A DAY IN THE FESTIVAL LIFE: Weekend one of Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2008 is a wrap, and the verdict thus far finds thumbs in an upwardly direction. The rains came pouring down for much it, adding to the lure of dry, climate-controlled spaces in the Metro cine-bunker and other venues around town.

For this festival geek, this time of year means surrendering normal life and waking hours to the pursuit of the good stuff. It can be dangerous business, being sucked into the festival’s vortex: despite the solid bets from word-of-mouth, say the crowd-pleasing surprise hit Beautiful Bitch> and the Oscar bids Mongol and The Counterfeiters, you don’t want to miss the smaller films which may speak more directly to your cinematic palette. And then there is the guilt you may feel for following your heart into a certain bandwidth of the festival’s broad programming – in my case, international films – and missing out on other niches of the program. But it’s a mostly happy problem.

This intrepid (obsessive?) festival-goer’s Sunday in the cinema began at 9 a.m. with the agreeably sentimental, animal-loving American number All Roads Lead Home, a family-suitable movie lined with feel-good sauce, but also featured Peter Boyle in one of his final performances. The day ended just before midnight with Mexican director Diego Luna’s J.C. Chavez, a fine documentary on Mexico’s star boxer, Julio Cesar Chavez. (The late screening also included a vivid short, Jeff Barnaby’s The Colony, in the admirable Latino Cinemedia section, curated by Cristina Venegas.)

In between those extremes for this film geek came other extremes: XXY, Argentine director Lucia Puenzo’s surprisingly sensitive film about a 15-year-old hermaphrodite; the rip-snorting and kitschy cleverness-lined Hong Kong action film Triangle, which was directed by three different noted directors in that genre; and the world premiere of the Spanish film My Way, an entangled and not entirely successful mash-up of issues concerning Alzheimer’s, the wages of drug dealing, liberally splashed with motion-sickness-making handheld camera and cut-up chronology and point-of-view.

(Ancillary note: It’s interesting to compare the cinematographic leanings of films this year, often a battle of the rough-hewn, reality-TV style and the patient, stately, still shot — tripods can be a beautiful thing.)

If there have yet to be any films for which the superlative “blown away” is suitable, we’ve seen plenty of strong and creative films, mostly from afar. The best of these are the sweet and subtle Armin, from Croatia, the quiet and witty Israeli film The Band’s Visit – addressing the Arab-Israeli divide from a completely unique angle – and Takva: A Man’s Fear of God, a beautifully visual and probing study of spiritual crisis, not to mention a rare glimpse into the ceremonial Islamic, here in Istanbul.

Coming to a theater near you this week are loads more films, including a number of TBA slots reserved for repeats of the jewels and/or crowd favorites. This is also a big week for representation No Country for Old Men – the best film of 2007, sez me and an army of others. The commanding stars from that film stop by the Arlington this week to be toasted. Tonight, it’s Javier Bardem, and Friday brings Tommy Lee Jones. And, oh yeah, some actress named Angelia Jolie does the Arlington shuffle on Saturday, in what will no doubt be this festival’s show biz buzz moment. Between Bardem, Ryan Gosling (whose work in Lars and the Real Girl was a minor miracle), Jones and last weekend’s visits by Julie Christie and the great Cate Blanchett, SBIFF 2008 is one of the strongest years yet for actors deserving their tribute slots.


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