Take away the hype and glitz, and the real meat of SBIFF is and has always been the strength and breadth of its films. Still, the opportunity to hear and see actors and artists in the flesh is an important aspect of the festival’s festival sensibility. Enter the Conversations With … evenings.
Higher profile, higher demand celebrity tributes help put the festival on the map and light up marquees. But it is these humbler conversations that allow access to intriguing film artists both on- and off-screen who contribute to making the medium what it is.
Take, for instance, Djimon Hounsou (Wed., Jan. 31), the dynamic Benin-born actor in Blood Diamond. His work as the dogged Sierra Leone father fighting for his family’s life was, for some, more powerful than the star turns of Leonard DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly in the film. Hounsou’s career has taken him from life as a popular male model in Europe to a rightfully Oscar-nominated role in a socially and globally compelling film.
Jackie Earle Haley (Tue., Jan. 30) is another story, at least in terms of his role. As the effectively creepy and confused “psychosexually damaged” sex offender in the fine Todd Field-directed film Little Children, Haley joins a (thankfully) small roster of actors who shine in a deviant’s role, alongside Kevin Bacon (The Woodsman).
Also from the sleeper hit corner of last year’s movie crop come this season’s heroic coupling, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Sat., Jan. 27), the cocreators of the salty-sweet comedy Little Miss Sunshine. Among other things, the pair qualifies as that rarity in show biz: makers of music videos and music docs who have successfully crossed over into the world of feature films (and brought along their savvy sense of how to make music work onscreen).
The phrase “seven-year itch” comes to mind when thinking of British director Michael Apted (Thu., Feb. 1), who has made a variety of films, but has made documentary history by creating a series of them on a specific set of real-world subjects. It all began with Seven Up! and has reappeared every seven years since, up to this year’s 49 Up. Granted the new festival title as official “guest director” this year, Apted will be represented by both his latest Up flick and a new feature film, Amazing Grace. Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, and Rufus Sewell, the film — screening as the fest’s Centerpiece Screening — tells the story of 19th-century British abolitionist hero William Wilberforce.
From the more obscure, workhorse end of the film spectrum, screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Sat., Feb. 3), the former fisherman who went west and has worked up a résumé that includes the high (L.A. Confidential) and the low (Kevin Costner’s much scoffed-at The Postman), will chat up the audience.
All these are fine and good, but the conversation most likely to pique the greatest interest and ticket rushing is the late-breaking addition of a conversation with the outlandish comic of the hour, Sacha Baron Cohen (Fri., Jan. 26), a k a Borat, fresh off his nabbing a Golden Globe award. No word yet whether we’ll be privy to Baron Cohen himself, the Borat character, or possibly Ali G, or a combination of all the above. In any case, it promises to be ultra “ni-i-i-ice.”