SBIFF 2021 highlights so far include, clockwise from top left, Bill Murray being honored, the seaside drive-ins, the Artisans Award, and locally produced films such as Highway One. | Images Courtesy of SBIFF and Jean Ziesenhenne (top right)

It’s official: The unofficial cuisine of the 2021 SBIFF is La Super-Rica’s rightfully celebrated #16, a k a Super Rica Especial. The legacy of #16 is a commonly known highlight of Santa Barbara life, but its new crowning comes courtesy of Bill Murray, who capped off his sometimes madcap Modern Master Award tribute with a tip of the hat to longtime award host, veteran critic Leonard Maltin, and the dish in question. 

“Leonard,” Murray deadpanned, “I congratulate you for 31 years doing this. I can only imagine how many times you’ve ordered the #16 at La Super-Rica. It’s the #16. You gotta get it.” 

Beyond the instant buzz factor and kitschy tanginess of Murray’s foodie comments in chat rooms and around town, the moment was a rare acknowledgment of the street cred of a festival that, by necessity, was restricted mostly to the generic forum of Zooming and streaming. In short, Murray helped put the “Santa Barbara” back into the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and had us longing for the festival’s usual creature “discomforts” of waiting in lines, crowding into theaters with strangers, discussing and arguing the relative merits of this Lithuanian puzzler versus that cheeky indie flick, and generally sharing an experience. That will have to wait.

And yet, as led by intrepid executive director Roger Durling, this year’s resourceful variation on the festival has bravely kept the torch in COVID time and given us something to collectively embrace and be — both from the comforts of our homes or in the novel arena of temporary (and free-to-the-public) drive-in screens at Santa Barbara City College. 

Murray, the gonzo cult hero and star of mainstream comedies and niche cinema, delivered the goods in his own unique style and kicked off a truly celebrity-studded series of interviews and panels with filmmakers, screenwriters, directors, and, yes, stars — Carey Mulligan, Sacha Baron Cohen, Amanda Seyfried, and Delroy Lindo, along with some dazzling fellow Oscar-nommed performers in the “Virtuosos” evening. 

Of course, things felt disorienting and depersonalized, not being able to share a room/theater and the very air a celebrity breathes, but we’ve become late adapters to the compromise. Mulligan’s Cinema Vanguard Award show took place not at the historic Arlington Theatre, but in the Zoom zone on Monday afternoon — from host Pete Hammond’s den to the actress’s N.Y.C. hotel room (where she was getting ready for her SNL spotlight, her first acting work since wrapping The Dig in December 2019). 

Mulligan, last toasted at SBIFF for her standout work in An Education (2009), is riding high with the much-discussed Promising Young Woman, a dizzying hybrid comic-thriller-drama that takes on sexual abuse and misogyny — including Hollywood-fueled values — in a bracing, fresh way. “It’s painfully common,” Mulligan told us, “what we’re talking about in this film. It’s been normalized. It’s been a joke for so long. I’ve watched all those [sexist] films, and it reframes those things and makes you think about it.”

Films to Find

Oscar-timed Hollywood encounters aside, SBIFF 2021 is up to its old high standards, hitting us where it counts with a solid roster of international films, many of which we’ll be hard-pressed to see, even in this film-streaming smorgasbord era. Worthy American independents are in the mix, even with some 805 links, as in Highway One (ostensibly about Cambria, but not really) and Coast (a coming-of-age tale actually about and shot in Santa Maria).

Docs are having a field day, starting with the engaging and important festival opener, Invisible Valley, which puts a compelling, personal face on the disparity of farmworkers’ hardscrabble lives in the Coachella Valley versus the gated-community decadence and the annual transient phenom of the Coachella Festival. The film touches on socioeconomic norms relevant to California, the U.S., and beyond.

Recurring themes sneak into the programming, by design or happenstance, as is the case with two impressive films — the French By Your Side (La folie) and the indie film Broken Diamonds — affectingly relating the painful story of mentally ill characters with emotionally shattering impacts on their families. Unconventional and poetic cinematic values can be found in some of the Latin American entries (long a strong sidebar in the festival), including Fortitude (La Fortaleza), The Ghosts (Los fantasmas), and We Will Never Die. The Nordic selection is potent, including two Finnish treats: the black comic Ladies of Steel and the dark dramatic force of The Last Ones (Viimeiset).

More Fun to Come

Other highlights beckon in the last few days of the festival, closing on Saturday night with a roster of homegrown films (another Santa Barbara–centric moment this year, returning to the program, by popular demand). This Thursday features the Women’s Panel and Delroy Lindo’s American Riviera Award, and Friday’s tribute spotlight goes to Amanda Seyfried, nabbing the Montecito Award.

A modest proposal in this anomalous year: We should plan to make the obvious pilgrimage and tote a takeout La Super Rica #16 into the drive-in setup down by the beach. It seems a fitting SBIFF ’21 thing to do.

Opinions will vary, especially with a festival as intentionally diverse as SBIFF, but here is this festgoer’s Top Ten-in-training: Fear (Strah); The Cinderella Addiction; The Knot (Uljhan); The Last Ones (Viimeiset); Invisible Valley; We Will Never Die; The Pit (Bedre); Poppie Nongena; and Ladies of Steel.

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