Lights go up on the Lido

The Venice Film Festival is often compared unfavourably with its Cannes and Toronto competitors. But this year could change all that

The unwholesome whiff at last year's Venice Film Festival didn't come from the Venice Lagoon. The films themselves left many attendees holding their noses. By consensus, 2008 was a difficult year, only partially redeemed by the late screening of eventual Golden Lion winner, The Wrestler.

This year appears to be shaping up better. Festival director Marco Müller has secured some titles that will excite the critics. The competition features titles from art-house favourites such as Jacques Rivette (36 Vues du Pic Saint-Loup), Claire Denis (White Material), Fatih Akin (Soul Kitchen) and Jessica Hausner (Lourdes). Meanwhile, clearly heeding the very loud grumbling heard on the Lido last year, he looks to have upped the festival's glamour quota. There is even something for the kids. George Lucas will be on the Lido to present Pixar boss John Lasseter with a lifetime achievement award and Venetian tots will be able to see Toy Story in 3D.

One populist move has been to give a lifetime achievement award to... Sylvester Stallone. Generally, such accolades are reserved for revered auteurs, not Eighties action movie stars. Previous winners of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Award – which is about to come Sly's way – include Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami and darling of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda. Visitors to Venice will have the chance to see Rambo – Director's Cut.

For the Anna Wintour crowd – or at least for those who don't like films about sweaty men in bandannas brandishing machine guns – the title likely to provoke the most curiosity is A Single Man, the debut feature by fashion designer and ex-Gucci supremo Tom Ford. This is an adaptation of a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood about a life in the day of a gay British professor, trying to cope with the death of his partner. Colin Firth plays the lead. Whatever the film turns out to be like, it will at least give the fashionistas plenty to get agitated about and provide a good excuse for a big Venetian party.

Michael Moore watchers will be intrigued to see how the portly American polemicist is adjusting to the post-Bush era. His previous films Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko all premiered in Cannes. Venice is a very different proposition: it's a festival without a film market and therefore without the clamour of distributors trying to buy films or producers announcing new projects. Moore's films definitely benefited from being in the middle of the Cannes maelstrom. His previous documentaries helped to set agendas. Moore is billing the latest film, which is about the global economic crisis, as "the perfect date movie". It's questionable, though, whether audiences now, reeling from the recession and adjusting to the Obama era, will much have stomach for a film looking at bankruptcy, foreclosures and fear and loathing on Wall Street.

Eyebrows were raised last year when visionary German director Werner Herzog announced he was going to direct Nicolas Cage in a remake of Abel Ferrara's masterpiece Bad Lieutenant. It just didn't seem a happy marriage. Ferrara's film, which elicited one of Harvey Keitel's greatest performances as the corrupt cop, was as much a study in Catholic guilt as it was a conventional cop thriller. It was a New York film made by a New York director. Why, one wondered, would a Teutonic auteur be so opportunistic as to want to remake such a film? Ferrara certainly didn't seem happy, even if the new movie is set in New Orleans with Cage as a crack-smoking southern cop rather than in the Big Apple. Then again, Herzog is such a subversive director that the new film will have a certain grisly fascination, however it turns out.

To add to the frisson of its Venice premiere, Ferrara is also due on the Lido, where he will be presenting his barbed homage to Naples, Napoli Napoli Napoli, which comes billed as a "lunge" into the city's "vital, brutal, passionate and cruel humanity". One prediction can safely be made: the press will be doing its best to stoke up any possible antagonism between the two combustible directors.

George Clooney has a strange effect on Venice attendees. A few years ago, at one of the more surreal press conferences in the festival's history, an Italian journalist's probing question to the American star ran along the lines of "will you marry me?". Clooney is back on the Lido again this year as one of the stars of Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stared at Goats. This is an adaptation of British journalist Jon Ronson's book about the US army's idea for a "First Earth Battalion", a unit devoted to New Age and psychic practices. In the movie, Ewan McGregor plays the journalist investigating this wildly eccentric endeavour.

In recent years, Venice has come under increasing pressure from the Toronto Festival, with which it partially overlaps. Venice is the oldest festival in the world. In Marco Müller, it has one of the most wily and respected programmers around. Even so, it is an event that much of the industry bypasses, especially as more business can be done in Toronto.

The festival is always faced with the same dilemma. If it leans too far in the direction of the US studios – which tend to use it as the autumn launchpad for the release of their movies in Europe – it will lose its integrity as a serious cinephile event. By the same token, if the programming is too esoteric and art house driven, the press and public will groan – as they did so loudly last year. On the face of it, Müller has the balance right this year. It just remains to be seen if the movies are up to scratch.

Venetian screens: Ones to watch

*Mr Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Jaco Van Dormael's big-budget sci-fi fantasy stars Jared Leto as Nemo, the world's oldest man. Controversially snubbed by Cannes, it could well prove the festival crowd-pleaser.

*Lourdes by Jessica Hausner

The Austrians won in Cannes with Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. They may repeat the feat in Venice with Hausner's drama about a group of religious believers who travel to Lourdes in search of miracles.

*The Road by John Hillcoat

This Cormac McCarthy adaptation promises to be bleak but compelling.

*Life During Wartime by Todd Solondz

Solondz is US indie cinema's laureate of dysfunction but advance word suggests his new film is not quite as sour as some of its predecessors.

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