The 38th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival engaged audiences for ten straight days, Feb. 8-18, 2023. | Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

In a fitting finale to an edition of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival — and one of the finer closing night films in memory — a nearly full house at the Arlington Theatre last Saturday soaked in the comic fizz of I Like Movies. Canadian writer-director Chandler Levack unveiled her debut film in its U.S. premiere and won the love of the crowd, along with garnering the Panavision Award for Independent Cinema at that morning’s awards breakfast at the Belmond El Encanto. She could be excused for thanking “the Santa Barbara Independent Film Festival” in that the festival has always championed cinematic things both “international” and “independent.”

At the center of Levack’s spicy and serio-comedic coming-of-age story is a thoroughly cinema obsessed high schooler whose obsession filters out matters of reality and actual human interaction outside of his narcissistic bubble.  

Coming as a closing bookend of a festival stocked with over 200 films from 43 countries, I Like Movies could be a cautionary tale for those of us who dive deep into SBIFF’s bounty of cinema from around the world for ten days, eschewing normal duties and loved ones. But, as SBIFF head Roger Durling extolled in his opening night speech anointing the obsessive cinephile “tribe,” it’s an excusable ten-day feast and escape route from reality, to which we now return, already in progress.

Seemingly fully recovered from the pandemic’s privations of the past two years, SBIFF, at 38, again hosted and toasted many prominent and Oscar-buzzed celebrities and star-enablers. Leading the list was the spunkily queenly Cate Blanchett (and her Tár director Todd Field) and the feckin’ talented Irish duo of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell (and their The Banshees of Inisherin writer-director Martin McDonagh), along with emboldened, enlightened veterans Angela Bassett (Wakanda Forever), Brendan Fraser (The Whale) and horror-comedy specialist Jamie Lee Curtis. (Her now oft-quoted line from her Arlington tribute: “I’m the only Oscar nominee who sells yogurt that makes you shit.”) Other actors and film workers of note showed up for the Artisans evening, the Virtuosos Award night, and the ever-popular Writer’s Panel.

For 10 days, Santa Barbara was a destination spot for high-profile figures from the alternative universe of cinema/the movies.

Of equal or greater importance to a thinking person’s film festival, the film programming (now a team led by critic Claudia Puig) was strong and conscientiously varied. To highlight a few of the trends and treats of this year’s SBIFF, there were memorable films illuminating the lives of nannies, from the beautifully rough-edged Manuela to the French feel-good-ness of The Nannies, and we basked in odes to “place,” with the Icelandic Summerlight… and Then Comes the Night, the poetic Dubliner doc North Circular, and the bold, advocacy-based Skid Row doc The Dirty Divide. We got challenging fare from Latin America in Daughter of Rage; the raw beauty of the cow paean Samichay, the Search for Happiness; and the grit-lined La juaria, and Nordic delights of Summerlight and the gripping Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–ish Danish drama Tove’s Room. Eastern European angst, long a sturdy and critical component of SBIFF programming, lived up to its reputation with such powerful, unorthodox gems as How is Katia? and R.M.N.

The Independent-sponsored Audience Choice award, a chance for the huddled audience masses to have their voices heard, went to director Christine Yoo’s fascinating, unexpectedly intimate, and inspiring 26.2 to Life, about San Quentin–sequestered runners in the “1,000 Mile Club,” worthy of a second chance. And the fine doc Dr. Tony Fauci won points for its unveiling “everything you wanted to know about Fauci but weren’t allowed to ask.” One measure of the aesthetic success of a particular SBIFF year is the relative difficulty of paring down to a reasonable Top 10 list of films screened. Thus, here is one humble film addict’s top baker’s dozen list: Dr. Tony Fauci; How is Katia?; Other People’s Children; North Circular; Daughter of Rage; Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer; Samichay, in Search of Happiness; Tove’s Room; Traces; The Nannies; Summerlight… and Then Comes the Night; R.M.N.; Our Father, the Devil.


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