Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn
Paul Wellman

When all was said and done and screened, one of the greatest-or strangest- moments in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival was off screen and on the street. Reportedly, Clint Eastwood, who drove himself to his Modern Master tribute evening at the Arlington, took the wrong street and ended up moving through the crowd in front of the barricades. To get to the red carpet, he had to wade through the gathered throng and ended up crowd-surfing his way to the properly secured area. It was a classic Clint-as-individualist moment. You had to be there. Many of us weren’t, but the story itself titillates.

Kate Winslet at the 24th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Paul Wellman

No doubt, at age 24, the SBIFF has come into its own and settled into a familiar and also mostly satisfying pattern. For some, the glittery but carefully chosen presence of celebrities is the best indication of something culturally special in town, and this year’s crop was especially strong, between Eastwood, Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz, Mickey Rourke, and David (Fight Club, Zodiac) Fincher. Presenters at these tributes included Sean Penn and Francis Ford Coppola. Clearly, it wasn’t just another 10-day period in our less-and-less humble town.

Penelope Cruz on the red carpet at the 24th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Paul Wellman

For others, it’s all about the subtitles: This festival’s strongest suit, artistically, is the bold and broad selection of films from beyond the English-speaking realm. SBIFF’s world cinema programming offered us the chance to see, on the big screen and in a 10-day stretch, such dazzling cinematic gems as the Swedish Everlasting Moments (Maria Heiskanen’s performance was one of the fest’s finest), the dryly funny and bittersweet Norwegian O’Horten, or the remarkable minimalist film noir piece from Turkey, Three Monkeys (this viewer’s festival favorite-a polyrhythmic wonder, slow on the surface and taut with tension below).

Sean Penn
Paul Wellman

We also were wowed by the rustic and moving Tulpan from Kazakhstan, Vacation and Suspect X from Japan-a meditation on life and death and a clever thriller, respectively-the neo-turned-magic realist El Camino from Costa Rica, Purgatorio from Mexico, and Zift from Bulgaria. Documentaries of note included Yes Madam, Sir; Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times; Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison; and the charming Automorphosis, a look at “art car” artists and the outsider art impulse among us, by Harrod Blank (quirky doc hero Les’s son).

But the festival didn’t stop there, having built up its parallel series addressing Santa Barbara filmmakers, extreme sports, and outdoors/nature fans. As exec director Roger Durling mentioned at Sunday’s closing night event, this festival depends on a sense of community. That’s not just lip service. And a community as diverse as Santa Barbara deserves a diverse festival.

Mickey Rourke and Francis Ford Coppola
Paul Wellman

As often happens, there wasn’t much to write home about in the festival’s framing. Both Rod Lurie‘s Nothing but the Truth on opening night and the closing night film, director Jeff Balsmeyer and writer/producer Mike Cram‘s Lightbulb, about novelty peddlers looking for a “lightbulb” payday, were better than some in the fest’s past, but hardly representative of the impressive cinema screened between those nights.

In an odd, side-door socio-economic fashion, the Film Festival has suddenly become more important, at a time when tightening belts are affecting distribution dealings. At Sundance, the shopping atmosphere reportedly was radically downsized. That may mean that less of the films seen here during the past 10 days will actually make it back for theatrical runs, and that it’s all the more a catch-it-while-you-can scenario at SBIFF.

The writer for the 2008 film Skin, Helen Crawley (left), and the movie's director Anthony Fabian
Paul Wellman

Take the case of the intriguing South African film Skin, which won the Audience Choice Award. Based on the true story of a black woman in South Africa with white parents, the film effectively-and in a neat, easy-does-it style-conveys racial tensions endured and exposed both inside and outside her family during apartheid. After the screening, director Anthony Fabian spoke about his realistic attitude toward getting any decent distribution for his solid, crowd-pleasing film, “in the atmosphere of 2009.” Time will tell what the atmosphere of 2010 will bring, for film festivals and other pockets of cultural life.

David Fincher and Taraji P. Henson
Paul Wellman

All in all, it was a very good year at SBIFF, on both the celebrity and the subtitle fronts. With the festival having expanded its schedule into the pre-rush hour time zone of 8 a.m., it was more possible than ever to get lost in the cinematic thicket and lose one’s reality bearings in town for 10 days. One such victim’s favorites, out of about 44 seen: Three Monkeys, Tulpan, Gomorrah, The Baader Meinhof Komplex, Everlasting Moments, O’Horten, Vacation, Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times, El Camino.


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