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That `80s Show Lives On: The Santa Barbara International Film Fest at 25

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire February 12, 2010 at 2:18AM

Movies often take us back and forth through time, but at times this whole festival seems to be wormhole to the 1980s. Primarily that's because the city is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), and before each screening, we see fest-produced promotional films with talking heads recalling nostalgically what like was like way back in 1985 ("Back to the Future," and Tears for Fears songs that get stuck in your head) when Phyllis De Piciotto and friends began a three-day regional movie party that grew into this 11-day annual big ticket event with over 200 films and tributes to stars and filmmakers as diverse as James Cameron, Sandra Bullock, Carey Mulligan and Colin Firth.
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Movies often take us back and forth through time, but at times this whole festival seems to be wormhole to the 1980s. Primarily that's because the city is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), and before each screening, we see fest-produced promotional films with talking heads recalling nostalgically what like was like way back in 1985 ("Back to the Future," and Tears for Fears songs that get stuck in your head) when Phyllis De Piciotto and friends began a three-day regional movie party that grew into this 11-day annual big ticket event with over 200 films and tributes to stars and filmmakers as diverse as James Cameron, Sandra Bullock, Carey Mulligan and Colin Firth.

Perhaps coincidentally, though, the most memorable feature selections peppering the first week have invoked the era, too. Take, for instance, the film "198," the autobiographical film, personal in an age of genre movies and blockbusters, that's part of the fest's Focus on Quebec sidebar, a grouping which makes you feel that a new New Wave is possible if not possibly underway. Of course, not all these films from a province that seems to be exploding with exciting new talent - the 20 year-old Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother" being most noteworthy - are set during the Reagan/Thatcher years, and some like "Father and Guns" (by Emile Gaudreault) seem ripe for Hollywood remakes, but the best-conceived and executed film in the festival so far is undoubtedly "Polytechnique," an endlessly inventive (without being gratuitously stylish) reenactment of the tragic Montreal Massacre of 1989.

The strongest reinforcement of the Big 80s themes belongs to the "Red Riding" trilogy (1974, 1980, and 1983), the British television film based on David Peace's "Yorkshire Ripper" novels, which has stirred up so much excitement around the country on its IFC roadshow was gratefully brought to this small town and twice exhibiting all three films to house filled with filmmakers, thriller buffs and academics from the nearby campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. The three directors responsible for what will clearly be deemed one of the masterpieces of our time immerse us in the sights and sounds of the time - it's filmmaking as a harrowing time machine.

Many of the best-received films so far have wandered the space-time continuum into the 1990s. Near-rioting accompanied the theater line-ups for Luca Guadignino's tragic turn-of-the-millennium-set "I Am Love," and the Mexican thriller - close to home here in California - "Backyard" (by Carlos Carrera), about the Juarez border 1990s murders of women generated heat and buzz. But then again, the international film everyone was talking about was from the Eastern Bloc, "The World Is Big and Salvation Lies Right around the Corner" (by Stephan Komanderev), another very personal-feeling family saga, this time from Bulgaria with extremely touching scenes alternating between the present day and Soviet repression around Brezhnev's demise. Ahem. And that would be 1982.

Special events contributed too. Though Sandra Bullock seems our contemporary, her work does date back to the early Clinton years, and the biggest tribute splash though he generated a disappointing turnout - was saved for the king of the world, James Cameron. Of course his current epic box office triumph and potential Oscarability was the focus of most fans' attentions, yet the slightly discombobulated evening was dominated by host Leonard Maltin's memories of seeing "The Terminator" (1984) for the first time and the SBIFF Modern Master Award was given him by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though the events most poignant moments was Cameron himself reminiscing about his self-education, privately haunting the USC stacks and working his way up through Roger Corman's ranks. In guess which decade?

The panels, which include a screenwriters meeting, It Starts with the Script, and a notable director's panel featuring Cameron, his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, Todd Phillips, Lee Daniels, Pete Docter and Quentin Tarantino were all about Oscar's immanent nods, though most of the live chat around town resounded with Tarantino's remarks about confronting his very real haunting: competing with Martin Scorsese's talents.

But the best example of all of time travel occurred immediately after the directors panel when Tarantino and Kirk Douglas shared a stage, re-introducing the world to "Posse," a 1975 Western - one of the last of that Classic era's - that Douglas directed and Tarantino loved. The apres-film conversation was a daunting mutual admiration fest, with Tarantino lavishing compliments that Douglas evaded by turning attention to "Inglourious Basterds," of which he could not stop praising. Douglas ended the afternoon poignantly, talking about how bad the aging process could be in terms of losing friends. "Will you be my friend," he asked Tarantino. "Will you direct me in my next film?" We can always hope for a bright future in the world of film.

Occurring so late in the festival cycle, the 25 year-old SBIFF has never been keenly committed to gigantic premieres. But it manages a number of smaller ones, particularly with respect to nature films, surfing epics and, reliably, interesting music docs. This year so far is no exception. Besides a docudrama about the Doors, "When You're Strange" (Tom DiCillo), and films about jazz giants Charlie Haden ("Rambling Boy") and Charles Lloyd, who lives in Santa Barbara, entitled "The Monk and the Mermaid," one evening was reserved for the formidably under-appreciated power pop figure Neil Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House). Entitled "The Sun Came Out" (by Simon Mark-Brown), it's a restless overly-chatty documentation of the recording session that brought together members of great bands like Radiohead, Wilco and the Smiths for a CD and concert in New Zealand last year. A complicated series of professional and friendly relationships brought the South Pacific film to Southern California, and the theater filled with fans of Finn who conducted a lively, irreverent Q&A session after the film's first-ever big screen screening. After that, most of the crowd decamped to a local nightclub where Finn played music from the CD and ended with some of his big hits, which were, naturally, from the 1980s. The 40-something rockers exulted, and sang along nicely, exiting around midnight with the `80s anthem "Don't Dream It's Over" still on their lips out into the chilly-for-So Cal air where we realized that it was now not then, the wall was down, there would be more new films and tributes to come as we headed back to the future.

This article is related to: Festival Dispatch