It can be said that the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) is fueled by three factors: the strong international aspect of its foreign-film-rich programming, the audience lure of Hollywood/Oscar-season buzz (actor tributes, panels with Oscar-nominated film artists), and, increasingly, the hometown advantage. Santa Barbara stories literally frame this 34th edition of SBIFF, with the opening night of Mimi deGruy’s inspiring film about her late husband, Mike, a celebrated nature filmmaker with an ocean obsession and a committed SBIFF organizer and energizer, who died in a helicopter accident in 2012, and Saturday night’s closing film, Spoons: A Santa Barbara Story, Wyatt Daily’s homage to area surfing greats.
In between the opening and closing galas, the 2019 festival has lived up to its tradition of showcasing recent cinema from around the world, giving us a rare chance to see films we wouldn’t otherwise have access to on the big screen. Cinematic highlights of the festival’s first half included the Vietnamese The Third Wife, the Estonian Take It or Leave It, the Chinese Shadow (Zhang Yimou’s latest), the Argentine comedy Not Quite Adults, and the Swiss With the Wind. Also shining were 805–based docs, with The Biggest Little Farm, about the highs and lows of creating a farm in Moorpark, and Amazing Grace, a lost treasure of the epiphanic 1972 Aretha Franklin gospel outing.
Thankfully for local cineastes, Santa Barbara now boasts two arthouses with SBIFF’s revival of the Riviera Theatre and the Hitchcock Public House, and we’ve been privy to foreign Oscar buzzers Roma, Cold War, and Shoplifters recently, whereas the festival used to be a more exclusive access provider to foreign Oscar fare.
Last Sunday saw tributes to two important women in film — Glenn Close and Melissa McCarthy — and last Thursday night’s convergence of Outstanding Directors — Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Paweł Pawlikowski (Cold War), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), and Adam McKay (Vice) — was a summit meeting of a high order.
We’ve had rain during SBIFF in years past, but the epic weather proportions adversely impacted the otherwise smooth operations of the fest on Saturday, when the Highway 101 closure prevented many panelists and tribute subjects from getting to town. Glenn Close’s tribute was postponed a day, panels made do with leaner means (although at the Writers Panel, the legendary Paul Schrader, riding high on the buzz about his masterpiece First Responder, was there, and in fine, funny, wise form). Viggo Mortensen, determined to make it to the Arlington, was airlifted by Santa Barbara Aviation, arriving an hour late but full of infectious zeal and thoughtful reflections on his years of a life in the arts.
Overall, this is a particularly director-centric festival, blessed and fortified by the presence of creators of the year’s greatest films — especially Cuarón, Schrader, and Pawlikowski. In the director’s Arlington fete, Pawlikowski was asked if it was cathartic making Cold War, which is loosely based on his late parents’ life. “‘Cathartic’ isn’t the word,” the wry director said. “It’s a nightmare to make a film. It’s cathartic to finish a film.” Film artists’ catharses are the fodder for movie lovers and fest-goers’ pleasure and curiosity.
At press time, this scribe’s film faves are: Amazing Grace, The Third Wife, Shadow, Land of My Children, David Crosby: Remember My Name, The Biggest Little Farm, With the Wind, Not Quite Adults, Angel, Take It or Leave It.
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