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What to watch: Venice Film Fest edition

From the bizarre antics of ‘Birdman’ to the return of James Franco, here are the most anticipated features flooding the canals at Venice

The Venice Film Festival, the oldest and perhaps the most glamorous film festival of them all, will tomorrow embark on its 71st edition, providing one last celebration of cinema before autumn descends on Europe. Once again, its glittering stars will be chauffeured by motorboat through the city’s iconic canals to the Lido di Venezia’s red carpet, an 11km sandbar that pokes out into the Adriatic sea.

Throughout its history, the Venice Film Festival has been the site of many significant moments in cinematic history. Pedro Almodovar emerged into the international limelight in 1988 with his Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Marlon Brando gloriously appeared in 1954, and in 1951 Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon was awarded the Golden Lion for best film (the first Japanese movie to be shown in the West).

The festival jury is headed up by French composer Alexandre Desplat. All but one are world premieres. "We are not looking for middle-of-the-road cinema,” the festival director, Giorgio Gosetti, explained recently. “We look for filmmakers that have made a film that breaks away from their traditional style." After the barnstorming release of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty last year, Gosetti seems to be a man of his word. So, here are ten of the most anticipated releases at this year’s VFF.


The curtain-raiser of VFF71 is genre-parody Birdman, the latest offering from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, known for his densely-layered dramas Amores Perros and Babel. It follows an actor – played by Michael Keaton – once famed for his roles as a superhero, who aims to mount a comeback. How? By staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Walk About Love on Broadway. Edward Norton features as an arrogant actor, tussling for control.


Forming the equivalent of a musical supergroup, Guillermo Arriaga, Bahman Ghobadi, Emir Kusturica and Hideo Nakata joined forces to create the religious-themed anthology Words With Gods. It is the first of four installments in the groundbreaking "Heartbeat of the World" series, and will see each director weave a narrative regarding human fragility and cultural crises, from Aboriginal spirituality to Atheism. Oh, and Peter Gabriel wrote the score.


It only seems like drones are going to become a bigger part of our lives, and so it was only an inevitable that a film dealt with the ethical conundrums that drones serve up. New Zealand director Andrew Niccol, who previously led the memorable The Truman Show, is taking on the story of a drone operator in Afghanistan who becomes emotionally embroiled in the troubles of his job. Starring Ethan Hawke and Mad Men’s January Jones, this should be an interesting contribution to the discussion.


This documentary follows a movement of filmmakers from Taipei who went about creating New Taiwan Cinema at a time when the country was turbid and pre-democratisation. The starting point for these daring youngsters was in 1982, who went on to have an impact on contemporary cinema as we know it. Flowers of Taipei looks over the three decades since, with contributions from the likes of Thai Palme D’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul and celebrity-dissident Ai Weiwei.


Xavier Beauvois's La Rançon de la Gloire is based on a true story from the 1970s about two men who plotted to steal Charlie Chaplin's coffin in Switzerland. After leaving prison Eddy Ricaart is welcomed by his old friend Osman Bricha, who lets Eddy stay at is home in exchange for babysitting his seven-year-old daughter. But when Christmas is ruined by a lack of money, and Chaplin’s death is all over the news, the pair of them resolve to steal the wealthy actor’s coffin, and demand a ransom.


Francesco Munzi’s Black Souls explores the reality of the Calabrian-based mafia, a group that are known as global cocaine traffickers. When one of their sons lusts over the luxurious gangster life, three brothers are drawn away from their now tranquil lives, back to their family’s narcotic-trade dynasty in the wild peaks of Calabria. Munzi’s elegant film is about a ceaseless struggle to escape the past, and reaches deep into the pitch-black troubles that have ravaged modern Italy.


The only debut feature to be competing for Venice’s highest honour, the Golden Lion, this year is young Turkish director Kaan Müjdeci. His film Sivas tells the tale of a young boy who saves a wounded stray dog, and their ensuing friendship. Müjdeci spent his childhood moving throughout Anatolia, a place that has an entrenched dog fighting tradition. Sivas took years to develop, produce and shoot, and has brought together the best of Turkey's contemporary artists. 


The Look of Silence is the follow-up to Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant The Act of Killing, and his latest documentary continues the focus on the Indonesian genocide. But now, the director follows a family that confronts the militiamen who killed their brother during the anti-Communist purges of the 1960s. While it is the only documentary in the main competition, both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are executive producers, providing mind-boggling levels of talent.


This year James Franco will be honoured at the Venice Film Festival with the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker prize, which recognises innovation in contemporary cinema. There will also be a screening of The Sound and the Fury, an adaptation of William Faulkner’s Modernist novel, in which Franco directs and stars in (naturally). It centres on the Compson family, former Southern aristocrats who are have to deal with the rapid decline of their family’s reputation.


On the night of November 2, 1975, jewel of Italian cinema and dedicated taboo-breaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in Rome. Abel Ferrara's Pasolini captures this tragic last day in a dreamlike, hazy state, which itself still remains shrouded in mystery. Fresh after the hugely-acclaimed ‘Welcome to New York’ about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sex scandal this year, Ferrara is a hot ticket. With Willem Dafoe starring as Pasolini, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to put your money on this to win the Golden Lion.