The 10 Best Films We Saw at the 2023 Venice Film Festival

Featuring new movies from Richard Linklater, Sofia Coppola and more

September 11, 2023 2:00 pm
Emma Stone in "Poor Things"
Emma Stone in "Poor Things"
Searchlight Pictures

The glitzy Venice Film Festival has spruced up its reputation over the last few years by populating the red carpet with some of the most prestigious stars working in cinema today. Just last year the festival served as the backdrop for one of the juiciest celebrity scandals of the season during the world premiere of Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, an event that turned Florence Pugh holding an Aperol spritz into a viral meme and had internet sleuths in a furor to uncover whether or not Harry Styles spat on Chris Pine.

Many wondered, then, how the first simultaneous SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes in 63 years would affect the star-studded festival. Surprisingly, Venice only lost its opener in Luca Guadagnino’s Zendaya-starring Challengers, which forwent its prestigious spot soon after the SAG-AFTRA strike announcement in July. Many other heavy hitters confirmed their Venice world premieres a few weeks later, with Netflix once again making the most of their Italian launchpad by bringing five titles to the Lido, including the festival’s closer in J.A. Bayona’s The Society of the Snow, Bradley Cooper’s sophomore effort Maestro and David Fincher’s crime thriller The Killer

Alas, Netflix’s unwillingness to negotiate with the striking unions meant there was no red-carpet appearance for Cooper, Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and other A-listers in the studio’s films, with directors prodded by the press on the strikes at every given chance. The A-listers who did show up also faced the same level of scrutiny, but have harnessed the spotlight to reiterate their solidarity and voice their support for the striking workers. Adam Driver criticized Netflix and Amazon during a press conference for Michael Mann’s Ferrari, and Jessica Chastain arrived at the press conference for Michel Franco’s Memory wearing a SAG-AFTRA t-shirt. Both Driver and Chastain were allowed to promote their latest projects due to interim agreements issued by SAG-AFTRA to independent productions that met the union’s original demands. 

Still, in a year heavily marked by the current tensions within the American film industry, the Venice Film Festival managed to solidify its status as the unofficial start to awards season, crowning Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things to the delight of hungry pundits and igniting once again a conversation surrounding the ever-murkier role of European film festivals within the Hollywood award ecosystem. 

Below you will find a selection of the 10 best titles I saw while on the Lido — with the exception of Agnieszka Holland’s Special Jury Prize winner The Green Border, which has escaped me through the cruel hands of the scheduling gods but would have almost certainly made this list. These are films capable of temporarily curing terrible bouts of boat-induced vertigo and making you hopeful about the future of an art form that seems to be always at risk. 

Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Isn’t it wonderful when the greatest film at a festival is given its highest award? Yorgos Lanthimos’ Golden Lion winner took Venice by storm — and rightfully so. In this ludic adaptation of Alisdair Gray’s eponymous novel, Emma Stone sits behind the camera as a producer and in front of it as Bella Baxter, the magnificent creation of eccentric scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). An adult woman implanted with the brain of a newborn baby, Bella is a walking bundle of wonder and yearning. In her quest to quench this hunger for the world, Bella proves to be Lanthimos’ most well-realized creation and a delightful oddball heroine that allows Stone to marry her comedic and dramatic talents to embody a modern Alice by way of Frankenstein’s monster. An undefinable marvel, Poor Things unravels as a beautiful, vividly constructed ode to living, a type of film that comes once in a blue moon to redefine the possibilities of cinema. 

The Beast (Bertrand Bonello)

No one can tell what Bertrand Bonello is about to do next. From period dramas to political thrillers, the French director has tried his hand at almost every genre, and with The Beast he sets out to add sci-fi to his growing catalogue. Based on Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle, Bonello’s latest tells the time-spanning love story between Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) and Louis (George MacKay), a couple who never was, doomed to find and lose each other throughout history. Split into a triptych of 1910, 2014 and 2044, The Beast allows Bonello to prod at our current anxieties without pandering to the unrealistic beats of dystopia. The result is a refined commentary on artificial intelligence and emotional frigidity that rewards those patient enough to withstand a somewhat sluggish first act. 

Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros (Frederick Wiseman)

Are you a fan of The Bear who also happens to be into long-form documentaries? Boy, do I have the film for you! After a brief foray into fiction with the 2022 Venice title A Couple, master documentarian Frederick Wiseman returns to non-fiction with a four-hour chronicling of the routine at La Colline du Colombier, a three-Michelin-star restaurant administered by the culinary empire of the Troisgros. Wiseman’s slow, unintrusive approach to documentary lends itself to the lulling rhythms of the bucolic settings of Burgundy as well as allows for a deeper understanding of the precisely choreographed routine of a restaurant kitchen. It is a surprisingly emotional doc, too, evoking questions of ancestry and succession that are sure to move even those blissfully unaware of the difference between sauté and flambé.

Hit Man (Richard Linklater)

Those of us who have eagerly awaited the return of the American romcom lead need to wait no longer. He is here, and his name is Glen Powell. In Richard Linklater’s riotous comedy, the Top Gun: Maverick heartthrob plays a fictionalized version of the very real Gary Johnson, a college professor who moonlighted as an undercover policeman. This being a romantic comedy, our goofy protagonist meets the beautiful Maddy (Adria Arjona) while on duty, leading to a sizzling affair that will test Gary’s morals and Maddy’s murderous instincts. Filled to the brim with endlessly quotable one-liners and anchored by one of the sexiest pairings of recent years, Hit Man marks a very welcome return to form by Linklater, who finds in Powell not only a stellar leading star but an ideally suited writing partner, too.

Evil Does Not Exist (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

Lauded Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi turned a collaboration with Drive My Car composer Eiko Ishibashi into two complementary projects: a visual work accompanied by live music to be presented at the Gent Film Festival next month and this year’s Venice Silver Lion winner, Evil Does Not Exist. A searing observation on capitalism, Hamaguchi’s latest is set a few miles away from the bustling Japanese capital of Tokyo where a development company intends to build a modern glamping site amongst the ancient trees. The idea, however, is quickly opposed by the locals, who fear water contamination and disruptions to wildlife. A lean ecological drama examining themes of morals and greed, Evil Does Not Exist avoids the duality of its title in favor of a metaphorical plunge into the nature of man and that of what surrounds him. 

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Sky Peals (Moin Hussain)

Many have been quick to note how the new wave of British cinema is built upon coming-of-agers such as Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun and Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper. Moin Hussain’s Sky Peals joins a less spoken-about crop of UK debuts: those exploring diaspora and displacement within contemporary British society. In Hussain’s debut, Adam Muhammed (Faraz Ayub) is a fast-food worker in a motorway station, the loneliness of his life finding little solace in the quietness of his nightshifts. Adam’s unexciting routine proves ironclad until the day he gets a call about the death of his estranged father, a piece of news that pokes at a dormant sense of curiosity and sends him on a journey of self-discovery. A weird and wonderful look at diaspora and isolation, Hussain’s neon-tinted drama finds in its metaphor of limbo the perfect foundation for the dissection of sorrow that lies in numbness instead of despair.

El Conde (Pablo Larraín)

Over 10 years since the final film of his unofficial Pinochet trilogy of Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012), Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín returns to investigating the ripples of the Chilean dictatorship with Netflix’s El Conde. In this biting satire, the titular Count is Pinochet himself (Jaime Vadell), a 250-year-old vampire ready to forgo eternal life after seeing his legacy tarnished by what he believes to be ludicrous accusations of corruption and theft. Larraín finds in the absurdity of the premise the perfect narrative device to openly condemn the atrocious crimes committed not only by the dictator but also his family, a bunch of croons capable of redeeming even the kids in Succession. That it is shot in luscious monochrome and finds inspiration in classics by Carl Theodor Dreyer and Powell and Pressburger is only the cherry on top. 

Priscilla (Sofia Coppola)

It is odd at first to conflate the image of 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) to the one we so effortlessly associate with that of Priscilla Presley. Freed from the towering jet-black hair and perfectly winged eyeliner, Priscilla is just a baby-faced teen oblivious to how she is soon to be swallowed by the hurricane of Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). This contrast between Beaulieu and Presley is one of the many to guide Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, which sets out to investigate the bridges that stand between adolescence and adulthood, free will and restraint, desire and withholding, all while granting Priscilla Presley a chance to debunk the rumors and lies that have haunted her for six decades. As alluring a fable as terrifying a cautionary tale, Priscilla is destined to sit next to Marie Antoinette in a Coppola’s diptych on young women far too unprepared to enter the twisted, all-consuming worlds of royalty.

Io Capitano (Matteo Garrone)

Different from many recent films on the migrant crisis, Matteo Garrone’s epic Io Capitano paints a loving picture of the Senegalese capital of Dakar, where 16-year-old Seydou lives with his mother and younger sisters. Women dance to the beats of drums as streets turn into impromptu dance floors and children band together to play and sing as night draws nearer. Of course, there are hardships, and money is not easy to come by, but it is not the promise of a better paycheck that attracts Seydou (Seydou Sarr) to Europe — he dreams of being a successful musician alongside cousin and best friend Moussa. With their hopeful hearts clouding their youthful minds, the two decide to emigrate to Italy. The journey tests their emotional and physical strengths to the limits of what is human, a grueling, heartrending watch carried by a stunning performance by newcomer Sarr.

Daaaaaalí! (Quentin Dupieux)

In one of the greatest creative marriages in cinema this year, prolific French auteur Quentin Dupieux puts his surrealist spin on the king of surrealism himself, Spanish artist Salvador Dalí. As labyrinthine a film as a Dalí painting, Daaaaaalí! is better enjoyed without an expectation of neatly delineated timelines — or stories, for that matter. Dupieux has his fun at thwarting the audience’s perspective through a mix of increasingly ludicrous gags and a series of actors playing Dalí, all differing in age and size but bound together by a cartoonish moustache and affected mannerisms. Such a gimmick is left with no risk of becoming tiresome due to the filmmaker’s characteristically short runtime (a sweet 77 minutes in this case) and by the time one believes to have settled into the ludicrous rhythms of Dupieux’s surrealist affair, it is already time to say goodbye.

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