A film fest as big, ambitious, and veteran as the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is an organism whose success relies on a complex system of parts, the goal being a balanced and challenging whole. By most all accounts, SBIFF 2014 — number 29 and counting — worked wonders large and small. This year, we got the expected celebrity buzz on, a list that included in-the-newsy stars Cate Blanchett, Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert Redford, plus the prestigious directors David O. (American Hustle) Russell and Martin (The Wolf of Wall Street) Scorsese, as well as a well-timed tribute to Montecito’s own Oprah Winfrey, who so owned the screen in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Film aficionados hungry for field reports from the cinema world outside of Hollywood — the all-important, and possibly most important, “international” component of the SBIFF agenda — were supplied an embarrassment of riches. Even the long lines at the festival screening HQ/bunker of the Metro 5 seemed more civil this year (possibly related to the theory that the smarter phones get, the more we restless natives can amuse ourselves while we wait).
But on a larger, more objective front, we can take some civic pride in the fact that this wondrous and important part of the Santa Barbara cultural calendar, which has upped its game in the now 11 years of director Roger Durling’s steerage, is making increasingly good in the growing global matrix of film festivals, a point which received some greater luster and validation through the admiring words of Sundance festival domo Redford in his Arlington moment last Friday. The Sundance Man cometh, and annointeth.
Situated between the Sundance Festival a week earlier and the Berlin Film Festival, which kicked off last week — and, not incidentally, in the glittery lead-up to the Oscar circus — SBIFF is making its slow, sure way upward into the higher ranks of film festivals that matter. Like Cannes and San Sebastián, we have the advantage of a beautiful, tourist-coveted host city by the sea, plus the proximity to Hollywood during awards season.
One way in which this year’s festival succeeded, in an area which has been a weakness in years past, was the strength of its framing moments, the opening/closing bookends. Eco-consciousness irradiated the Arlington on opening night, courtesy of the fine film Mission Blue, an engaging and sobering tribute to the wonder of our oceans, the heroic oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and dedicated to the late, great Santa Barbaran nature filmmaker (and SBIFF champion) Mike deGruy. Sunday night’s exit strategy was a consummate film-festival moment, with the gathering of director Richard Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke discussing their innovative trilogy triple play, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and the newest, Before Midnight (all three of which the festival gamely screened throughout the day on Sunday).
Certain themes and trends arose out of the diverse thicket of films, ideas, and countries represented. The thorny and (unfortunately) globally relevant subject of terrorism, seen in the artistic and up-close lens of film, Omar and Bethlehem — two views of the Israeli/Palestine conflict — and also the Uruguayan film God’s Slave (winner of the best Spanish/Latin American film award). In the documentary category, the crowd-pleaser was the well-crafted look at gay rodeo, Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo, which also won the best doc award, but my favorite doc was Through a Lens Darkly, which inventively conveys multiple forms — as a fascinating film about the power of still imagery — and cross-historical content about the African-American experience.
For my money, the strongest films of the festival found new ways of telling stories that bring our outsider perspectives into highly personal terrain, from the occupied freedom-fighter life in Omar to the painful interfamily drama of the Cassavetes-esque Romanian powerhouse Child’s Pose (whose star Luminița Gheorghiu was the standout performance of the festival). Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s alternately phantasmagoric, decadent, and soul-searching The Great Beauty is a real stunner, its tale of a disenchanted older intellectual’s romp through Rome an homage to the Fellini masterpieces of the La Dolce Vita and 8½ period. From a cinematic standpoint, the film is a feast for the senses, with special kudos going to the kinetic and elegant eye of cinematographer Luca Bigazzi.
And where would SBIFF be without a good and giddy French comedy or two to lighten the thematic load of more serious fare? We got ’em, through the tasty (and yes, food-related) stuff of Paulette and Le Chef.
Through doggedness, neurotic curiosity, and sleep deprivation, I managed to beat my “personal best” record of films screened, racking up 53 — less a boast than a cry for help and real-world counseling. It’s also a testament to the general high quality and provocative nature of the programming that keeps us coming back. From that list, one addict’s humble Top Ten: The Great Beauty, Omar, Child’s Pose, Of Horses and Men, Through a Lens Darkly, The Japanese Dog, Gabrielle, Wounded, La Jaula de Oro, and The Broken Circle Breakdown.