In a way, the 26th edition of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival was framed by very different but similarly quirky musical notes. Opening night of the 11-day cavalcade literally opened with the trailer we would see countless times (47 in my case), teenaged Harry Bossert’s Lego animation of “Megaphone,” Parry Gripp’s fiendishly catchy and winkingly funny send-up of SBIFF line-keeping. On Sunday night, the festival‘s grand filmic party and tradition ended back at the Arlington with another musical eccentricity, gone operatic, Carmen in 3D, in its world premiere.
In between those poles, the SBIFF continued doing what it does with great flair and also insight, working a careful balancing act of Hollywood hype, regional, documentary, local, and specialty film enclaves, and the real meat of the festival, its “IF” factor (international film). With an expanded screening schedule, habitual festivalers could conceivably sink into the filmic sanctum, film addiction enabling zone of the Metro 4 from 8 a.m. to midnight, while Santa Barbara life-as-usual hums along outside. More to the point, SBIFF has thankfully become life-as-usual in town for 10 days each year. It’s hard to imagine our cultural calendar without it.
Truth be told, Carmen in 3D is a mixed blessing. Much as the film takes us up close and personal, for a solid performance and traditional production at London’s famed Covent Garden, for opera fans, something is clearly wrong with this picture, and not only because the 3D format made the visuals more murky than vivid. Opera is a great, ancient cultural tradition, but canned opera is an oxymoron.
Meanwhile, the film medium was presented in all its bleary diversity of style, thematic and national flavors over the course of the fest. In my mind, by far the most impressive piece of cinema this year was the Romanian mini-masterwork If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, the festival’s most reassuring sign of fresh creative life and inventiveness in the too-often formulaic film medium. Once again, the segment of SBIFF programming that came off the boldest this year was its Eastern Bloc titles, offering a valuable window on a niche in the international film scene deserving wider recognition. But Scandinavia weighed in well this year, with the Swedish Simple Simon and Pure (Till det som är vackert), another film with classical music at its core and with a great performance by Alicia Vikander); the bittersweet Norwegian film Limbo; and King’s Road, the Icelandic slacker trailer park gem-in-the-rough.
On turf much closer to home yet also from another world, Swiss documentarian Nick Brandestini’s Darwin, about the loveable oddballs in the blip of a Death Valley town with a population of 35, wins my vote as the most impressive documentary of the festival. Unlike docs with larger subjects and motives in mind, Darwin was all about the profundity of small things in humanity and the planet—a compassionate, beautifully made film.
In the Spanish/Latin American cinema category, the most memorable work ranged from the giddy crisp and gonzo The Great Vasquez, from Spain, to Brazil’s The Tenants, an admirably subtle and artful tale of urban unraveling in a neighborhood turning dangerous. Films from the Bosnian-Croatian region caught our eye, particularly the inventive Belvedere, cross-stitching black and white and color stock, and the reality of post-war agony and the vapid color glitz of a “reality show.”
Feelgood vibes, with integrity attached, flowed freely in films such as The First Grader and the boomer music doc Troubadours (winner of the Audience Choice Award).
Australia and New Zealand had a banner presence in Santa Barbara this year, between the strong and popular world premieres of the post-modernist, post-Sergio Leone New Zealand western Good for Nothing and the engaging ensemble puzzle of the filmed stage play Face to Face (winner of the Independent Cinema award). Awesome Aussie Nicole Kidman, wearing a lovely white dress and her true accent, won over the crowd at her tribute night in the wake of her Oscar campaign for her great work in Rabbit Hole, as did fellow Australian Geoffrey Rush at the big top Arlington night celebrating another Oscar-teased favorite, The King’s Speech.
All told, the 2011 edition of this great Santa Barbara tradition was good as any, better than some. Once again, it offered us a senses-reeling trip around the world, just down the block. One obsessive festgoer’s Top 10 list: If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle; Darwin; Good for Nothing; Belvedere; The First Grader; Pure; The Tenants; The Light Thief; You Are Here; Nostalgia for the Light.