Jamie Lee Curtis attends the Maltin Modern Master Award ceremony during the 38th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at Arlington Theatre on February 11. | Credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF

Nitpickers and naysayers among longtime SBIFF observers might question the choice of Jamie Lee Curtis as a recipient of the Modern Master award. This bunch (present company included) also posed the same validity question when Will Smith and Brad Pitt were granted the lofty honor. But as Curtis showed the crowd packing the Arlington Theatre last night, the comedy/ horror/occasionally serious screen veteran delivered one of the funnest, and funniest tribute-receiver acts in SBIFF memory. 

Curtis’ comedy-horror dichotomy was neatly summarized through two films from 2022: the (presumable) finale of the Halloween series which launched her, with the Michael Myers obliterating Halloween Ends and, of course, her delectably eccentric Deirdre role in the wild time-space twister Everything Everywhere All at Once, which won her an Oscar nom nod. Oh, and she also appears on TV, peddling yogurt with medicinal properties.

As she pointed out at the Arlington, “I am the only Oscar nominee who sells yogurt that makes you shit.” But seriously, she has also taken command of her powers on and behind the screen, noting that “it’s about understanding and claiming my power.”

As a secondary comic force for thie evening hosted by critic Leonard Maltin, her husband of 38 years, dryly comic Christopher Guest gave perhaps the drollest award presentation SBIFF memory. “I am biased in presenting this award,” he mugged. “I think this is a great idea,” he said, squinting to try and read the plague on the trophy. “This is a master’s award… and she deserves it.” Pregnant pause. “I’m going to present this award to you know.” And so the trophy was passed, and the crowd went fairly wild.

Fauci for President

You may find yourself asking the question “do I really want to see a feature length documentary about Anthony Fauci, after catching his ubiquitous presence on media outlets for the past three-ish years? The answer is yes, considering the intimate behind-the-scenes portrait and skillful overview offered in the captivating Dr. Tony Fauci. Director Mark Mannucci had an usually close access to the public house and American hero for over two years, culminating with Fauci’s official retirement in December.

The film’s hopscotching chronology begins with Joe Biden’s national pivot-point inauguration, and trains its focus primarily on Fauci’s intense trajectory through the COVID era, including the shameless vilification and demonization from the radical right–in government chambers and dispersing onto some serious and threatening anti-Fauci mean streets. The film serves the valuable function of fleshing out the Fauci saga, far beyond the sound bites and television appearances we know him for, going back to Trump’s dark comedy hour COVID updates early in the pandemic, some of the most sinister surreal television in the history of the medium.

Mannuci cross-references Fauci’s embrace of his protestor/detractors in the AIDS era, via the more well-meaning ACT Up activists, whose cause he fell into step with, creating an atmosphere of solidarity against an infectious foe. Fast forward to the age of the ranting Rand (Paul) and ilk’s vicious attacks, and a hero’s tale turns divisive and bizarre. Through it all, Fauci wins our hearts and admiration, as the sexiest, or at least possibly one of the most virtuous men alive. 

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Festival Favoritism 

The Israeli Cinema Sabaya is an intriguing different breed in the film about film (plus another “about film” factor) genre. The deceptively simple premise writer-director Orit Fouks Robem’s story involves a semi-professional filmmaker enlisted to teach a film course to absolute beginners employed by a local municipality. The students, all women and including a few Palestinians in the group, gain rudimentary knowledge about the basics of filmmaking. Meanwhile, though, the structure becomes a microcosm of the family lives and various hardships of each student’s extracurricular realities, also touching on the inherent societal tensions in an Apartheid-like state. 

Further thickening the plot is an aesthetic ethics angle, as the teacher suddenly imagines turning this bounty of personal family footage into a film project of her own. Suffice to say, there are frictional rumblings and layers beneath the seemingly innocent surfaces of this film. About film. About film.

In the refreshingly original, if not entirely satisfying Canadian film Stellar, it may be the end of the world as they know it, but two attractive first people members of the Northern Anishinaabe tribe (Elle-Maije Tailfeathers and Braeden Clarke) are enjoying each other’s company in the warm embrace of a bar. If this run-on sentence synopsis seems a far-fetched indulgence, the premise and atmospheric realization of Darlene Naponse’s poetic film fantasy somehow justifies itself in the watching experience. Along the way, she addresses nature-humanity accords and tensions and the wistful longing of cultural reawakening with aboriginal roots in a world coming apart.

There’s a new programming sidebar in SBIFF-town and the prospects are, so far, looking promising. Titles finding their way into the new “Festival Circuit Favorites” category seem to be the good kind of misfits, which don’t really qualify in the ample Premieres pile, the international zone, or the humbly-budgeted indie film world. Instead, they appear to be interesting outliers which may have gained traction at festivals but not in the usual general release or streaming worlds.

Take, for instance, the wonderful and elucidating the lost king, directed by the redoubtable Steven Frears and starring Sally Hawkins in a true life story of a humble British woman whose obsession with Henry III literally made history. Frears brings his deft blend of comedy, subtle absurdity and humanity to bear in this small gem. 

Humor, absurdity, and humanity also show up–in very different ways–in the quirky delight that is American Dreamer. Director Paul Dektor, working from a true story-fueled script by Theodore Melfi, has worked up a concoction which is essentially a ripe showpiece for Peter Dinklage, perfect as a foul-mouthed and cynical professor seeking a killer real estate deal, and the wonder that is Shirley MacClaine, resplendent in her salty and woo woo charms. It’s a left of center darkish comedy sometimes echoing Harold and Maude, with a winning, winsome heart beneath the gruff exterior.

The new category title speaks truth: these are two of my own festival favorites.

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