The Screen Is
the Thing, Big-Time
The 38th Annual SBIFF Returns
in All Its Screened and Live Glory
By Josef Woodard | February 9, 2023
Check out the world and U.S. movie premieres at SBIFF.
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) is up to old tricks again, and that’s entirely a fine and culturally revivifying thing. COVID tried to stop the mighty SBIFF, but in 2021, the festival went online and “to the drive-in,” with specially equipped screens at Santa Barbara City College, across the boulevard from the sea. Last year’s model followed a hybrid example, in theaters and with an online option for those inclined to avoid actual breathing crowds, and with some travel-challenged guests appearing in Zoom form.
After Wednesday night’s opening night screening of Miranda’s Victim at the Arlington Theatre, the festival, now to edition number 38, happily descends on the city for the next 10 days, returning in full, three-dimensional splendor, and with traditions intact. There will be celebrity tributes, timed with many performances also given timely Oscar nom nods; panel discussions, of which the writers’ panel on February 11 — featuring the screenwriters from Everything Everywhere All at Once, Tár, Living, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, The Fabelmans, The Banshees of Inisherin, Triangle of Sadness, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Women Talking — is always a hot ticket; and bushels of film screenings of all types, domestic and foreign, fiction and otherwise. It comes to an end on Saturday, February 18, perhaps prophetically, with the U.S. premiere of I Like Movies. Yes, we do, too.
At a press conference announcing this year’s festival, held at Sullivan Goss gallery last month, long-standing executive director and voice of the fest Roger Durling offered words of salutation and invitation, along with programmer Claudia Puig, the well-known critic who took the reins of programming starting last year.
Durling also praised the artist behind this year’s dazzling poster, Sullivan Goss–connected painter Patricia Chidlaw, whose iconic image reveals the Arlington Theatre’s historic towering presence, but with elements of the hosting city intentionally folded into the composition (see Durling’s story on Chidlaw here). The blend of theater-based events and the city itself has been a critical pact in SBIFF’s 38-year history, maybe even more so when coming out of the hermetic era of the pandemic hunker-down and excessive streaming habits.
One of the special charms of being a festivalgoer is the ability to switch from basking in screenings — especially with foreign films and others that likely won’t otherwise be available on a big screen — and switch modes to flesh-and-blood encounters with filmmakers and onscreen talents of a high order. Ardent SBIFF-ers, armed with the handy festival app, can soak up cinema, starting around 8 a.m. each day, in the HQ of the Metro multiplex (and the Fiesta, plus free screenings at 2 p.m. every weekday at the Arlington), and coordinate to land at the Arlington tribute parade by night. Blending the two serves to lessen the distance between the “canned,” screened, and the live aspects of cinema, while feeding our innate hunger to see screen stars — and star directors — in person.
A stellar list of names from the acting field is slated to show up for tribute evenings in the next week-and-change. Tonight, February 9, the spotlight aptly turns to a Montecito Award tribute to Angela Bassett, the veteran actress whose regal turn in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever embodies the power of a film blessed with attributes of populist appeal, intelligence, and a welcome convergence of Black talent in a big-budget, Marvel-ous film.
Another veteran, Jamie Lee Curtis, shows up on Saturday, February 11, to receive the Maltin Modern Master Award on the heels of a year that found her gracing both the post-B-movie grit and gristle of Halloween Ends — ending her long association with the knife’s-edge-y Michael Myers franchise — as well as last year’s head-trippy twister Everything Everywhere All at Once. That multiverse-traveling film has scooped up multiple Oscar nominations and SBIFF appearances from cast and crew members in the Virtuosos Award night next Wednesday (February 15) and on Monday, February 13’s Variety Artisans night — a chance to appreciate and hear from the magic-makers behind the camera.
Another of the many Oscar noms showing up in Santa Barbara this year is Brendan Fraser, in the American Riviera Award slot on Tuesday, February 14. Fraser’s career has suddenly shot meteorically skyward with his stunning, personal-best performance as the troubled but stubbornly optimistic protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s moving The Whale. In a key scene, his character bumps up against a genuine epiphany: “People are not capable of not caring!” Buoyed by the engaging presence of Fraser, The Whale is as emotionally gripping as Aronofsky’s previous film Mother! was beguilingly bizarre.
Thursday, February 16, brings the brogue-tongued bros Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson to the Arlington for the Cinema Vanguard Award. The dryly absurdist tag team found an ideal vehicle in director Martin McDonagh’s unique, postmodern, fable-like film The Banshees of Inisherin. For those having trouble finding their way into the logic and poetry of the film, think Samuel Beckett. Banshees, too, fared strongly in Oscars sweepstakes, with nods in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Farrell), Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Gleeson and Barry Keoghan), Best Supporting Actress (Kerry Condon, who will be at the Virtuosos Award event on February 15), Best Original Score, and Best Film Editing categories.
Of special interest, in recent years, the Outstanding Directors lineup, on Friday, February 17, is sure to be packed with the cream of the Oscar crop: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively as the Daniels (Everything Everywhere All at Once), Todd Field (Tár), and Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin). There’s also the new, and free to the public, gathering of Oscar-nominated foreign-film directors’ event, on Sunday, February 12, at 2 p.m. in the Arlington. Names for those gatherings are to be announced, depending on availability, but SBIFF’s track record of attracting high-caliber artists to town has been more than impressive. This will be a panel worth showing up for!
Depending on one’s perspective, the most eagerly awaited tribute evening this year goes to Cate Blanchett, making her third such tribute-ized appearance at SBIFF on Friday, February 10. Back in 2008, she appeared in a remarkable year that found her playing both Queen Elizabeth (in Elizabeth: The Golden Age) and Bob Dylan (in Todd Haynes’s cagey-cool I’m Not There). Blanchett graced the Arlington “this is your life” spotlight again in 2014, the year she won the Oscar for Best Actress in now-defrocked and banished director Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
This year, Blanchett’s visit to the Arlington is timed with her astonishing performance as power-mad conductor Lydia Tár in Todd Field’s masterful and mischievous film Tár, which has rightfully won love in the Academy Awards nomination list — for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director, as well as screenplay, cinematography, and editing. Audience-wise, it has won love (yes, I am part of that crowd), walkouts, controversy (among moviegoers and denizens of the real-life classical music sphere), and confusion.
You can’t argue with a hit. But you can argue with a complex work of art that refuses to follow cinematic (or classical-worldly) rules. And SBIFF will, no doubt, live up to its reputation of providing fodder for discussions, with films that challenge and may polarize opinions over an adult beverage or quick meal between screenings. Start early and stay late to build up your list of faves and forgettables: It’s part of the SBIFF experience.
To paraphrase another annual event of note in Santa Barbara (but minus the panoramic and international outlook), viva la SBIFF!
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