Rather than slouching toward its milestone silver anniversary status next year, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival at age 24 is basking in a slow and steady upward mobility, both on local and, more importantly, global fronts. Starting tonight with the ceremonial klieg light-enhanced opening gala at the Arlington and running for 10 days with more than 200 film titles, the festival will once again be in the town’s face, a happy occasion for filmgoers and merchants seeking an influx of off-season tourist dollars.

On the local level, the festival has no equal among concentrated cultural events in town. For 10 days, SBIFF reaches out into a broad public cross-section-not just cinema geeks and celebrity gawkers-and rightly commands the spotlight. By international standards, the festival has elevated its standing in the last several years (“the Roger Years”) both vis- -vis the expanding film festival circuit and the Oscar ramp-up Hollywood scene.

Roger Durling
Paul Wellman

Word has it that Santa Barbara recently earned a kudo on the Top 12 tourist destination list in America. Our position as a top-drawer tourist town is once again confirmed by objective outside parties, for better and worse. Could SBIFF be a candidate for the top dozen film fests, were there such a thing? Quite possibly.

Judging from the last several years in the festival’s history, a reasonable case could be made that the event is closer than ever to the grandiose original notion that the festival could be the “Cannes of the West.” That’s a lofty and unachievable goal, of course, but SBIFF has been capitalizing on the blend of positives making this festival unique-including Santa Barbara’s inherent tourist appeal and both its proximity and distance from Los Angeles/Hollywood. It may always lag behind the Sundance Film Festival in stature and, barely, history (Sundance is presently celebrating its 25th birthday), but SBIFF continues to shine a light, and a bright one.

Again, the Roger Factor has helped considerably. Now in his sixth season as the most charismatic and publically approachable director in the festival’s history, Roger Durling has put a face and an insignia on the festival’s personality, while putting his wits and movie obsessions to good use. He doesn’t disappear during the non-festival part of the year, hosting the Cinema Society screenings, with filmmakers in tow and in Q&As. (Full disclosure: Durling also writes for this paper.)

SBIFF 2009, from the looks of it, holds out promise for more of the same high quality we’ve come to know and expect. A healthy and diversified supply of new international cinema-including interesting titles that won’t make it back for regular runs in theaters-and documentaries, American indie flicks, sports and outdoors films, shorts, and local films are prepped to unreel. Beyond life in the projection room, celebrity tributes, industry panels, and the student 10-10-10 competition will give fleshed-out peripheral reality checks to the medium, in keeping with festival tradition.

Clint Eastwood
Paul Wellman

Oh, plus, they’ve got Clint. Eastwood, that is.

SBIFF has landed some impressive and timely tributes, thanks to the fest’s increasing cachet and, yes, also thanks to the buzz op for Oscar-hungry movie folks. The list of past visitors includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, Heath Ledger, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Diane Keaton, Anthony Hopkins, and more, just in this millennium. There have also been a few head-scratchers, like 2006’s presentation of Will Smith as Modern Master. We’re still trying to do the math on that one.

This year, though, having Great American filmmaker and self-effacing myth Clint (first-name basis seems apropos) as Modern Master (Thursday, January 29, at the Arlington) involves no hyperbole. Kate Winslet returns to the festival (Friday, January 23, at the Arlington) at a ripe moment, on the heels of two of her strongest (and doubly Golden Globed) roles ever, Revolutionary Road and The Reader. In other celebrity tribute news, Penelope Cruz, too, is riding high after stealing the show in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (she comes to the Arlington on Saturday, January 24), and Kristin Scott Thomas was staggeringly good in I’ve Loved You So Long (she’ll be at the Arlington on Tuesday, January 27). Mickey Rourke, receiving the American Riviera Award at the Arlington on Saturday, January 31, is a man and a public presence reborn this year with The Wrestler. (He’ll be featured in this paper next week.)

Penelope Cruz
Paul Wellman (file)

Also in the spotlight in the Guest Director slot is David Fincher, whose current film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, has gotten wildly mixed reviews, but is just one entry in his impressive filmography, including Fight Club and the curiously underrated Zodiac. A Celebration of David Fincher takes place on Friday, January 30, and Fincher’s films will get a retrospective at the festival.

For the more industry-intrigued among us, the annual panel discussions It Starts with the Script and Directors on Directing are invariably intriguing and well-stocked with top talents; both occur at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday, January 24. And on Saturday, January 31, the same venue hosts the talks Movers & Shakers, for producers, and Creative Forces: Women in the Biz.

Rod Lurie

Film-wise, the festivities begin tonight (January 22) at the Arlington, with director Rod Lurie‘s Nothing but the Truth (click here to read Matt Kettman’s interview with the director), starring Kate Beckinsale. But longtime festival-goers know not to judge this festival by its opening night, which has been less than dazzling more often than not throughout the years/decades. The festival closes on Sunday, February 1, with the world premiere of Lightbulb, directed by Jeff Balsmeyer.

A rule of thumb in this festival’s programming has been that the international cinema tends to be of a high order, while the American fare is wildly uneven. On the international roster this year are several of the foreign Academy Award contenders from abroad.

Ongoing traditions and side roads in the programming plans come as good news, especially the Latino Cinema, Eastern Bloc, and sometimes kitschily horrific East X West sidebar. Other specialized niche sidebars include Reel Nature and To the Maxxx, dealing with nature and extreme sports, respectively, as well as a Santa Barbara Filmmakers focus.

One of the ways the festival makes an outreach into the community is through its annual 10-10-10 Student Filmmaking Competition, through which young filmmakers are chosen to make short films on the fly during the festival’s 10-day stretch. Finished filmic products hit the big screen on closing night.

Speculation is humming as to the possible effects of economic woes and paranoia on the festival, as with every corner of the cultural and social world at the moment. On the plus side, SBIFF is by now one of those firmly planted traditions, in this region and far beyond. Time, box office receipts, and sponsorship deals will tell. Whatever the score on that front, though, during the next 10 days, the film festival offers its ripe excuse to sink into the Metro Five festival HQ (and other venues around town), and to indulge both the escapist and the world-intrigued sensibilities, a balance that the film medium uniquely affords.

The Durls’ Top 10

SBIFF’s Executive Director Roger Durling plays a large role in selecting the fest’s films. Here are his must-sees for 2009:

1) The Country Teacher

2) Everlasting Moments

3) Three Monkeys

4) Gomorrah

5) The Baader Meinhof Complex

6) The Necessities of Life

7) O’Horten

8) Zift

9) Tulpan

10) Inventing L.A.


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