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Numbers aligned nicely for this year’s SBIFF as it hit its midlife stride of 35 years of active duty. The festival calendar was bumped up a couple of weeks, nudged to synch with the earlier-than-usual Oscars evening. And Oscar is a potent determining force in terms of celebrities and filmmakers making their way to Santa Barbara on the awards promo circuit.
This year’s roster of stars is impressive — Brad Pitt, Adam Driver (would-be tribute mate Scarlett Johansson called in sick), Lupita Nyong’o, Laura Dern, Renée (Judy) Zellweger — and Oscar-nom-kissed directors, writers, and behind-the-scenes artisans provide valuable insider insights beyond the window dressing of actors.
Special moments have abounded in the first half of the 11-day fest. Korean Parasite director Bong Joon-ho — a toast of the 2019 film world for his popcorn-meets-arthouse jewel of a film — appeared after a special screening, as did David O. Russell after a 20th-anniversary archival screening of Three Kings. Brazilian music legend Sérgio Mendes actually brought his band to play a few songs on the Lobero stage after the world premiere of a new doc about him.
SBIFF’s bounteous cavalcade of cinema reminds us of the ongoing embarrassment of riches in a medium full of challenges and sometimes irrational ambitions. Adam Driver readily made an analogy between his pre-acting career military life and his current job, both of which strive at “impossible missions.” After his Juilliard stint, he said, “The military was the best acting training I had. The structure is the same. The end result is different.”
At the Artisans evening, editor Lee Smith recalled the time when director Christopher Nolan invited him to participate in the epic single-shot (or seemingly single-shot) adventure that is 1917. Smith shook his head in a comfy chair on the Lobero stage: “I remember thinking, ‘Why me?’” At the screenwriters’ panel on Sunday, Toy Story 4 writer Stephany Folsom recalled being tapped for the third sequel in the franchise. Her initial response to yet another Toy Story sequel: “Why?” The answer to that question: Because it’s a concept in creators’ heads, and that is the meat and treat of SBIFF.
As always, the festival’s primary strength (depending on who you’re talking to) is its robust and varied international film component, which offers the chance to see world cinema on big screens, which now, at this time of an in-home movie streaming invasion, feels extra precious. (As a caveat, it has been heartening to see the number of festival films enabled by the imprimatur of Netflix and Amazon.)
As for favorite films? As of press time, mine are System Crasher, Kuessipan, The Clash, Invisible Life, Finding Farideh, 37 Seconds, My Life, As If, The Pencil, and The Birdcatcher’s Son.