Venice 2023 Recap: My Top 8 Favorite Films – Lanthimos & Linklater
by Alex Billington
September 19, 2023
Each year, I am honored to have a chance to return to the beautiful city of Venice in Northern Italy to attend the Venice Film Festival and catch the latest films premiering there. This year’s festival is now finished, so it’s time to present my picks of my favorite films from Venice 2023. I’ve chosen 8 of the best of the fest films that deserve to be highlighted. This was my seventh year returning to Venice, I even stopped by back in 2020 during the pandemic as I didn’t want to miss it. In total, I watched around 32 films at Venice this year, and while it wasn’t the most spectacular line-up, I am always glad to have the chance to dive into this entrancing selection of new cinema every year anyway. The best of the festival this year, Poor Things, is also the same film that went on to win the Golden Lion top prize, awarded by a jury featuring the filmmakers Damien Chazelle, Jane Campion, Mia Hansen-Løve, Martin McDonagh, and Laura Poitras. I always do my best to watch as many films as I can, hoping to find the hidden gems and surprises amidst a diverse line-up.
As always, I keep writing reviews for a number of the films as well, already published over the last few weeks. Digging into the 2023 film selection, I prefer Priscilla over Maestro, despite both films being quite strong. Michael Mann’s Ferrari is good, at least I liked it quite a bit, though with time I have forgotten it. Nikolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land with Mads Mikkelsen is also really good, though quite depressing. I don’t think Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist is that good, it’s half of a film with a bad ending. I did not care for the Ross Brothers’ film Gasoline Rainbow at all, it’s junk. The Hungarian film Explanation for Everything is a surprising revelation, an underrated discovery, worth a watch even though it’s quite long. And Timm Kröger’s The Theory of Everything is a fascinating Austrian film, but too confusing to be great. I’m always up for chatting about any of the films from the festival, even the ones I didn’t like can be discussed further.updated with screenings and comments daily. And I have also been posting thoughts, photos, and more updates on my main Twitter account during the fest. And I’ve been
Below are my Top 8 films from the 2023 Venice Film Festival; these are the films that I enjoyed the most, or those that I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I hope everyone else gives them a look, too. My favorites:
Poor Things – Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
This certified Golden Lion winner is also my #1 film of the 2023 festival. And it’ll most likely find a spot somewhere on my Top 10 of the year as well. Yorgos! Yorgos! Yorgos! Everything about this film is fresh and fun and spunky and sultry. It’s witty and bold, a remarkably powerful modern feminist fable. It borrows from Frankenstein at the start, but it’s much more of an Alice in Wonderland-esque journey through the different realms of sex and satisfaction. I wrote in my glowing review that “it might be the raunchiest film of the entire decade…?!” With all the pointless debates on social media about sex scenes & nudity in cinema, Lanthimos has decided to dance in & decidedly say – screw that, sex is an important part of life and here is my glorious film taking us on a grand journey of sexual awakening & womanly emancipation. Emma Stone is outstanding, another unforgettable role in her remarkable oeuvre (she might end up winning a second Oscar for this performance). And the wickedly distinct score from Jerskin Fendrix adds another layer of mad genius to the cinematic experience. All-in-all a truly marvelous work of art from Greek maestro Yorgos.
Hit Man – Directed by Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s Hit Man is THE surprise hit of the festival this year. It was so exciting to experience this press screening, it’s rare to ever see a big crowd of tough European critics laugh this much and this loudly at an American comedy. But that enthusiastic vibe with the audience all in on this one is part of why it was such a delightful movie to discover late in the festival. Co-written by both Richard Linklater and Glen Powell, and directed by the masterful Richard Linklater, the story is actually based on a real guy named Gary Johnson. It’s yet another one of these bonkers how-is-this-true stories about an undercover cop. Aside from reminding the audience that “hitmen don’t really exist”, it flips a few of the tropes around, and borrows others but is playful with them in a way that enhances the entertainment. Best of all, Powell’s performance in this is one for the ages. It’s going to cement him as a massively talented movie star, capable of performing any role – serious, geeky, charming, sexy, weird, or wacky. He pulls off so many little roles in this, and he’s a perfect match with co-star Adria Arjona. Sexiest couple on screen this year? Yep, it’s true.
Daaaaaali! – Directed by Quentin Dupieux
Dali! C’est un fou!! Absolutely loved Quentin Dupieux’s Daaaaaali!, such a delight. And it’s only 77 minutes long!! Mad crazy genius filmmaking from one-and-only Quentin Dupieux remixing the myths of Salvador Dalí, using different actors to play the quirky artist as he bumbles around for an interview. Or rather, as he tries to avoid an interview. It’s hilarious in about 100 different ways. Everyone at my Venice press screening laughed & laughed & laughed. I don’t even know what the point of the whole film is, but who cares, I just know I enjoyed it immensely. One of Dupieux’s best wacky films, with an unforgettable set of performances. Still chuckling thinking about him and all the crazy lines he has. You’ll never forget the way he pronounces his own name. You’ll never forget the mustache, or all the kooky things he does in this film. It’s not really a biopic, it’s more of an experimental let’s-fuck-around-like-Dali-did creation meant to make us laugh at how absurd and eccentric genius artists can be. I want to watch it again!! It plays so well with an engaged crowd.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial – Directed by William Friedkin
I can’t stop thinking about how incredible this screenplay is (let’s talk about it!!), and how amazing all of the performances are bringing it to life on screen. I already wrote about this in my full review. Yes, it’s a story told many times before in a few other films (based on based on Herman Wouk’s 1953 play of the same name, also based on the novel by Wouk). And it doesn’t do anything new or different in terms of style or cinematography. But I will continue to talk about William Friedkin’s version of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial as one of the best plays as a film I’ve ever seen. It all takes place in one room, and it’s all about this one court martial, yet it’s as riveting and as smart (even moreso) as any Hollywood movie with massive sets and gigantic budgets spent on CGI or wardrobe. Kiefer Sutherland is exceptional as Queeg, Jason Clarke is also great again as another attorney (after Oppenheimer), Jake Lacy is unforgettable as Maryk. Whenever it gets released, I think it’s important to read between the lines with what’s really going on (and what Friedkin is actually commenting on) and analyze the final scene for more than only what is said.
Woman of… – Directed by Michal Englert & Malgorzata Szumowska
Another gorgeous film I can’t get off of my mind. I was profoundly moved by Michal Englert & Malgorzata Szumowska’s Woman of…, originally known as Kobieta z… in Polish. It is not easy to tell the entire life story of one person, nor is it easy to capture their heart and soul and feelings and sufferings and joys and experiences in a coherent and captivating story that anyone can connect with. Yet that is what this film has done, and even though it may not be as completely impactful in the end as it could be, it is still a superbly groundbreaking, elegant film about a trans woman in Poland. Starring a vibrant Malgorzata Hajewska as Aniela. Above all, the film deserves special praise for the astonishing cinematography, shot by co-director Michał Englert. Every single shot is lovely, but there are a few that took my breath away, framed perfectly with light shining through in just the right way. It’s awe-inspiring work that should be studied in great detail. It compliments the story by allowing a few stunning rays of light to shine in to Aniela’s life, to remind us how even in the toughest moments, expressing yourself honestly is always beautiful, always enlightening.
Priscilla – Directed by Sofia Coppola
This is one film where the more I think about it, the more it remains in my mind – even a week after first watching it. While they can’t rightfully be compared, along with Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, this film really stands out. Sofia Coppola’s film is an elegant, intimate retelling of the Elvis story – but it’s not really about Elvis of course. It really surprised me, better than I was expecting, though of course Coppola has this same light touch with her films when I think back about everything she’s made. Priscilla is actually quite light and sweet, all solely from Priscilla’s perspective, never drifting off to anything else with Elvis or anything that isn’t about her own experience with him while at Graceland. Cailee Spaeny as the young “Cilla” Beaulieu is tremendously good, deserving of the Best Actress Award from the festival. Jacob Elordi is also fantastic as Elvis Presley, in a role that is the complete opposite of Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie; never grandstanding or overwhelming, only playing the part as the sweet Elvis who seems to have a wild side that we (or rather Priscilla) never actually gets to see. It’s another highlight within Sofia Coppola’s filmography.
The Killer – Directed by David Fincher
Even though pretty much everyone agrees that David Fincher’s assassin film The Killer doesn’t really try to do anything new or different, it’s still a damn good film. It’s hard to deny that. There’s just something about Fincher’s refined, meticulously precise filmmaking that fits nicely with a story about a refined, meticulously precise hitman. Plus it has Michael Fassbender being a slick, calculating badass who is always trying to stay ahead of everyone else. I just want to drift into the cinematography by DP Erik Messerschmidt and admire the perfectly shot, perfectly lit scenes. I’ll fully admit this is the main reason I am looking forward to rewatching The Killer, even if it’s at home on Netflix (so be it). There’s an impressive amount of gripping tension as “The Killer” makes his way around the world (and back) pulling off kills and staying ahead of everyone else every step of the way. Even if his killing isn’t your jam, watching him meticulously control & manage evidence and figure out how to outsmart all those that think they might outsmart him is engaging. I am choosing this one because it’s still better than a number of other bad films I saw at the festival this year.
Love Is a Gun – Directed by Hong-Chi Lee
One of my favorite discoveries at the 2023 festival was this Taiwanese film, marking the feature directorial debut of a Taiwanese actor named Hong-Chi Lee. He has starred in many acclaimed Taiwanese films, but this is his first time behind the lens making one. There’s something about his style and his minimalistic filmmaking choices that really impressed me. Love Is a Gun tells the story of a young reformed gangster known as “Sweet Potato”, who returns to his small town after finally getting out of prison. As with every story about this kind of person returning, he’s quickly whisked back into the gangster lifestyle, even though he’s hoping to not fall back into his old ways. However, this film makes some subversive choices and allows him to pushback against this, going in some unexpected directions. It’s also just a beautiful film, with some seriously stunning cinematography. I hope Hong-Chi Lee keeps making more films, as I’m certain he’ll only get better and better with everyone he makes – and will probably end up winning the Palme d’Or or Golden Lion or some other major prize one day soon. Keep an eye out for this film – here’s the festival promo trailer.
Recapping the entire festival, it was another good year but I actually prefer the 2022 line-up more. There were a number of iconic all-timer films in 2022 (last year’s favorites here), with only one or two in 2023. Poor Things and Hit Man have earned their place in cinema history, but how many other films have? Venice programs such a wide variety of exciting cinema that of course they’ll inevitably have a few duds in the mix. Not everything that is super artsy turns out good, and some filmmakers are more interested in confounding experimentation than anything smart. I did enjoy watching most of the 2023 selection, though I found a few of the more prominent films to be mid – Ava DuVernay’s Origin, Matteo Garrone’s Io Capitano, Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border, Bradley Cooper’s Maestro. They’re not the truly incredible films they could be, but they’re also not bad films either. I did hate Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast, which is some incomprehensible trash. And the Opening Night Italian submarine film Comandante was also terrible. I’m still sad that Luca Guadagnino had to pull Challengers, because that would’ve been the perfect film for the festival to kick off with. I’m always so lucky to cover this festival as press every year anyway. Thanks for reading my thoughts.
And that’s it for Venice 2023 (aka #Venezia80), wrapping up our updates from the fest for this year. As already mentioned before, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things won the Golden Lion – find the full list of 2023 awards winners here. My coverage wraps up with this list of favorites and final thoughts on the films this year. I’m very much looking forward to returning to Venice again in 2024, one of the best festivals in the world. I’m always ready to spend more time in this iconic Italian city and immerse myself in the latest films.
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