As previously reported by my HitFix colleagues, 2014’s fall festivals represent something of a battle royale for various heavyweight Oscar hopefuls. The oldest fest in the big four, venerable Venice, is up against younger North American counterparts Toronto, Telluride and New York in the perennial fight to deliver a truly memorable Competition. Which films will be left standing once the critics have had their way with them? Contenders hoping to emerge victorious from La Biennale’s royal rumble include Alejandro González Iñárritu’s opening nighter "Birdman" starring Michael Keaton, David Gordon Green’s Al Pacino vehicle "Manglehorn" and Andrew Garfield vs Michael Shannon in Ramin Bahrani’s real estate showdown "99 Homes."

As far as awards season goes, for me the big hitter to beat from Cannes is "Foxcatcher," an extraordinary and illuminating piece of filmmaking from Bennett Miller, a director I’ve not been personally persuaded by before now. In the documentary category, however, after what many regard as the snubbing of Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn’s "The Act Of Killing" by the Academy, all eyes will be on companion piece "The Look of Silence." The film reportedly approaches the Indonesian genocide from a different angle, and will screen in Competition at Venice.

There would appear to be two main contenders for man of the match in the acting category. Ethan Hawke, fresh from reminding us what an engagingly mercurial screen presence he can be in Richard Linklater’s "Boyhood," has re-teamed with "Gattaca" writer/director Andrew Niccol for "Good Kill." I like Niccol’s work – his ideas are usually strong ("The Truman Show"), even if the execution doesn’t always come off ("S1m0ne," "In Time"). He’s at his best when a moral conundrum is involved, which will surely be the case with this drone fighter drama, so here’s hoping it’s a meaty role for Hawke. If not, at least we know the actor's second role of the fest should give him something to get his teeth into: he’s playing Iachimo in a modern dress version of "Cymbeline," a play that is to my mind one of Shakespeare’s most underrated.

Al Pacino, himself no stranger to the rhythms of the Bard, will be tackling a more contemporary literary legend in out-of-competition premiere "The Humbling," based on Philip Roth’s worst novel (disclaimer: I haven’t read all of Roth’s work, but it’s far too difficult and depressing to imagine a scenario in which "The Humbling" isn’t it). Perhaps more promising is Pacino’s pairing with that spry chronicler of Americana, David Gordon Green, in Competition entry "Manglehorn," which looks to sit closer in tone to "Joe" or "Prince Avalanche" than "Your Highness" or "Pineapple Express" in Green's elastic filmography.

As something of a defender of "As I Lay Dying" when it premiered at Cannes in 2013, I’m actually cautiously optimistic to see James Franco return to the Lido with another William Faulkner adaptation. This time, he’s tackling the author's first major work, "The Sound and the Fury" (starring Franco, Scott Haze, Tim Blake Nelson, Joey King, Ahna O'Reilly, Seth Rogen and Jon Hamm), though the film’s out-of-competition berth isn’t 100% encouraging. A case of sound and fury signifying nothing? Let’s hope not. The multi-hyphenated Franco is also set to be honored by the festival and will accept the Glory to the Filmmaker prize for innovation, which feels appropriate; even when he’s bad, Franco tends to innovate, for instance as the first Oscar host to appear obviously high.

Speaking of arch provocateurs, I’m excited to see that a new cut of Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" is set to ruffle any remaining feathers that the original couldn’t quite reach. Other hot titles playing out-of-competition include Joe Dante's "Burying the Ex," Peter Bogdanovich's "She's Funny That Way," and Lisa Cholodenko's hugely promising HBO adaptation of Pulitzer prize winner "Olive Kitteridge," starring Frances McDormand.

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