This year's deaths in Venice

Butchered dogs, suicidal prostitutes, and the killing of a South Florida teenager: Geoffrey Macnab picks his highs and lows from the 58th Venice Film Festival
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The Independent Culture

Most Unlikely Moralist

Ever since Kids, his 1994 film about an AIDS-infected teenage Lothario, Larry Clark has been one of mainstream America's favourite bogeymen. True to form, his new film Bully (which received its international premiere in Venice) was lambasted in The New York Times as "morally corrupt" and as "deadpan decadence with a sneer of disgust". Clark hardly deserves such opprobrium. Bully, based on the real story of the 1993 killing of a South Florida teenager by his dopey, mixed-up friends, is his most moralistic film yet.

Taking his cue from In Cold Blood, Clark shot the movie in the suburb where the murder took place. The press in Venice were so obsessed by the sex scenes that many failed to notice what a bleak vision of post-Columbine US teen culture Clark offered. Sounding (and looking) like an Old Testament prophet, Clark railed against the laziness and complacency of his slacker protagonists. "There's a moral centre to all my work," he protested to The Independent. "Bad things happened to these kids because they did bad things. It's a big problem in America. We're such a rich culture. In what other country do middle-class kids from normal families have all this time to chill out, smoke pot, drink beer, drive around, fuck, be lazy, be bored, be a loser, and be allowed to be a loser?"

Best Road Movie

Two young Mexican lads and a beautiful but unhappy married woman hit the highway in a battered station wagon in search of a mythical beach. That's the starting point for Alfonso Cuaron's ebullient road movie, Y Tu Mamá También. En route, the trio learn the usual timeworn lessons about love and friendship. There's plenty of sex and knockabout comedy, but with its asides about politics, poverty and illness, this is far more subtle than the average, hormone-driven US comedy. Y Tu Mamá También is already a huge box-office hit in Mexico where young audiences are reportedly so desperate to see it that they've started mass stripteases. As one of the actors, Diego Luna, explains: "In one place, the young people outside the theatre were told they couldn't go in because this was a movie with a lot of sex. They said, 'So we can't see sex? Let's get undressed right here.'" The manager let them in.

On The Subject Of Visiting The Public Lavatories

Midway through the festival, Hong Kong director Fruit Chan unveiled his bizarre new movie, Hollywood, Hong Kong. It's about a family of corpulent pork butchers who live in medieval conditions in a shanty town beneath the city's towering skyscrapers. The butchers – a father and his two sons – are so obese that they make the enormous pigs they chop up look malnourished. There's no woman in the family, only Mama, their gigantic sow. Chan delights in capturing their blubbery flesh on camera and in contrasting them with the beautiful, but sinister woman who stumbles into their lives. A prostitute from mainland China, she symbolises a modern, mercantile world utterly foreign to them.

Odd as the film is, it's nothing on Chan's forthcoming project, Public Toilet. This, he cheerfully explained, is an anthropological survey looking at different cultures through their WCs. His travels take him from Calcutta to Rome, from Pusan to New York. The Beijing public toilets alarm him the most. "China now is well informed but they still have the old toilets where there isn't any blocking," Chan laments. "It's like a communal area. Wherever you are peeing or crapping, you come face to face [with somebody else]."

Worst Seaside Town To Go To In China

If you value your life, don't visit Beidaihe out of season. That was the message of underground Chinese film-maker Zhu Wen's debut feature, Seafood. The film is largely set in Beidaihe, where a young Beijing prostitute goes to commit suicide. It may be the resort where Chinese politburo members traditionally spend their summer holidays but the way Wen describes it, it sounds bleakin the extreme: "If you're there in winter and you're a depressive personality, the atmosphere will make you want to kill yourself." While most film-makers rail against piracy, Zhu Wen welcomes it. Seafood was shot without the authorities approval. With its sardonic depiction of prostitution, corruption and suicide in modern China, it has no chance whatsoever of receiving distribution. The only chance it has of being seen is on private video.

Most Effective Slow Burner

Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (starring Matthew McConaughey and John Turturro) is an ensemble piece about various New Yorkers, all of whom suffer random misfortunes. McConaughey is a hotshot lawyer whose certainties about life crumble after he's involved in a hit-and-run accident. Turturro is a repressed academic whose marriage is falling apart. Sprecher's inspiration came from an incident about ten years ago when she was assaulted. There are no big emotional set-pieces or resolutions. She realises that the trick to effective story-telling is to show the characters' problems and not necessarily to try and solve them.

Most Intricately Plotted Comedy-Thriller

"A really good plot is like a piece of perfect clockwork – it starts in one place and ratchets round and round and round until everything is unutterably changed," the British director Michael Newell once observed. When it comes to constructing elaborate mechanisms, Swiss clock-makers don't have anything on American writer-director, David Mamet.

His new film Heist is as tightly wound as the most complex time-piece. Double bluff follows double bluff as master thief Gene Hackman plans the perfect robbery while trying to swindle his paymaster Danny DeVito who, in turn, is trying to pull the rug from under him. It's impossible not to admire the ingenuity behind the script, Hackman barks out Mamet's gnomic dialogue as if he's an OAP Popeye Doyle while Rebecca Pidgeon does a spirited imitation of a 1940s, Gilda-style femme fatale.

Best Documentary By A 93-year-old

Manoel de Oliveira's Oporto Of My Childhood is a lyrical, beautifully paced documentary about the great Portuguese film-maker's home town, Porto. Combining old photographs and newsreels with dramatic reconstructions, it offers a portrait of a city in flux. When he grew up, Porto didn't even have proper cinemas. "The showing of films was improvised in sheds," de Oliveira (born in 1908) recalls.

Many of the old landmarks familiar from his childhood have long since disappeared. The brothels and cafés where he and his artist friends used to while away their days have all since closed down. Even the house where he grew up lies in ruins. "The city I remember only remains alive in my sad memory," he wryly reflects in the film.

Most Grotesque Asian Film

Venice featured several prime examples of Asian grotesquerie, worst among them Kim Kiduk's egregious Address Unknown. The film opens with an inter-title advising the audience that no dogs were harmed during filming. Moments later, as if to disprove this assertion, the local dog butcher strings some forlorn hound up by its neck, pounds it with a baseball bat, and flays it alive.

It's a repulsive beginning to a repulsive movie. The setting is an impoverished corner of South Korea, next to a US army base in the 1970s. The director lurches from one lurid set-piece to the next: a truculent adolescent lops off his mother's breast with a carving knife, a one-eyed teenage girl seeks sexual stimulation from a puppy, a town bully is garrotted as he sleeps in his prison cell. There are fitful hints that Kiduk is trying to tell us something about South Korean social history, but his shock tactics and images only succeed in making the gorge rise.

Best Horror Pic

The sound editor on Alejandro Amenabar's beautifully crafted chiller, The Others, must have had fun. The film offers a symphony of creaks, shuffles, echoes, sighs and scrapings. The setting is a mausoleum-like country house in Jersey just after the Second World War. Grace (Nicole Kidman) lives here with her two children who suffer from some mysterious ailment which makes them ultra sensitive to light.

Kidman's star persona and all the hoopla surrounding her break-up from Tom Cruise (who produced The Others) risk blinding audiences to her qualities as an actress. She is superb as the buttoned-up, repressed mother (a character not unlike Deborah Kerr's governess in The Innocents). After so many years of teen slasher movies, it was a revelation to come across a ghost story which relies on psychology rather than gore. Scrape away the supernatural crust and you find a delicately crafted tale about parenthood, grief and remorse.