Venice 2014: Read our Venezia 71 programme preview

This week, the world's oldest and often most unpredictable film festival, the 71st Venice Film Festival, will unroll on the Lido. Twenty films will screen in competition, vying for the prestigious Golden Lion and a further fifty-odd films will show out of competition and in the various sidebars - all but one of which will be world premieres - along with nineteen restored classics and a series of shorts. French composer Alexandre Desplat is heading the jury, which includes Britain's very own Tim Roth. Following on from last year's big bang opening of Alfonso Cuarón's Oscar-engulfing Gravity (2013), fellow Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's (Amores Perros) heavily shrouded Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), ought to kick things of in some style if early glimpses are anything to go by.

Following the multilingual Babel (2006), Iñárritu's eagerly anticipated foray into English language cinema has the feel of an event movie and the inspired madness of the trailer is mouth-watering to say the least. Birdman stars Michael Keaton as a washed up actor staging a Broadway play while haunted by the iconic superhero alter ego which made him famous. Boasting a veritable glut of acting talent - including Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts - the film also promises to bring some Hollywood star power to the red carpet and the producers will be hoping that the Lido bow will provide a good run-up to success at next year's Academy Awards, as it also did for Gravity.

There are five American films in competition including the return of David Gordon Green, who continues to provide actors with some great showcases. Last year it was Nicolas Cage in Joe (2013). This year it's Al Pacino playing the eponymous locksmith with a dark past in Manglehorn (2014). Ramin Bahrani is another returnee, following 2012's At Any Price (2012) with 99 Homes, starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in a timely tale of foreclosure and economic desperation. Keeping it topical, Andrew Niccol's Good Kill, features Ethan Hawke's Afghanistan-based drone operator in the midst of a crisis of conscience. Following swiftly on from his triumphant take on King Lear as sex addict, Welcome to New York (2013), Abel Ferrara returns to the Lido with the geographically apt Pasolini.

One of the most eagerly awaited film has to be Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Look of Silence. A follow-up to arguably the most striking documentary of recent years, 2012's The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer's new film turns its attention towards the victims of the violence in Indonesia and confronts the killers with families of their victims. Swedish director Roy Andersson completes his Living trilogy with the brilliantly-titled A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Pulling out of Cannes at the last minute, Fatih Akin's The Cut appears on the Lido with Tahar Rahim as a survivor of the Armenian genocide searching for his family. Tetsuo director Shin'ya Tsukamoto represents Japan with his Second World War drama Fires on the Plain, an adaptation of the 1951 anti-war novel by Shōhei Ōoka and filmed previously by Kon Ichikawa back in 1959.

Away from the main competition, Austrian misery-meister Ulrich Seidl will present his new documentary In the Basement, exploring Austrians relationships with their basements - though the director has denied that it has anything to do with the infamous 2008 Josef Fritzel child abuse case. Joe Dante, Amos Gitai and Barry Levinson also have films appearing out of competition, and, as is now obligatory for any film festival of note, James Franco's entry continues his speed reading of the American literary canon with his take on William Faulkner's 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury.

In Competition (Golden Lion)
99 Homes (dir. Ramin Bahrani)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (dir. Roy Andersson)
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Black Souls (dir. Francesco Munzi)
The Cut (dir. Fatih Akin)
Far from Men (dir. David Oelhoffen)
Fires on the Plain (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto)
Il Giovane Favoloso (dir. Mario Martone)
Good Kill (dir. Andrew Niccol)
Hungry Hearts (dir. Saverio Costanzo)
The Last Hammer Blow (dir. Alix Delaporte)
The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Manglehorn (dir. David Gordon Green)
Pasolini (dir. Abel Ferrara)
The Postman's White Nights (dir. Andrei Konchalovsky)
The Price of Fame (dir. Xavier Beauvois)
Red Amnesia (dir. Wang Xiaoshuai)
Sivas (dir. Kaan Müjdeci)
Tales (dir. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad)
Three Hearts (dir. Benoît Jacquot)

The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale

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