TORONTO — Who's laughing now? "The Hangover" director Todd Phillips' critically embraced "Joker" — a DC Comics movie with shades of Martin Scorsese — has won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.
It's a somewhat surprising turn of events and the second year in a row the Venice jury has bestowed the festival's highest honor, the Golden Lion, on a film that drew rave reviews while simultaneously making Hollywood observers anxious at the state of the industry. Last year, the prize went to Netflix's "Roma," which became a major player in the Oscar race but also sparked fierce debate over the streaming giant's limited theatrical release windows and disinterest in revealing box-office grosses.
This year, it won't be surprising to see the ongoing praise, and likely box-office success, that "Joker" should enjoy throughout awards season to be tempered with grumbles that franchise titles — and comic book movies in particular — are dominating Hollywood's output to an increasingly unsettling degree.
While Joaquin Phoenix's widely praised lead performance was seen as a potential best actor pick in Venice (a prize he won for Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" in 2012), honoring a major studio movie might have been seen as a stretch. (For those keeping track of what this means for the Oscar race, it's notable that Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" won the Golden Lion before going on to claim 2017's best picture Oscar; however, it was the first film ever to win both awards.)
But the Venice jury, led by Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, clearly wanted to make some statements with their selections.
The runner-up Grand Jury Prize went to Roman Polanski's "An Officer and a Spy." The well-received dramatization of France's notorious Dreyfus Affair sparked controversy from the point it was officially announced as part of the festival's competition lineup. And Martel herself had to clarify comments from the opening news conference that seemed to suggest she would not be happy to see Polanski, who remains a fugitive from American justice since pleading guilty in 1977 to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, win a prize.
"An Officer and a Spy" currently has no U.S. distribution in place, and it remains an open question how any work from Polanski would be treated in the #MeToo era. The Oscar-winning filmmaker was expelled from the motion picture academy last year.
The two major Netflix films in competition at Venice — Noah Baumbach's prime Oscar contender "Marriage Story" and Steven Soderbergh's playful "The Laundromat" — did not receive any prizes from the jury. The Brad Pitt sci-fi epic "Ad Astra" also went home from the Lido empty-handed.
Additional key prizes went to Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, best director for "About Endlessness"; Ariane Ascaride, best actress for "Gloria Mundi"; Luca Marinelli, best actor for "Martin Eden"; and Hong Kong filmmaker Yonfan, best screenplay for the animated "No. 7 Cherry Lane."