Paul Wellman

It began with a whimper, under the light of the silvery klieg lights, but quickly grew into its usual robustness come morning light. Last Thursday night, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival kicked off with a medium-to-maudlin romantic comedy, Definitely, Maybe, fulfilling the low expectations we bring to this festival’s opening night fare.

Roger Durling
Paul Wellman

Audiences were also horrified to see an actual AmEx commercial, this in a city whose big screens have thus far been blissfully commercial-free. Thankfully, the festival opted to fast forward through that commercial for remaining screenings, leaving only the festival introduction (with Bruce Winter and Zach Madden‘s cool atmospheric rock score) as anthem and word-from-our-sponsors. Otherwise, we would have grown to loathe not only the commercial’s product, but Tina Fey. Nobody wants that. The best moment on opening night was Executive Director Roger Durling‘s tearful dedication of the fest to the memory of Heath Ledger, who appeared here for a post-Brokeback Mountain tribute only two years ago.

Hours later, on Friday morning, the “real” festival parade began in dark rooms around town, and lo, the prospects brightened immensely. As of its first weekend, SBIFF 2008 looks to be another solid and variegated program. The festival was “rained in” for much of the time, and given the lure of theaters when the weather outside is frightful, that was only one of the many positives in this city’s most ambitious cultural event. Let us pray for more rain.

Cate Blanchett with the SBIFF Modern Master award
Paul Wellman

Tribute evenings do tend to drone on, by their nature, but obviously an ulterior motive-besides the Oscar ramp-up ops for filmmakers eyeing next month’s Academy Awards-is the audience’s chance to sit in the same room with an admired artist for a couple of hours. We are granted audience and can ogle freely at their real-time visage, confirming that these gleaming people do exist in the same space-time continuum as we do. Such is one description of being “star-struck,” and this reporter felt that at Cate Blanchett‘s Saturday night this-is-your-life event.

Looking pregnant and radiant in a green dress, Blanchett was her usual confident yet humble self at the Arlington, reminding us that part of her greatness has to do with avoiding self-absorption. “I hear some actors say they see it as personal expression,” she told Leonard Maltin, and us by proxy. “I don’t understand what all of that means.”

Ryan Gosling in the Lobero Theatre
Paul Wellman

Overall, this SBIFF’s roster of stellar visitors is unusually strong, in the terms that count for genuine film buffs. Any tribute list that includes the respectable likes of Julie Christie, Blanchett, Javier Bardem, Friday’s nod to Tommy Lee Jones (both awesome in 2007’s No Country for Old Men), Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl), and evenAngelina Jolie (Saturday at the Arlington) in her year of living artfully onscreen-with A Mighty Heart-is doing something very right. And last night’s round-robin Virtuoso Awards evening at the Lobero Theatre brought together talent -deserving -wider -recognition-Casey Affleck, Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), James McAvoy, Ellen Page, and Amy Ryan. And Brad Bird (Ratatouille) gets his deserved spotlight moment on Saturday at the Lobero.

A clear disappointment last weekend was the last-minute cancellation of the ever-popular It Starts with the Script panel discussion. Officially, the reason for the cancellation was a collective flu, but we all know that’s a euphemism for “writers’ strike.” Perhaps they got afflicted by hanging out together on picket lines, a rare communal moment for an inherently lonely job. Still to come is the usually lively Directors on Directing panel on Saturday morning.

One reporter’s list of favorite films so far, with an admitted bent toward foreign, non-English-speaking fare, is topped by films bearing that special and elusive marriage of form, content, style, and a certain x-factor. We certainly got those factors in the Croatian film Armin, one of the most perfectly and personally made films in the lineup. Director Ognjen SvilicicÂ’‘s masterful “small” film is subtle and speaks volumes beneath its slow pace and carefully crafted compositions, touching on father/son dynamics and cultural translation problems between eastern and northern Europe.

Takva: A Man’s Fear of God is a real dazzler on the theme of spiritual crisis (you heard me right) from Turkish director -zer Kızıltan, and the weirdly captivating Time to Die, by director Dorota Kedzierzawska, is the most lovely, funny, and life-affirming film you’ll ever see in the ranks of Polish black-and-whites about a feisty old woman and her dog (one of the best performances of the festival) in a rickety old house. The Band’s Visit, from Israeli director Eran Kolirin about a brass band in limbo for a night in a small town in Israel, is a little jewel deserving a spot on the art film circuit (locally, that means UCSB Arts & Lectures’ smart film series or a lot at the Riviera or Plaza de Oro).

We will undoubtedly be seeing more of Beautiful Bitch and The Counterfeiters-both from Germany, a strong presence this year-which are solid crowd-pleasers with strong messages to impart, if more conventional in their mis-en-scne and emotional vocabulary. Blind Mountain, by Blind Shaft director Li Yang, is boldly told, harrowing, and a humanitarian spin on the human trafficking issue in northern China; and the epic Genghis Khan “biopic” Mongol takes us deep into history, and also into the artful film world of Kazakhstan. Take that, Borat.

Of course, this is a full-service film festival, and one’s own particular realm of interest is there for the taking, or at least that’s the idealistic goal here. Documentaries of all stripes are included, along with shorts, hometown filmmakers, sports/outdoors culture, and other areas of interest, beyond just the wealth of fodder for art film geekdom (of which there is thankfully plenty).

Still, something new is afoot lately. Film festivals with a healthy international focus-like SBIFF, going back to its earliest incarnations more than 20 years ago-have assumed an increasing importance in just the last several years. As American arrogance and shifting axes of global influence have developed, post-9/11, the urgency of checking in on how the rest of the world lives and thinks has grown. Film, like music, is one way of reaching out to the world, or letting it reach us out here on the Western fringe.

In some real way, the “I” part of the SBIFF is stronger and more significant than ever.


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