The Venice Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, and with it a renewed second outing for fest chief Alberto Barbera. Barbera was artistic director from 1998-2002 and returned last year to put his spin back on the proceedings after Marco Muller departed for Rome. This is the 70th go-round for the world’s oldest film festival and brings with it some heavy hitters. Venice is known for its ability to draw A-List talent, notable world premieres and the very beginnings of awards-season buzz (think last year’s The Master along with previous years’ Shame and The Queen, among others). It’s also a bit sandwiched in between the end of summer and the start of Toronto. Nevertheless, Venice has the benefit of providing a relaxed atmosphere that allows for proximity to talent and a less frenzied screening schedule than the likes of what some consider the impending Canadian free-for-all where the “hustle and bustle can lead to schedule conflicts,” an exec says. This year’s Venice is opening with a decidedly high-profile film: Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity starring Sandra Bullock and Italy’s adopted son George Clooney. The pair play astronauts set adrift in space. The 3D movie is debuting here, according to Warner Bros president of worldwide marketing and international distribution Sue Kroll, because Venice is the “ideal” launching pad. “The timing of the festival dovetails perfectly with our worldwide marketing plans… and gives us the opportunity to show the film to press from around the world.” The festival is also a longtime friend of director Cuaron, whose Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children Of Men have been recognized here.

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Also on the docket for the next 10 days or so are films with a wanna-see factor that are also headed to Toronto. Among them: Stephen Frears’ Philomena, Peter Landesmann’s Parkland, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin and John Curran’s Tracks. Philomena and Parkland have U.S. distribution and I understand the other two are being closely watched. One pic that had heat coming in was Japanese director Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell, which Drafthouse Films just acquired.

But even in the case where a film has sold well, perhaps presented to buyers in Cannes or elsewhere, Venice remains an important stop on the calendar. The Pathé-backed Philomena (which The Weinstein Co. acquired for the U.S., Canada and Spain in May) is eyeing Venice in a similar vein to how it handled The Queen. That Frears movie bowed on the Lido in 2006 and won Helen Mirren the Best Actress Volpi Cup. She went on to win the Oscar. Philomena stars Judi Dench as an Irish woman who searches for the illegitimate son she gave up for adoption, and co-stars Steve Coogan. Whether it’s an award winner here or not, “the Venice audience is open,” says an insider. The idea, I’m told, “is to arrive in Toronto with a little bit of a reputation.” Venice, this person says, “is like an anteroom; kind of like Telluride.”

As for Parkland, the story of what happened at the eponymous Dallas hospital the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, I’m told having the premiere in Venice is a good place to start because it puts the film “on a pedestal.” Exclusive Media, which backed the film, is setting it out via distribution arm Exclusive Releasing in October. The company’s Alex Walton believes Venice gives a movie “credentials.” Every film, Walton says, “gets a chance to shine in Venice; a moment to breathe.” Also, in a rare buy given the beleaguered state of the Italian industry, RAI acquired Parkland early and Venice may allow for an international “conversation to start” about a film that has a quintessentially American subject.

Other films to watch across the various sections include Canadian wunderkund Xavier Dolan’s Tom A La Ferme; Philippe Garell’s La Jalousie; Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorum (with Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Ben Whishaw and Tilda Swinton); David Gordon Green’s Joe with Nicolas Cage; Errol Morris’ Donald Rumsfeld documentary The Unknown Known (a rare docu appearance in the official selection); James Franco’s Child Of God; Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves with Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard and James Le Gros; Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie; Steven Knight’s Locke with Tom Hardy; Patrice Leconte’s English-language A Promise; Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto USA, 98 with Emma Roberts; Sang-Il Lee’s Japanese Unforgiven remake and Ti West’s departure The Sacrement.