"Who am I going to get next year, the pope?" joked Roger Durling, leaning on the wall of the Metro Theater in downtown Santa Barbara on the last Friday of his ten day film festival, a few hours after getting reports that his honoree that evening, one Al Gore, was not only nominated for an Academy Award, but now the Nobel Peace prize. "Maybe the Dalai Lama," quipped an attendee from the crowded theater assembled to see the world premiere of the Spanish film "Welcome Home." Durling smiled broadly: "Maybe," he said, and then pounced forward to intro the film, one among 200 films including about 30 premiers, that fans at the 22nd annual fest were already texting their friends to attend.
"Welcome Home" arrived late but soon became the buzzword among new-film-thrill-seekers. Hailing from Spain, the directorial debut of David Trueba offered a hipness factor, a realistic baby birth and slick production values to boot. Many of the premieres were crowd pleasers, in fact, though some proved themselves a shade cloying. The provocatively titled "Scenes of a Sexual Nature" (Ed Blum) offered libidinous musings, but delivered smug theatricality, even with Ewan Macgregor playing a gay man who wants a baby. On the other hand, the American film "Bella," (Alejandro Gomez Monteverde) offered sweetness galore though dealing with the death of a child. It also "introduces" actor Eduardo Verestegui, who promises to become the New York City version of Antonio Banderas.
Paradoxes and genre-bending were standard issue among the festival premiere highlights. One of the quieter, but well-received films was "Counting Backwards," (Aprill Winney) a romantic comedy about dying, with accent on quirky character that became a kind of odd companion piece to the better-attended psychological thriller "Spiral" (Adam Green and Joel Moore.) The early word was all about "Daisy," a Korean film set in Amsterdam, which chronicles the love triangle of a nice hit man, a nicer Interpol agent and a street artist. Tragicomedy abounded. The most deceptively winning of the films - it took the American Spirit Award, voted by fans - was "Man in the Chair," which opens like a movie-movie starring Christopher Plummer, and finishes as a heartfelt plea for better treatment of the aging by a youth-driven society.
The big coup premiere was also rooted in controversial topics. A one-shot presentation of Tony Kaye's ("American History X") 15 year-in-the making documentary about abortion, which, even in its surprisingly even-handed approach managed to transcend the usual deadlock of passionate beliefs. A number of docs found surfing the relevant metaphor for life quests, including "Cali Summer" and Angelo Mei's "Chasing the Dream." But the doc most likely to attain cult hit status is undoubtedly "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema," an artfully assembled tour of desire in the history of movies conducted by the now-fashionable European intellectual Slavoj Zizek.
There were plenty of cult-level frissons, though, mostly provided by the EastXWest Asian film sidebar, which actor-director Tim Mattheson curated for the fest (his third year.) "Paprika," a psychedelic anime, given over to the correlation between dreams and film was big on everybody's lips (including Durling's), but so was "Host," a Korean Godzilla-like entrée. The British film "Severance," a comic slasher film, played to appreciative college audiences, but failed to become the big hit it was at Toronto.
Small films in a small town just make sense and Santa Barbara provided some nifty little surprises. "Finding Kraftland," a winning, almost unintentional film by Richard Kraft and Adam Shell turned out to be a very moving testament to a father's goofy influence on his loving son. "Fantasy Music" seems almost too small to mention, but the dream within a dream dude-bonding story was hard to shake even after bigger studio-style thrills were piled on.
Which, of course, proved a mixed bag. Foreign films like "Lives of Others" and "Beauty in Trouble" were the buzz and figured heavily in festival voting. The fest opened with "Factory Girl," which at the time had only been released for a one week Academy engagement, making it a virtual premiere. The important twist, though, was the fact that Edie Sedgwick was from a Santa Barbara ranch, and many of the city's denizens knew her, including her widower, and were present, as was both Sienna Miller and Guy Pearce. The fest also showed Michael Apted's "Amazing Grace" and Sue Kramer's "Gray Matters" with directors and stars all in attendance. The ten days were full of stars, though. Honoree Will Smith drew Tom Cruise as a presenter, but no less unexpected was the appearance of Sandra Bullock to honor Forest Whittaker. Sacha Baron Cohen made few friends dissing interviewer Leonard Maltin; but Helen Mirren glowed, Al Gore inspired (even Republicans) and Todd Fields' appearance on a writers' and directors' panels no doubt raised attendance at the screening of "Little Children" - a full house and garnered with the extremely well-received appearance of Academy-nominated Jackie Earle Hailey.
The parties, tributes panels and screenings now a memory, Durling, whose fest has become a gateway to the Academy Awards, but hasn't shrunk from taking chances, either, can now turn his attention to notifying the Vatican about his plans for next year. In the meantime, he can take a page from the book of Forest Whittaker who hefted his award and appeared teary-eyed, thanking the fest for time to "sit back for a few minutes, think, and...be proud."
Santa Barbara Independent Audience Choice for Best Feature: "Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life," directed by Logan Smalley
American Spirit Award: "Man In The Chair," directed by Michael Schroeder
Best International Feature Film Award: "Beauty In Trouble" from the Czech Republic and directed by Jan Hrebejk
The Gold Vision Award: "Spiral," directed by Adam Green and Joel David Moore, and "Fissures," directed by Alante Alfandari
The Nueva Vision Award: "DarkBlueAlmostBlack" directed by Daniel Sanchez Arevalo
Best Documentary: "Crazy Love," directed by Dan Klores
Fund for Santa Barbara Social Justice Award: "The Ground Truth" by Patricia Foulkrod and "Crude Impact" by James Wood
Bruce Corwin Award for Best Animation: "Everything Will Be OK," directed by Don Hertzfeldt