A certain bittersweet air tends to hover over the closing night of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, belovedly and commonly known as SBIFF. After 28 years in motion as our premier annual fest, the familiar feeling set in again at the Arlington Theatre on Sunday, February 3, as those of us sucked deep into the vortex of 10-plus days of screenings, from the 8 a.m. “breakfast club” screenings to the late-night slot, prepared to be released into the real world again. This year’s overall filmic quality level — especially in the all-important “international” quarters of the programming — was higher than last year’s, making that cine-vortex all the more seductive.
On Sunday, the fine and touching late-life love saga Coming of Age (reminiscent of Paul Cox’s 1991 film A Woman’s Tale) won the honors for Best International Film, and Joseph Levy’s tasty and humanistic gastronomy culture film Spinning Plates nabbed The Santa Barbara Independent’s Audience Choice Award. Other winners included the fine American indie film Babygirl, the nervously vibrant Paraguayan film 7 Boxes (7 cajas), the impressive bee doc More Than Honey, and Revolution, winner of the Fund for Santa Barbara Social Justice Award.
Amateur numerologists were having a field day with the great “10-10-10” program, now in year number 10. This program has been a great boon for student filmmakers, with 10 chosen teams required to create a 10-minute film in 10 days. This year’s winners were Told You, from Santa Barbara High School (directed by Patrick Hall and written by Jill Fisher) and, from Brooks Institute, the saucy and ambitious Sunset on Cabrillo Boulevard, directed by Kevin Huang and written by Jeffrey Lovelace (and, full disclosure-wise, with a cameo by this acting-challenged scribbler).
It was also the 10th anniversary of Roger Durling’s enlightened and energizing reign as executive director of the festival, who led us all in the collective mourning of Mike deGruy, the nature filmmaker and SBIFF-connected dynamo who died “in the field” during last year’s festival. The filmic work of deGruy, which he hadn’t wanted to impose on the programming in years past, were glimpsed via a series of brief clips from his filmography throughout the festival, including a colorful and funny “bloopers” reel that I only caught once, on the last day.
In the kitschy movie palace that is the Arlington, the festival lived up to its reputation for luring in some of the best-known and often most-respected artists for this-is-your-life tribute nights, including Ben Affleck, Daniel Day-Lewis, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and everybody’s favorite pulpy-arty provocateur, Quentin Tarantino, a worthy sub for the no-show Leonardo DiCaprio.
Experienced SBIFF-goers know better than to judge a festival program by its bookends, but the opening and closing films — the cautionary Internet tale Disconnected and the Usual Suspects-esque British crime yarn Wasteland, respectively — were better than usual this year. While the programming admirably reaches out to many audience demographics, the real meat of this festival for many of us is its international cinema bounty, which becomes ever more important as the prospect of seeing foreign films in regular release grows scarcer.
Jumping from film to film, from foreign country to foreign country is to be dizzied by brief encounters with the lives of others, so to speak. For my money, the film that sneaked into the mind and kept rattling around was the strange, slow, hypnotic Romanian film Beyond the Hills — about a restless visitor to a would-be peaceful, remote monastery — which created its own spatio-spiritual voice as a film. The Taviani brothers’ stylistic, unique Bard-in-prison creation Caesar Must Die occupied its own special niche in the programming. Other potent numbers from around the world included the subtle German Barbara, the saucily empathetic rogue’s tale Sister, the fizzy and substantial historical Chilean film No, the Hitchcockian wild ride of the Spanish The Body, and the hip Dutch–goes–New Mexican feel-goodly road movie Jackie.
From the second annual CineSonic sidebar, the strong titles included Dave Grohl’s fascinating historical and highly personal labor of love Sound City and the quirky loveable Finnish film The Punk Syndrome, about a punk band of mentally challenged rockers.
One obsessive festivalgoer’s top-10 list, culled from exactly 50 seen this year: Beyond the Hills, Caesar Must Die, No, Sister, Barbara, Sound City, Motorway, Coming of Age, Jackie, and The Punk Syndrome.
For avid festival-ers seeking hair-of-the-dog continuance, and others wanting a taste of the fuss, the 3rd Weekend roster of films, free to the public, unreels this weekend at the Riviera. SBIFF is history, for now. Long live SBIFF, a proudly entrenched part of the ry, for now. Long live SBIFF, a proudly entrenched part of the cultural landscape of Santa Barbara.