Venice is a festival that is very close to my heart. I’ve selected Italian cinema for the London Film Festival, I’ve worked with Venice curating cinema for the festival, and I’ve been attending as a delegate for more than 20 years. Some of the most important films I’ve ever seen, I’ve seen there first.
Venice Film Festival is a global celebration of world cinema, and it’s particularly important to celebrate the festival itself this year. Venice has just finished showcasing world cinema in such challenging conditions, and been brave enough to continue holding the torch for international, independent cinema in this difficult year.
To celebrate the importance of the festival, I’ve chosen 5 films from between 1998 – my first year in attendance – and 2018. I really hope you enjoy these introductions, and that they encourage you, if you haven’t seen these movies, to go and watch them – or, if you have seen them before, to rediscover them.
Adrian Wootton OBE
Chief Executive of Film London and the British Film Commission
1. The Red Violin (1998) — dir. François Girard
I’d already seen the earlier work of Canadian director François Girard – I’d loved his Glenn Gould biopic, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould – so I was very excited to see The Red Violin at my first Venice Film Festival. I was also quite anxious – it was my first year running the London Film Festival, and I was desperate to secure new movies from Venice – so I was delighted The Red Violin was so good.
It’s a wonderful, sweeping historical epic thriller, with 5 different stories all linked to the ownership of a single violin over the centuries, from 1681 to the present day. I think it’s still an underappreciated, almost neglected film, but I loved it. I was lucky enough to meet François in Venice, and invite him and the film to come to London, where it received a very warm welcome. I was also lucky enough to stay in touch with François over the years, and was pleased to welcome him back to LFF in 2019 with his latest film, The Song of Names.
The Red Violin still occupies a special place in my heart, as my first encounter with this remarkable filmmaker, and I really do think it deserves rediscovery and celebration. I hope you’re encouraged to go and watch the film, and immersive yourself in the talent of François Girard.
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2. Collateral (2004) — dir. Michael Mann
By 2004 I already had quite a long history with Michael Mann, director of this brilliant cat and mouse thriller. I first saw Manhunter, and met Michael, in 1987 at the London Film Festival, and then some years later I was proud to host him for the first UK retrospective of his work. In 1999, his The Insider was the surprise film at London Film Festival – and he was so concerned about the sound levels of the film that he installed a special device to allow him to control the volume as we watched the film.
So when his office contacted me in 2004 to tell me the premiere of his latest film, Collateral, was at Venice, and that I was invited, I was incredibly excited. My wife and I saw the film in the opulent surroundings of the Sala Grande – a wonderful experience – but, as is the often the case at film festivals, the film ran late. We were worried – we’d also been invited the special post-screening dinner party. It was an absolute fantasy to be going there, but we were so late, we slunk in slightly embarrassed and tried to be inconspicuous.
Imagine my surprise to hear a very loud Chicago-accented shout across the table: "Adrian, where were you??" – it was Michael Mann, and he wanted us to meet some people. The people concerned were Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise. I can honestly say that neither I nor my wife have experienced anything like it, and it remains one of the highlights of my film festival-attending career.
Collateral is such a brilliant movie, one of the highlights of Michael’s considerable body of work. I’d encourage you to revel in this brilliant thriller, to discover or rediscover the genius of Michael Mann.
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3. The Wrestler (2008) — dir. Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was shown in Venice in 2008, going on to win the festivals’ top prize, the Golden Lion. I was interested in this film as the latest from Darren Aronofsky – I’d loved Pi and Requiem for a Dream – but I was equally intrigued because of its leading man. I’d been a huge fan of Mickey Rourke since the beginning of his career, in films like Body Heat, Rumblefish and the late lamented Alan Parker’s Angel Heart.
It’s fair to say that after this glorious introduction, his career had been erratic – and those of us that were fans were desperate to start doing something worthy of his fantastic talent. I knew a comeback was on the way, as Mickey had just been to London to make a film called Stormbreaker, which Film London had a direct connection to, helping with a series of complex sequences shot on location in London. I was lucky enough to meet Mickey at that year’s BAFTA Awards and gush out my fandom to him – and learn about The Wrestler.
I was really hoping The Wrestler would live up to my exactions. It exceeded them. This is A Star is Born set in WWF, a tragic, bittersweet, comic, melancholy character portrayal of a wrestler on the skids trying to live out what’s left of his life. Rourke embodies the character with an incredible gravitas and presence, and Aronofsky gives him everything he needs to give the performance of his career. It was no surprise to me that it won Rourke a Golden Globe, that he was nominated for an Oscar – this really is the role of his life.
The Wrestler deserves to be re-viewed, re-celebrated, for us to recognise what a talented actor Mickey Rourke is, and what an amazing filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is for giving him this vehicle. Watch The Wrestler – you won’t regret it.
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4. Sacro GRA (2013) — dir. Gianfranco Rosi
An extraordinary documentary that premiered at the festival in 2013 and went on - also extraordinarily - to win the top prize, the Golden Lion . It was the first Italian film to do so in 15 years, and the first ever documentary that had ever done so - a testament to how amazing this movie is.
Rosi is a remarkable filmmaker. He immerses himself in different cultures, different worlds, different people's lives, and spends years researching his movies. He's only made 6 feature films over a 25 year career, but all of those movies are amazing, and this is one of his finest achievements.
Sacro GRA is about the people who live on the ring road around Rome. It gives you an extraordinary insight into these characters - idiosyncratic characters, pathetic characters, poor ordinary people, rich people - to present a tapestry unrivalled in contemporary filmmaking. No wonder it was laden with awards and incredible critical acclaim. I became an even bigger admirer of Rosi than i'd been before.
I was lucky to meet him at the Abu Dabhi Film Festival, where I was a jury member, and we struck up a conversation, an acquaintanceship that has continued to this today. Most recently, I've seen his latest movie Notturno, which premiered in Venice, is going to be in Toronto - I recorded an interview with him for the festival - and, I'm very pleased to say, will be at this year's London FiIm Festival. Please do sign up to watch the online premiere of Notturno - it's an equally amazing piece of filmmaking, this time set in the Middle East.
In the meantime, go and watch Sacro GRA - if you've never seen it, it's a joy from one of the most unique filmmakers, not just in Italy, but in the world. It really, really repays repeated viewing, but if you're watching it for the first time, I really envy you. Sacro GRA is a masterpiece.
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5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) — dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
The most recent film on this list, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is the latest from that inimitable, idiosyncratic double act Joel and Ethan Cohen, who have graced us with so many amazing films. I think I must have seen everything they've ever done, and had the pleasure of meeting ad hosting them and their casts many times in London. Indeed, there is a London connection with the Cohens - you may not be aware of it, but they had a long creative producing partnership with the London-based Working Title.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is another of their explorations of genre, and one they have explored before - but this is a portmanteau movie, a collection of six short stories all linked by being set in the Wild Old West. It's a homage to Western pulp fiction, laced with their trademark perceptive characterisation, grotesque violence and black humour.
One of the sections is based on a Jack London story, and, excitingly for me, stars an actor - and singer-songwriter - who I'm incredibly fond of and doesn't do enough - the reclusive, brilliant Tom Waits. He's fantastic in the film - Tom Waits and Jack London is an absolutely irresistible combination as far as I'm concerned.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is huge fun. I revelled in an early morning press screening at Venice, and I'm looking forward to revelling in it all over again. Enjoy the Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but also and look out for Tom Waits and that particular Jack London section.