The Venice and Toronto Film Festivals are the traditional start to the Academy Awards season, with many of the contenders for the big prize being unveiled in the September events. FILM POINTER
Last year Toronto got the bragging rights for programming The King's Speech, as it did with Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, while Venice can claim to have screened The Hurt Locker first.
So, last week when the two festivals unveiled their programmes for this September, eyes around the world were watching them to see how the Academy Awards battle is likely to shape up.
For the 68th Venice Film Festival, which begins on August 31 and runs until September 10, the organisers have pulled out all the stops and embraced American cinema in a way that they haven't for a number of years in an effort to bring back the glamour and show the North American upstart that there is life in the old Italian dog yet.
The pop superstar Madonna, always one for reinvention, continues her efforts at stepping behind the camera in her fledgling directing career.
Her second directorial effort, WE, about the British King Edward VIII's romance with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, is screening out of the main competition but is destined to be the most talked-about film of the festival. It sets the king's romance and subsequent abdication against a modern relationship.
The festival opens with George Clooney's new political thriller Ides of March. He both directs the film and stars in it as an American presidential candidate, with Ryan Gosling playing an idealistic campaign manager. Clooney adapted the story with Grant Heslov, his frequent collaborator, from the stage play Farragut North.
Two eagerly awaited adaptations of novels will be launched at Venice. The British director Andrea Arnold changes pace from gritty social realism with her period romance Wuthering Heights, while the Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson has adapted John Le Carré's thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth.
Controversy is assured by the inclusion of new films from Roman Polanski (Carnage), William Friedkin (Killer Joe), Todd Solondz (Dark Horse) Abel Ferrara (4:44 Last Day on Earth) and David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method).
The Polanski picture is a four-hander adapted from Yasmin Reza's play The God of Carnage, starring Jody Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C Reilly. Cronenberg's study of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung stars Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen. Fassbender is in two films in competition, as he also appears alongside Carey Mulligan in Shame, which is the second film from the British visual artist Steve McQueen. Every festival at the moment seems to include a film with the Tree of Life star Jessica Chastain; at Venice she and the Avatar actor Sam Worthington are in Texas Killing Fields, which is about a serial killer.
Major directors from around the world also in competition include the Persopolis director Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud with a joint effort called Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken with Prunes), the Russian Aleksander Soukurov with Faust, the Dogtooth director Giorgos Lanthimos (Alpeis), Phillipe Garrel (Un Eté Brûlant) and the Japanese director Sion Sono (Himizu).
Outside the competition, titles to look out for include Jonathan Demme's new documentary I'm Carolyn Parker and James Franco's directing debut Sal, starring Franco and Val Lauren. The American Psycho director Mary Harron has Lily Cole in her cast for The Moth Diaries.
There are also a number of films with Middle Eastern links showing at the festival, including Habibi Rasak Kharaban (Darling, Something's wrong with Your Head), the feature debut of Susan Youssef.
The world premiere of the film is in the sidebar Orrizontti selection. The Palestine / UAE / Netherlands production is set in Gaza and is a modern retelling of the Sufi parable Majnun Layla. The poem is set in the seventh century during the Ummayad era and is based on the story of a young poet, Qays, who fell in love at first sight with Layla. He began writing love poems to her but was refused her hand by her father. He wandered into the wilderness heartbroken. The update is set in the occupied territories and features Qays's poetry written on walls.
Also having its premiere at Venice is the Egyptian documentary The Good, the Bad and the Politician, which looks at the events of the Arab Spring from three perspectives: the first chapter, "The Good", is directed by Tamer Ezzat; the second, "The Bad", by Ayten Ameen; and the third, "The Politician", by Amr Salama.
This list might leave you wondering what could possibly be left for the Toronto International Film Festival (September 8-18). The Canadian event will include most of the Venice titles as North American premieres, but will also have a few world premieres of its own: Brad Pitt's baseball drama Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller; Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea is set in the 1950s and stars Rachel Weisz; Friends with Kids is the new film from Jennifer Westfeldt; Blake Lively is in Hick, directed by Derick Martini; The Kite Runner director Marc Forster has Gerard Butler playing the title role in Machine Gun Preacher; Woody Harrelson is already being tipped for an Oscar for his turn as a Los Angeles police officer in Rampart; Lasse Hallström introduces Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which features a Yemeni sheikh trying to get a scientist to introduce British salmon into his country; and Pawel Pawlikowski has a new film, Woman in the Fifth, about an American writer (Ethan Hawke) in Paris.
Music documentaries are also being given prominence. Cameron Crowe has Pearl Jam Twenty on show, while the festival is to open with David Guggenheim's U2 documentary, From the Sky Down.