By Agnieszka Flak and Sarah Mills
VENICE (Reuters) - A refugee documentary by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a horror film starring Jennifer Lawrence and George Clooney's latest directorial effort are all tipped as must-sees at the Venice film fest set to open on the Lido island on Wednesday.
Top Hollywood talent and auteur directors will be vying for the Golden Lion at the world's oldest film festival which, after a period in the doldrums, is again considered a launching pad for the industry's award season, after it premiered Academy winners in its last four editions.
Space drama "Gravity", clergy sex-abuse film "Spotlight" and last year's musical "La La Land" secured Oscars after featuring in Venice. Those wins have helped attract talent to this year's festival, said artistic director Alberto Barbera.
"Finally all the majors, the big Hollywood studios, realized that coming to Venice ... it really changes the perspective of a film," Barbera told Reuters on the eve of the festival, which runs till Sept. 9. "It's much easier to get the films that we want."
The festival's 74th edition opens with Alexander Payne's "Downsizing", a satire starring Matt Damon about a couple who decide to shrink themselves to four inches tall.
The rich selection of U.S. and international movies also includes Darren Aronofsky's "Mother!", starring Lawrence and Javier Bardem; Guillermo Del Toro's "The Shape of Water"; and Stephen Frears' "Victoria and Abdul", with Judi Dench as the 19th century queen, which screens in the out-of-competition section.
"There are a lot of movies with strong Oscar potential," said Ariston Anderson, a film critic at the Hollywood Reporter. She lamented the fact that only one female director featured in the main competition, but complimented the organizers for being the first major cinema event to feature a virtual reality competition.
"It sends a strong message for a platform like Venice to have a competition for VR, that this is a new art form, we are going to judge it, we’re going to accept it and see what comes out of it," she said.
Concrete slabs were positioned at entrances to control vehicle traffic, and arrivals were screened at the festival venue as security was beefed up following violent attacks across Europe.
Current affairs also feature in the lineup with the Ai Weiwei's hotly anticipated "Human Flow", the Chinese artist's first film and "a daring documentary", Barbera said, adding that bringing the film to Venice was a political statement as well.
"It’s not just a festival, we are a festival which deals with the problems of the contemporary world."
One of the highlights this year is Clooney's return to Venice with "Suburbicon", a dark comedy starring Damon and Julianne Moore. Clooney, who tied the knot in a huge celebrity wedding in Venice in 2014, has since made Italy his second home.
"Venice loves Clooney, Clooney loves Venice ... Jennifer Lawrence is obviously a huge fashion icon, she makes a presence wherever she goes, but I don’t think anybody commands a room like Clooney does in Venice," Anderson said.
(Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala, editing by Larry King)