Cate Blanchett attends the Outstanding Performers of the Year Award tribute | Credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF

When it comes to the season of Academy Awards hoopla and second-guessing, Santa Barbara has had a special brand of skin in the game for many years, thanks to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF). By the time the proverbial envelopes are opened and Oscar history is made on Sunday night, we will have already been privy to many of the nominees, live and in person at the Arlington. The year 2022 has ushered out a strong and often artistically brave pack of films — many of which were conceived of and honed during the pandemic hiatus. 

Lines between art and blockbusters blurred. The critically and commercially boffo Top Gun: Maverick was a feel-good hit of the summer and beyond, feeling like a cathartic collective picnic after the pandemic storm. The wild multi-versal ride of Everything Everywhere All at Once was the best kind of sneak-attack hit, proposing fresh cinematic creative zeal. Women Talking, Sarah Polley’s understated, brilliant adaptation of Miriam Toews’s great novel, addresses universal subjects and feminist issues through deceptively simple means. 

As to why Steven Spielberg’s wobbly autobiographical flick The Fabelmans is getting Oscar love, there may be a Hollywood insider scoop I’m not in on. But subjective differences of opinion are what Oscar talk is all about.

Meanwhile, at SBIFF, tributes kept a-coming, night after night, with Oscar-nom blessings in the mix, including Oscar-tickled Angela Bassett (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever), Brendan Fraser (The Whale), and Jamie Lee Curtis (Everything Everywhere All at Once).

But two of the most fascinating, and challenging, films of 2022 — lavished with multiple nominations — had a particularly strong presence at this year’s SBIFF. From Tár (my personal favorite of 2022) came writer-director (and, we learned, absurdist comedian) Todd Field, who appeared three times, once presenting the award to the stunning Cate Blanchett, whose unforgettable turn as the power-driven conductor Lydia Tár richly deserves the Best Actress statue; from The Banshees of Inisherin, we also got writer-director Martin McDonagh in three separate settings, including his wry award toast to his stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. 

Coincidentally, both Tár and Banshees deal with the vagaries, frustrations, and obsessive dreams wrapped around art, and around music in particular. Field (with Blanchett as his fangy muse) takes us deep into the classical-music realm with a startling veracity, although the classical world is generally unamused, or senses some betrayal of confidence. (Field told the SBIFF audience that his “mole” and source of insider info was Hollywood Bowl Orchestra maestro John Mauceri.) In Banshees, Gleeson’s character is suffering a slow existential meltdown, banking on the prospect of immortality through his music, versus the perceived banality of life on a small island (which could be a metaphor for a life or a city). 

Inspirational artistry and sense of purpose come through in the foreign-film component of this year’s Oscars (all represented in the International Directors panel at SBIFF), especially in the form of Jerzy Skolimowski’s powerfully moving life-of-a-donkey epic EO — inspired by Robert Bresson’s classic Balthazar — the stirring redux of the iconic anti-war tale All Quiet on the Western Front; and Ruben Östlund’s briny, socio-satirical, and barf-lined Triangle of Sadness.

When remembering Oscar highlights and low points of infamy (Will Smith’s slap felt around the world last year, for instance), my mind often veers back to a refreshingly absurd moment when Steve Martin (Santa Barbara’s own!) presented an award, slyly opening the envelope and belting out, “And the loser isn’t….”

Of course, ultimately, there are no losers in art. But some take home a gold-plated bronze dude for their mantle, and IMDb status.

Catch the Academy Awards on Sunday, March 12, beginning at 5 p.m. on ABC.


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