Paul Wellman

As the Santa Barbara International Film Festival successfully rounded the corner of its milestone 25-year-mark, with another grand and happily dense thicket of film, celebrity toasts, and film chatter, some backward glancing and civic and cultural pride was in order. Founding director Phyllis DePicciotto could be seen around the festival sites and on the pre-screening trailers — countless times over the nearly 200 screenings — talking about the humble early days. Created in 1985 and with its first festival, then only three days, in 1986, 2010 marked the 25th edition, and much has changed and much has remained the same over the years.

Early on, the living, breathing celebrity tributes were to legacy figures like Robert Mitchum (then a Montecito resident) and James Stewart, or randomly-timed visitations by locals Michael Douglas and Jeff Bridges, who returned triumphantly this year for Sunday’s “Jeff Bridges Day,” surrounding his virtuoso and award-magnetizing drunken cowboy turn in Crazy Heart. In the period of affable and thankfully half-crazed director Roger Durling’s now seven years at the helm (and on the streets), the celebrity factor of the festival has zoomed upward in star-time voltage while plugging into the pre-Oscar buzz of hopefuls looking for promo ops timed with the festival’s need for glitz. It’s a blithe symbiotic relationship, suiting the needs of both parties.

(See Paul Wellman’s many SBIFF photo galleries here.)

This year’s celeb models were among the most prized of Oscar hopefuls, and an interesting cross-town divide emerged. James (Avatar) Cameron and Sandra (The Blind Side) Bullock — the current populist king and queen — went gala at the Arlington while the more cognoscenti favorites, Kathryn (The Hurt Locker) Bigelow and Jeff (Crazy Heart) Bridges, were paid tribute in the humbler quarters of the Lobero. Admittedly, from outside that simplistic theory came due Arlington-ian respects to Julianne Moore — who wowed and seduced in Chloe — and Colin (A Single Man) Firth.

Star sightings and panel confabs are well and good. But throughout its entire 25-year run so far, SBIFF’s strongest suit has been its bounty of strong foreign films, while the American independent and other English language entries have tended to be lesser models by comparison. In short, the greatest moments in every SBIFF to date has required reading in the dark. And that international cinema aspect accounts for perhaps the biggest sea change of film-viewing realities over the past 25 years: Given the current challenges of actual theatrical runs for art house fare, good film festivals such as this one become ever more important for those of us who crave the old-school experience of film on the big screen in a large room of friends and strangers, sharing the air and the collective experience without the option of a pause button.

On the other hand, the age of Netflix, digital distribution, and home theater options may relate to the festival’s program in a different way: Never before could we take notes on recommended film titles and have access to them, coming soon to a living room near us.

As is almost a tradition by now at the festival, the klieg-light-adorned bookend films on opening and closing nights were, well, not deserving of klieg lights. Opening night’s fare, Flying Lessons, is a watchable but uneven affair, perked up by good performances and the local color of its Santa Ynez locations. Closing down the joint on another meek note, Middle Men was an oddball effort, getting lost in the murky mix of crass humor, dark neo-film noir sauce via the porn/internet industries, and Russian mafia, and somehow circling back to family values. Giovanni Ribisi puts in a crazed, over-the-top performance and Luke Wilson is the man who gets both the girl — a 23-year-old young porn star — and the happy family/happy ending. Yawn.

That said, though, what came in between those low points was generally inspiring of a prolonged cinema high, courtesy of wise devising by Durling and program manager Candace Schermerhorn. With the addition of 8 a.m. screenings, local and visiting film addicts were enabled in a denser way than ever. Sleep deferral became the norm for some hopeless cases (present company included).

In the festival’s “Focus on Quebec” sidebar, a few mediocre numbers were offset by an operative diversity of from, content and landscape — from urban to rural and back. Other high points: Polytechnique (akin to Gus Van Sant’s school massacre verite-ish poem Elephant), the grisly sexy fun of Je me souviens, the lyrical northland saga The Legacy, and Shannon Walsh’s striking original, sobering but ultimately uplifting Vital Signs. The jewel of the Quebec crop, though was wunderkind newcomer Xavier Dolan’s darkly witty teen angst twist-up I Killed My Mother. Speaking of things maternal, the South Korean Mother was another wonder, with its dizzying and seamless blend of murder mystery and cinematic tone poem.

This year’s program may have been short on films which deign to experiment with the formal language of film medium, to find new routes to expression around the old formulas of filmmaking. One notable exception, and this festival’s prized example of “poetic cinema,” was the amazing Romanian film Katalin Varga, British director Peter Strickland’s mysterious folk art-like film in which the narrative, characterizations, and other aspects were woven into the stylistic vocabulary of the telling.

Sex came, in many ways, during the festival. The remarkable Kelin is an almost dialogue-free and sensory feast, conveyed sexual-awaking in nomadic life on the Central Asian steppes. From a very different place and time, an aura of sexual obsession and fuzzily fatal attractions wriggle through Chloe, the latest sex-suspense number from Atom Egoyan. (This sleek film, headed towards theatrical run, marked an incidental, added Canadian connection this year, bolstered by the Canadian-turned-Santa Barbaran link of producers Ivan Reitman and Joe Medjuck.)

Humor, too, filtered through in unexpected ways, whether in the Jarmusch-y dry comedy of Ashkan, The Charmed Ring and Other Stories, from Iran (yes, Iran) or the bubbly bright comic musical Bran Nue Dae from Down Under, with a window on Aboriginal life and rights.

Documentaries were once again strong, and the best I caught were In the Land of the Free, A Thousand Year Tree, and Last Train Home, about unjustly imprisoned inmates in Angola, life in a Senegalese village, and a disarmingly broad-viewed and naturalistic slice of life among the poor migrant workers China, respectively.

In all, SBIFF 2010 once again afforded us a great up-close, big screen world tour of experience. It remains Santa Barbara’s biggest and brightest cultural enterprise, and primarily because it brings the world — its woes, heritages and varieties of consciousness — to our idyllic burg on the western fringe, in the long shadow of Hollywood.

One obsessive festgoer’s best-of list: Ashkan, The Charmed Ring and Other Stories (Iran; Shahrma Mokri), Katalin Varga (Romania; Peter Strickland), Vincere (Marco Bellocchio), Zero (Poland; Pawel Borowski), Kelin (Kazakhstan; Yermek Tursonov), I Killed My Mother (Quebec: Xavier Dolan), Mother (South Korea: Joon-ho Bong), Letters to Father Jakob (Finland; Klaus Haro), Honeymoons (Serbia; Goran Paskaljevic), Bran Nue Dae (Australia: Rachel Perkins).


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