Among the factors making the 2018 Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) feel even more special than usual is the fact that it might have been the festival that wasn’t. Just as the festival machinery was getting into full gear in early January, the mudslides changed local life as we’d known it. Contemplations of canceling the festival, as had happened with heaps of other cultural events in town in January, were resolved at the urging of many, including voices inside the head of intrepid and innately sociable festival director Roger Durling. As he told the opening-night crowd last Wednesday, he realized that the festival was an ideal rallying point for a community in need of … community.
Given SBIFF’s status, that absence would have created a major chasm in Santa Barbara’s cultural life. Instead, SBIFF has once again lit up our city in the manner to which we’ve grown accustomed, propitiously timed during the lead-up to the Academy Awards.
Audience head count has been down somewhat, no doubt impacted by the long closure of Highway 101 and the hesitation of L.A. visitors to plan or make the trek, but the show has gone on, in bold style. “Breakfast club” screenings each morning have been well attended, as have the free afternoon screenings at the Lobero. The late-night slot has gone dark in the past couple of years, unfortunately, but then again, that allows for a bit more sleep for the film-going diehards lurking and lurching among us.
As usual, SBIFF lives up to the considerable promise of its “IF” factor — the “international film” component — in terms of giving a concentrated dose of valued area screen time for world cinema. Along with that exposure comes a window on the world beyond our shores and cinematic dialects blissfully removed from Hollywood.
As of the first four days of programming, the highlights include the Japanese dark comedy Oh Lucy!; Hotel Salvation, a lovely, humor-spiced Indian film about mortality and other living things; the delightfully twisted neo-noir-thriller stuff of Gutland; François Ozon’s shamelessly eroticized The Double Lover (the token kink flick this year?); and intriguing cinematic ventures such as Finland’s chilling but powerful Euthanizer and Russia’s Arrhythmia. Crowd-pleasing pleasantries in the bunch include the joyful, fable-like Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle and the new and timely Crossing Borders sidebar, with Sky & Ground, a fascinating close-up view of a Syrian refugee family’s trek, and reflective immigrant/refugee-related films Catch the Wind and The Order of Things.
Jeff Bridges, who was being rescued from the roof of his Montecito house just a month ago, presented, produced, and narrated the ambitious Living in the Future’s Past, which had its world premiere last Saturday night. Director Susan Kucera’s variation on the theme of an eco-documentary, with informed studies into the primordial urges and foibles of our species, is a visually stunning kinfolk to An Inconvenient Truth, but with more hope attached.
Among the Hollywood celebrity parade — ever the important ingredient in the SBIFF mix — we got in-house face time in The Arlington Theatre with stars of a less-glitzy but artistically respected sort this year. The list included the man who would be Christ, Willem Dafoe (hot on the heels of The Florida Project); chameleon Gary Oldman — the man who would be Sir Winston Churchill, Sid Vicious, Beethoven, and more — and the “still young but growing up in public” Saoirse Ronan, who was here a few years ago as an “emerging artist” tribute subject. Voilà — she has officially emerged.
Saturday afternoon’s Writers Panel at the Lobero, a great SBIFF tradition, lived up to its reputation, bringing top screenwriters to speak about the germination stage of filmmaking to a full house of current and could-be screenwriters, as well as the merely cinema obsessed.
While the upcoming second weekend of this year’s festival is considerably leaner and slower than the first, there are still plenty of screenings to take in and the final tribute, Outstanding Perfomers, honoring Margot Robbie and Allison Janney for their commanding work in I, Tonya. In a fresh twist on tradition, Saturday night’s closing-night fare casts a light on Santa Barbara Documentary Shorts, a self-reflective gesture that somehow seems just right at this fragile juncture in our history.
At press time, this scribe’s top-10 list, in progress: The Insult, Oh Lucy!, Hotel Salvation, Gutland, The Double Lover, Euthanizer, Arrhythmia, Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle, The Quartette, and Living in the Future’s Past.