SBIFF 2011 Modern Master Award given to Christopher Nolan, presented by Leonardo Dicaprio, at the Arlington Theatre Jan.30, 2011
Paul Wellman

If there can possibly be one telling, summarizing phrase to get at the essence of the deliriously varied 26th annual edition of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), it would have to be this: “I’ve … got … a … megaphone!”

Of course, we’re talking about this year’s senses-grabbing trailer, run before each of the festival screenings, a gonzo-fantastic creation with a moveable feast of Legos by 16-year-old stop-motion animator Harry Bossert and Santa Barbara’s own wry wild man of music Parry Gripp (of Nerf Herder, YouTube-phenom, and one-time Independent music-columnist fame). In the trailer — a refreshing twist compared to lower-key trailers of old — a film festival line organizer wields his megaphone to keep the humans in order, only to be pounced upon. It’s all in good fun, of course, although tensions do rise in line for the popular numbers.

But, on a larger scale, the festival is a haven for wielders of metaphorical megaphones, be it filmmakers and celebrities and industry insiders seizing our attention, or the natural impulse for us — passionate filmgoers, bloggers, critic types, all involved — to respond. We argue over whether the Romanian director Florin Serban’s film If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is a work of genius and the best of the fest (this viewer’s view, so far) or a slow and pretentious trip to the art house.

At about halfway through SBIFF 2011, there is a lot of “same old, same old” sensibility, which is not at all a bad thing in this case. SBIFF remains Santa Barbara’s crown jewel among major cultural events, and is going strong, again. Things started well enough last Thursday, with an opening film, Sarah’s Key, which has a lot going for it, even if the final quarter of the film slips into insufferable sentimentality.

At SBIFF, it’s not all art and angst with subtitles. Local, nature, and sports films draw their own crowds. In the core international programming, comedic relief does arrive in the program, as well. Laughter flowed in screenings of the stylistically charged-up and bubbly ironic Simple Simon (a funny number about an Asperger’s young man), and the Spanish film The Great Vázquez, a juicy and bright-color dark comedy about a conman cartoonist in early ’60s Barcelona (with a period-piece glow reminiscent of another recommended Spanish film, Asleep in the Sun, a gently surreal dog lover’s dream of a film). Most likely, The First Grader will be the festival’s feel-good fave, though it’s also lined with unflinching dark memories of Kenya’s haunted past.

Celebrity visitations and sightings are a critical part of the SBIFF operations, and increasingly so in the last several years, as the star power has been bumped upward in sync with the march to the Oscar. Besides the career summations and close encounters with bona fide stars, these events also give us a human dimension to a medium that can be prefab and cordoned off from our humble mortal lives. Annette Bening was as humble and pithy as expected, ending her night with the joke, “Any shred of humility I ever had is now lost.”

Similarly, the seemingly well-balanced, high-style director and mind-gamesman Christopher Nolan accepted his “Modern Master” award (well deserved) from Leonardo DiCaprio — who was toasted on this stage a few years back — and said he’d “promise not to let all this attention go to my head.” James Franco wasn’t such a quotable chap, but his presenter, Seth Rogen, upped the spontaneous bad-boy laugh factor, adding a memorable quip about the Arlington Theatre: “This is the first time I’ve seen a theater built inside a Mexican restaurant.”

Another Oscar multi-hopeful, The King’s Speech, had its day, via the Geoffrey Rush night and Writer’s Panel star David Seidler, a show-biz vet suddenly getting his spotlight. At the Lobero panel, Seidler shared, “for the first time in my life as a stutterer, my voice was heard.”

Among the documentary bunch, the list includes prizes like the imaginative and moving Nostalgia for the Light, Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s fascinatingly poetic doc interweaving musings about the cosmos and the nitty-gritty of human life and death. The Last Lions is a hypnotically intimate field report in the life of a specific lioness from the diminishing wilds of Botswana, by dedicated husband/wife team Dereck and Beverly Joubert, which inspires us to join their quest to save the lions (down to 20,000, from 450,000 only 50 years ago).

Said Dereck, “We went from this being a passion of ours to an obsession.” Such passion and obsession continue at SBIFF through this Sunday.

• An Interview with Nicole Kidman, Who Will Be Honored with the Cinema Vanguard Award

•Teardrop Speaks: Oscar Nominee John Hawkes to Receive Virtuoso Award

• Hailee Steinfeld’s Big Break: True Grit’s Pint-Sized Powerhouse Is Now an Oscar Nominee

• SBIFF, Take 26: Movie Freaks, Film Geeks, and One American Beauty

• Fund for Santa Barbara’s Social Justice Award

• Closing Night Film: Carmen in 3D


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