(L-R) Paul Thomas Anderson, Kenneth Branagh, Lindsay Brunnock and Maya Rudolph attend Outstanding Directors of the Year Award during the 37th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at Arlington Theatre on March 03, 2022 in Santa Barbara, California. | Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

In a stern reminder that we’re not free of COVID yet, 3/5 of last night’s “Outstanding Directors of the Year” only appeared virtually. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Jane Campion, and Steven Spielberg streamed their pre-recorded conversations, leaving Paul Thomas Anderson and Sir Kenneth Branagh to hold the live stage. The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg moderated both the live and pre-recorded segments.

Although it was disappointing not to have all five panelists in the room, this event was a fine example of SBIFF’s recent trend of hosting high-profile director tributes. Hearing the Oscar-nominated directors talk shop is sometimes more interesting than the star-gazing approach of the actor tributes.

Paul Thomas Anderson (L) and Kenneth Branagh | Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

Among the pearls of wisdom offered was Spielberg admitting that “I have always wanted to make a musical. I love the format.” Meanwhile, Anderson described the intuitive and non-linear process behind Licorice Pizza, which culled various inner narrative threads together into a surprising whole. In his “format,” he commented that “ideally, you have a story at the center, and the center will hold.” His was a balancing act which involved both a knowingness and a freedom of flight.”

The enigmatic potential of a poetic story is behind Drive My Car. That’s thanks to Hamaguchi and his source, a short story by the sublime and mystical Haruki Murakami. Hamaguchi never met the reclusive author, who he said is “actually getting more and more mysterious to me.” Regarding the avalanche of critical “best film of the year” proclamations and awards-season buzz, the soft-spoken director admitted, “I don’t think I’m prepared for this.”

Paul Thomas Anderson | Credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF

Like the San Fernando Valley native Paul Thomas Anderson, Kenneth Branagh returned to the scene of his youth with Belfast, in which he said he sought to “shake hands with who you are and who you were.” Campion’s The Power of the Dog puts complicated males in the narrative crosshairs, in contrast to the focus on female characters in her earlier films. As a pioneering woman director, she confessed that “with the #MeToo movement and more women working in film, I felt free to go wherever I wanted to.”

At evening’s end, Feinberg sat down with the live humans in the room, center stage, as in the old days. Asked for their favorite films of the year, Anderson gave his thumbs-up to the Danish wonder, The Worst Person in the World. Branagh played the horror film-loving contrarian, singing the praises of Candyman.

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What better way to start your morning than breakfast with Charlotte Rampling? That was the rhetorical question humming in Metro Theater 3 at 8:20 on Thursday, the official first full day of SBIFF 2022, with Rampling once again nailing it as a crusty, dying grandmother in the New Zealand film Juniper. For years now, the list of 8 a.m.-ish screenings on the program, fondly known as the “breakfast club” time slot, has become a vital component of the overall program, drawing out eager crowds and often including some of the nest films in a given year’s program.

Before the 8:20 screening of Juniper, Roger Durling bounded to the front of the theater to impart an enthusiastic welcome to the in-person audience. “It warms my heart to see you all,” he told us. “It’s wonderful to congregate again.”

Matthew Seville’s Juniper drops us into the snarky world of a wise and crusty older woman facing death and suffering no foolishness from priests or family.

Kenneth Branagh and Scott Feinberg | Credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF

Rampling is coolly captivating as the ailing grandmother, flown over to a rugged New Zealand ranch home from England to convalesce. The salty former war photographer drinks gin and tosses off insults, at first torturing her son, her caretaker, and her grandson, then slowly coming out of the cold and emotionally connecting with them. A tender but unsentimental finale caps Juniper‘s slow-warming arc.

Rampling has a second film at the fest, Everything Went Fine (Tout s’est bien passe). This one is by the eminent François Ozon, who also made Swimming Pool, among other Rampling films. For a second breakfast with Charlotte Rampling, catch Everything Went Fine at 8 a.m. on March 9.

Fluid personalities and the search for identity are critical themes in You Resemble Me (Tu me ressembles), directed and co-written by Dina Amer. The film wends between the gritty realities of historical fact and fictional narrative structures. By the end, which involves the 2015 Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris, viewers have endured a dizzy, distinctive journey involving social commentary and a character study gone askew.

Arab sisters living in the hardscrabble outskirts of Paris must brave societal oppressions and an abusive household. When they part, we follow the older one, Hasra, on her downward spiral through foster homes, prostitution, mental instability, and more.

The morphing nature of the characters and the film’s poly-style traces back to the film’s origin story, as we learned from Amer’s post-screening session at the Fiesta 5 on Thursday afternoon. Initially engaged as a journalist for Vice, covering the Bataclan story, she was drawn deeply into the untold backstory of the supposed but later absolved “female terrorist” involved. Countless hours of interviews with family and observers fed into a screenplay and finally a special breed of narrative fiction film.

Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

The amazing and precocious actual sisters who played the younger sisters in the film, Lorenza and Ilona Grimaudo, were present for the Q&A. These first-time actors are on their first visit to California. As Amer explained, “my mission with this film is that we resemble people we throw away. They’re part of the fabric of society.” In making the film, partly manifested through the advocacy of Amer’s former NYU professor Spike Lee, she asserted that “we didn’t have a lot of money. We had a lot of passion.” It shows and is infectious for the viewer.

Another documentary/fiction hybrid, the Slovakian film 107 Mothers (Cenzorka), is the best movie I’ve seen so far. It artfully interweaves tales of mothers and mothers-to-be in prison in Odesa, Ukraine. The setting, of course, triggers extra sympathy now. In the deft hands of director Péter Kerekes, we are drawn deeply into the sad stories of these incarcerated mothers, but in a manner that’s blessedly free of easy pathos or sensationalism.

Deploying a poetic and tranquil visual approach using close-ups, actual documentary interviews, and spliced together by vignettes, Kerekes’s film is rooted in reality and nuanced by creative imagination. The film also has a notably high “cute kid factor” in its favor. 107 Mothers is one of the hot tickets in SBIFF ’22.

See sbiff.org and follow our daily SBIFF coverage at independent.com/sbiff. Don’t forget to catch our cover package on the festival here.

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