As SBIFF 2018 came to a close on Saturday night, with a heartwarming and civic-minded roster of Santa Barbara documentaries, the festival board president Lynda Weinman (of Lynda.com) introduced the evening with more than just the expected wrap-up rhetoric. “It has been an amazing festival,” she told the packed crowd at the Arlington, “and at an important time. Didn’t we just all need this?” She was referring, of course, to the recent mudslides — occurring three weeks before SBIFF’s opening night — and their ongoing, collective post-traumatic aftermath.
Later that night, at the closing party well-lubed by event sponsor Belvedere Vodka, the festival’s intrepid and sociable executive director Roger Durling was being feted with due congratulations, while trying to explain a general thematic arc to the festival at this special and tender moment in Santa Barbara. “I wanted to start big (which he did, with Emilio Estevez’s quite fine and humane opening night film the public) and then bring it back home,” he said.
The plan worked wonders, and the Arlington throng happily soaked in the tales of what makes Santa Barbara … well, Santa Barbara. I don’t think I was the only one who sat in the glow of area-made docs — of all levels of slickness — and community stories on Sunday night and suddenly had the epiphany: “I love this town.”
In all, the 33rd SBIFF might have seemed lower-key than other, splashier years, with a celebrity tribute roster more focused on artists who have come out from the cold and the sidelines (and into Oscar’s glare) this year: Willem Dafoe, Gary Oldman, Sam Rockwell, Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, and SBIFF three-timer Saoirse Ronan. In a way, the highest wattage of artistic star power this year came from the directors’ showcase, a potent show of force and directors ranging from inspired first timers (Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele), to entrenched masters-in-training (P.T. Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro).
Human presence aside, a real heart and mindful meat of the festival remains what happens in darkened theaters around town, with special emphasis on the invaluable, concentrated exposure to the current state of international film — ” the “IF” in SBIFF. Programmers Michael Albright and Mickey Duzdevich did a great job in making 2018’s edition a notably fine and diverse one. Not surprisingly, some of the best films arrived with the imprimatur of Oscar nominations — from the Foreign Film category, the Hungarian “love story in a slaughterhouse” gem On Body and Soul (my personal Best of Fest vote), the cleverly enigmatic, trans-gender and trans-genre Chilean film The Fantastic Woman, the Swedish art-world satire/existential romp The Square, and The Insult, a fascinating and carefully balanced story of Middle Eastern conflict disguised as a courtroom drama.
From the documentary end of the spectrum came the stunning and morphing-in-midstream Oscar-nom film Icarus, about the Russian whistleblower on the state-sponsored sports doping project. Yes, the film is available now on Netflix, but gained extra power as seen on the Lobero screen along with a packed theater and director Bryan Vogel in-house. SBIFF celebrates that timeless and true cinematic experience, an antidote to the sterility of stay-at-home film experience.
Among films making their U.S. premiere at this festival, were dazzling Icelandic wonder The Swan (from first-time director Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir), the mesmerizing, Hitchcock haiku slow-brew Albanian film Daybreak, and Russia’s Arrhythmia, an emotionally affecting, slow-fast experiment in filmic temporality.
And yes, despite the natural dark side of life, art, and world cinema, there was lighter fare along the way to keep our troubled souls at ease. A crowd pleaser with fable-making on the brain, Tulipani: Love, Humour and a Bicycle, and the comedic offerings also included the unexpectedly tasty and laugh-out-loud Canadian film Adventures in Public School, with the dark comedy prize going to Under the Tree, a bloody fun, dry and dark farce from Iceland.
Gazing at the dozens of films screened over 10 days and starting each day with a “Breakfast Club” date, it was harder than usual to whittle down to a Top 10 — a testament to the overall strength of the program this year. But here goes, one bleary-eyed SBIFFers list of faves: Of Body and Soul, The Swan, Daybreak, The Party, The Fantastic Woman, Oh Lucy!, Hotel Salvation, The Double Lover, Tulipani: Love, Humour and a Bicycle, Icarus.