25 Great Films That Won The Golden Lion at The Venice Film Festival

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The Venice Film Festival, first held in August 1932, is the oldest film festival in the world. The main prize is the Golden Lion, which owes its name to the symbol of the city of Venice. This recognition is considered one of Europe’s most prestigious awards along with the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Golden Bear of the International Film Festival of Berlin.

What distinguishes the festival from the Academy Awards? A prime factor is the attention to independent and avant-garde films and consideration paid to the cinema of emerging countries. This great openness to the complete spectrum of world cinema has allowed juries to honor notable films by great directors such as Kitano, Kurosawa, Godard, Kieslowski, and Lynch. Here’s a look at some of the greatest Golden Lion winners in the history of the festival.


25. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, 2014)

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

The awarding of the Golden Lion in 2015 created much discussion. The public had appreciated the eventual Oscar winner Birdman, while the critics chose to reward the latest work by Roy Andersson.

The movie consists of a series of 39 vignettes which, through a sort of Scandinavian irony, reflects on modern society. The unusual title is explained this way: a pigeon looks down, while sitting on a branch, on the misery of mankind. This image is one that Anderson references from a Bruegel painting.

The intent of the film is realistic in its desire to demonstrate the futility of everyday actions which distract humans from the real questions of life. Andersson has said he was inspired by De Sica’s neo-realist classic “The Bicycle Thief”.

This film is the conclusion of the “living” trilogy, following Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living.


24. Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004)

Vera Drake

Vera Drake, the title character of this 2004 movie from British director Mike Leigh, is a 1950s London working class citizen who is a generous and selfless person, always ready to lend a hand to friends and family. These very qualities enable the heedless Vera to undertake an avocation helping women who wish to terminate unwanted pregnancies. When this fact surfaces, Vera must face the life altering consequences.

This fact based story set in tense post World War II England is typical of Leigh’s filmography. The director always has a feel for marginalized and defeated characters who are ground down by circumstances, not by evil natures, and Vera is a prime example of this. The film is also a faithful reconstruction of the social environment of British everyday life and reveals a mixture of ignorance, sexism, religious hypocrisy and guilt.


23. Michael Collins (Neil Jordan, 1996)

Michael Collins

The film tells the fact based story of IRA leader Michael Collins, who was a negotiator of an Anglo-Irish treaty and killed in an ambush by his one-time friend and political rival Eamon De Valera.

Writer-director Neil Jordan explores the character in the round, following both intricate political events and the love affairs of the protagonist. Though the historical-political reconstruction may be perfect, the film falters a bit in depicting the romance between Collins (Neeson) and Kiernan (Roberts).

The film is, in some ways, reminiscent of Hollywood gangster movies and westerns. It is highlighted by excellent photography and great soundtrack (both Oscar nominated).

The film stirringly climaxes with the funeral of Collins as his procession swells with five thousand people and to Collins is given the still used epitaph “the man who wanted to remove guns from Irish politics”.


22. The Return (Andrej Zvjagincev, 2003)

The Return

Two young brothers, Vanya and Andrei, are very attached to each other as compensation for a difficult upbringing without a father’s presence. The unexpected return of the father after twelve years of absence, is emotionally traumatic for the two boys.

With the reluctant consent of their mother, Vanja and Andrej embark on what they believe to be a fishing vacation with the taciturn and mysterious father. During this trip, many truths will be uncovered.

Novice Russian director Andrej Zvjagincev debuted this film at the 2003 festival and it surprised everyone. “The Return” is a timeless parable, which could be set at any era.

Its themes are depicted in highly poetic terms. The style is strictly realistic, grounded in a credible psychological examination of the two boys set against a spellbinding natural setting. The director’s most recent film is the Oscar nominated Leviathan which again marks Zvjagincev as a director to watch.


21. First Name: Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard, 1983)

Prénom Carmen

First Name: Carmen is the second film of French director Jean-Luc Goddard’s “trilogy of the sublime”. Prénom Carmen is set one year after his last film Passion, as in the previous film, the theme is the dialectical opposition of art and life. The film is also inspired by the classic Bizet opera “Carmen”.

The plot concerns young Carmen and her director uncle (played by Godard himself). The film’s style is characterized by a fragmented narrative, with sparse use of dialogue. Many contemporary critics considered the film a comedown for one of the seminal film makers of the Nouvelle Vague and not on a par with such films as “Bande a part” or “Alphaville”. The Golden Lion awarded to this film was widely considered a vindication.


20. Pietà (Kim Ki-duk, 2012)


In 2012, South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk presented this innovative, poetic, and reflective film at that year’s film festival in Venice.

Hired by a loan shark to collect debts accumulated by deceased customers , protagonist Kang-do behaves like a butcher, horribly maiming victims and facilitating deaths. One day a woman who claims to be his mother and also claims emotional responsibility for his crimes. She also expresses regret for having abandoned him at birth and leaving him to grow up without love.

“Pietà” is inspired by the famous Michelangelo sculpture. The film also explores the concept of a triptych, in order to highlight disparity and concept of the futility of money. These themes are always dear to the director. With his usual mix of tragedy and irony, the director presents a story of the extremes of human behavior in moments of willful stupidity.


19. Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)

Short Cuts

Director Robert Altman expands, weaves and blends nine stories from the pen of American writer Raymond Carver, creating a complex picture encompassing a variety of tones and emotions. The setting is the swarming and sometimes overwhelming city of Los Angeles, here presented as a merciless symbol of american society.

Many of the offbeat events which take over the course of the film are dominated by a pessimistic and unforgiving tone, which is typical of Altman’s films. Short Cuts is an attempt to address major issues prevalent in the 80s and 90s, such as sex, death, destiny, and life.

The enormous skill of the director is demonstrated in this film by the direction of an incredibly broad and disparate cast (Jack Lemmon, Robert Downey Jr.,Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand) and aiding them in holding the film together for its three hour plus running time.


18. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

The Wrestler (2008)

After the success of “Requiem for a Dream” in 2008, director Darren Aronofsky launched into an ambitious new project.

The film centers on former wrestler Robin Ramzinski, once a star in his field and now lonely, divorced and poor. In making a final attempt to return to a normal life, Robin will realize that the only thing left to him is the thrill of the adrenaline during a fight. Mickey Rourke, returning to the screen after many years’ absence, gives an extraordinary performance.

Aronofsky directs the film in a compassionate manner, never succumbing to showy emotionalism. Highlights include a most dramatic final sequence and a ballad from Bruce Springsteen.