COMMENT: A year after Gravity wowed Venice, Birdman could be in flight for a similar path to awards glory - especially for Michael Keaton.

Now THAT is how you open a festival. It almost feels like déjà vu – another glorious sunny day on the Lido, and a year after Gravity wowed on Venice’s opening night 2013 we have another resounding hit in the shape of Alejandro G Inarritu’s Birdman.

The film earned glowing reviews across the board (see Screen’s review here) and I, too found it both inspiring in form, performances and storytelling. There are few films made today that feel genuinely exciting in their ambition — Gravity was one, Birdman is certainly another.

Could Birdman be on a similar path to Oscar glory? You’d think that the film’s accomplishments by Inarritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and actor Michael Keaton are definites for nominations at the very least. Maybe also for Edward Norton (let’s hope that wasn’t method acting in the erection scene). In a year where the awards-season crop [at this stage] appears a bit more sedate than recent competitors, Birdman will no doubt be recognised. Some are calling Michael Keaton’s performance the ‘comeback of the century’ (errr, people, it’s only been 14 years so far) and certainly he shoots to the top of the Best Actor contenders for now (my inner nine-year-old, who really loved Mr. Mom, is very pleased at this development).

Birdman is described as a black comedy, but it’s also part fantasy and part tragedy. It has themes that will resonate poignantly in today’s social media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed world. It’s also just the universal story of a guy afraid to get older and become less relevant. Even the jokes about Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling seem timely and relevant. I was so engrossed in figuring out Lubezki’s seamless take wizardry that I already want to see the film again to consider the dialogue more closely.

Fox Searchlight was savvy enough to know they had a special film that would be well served by a launch in Venice rather than in Telluride or Toronto (it next goes to the New York Film Festival as the closing night film). In Venice, you’ve got a large pack of media with all their attention on one film – not like in Toronto where you’ve got dozens of high profile films premiering each day and countless red carpet photos vying for attention. Searchlight knew what the potential was after Black Swan hit as Venice’s 2010 opening film.

The European press and critics can have slightly different tastes than their North American counterparts (see for example Under The Skin getting a tepid response in Telluride before it was lauded in Venice).

Searchlight is following up the strong Venice launch with the closing night slot in New York, which again with its intimate-sized programme won’t get lost in a programme Toronto’s size.

Venice might not always work for big US film launches anymore (it is expensive, and less of a must-attend for some press than it used to be). But seeing the genuine acclaim and excitement over Birdman proves this festival is still the perfect home for some films.

And bravo, too, to Venice director Alberto Barbera for recognizing in Birdman another perfect opening night selection – this is a film that can please the old-school cinephiles (Inarritu has been a must-watch since Amores Perros in 2000), the red-carpet devotees (Emma Stone in green tulle Valentino), and the next generation of industry and press looking to see how cinema is moving forward.

Supporting local talents, too

The other area where Venice excels in showcasing new developments is with its Italian programming. Of course, the festival’s selections are always limited to what Italian films are produced each year, but by most accounts 2014 has a strong crop.

Those ready for premieres over the next week include mob drama Black Souls by Francesco Munzi; New York-set relationship drama Hungry Hearts by Saverio Costanzo, Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini (an Italian co-production); satirical Berlusconi-related documentary Belluscone, Una Storia Siciliana by Franco Maresco; controversial immigration project I’m With The Bride by Antonio Augugliaro, Gabriele Del Grande and Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry; loan shark drama Without Pity by Michele Alhaique; satire The Market by Diego Bianchi, and Felice Farina’s economic crisis story Patria.

Venice’s relevance is reiterated in showcasing these local voices in addition to providing a world stage for a Mexican-born auteur’s growing voice.