It’s no secret that a large part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s (SBIFF) abrupt recent rise in status is due to its proximity to the Academy Awards. And of course the first person to effectively exploit the nearness - both in time and space - to the Big Kahuna of film celebrations was wunderkind Roger Durling, the fest’s artistic and general director, now five years at the helm of a 24 year-old downtown splash of 200 films and mega-big-star tributes and appearances.
But this year may also have been the first when the proximity began to exhibit a darker side. Take the enormously well-planned director’s panel slated for last Saturday, which may have been the greatest assembly of contemporary film giants that never happened. First, according to good sources within the fest, Christopher Nolan cancelled his commitment to appear, apparently in a fit of pique that "The Dark Knight" was not nominated two days earlier. Then misfortune cooperated, Danny Boyle was temporarily stranded in India - though the "Slumdog" auteur did come to town last Tuesday night and regaled a full house with anecdotes and off-kilter critical assessments. (“Years from now people will look back at this age and probably remember Pixar and James Cameroon,” he told a slightly agog crowd.) Then host Peter Bart and his pal Ron Howard bailed as the shrinking guest list became apparent, leaving only writer, animator, and director Andrew Stanton ("Wall-E"), who was absorbed into a writer’s panel presented the same day.
If the panel cancellation was a blow, fest administrators didn’t let on, muscling their way through a number of illuminating tributes such as Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz and Kristin Scott-Thomas. Beginning tonight, the big boys arrive with Clint Eastwood, and on Saturday Mickey Rourke, with another tribute planned for David Fincher ("The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button") on Friday night, all at the historic Arlington Theater movie palace - perhaps reestablishing the festival’s positive relationship to Oscar.
Speaking of films, the offerings have been widely hailed by most attendees this year, though there’s a distinct scarcity of film from the good old U.S.A. Informal polling held in queues before movies lean heavily towards "The Baader Mannheim Complex," the German film that seems like a revelation to American audiences brought up to believe that political terrorism began on 9/11/2001. On a somewhat lighter side, universal thumbs up went to Canada’s "It’s Not Me, I Swear!" directed by Philipe Faladreau a dark deconstruction of "Dennis the Menace" set in a colorfully rich 1960s version of Somewhere, Francophone Canada.
If there was a vote for best region represented, no doubt it would be the former Soviet sphere with strong films coming from Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia. "The Ghost" (Domovoy), directed by Karen Oganesayan, is a Russian cerebral thriller about an egotistical writer (is there any other kind) and his muse, a serial contract killer. But even more delightfully deranged is "Zift" by Javor Gardev, a Bulgarian film noir as rich in sex and violence as it is in film school in jokes. The most exotic of all, however, is the rich, fable-icious sex romp entitled "Tears for Sale" from Serbia - the story of a post-war traditional village bereft of men that compels two beautiful villagers on an odyssey to collect some super-studs to replenish the lives of its inhabitants.
Asian films such as "Vacation" (Hajime Kadoi) and "Divine Weapon" (Yu-Jin Kim) have also been widely lauded, but then again, a number of serious documentaries are widely touted too - "Milking the Rhino" (David Simpson) a U.S.-made doc about African conservation and "Yes Madam, Sir," an Australian film about an Indian police woman dominating chat.
The rest of the fest promises to be suspensefully riveting, with Eastwood - also shut out of big Academy consideration - keeping his commitment to talk to interviewer Leonard Maltin. We hope... And also hope that even in the troubled reflected light from Hollywood, SBIFF will maintain its promise to keep bringing the cinematic world to Santa Barbara.