won, I really think Jane Campion deserved it. And I really believe The power of the dog is one of the festival’s best films, not only a captivating story of toxic masculinity and male fragility, but a performance as a film in the form of films and performances and score and everything else about it. It’s a complex film about how everyone has a dark side that they do not really know how to deal with and how this toxicity can spread to others and make everyone fight even more. Some of the best pictures I have seen in any movie this year, they are so good that they may end up on the list of best of the decade. The more I think about this, the more I analyze it, the more I find in here and the more I appreciate the filmmaking. The score by Jonny Greenwood and the cinematography of DP Ari Wegner is to die for. Benedict Cumberbatch when he best played a character that I was not sure he could play at first, but eventually I was ready to give him a standing ovation.
Dune – Directed by Denis Villeneuve
As strange as it may seem that this year’s biggest Hollywood blockbuster is playing at a prestigious film festival, it certainly deserved to be there. No question. Dune is this year’s film event! And I’m so glad I had the chance to see it in Venice, in my favorite place that sat on the best seat in the house. With the volume ALL the way up. Denis Villeneuve knocked this out of the park, it’s a grand slam. It was a breathtaking experience to see this in Venice, where the floors shook thanks to Hans Zimmer’s incredible score and the epic sound design from the sci-fi action movie. As everyone knows, Dune is almost impossible to adapt from a book to a movie. After all these years, Villeneuve has finally done the impossible. This movie is as grand and magnificent as the original book demands, and it feels like we are actually being introduced to a real galaxy full of different civilizations. All ruled by the spice of Arrakis. The chills I had and hold-your-breath moments I experienced watching this reminded me to watch Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a worthy comparison, and I can not wait for Villeneuve to move on and bring us part two sooner rather than later.
The lost daughter – Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal
I still can not believe that this is the first film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, but I guess I should not be surprised after all her acting with talented directors. It is a film that understands the language of the film and how to capture different voices in ways that only experienced filmmakers know how. But precisely because of this, this film was so invigorating to discover, one of my favorites out of everything I saw during the festival. The lost daughter is a disturbing, honest exploration of bad parents – not just one, but two of them on a holiday in Greece. One of the most intelligent movies I have ever come across. A remarkably deep story that is challenging in many ways, built around a complex set of women – led by the always amazing Olivia Colman, together with Jessie Buckley and Dakota Johnson. I love the music in the movie of Dickon Hinchliffe, another score that fits perfectly. I hope others will see how powerful it is to tear taboos through and challenge us with honesty and authenticity. It’s rare we get a movie this intellectual and this breathtaking all at once.
Spencer – Directed by Pablo Larraín
Oh my sweet, sweet soufflé d’abricot, I LOVED this. Kristen Stewart at the best she has ever been. Pablo Larrains Spencer is an extraordinary “fuck you” to the royal family and that’s half the reason I loved it. A breathtaking, intriguing story about a woman who cannot breathe and realizes that she must break free from the royal chains. I laughed, I laughed, I clapped loudly. Maybe even cheered a little. The script is glorious and just so damn delicious. Al mad! All the visual metaphors! I could not bear fear, ohhhh HORROR. You can feel it in every frame, knowing what is coming to her years later, it is impossible to ignore the impending fate. And the score, my God, who SHOULD know Jonny Greenwood! It could not be more different than his score for The power of the dog, but it is just as unforgettable and delicious. It’s another movie where everything is on the nose obvious, which might bother some, but not me. I enjoyed every last second of this.
Full time (Full time) – Directed by Eric Gravel
This is the best French movie I have seen all year so far. An energetic, gripping tale of a woman who struggles to sustain her life in a modern world at a pace where everything depends on the trains departing on time. Full time won several awards in Venice, and deserved it – the performance of Laure calamy as Julie is extraordinary. She is a single mother trying her best to look after her two children and get to her intensive job in Paris, even though she lives far away in a small village. Just as she is about to get her break with a good job opportunity, public transportation strikes down and she is forced to figure out every possible way to get there and back. I love the electro-heavy score by Irene Drésel, it’s exactly the kind of modern score that fits into a modern movie like this. And I just love how engaging the film takes us on this journey as we follow Julie trying to live her life. Throughout the film, I could really feel all the excitement and all the stress she’s trying to cope with, and I just wanted her to come home and finally get some relief. What an amazing movie.
Sunset – Directed by Michel Franco
Another quaint film that was a complete surprise at the festival. Even the synopsis did not even suggest what the film is really about. I was immediately surprised by this film at the Venice screening, but it has grown more and more on me as I think about it. I’ve also noticed that many other critics do not seem to understand what’s going on in this film, especially with Tim Roth discreet, yet excellent performance. He’s an emotionless, careless frump in this because it is part of the show, and discovering why he feels that way and how there is so much guilt that was wiped out for him is part of the experience of watching this movie. Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco continues to make confusing films that mess with my head and make me think about perspectives and questions I have never considered before. It’s a complex, challenging cinema at its best – though it’s a (seemingly) simple story about a man who does not want to leave Acapulco.
Overall, this was a strong year in Venice, but not exactly the most memorable. All the best films at the festival premiered for the first five days, then it was a bunch of mediocre and strange choices. I could not stand the Italian film Freaks out, a lousy WWII superpower action party filled with horrific clichés that run an hour longer than it should have. And it played in the main competition ?! Why? It makes no sense. But to start the festival in the first few days with Spencer and Dune and The lost daughter and The power of the dog was more than satisfying, and kept me happy the rest of the festival anyway. The full set of movies I saw during the festival is listed on my Letterboxd as part of my daily diary. Venice, even with some management issues or a mediocre line-up, is still one of the finest film festivals in the world. It is such a warm and relaxed place to experience world cinema. I’m always so lucky to cover it as the press every year.
And that’s it for Venice 2021 (aka # Venezia78), which concludes our updates from the festival. The French film with the title It happens (The event) directed by Audrey Diwan won The Golden Lion – find the full list of 2021 award winners here. My coverage concludes with this list of favorites and thoughts on the movies this year. I’m really looking forward to returning to Venice next year, it’s one of my favorite parties this fall and I’m always so happy to return to this beautiful city and catch up on new movies from around the world.