All over town for the past 11 days, and especially lurking around the film festival’s hub of the Metro 4, people have been heard asking, “What films have you seen?” It’s a common mantra come film-fest time. Lesser heard, but equally relevant, would be the question, “What festival have you seen?” Perhaps more than ever, SBIFF this year fulfilled the notion, laid out by director Roger Durling, of presenting a wildly diverse “mosaic” effect, to suit the different demographics making up Santa Barbara and the out-of-towners who are drawn to the fest.
It was pretty much always thus, with the blend of international cinema, Hollywood visitors, documentaries, and other peripheral interests. Durling didn’t create this mold, but it has flourished under his now five-year regime at the helm. SBIFF 2008 started out meekly, with the forgettable Hollywood claptrap Definitely, Maybe, and ended boldly/darkly with Giuseppe (Cinema Paradiso) Tornatore‘s tautly constructed and sometimes graphic Hitchcock-ian thriller, The Unknown Woman. In between came a bounty of rain (great weather for indoor pursuits, though prohibitive for the desired influx of Angelenos) and the usual variegated slew of titles. There were more than 200 of them, and in enough different directions that moviegoers could pick and choose their own festival agenda and reality.
This was also a year of unusually high integrity in terms of the tribute evenings, without the controversy attending last year’s presentation of the Modern Master award to Will Smith, which had people scratching their heads. This year’s Modern Master was the masterful Cate Blanchett, and the best American film of 2007, the Coen bros.’ rumination on instinctual violence in No Country for Old Men, was represented by both Javier Bardem and the laconic wonder Tommy Lee Jones. At his Arlington tribute, Jones rightly described this great film as “a contemplation about morality, but it’s not simple and it’s very subtle. : This movie is not about answers, it’s about really good questions.”
As for the festival’s hottest ticket, it had to be the tribute evening to the tabloid-pestered and nobly global-minded Angelina Jolie, with Brad Pitt and award-presenter Clint Eastwood in the house (Jolie stars in Eastwood’s forthcoming film, The Changeling). She touched on the importance of thinking and feeling globally, while discussing the message of her recent film A Mighty Heart, about the execution of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan: “We do need to face these very serious threats, things that scare us and things that are true, that there is a lot of aggression out there. But also, we have to take a deep breath and learn how to confront it and not just by spitting back hate.”
Last Sunday’s closing night at the Arlington also brought the closure of its roster of awards, which tend to go to crowd-pleasers like the sweet melodrama Amal, the edgy but ultimately optimistic German film Beautiful Bitch, the warm pre-Castro Cuba coming-of-age film La Edad de la Peseta (The Silly Age), and the intriguing documentary on a folk artist worth knowing about, One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story. The druggie rogue’s tale Fix, cleverly disguised as a cinema verite romp through L.A. in a day, deserved its attention via the new Heineken Red Star Award. Among other awards, the Fund for Santa Barbara’s Social Justice Award went to When Clouds Clear (Despues de la Neblina) and the Audience Choice prize went to Saving Luna.
Yet some of the most memorable films were more challenging in some ways and tucked into the crevices of the schedule. Fatih (Head-On) Akin’s The Edge of Heaven was this viewer’s favorite film overall, The Mourning Forest was the festival’s most meditative film, and the ¼ber-dryly comic Swedish film You, the Living was the funniest film of the festival, in all its bizarre stateliness. All those films managed that special, hard-to-achieve blend of filmic style and dramatic substance. The Band Arrives, an Israeli film of uncommon subtle humor and warmth-not to mention a unique perspective on the Arab/Jewish divide-was another amazing jewel, which will hopefully return to town. Certainly, we’ll be seeing the likes of Germany’s Oscar bid The Counterfeiters and the French comedy Priceless in a theater near us soon, but the smaller, subtler films admired in the last 11 days face a sterner struggle for attention in a “secondary market.”
Good news kept coming in from the east-Eastern Europe, that is-with an expanded Eastern Bloc sidebar featuring beautiful works such as the remarkable Armin, Time to Die, Short Circuits, and The Trap. Heading further East, the East x West sidebar-apart from The Mourning Forest-seemed oddly uneven this year, with rambling late-night snoozers and occasionally brightened prospects, such as the ghost story Epitaph and the caffeinated, carbonated Dasepo Naughty Girls, both from South Korea.
All in all, 2008 was a good year, verging on a very good year in the onward and upward history of this festival. It remains Santa Barbara’s premiere cultural event, with no sign of letting up. At this year’s festival, it rained and poured, cinematically and otherwise.
4•1•1 SBIFF 2008’s Third Weekend-a free, four-day screening of the fest’s best for Santa Barbarans-starts on Thursday with A Silly Age; continues Friday with One Bad Cat and Fix; Saturday with Saving Luna, When Clouds Clear, Bustin’ Down the Door, and Stranded; and finishes Sunday with Aquarium, For the Love of God, Unleashed, The Debt, and Blind Mountain. All films are screening at the Riviera Theatre. For more info, see sbiff.org.