By Dana Harris | Indiewire February 7, 2011 at 5:02AM
In his opening remarks at the 26th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, fest director Roger Durling said he wanted his event to extol the values of democracy, open discourse and spirited disagreements.
However, the only significant disputes that surfaced in the next 10 days (January 25-February 6) took the form of Santa Barbarans' cranky groaning about the brilliant animated short "Megaphone" and blogger Jeffrey Wells using a writers' panel to commence a pesky grilling of "The King's Speech" screenwriter David Seidler concerning issues of royal anti-Semitism, a charge initially raised by controversialist Christopher Hitchens. (Seidler defended himself handily.)
And it’s hard to perceive the SBIFF as first and foremost a bastion of democratic values when so much of its emphasis is on the attraction and display of major celebrity. With 170 films from 49 countries and a nice focus on independent and emerging film cultures (the Eastern bloc soared in this fest’s crop), you can’t say Durling’s 10-day extravaganza is superficial. That said, a great deal of publicity generated by SBIFF concentrates on the 24 Academy Award nominations attached to personalities ranging from the 14-year-old Hailee Steinfield to Oscar host James Franco and mega-celeb Annette Bening.
“I would say that the two aspects of the fest are split about half and half,” said Carol Marshall, who directs publicity and communications and is also the fest’s longest-employed staffer. “In one way, that’s because we are serving two different audiences, which is not to say that there isn’t some attendance overlapping — people who see movies go to events and vice versa. But a lot of times we have a big event while eight screens are at full attendance.”
Since 1985, the fest has tried on a number of identities, beginning as a small-town educational fest under founder Phyllis di Picciotto. It became much more industry-oriented with documentarian and producer Renee Missel at the helm, at which point it had grown from a long weekend to 10 days.
However, it's Durling who gets the credit for the emphasis on showcasing celebs and cementing SBIFF’s intimate ties to the Oscars. (There are over 50 voters in this town 90 miles north of Hollywood.) And indeed, he moved the dates closer to the Academy Awards, so that it’s neatly boookeneded by Sundance and Super Bowl. “But that had begun at least nine years ago,” said Marshall. “Though Roger raised it to a whole new and different level.”
In a city that prides itself on cultural riches, credit certainly goes to Durling for lifting the event's local status from interesting winter activity to predominant arts event. It's also burnished his reputation as an Oscar handicapper who plans his festival invitations based on early screenings of awards hopefuls. “Sometimes my board thinks I’m crazy,” Durling laughed, now at the helm for his seventh year. His first big coup was Peter Jackson in 2002; this year, his smart picks included up-and-coming actors like John Hawkes ("Winter’s Bone") and Jacki Weaver ("Animal Kingdom").
As for the film festival itself — you know, those movies? -- it failed to produce its usual bumper crop of Asian films, which were curated by actor Tim Matheson. The films available did not meet his exacting standards of outré genres like horror, martial arts and fantasy, though certainly one of the festival's best films, Dante Lam’s riveting cop drama "Fire of Conscience," proved itself cinematically inventive and thematically intense. Several other Asian films dramatically explored guilt and social pressure: "The Knot" (Yuichi Onuma) and "No Doubt" (Park Soo-Young), both about child molesters in small towns, seemed like companion pieces.
As mentioned, the Eastern Bloc films were dazzlingly innovative and surprisingly fun: "Just Between Us" (Rajko Grlc) and "Women in Temptation" (Jiri Vejdelek), both sex-and-the-family romps seemed to prove to head SBIFF programmer Candace Schermerhorn that the former Soviet Union is emerging from the long dark night of its once-repressed soul.
Among the world premieres, certainly "1778 Stories about Me and My Wife" (Mamoru Hoshi) was a fest favorite in a town known for its retiree population, though, to be fair, the other first screening that crowded the venerable Arlington Theater (which Seth Rogen called "a movie theater inside a Mexican restaurant" in his award presentation speech to James Franco) was the hipster-lost-in-space film "Angels & Airwaves Present Love," a film produced by rock star Tom DeLonge (Blink 182, Angels & Airwaves) but made by brand-new filmmaker Will Eubank in his parents’ driveway, where he recreated the interior of the International Space Station for a little over $40,000. All three screenings were mobbed by kids, including a last-minute addition scheduled for 8 a.m.
Top award winners: "Face To Face" (Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema), "The Boy Mir: Ten Years in Afghanistan" (Best Documentary Film Award)
Biggest film debuts: "Angels & Airwaves Present Love," directed by Will Eubank and produced by Blink 182/Angels & Airwaves founder Tom DeLonge
Celebrity attendees: Annette Bening, James Franco, Christopher Nolan, Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, John Hawkes and Jacki Weaver all received awards from the festival; their presenters included Kevin Costner, Seth Rogen, Leonardo DiCaprio and Colin Firth
Opening night film:"Sarah's Key"
Closing night film: "Carmen in 3D"
The full list of award winners on the next page.
Santa Barbara International Film Fest Awards 2011:
The Jury: actor Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future); SBIFF founder Phyllis de Picciotto; actor Billy Baldwin (Gossip Girl); writer/ director Paul Brickman (Risky Business) and his wife Jennifer Brickman; writer/producer Rusty Lemorande (Electric Dreams, Captain EO), producer Frank Donner (Deliver Us from Evil); actor Anthony Zerbe (The Matrix) and his wife Arnette Zerbe and director Andy Davis (The Fugitive).
The Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema:
Face To Face (U.S., Michael Rymer)
The Best International Film Award:
Togetherness Supreme (Kenya, Nathan Collett)
A special jury mention: Alicia Vikander in Pure (Sweden, Lisa Langseth)
The Nueva Vision Award for the best Spanish/Latin American film:
Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia De La Luc) (Chile, Patricio Guzmán)
Best East Meets West Cinema Award:
Patisserie (Coin De Rue) (Japan, Yoshihiro Fukagawa)
Best Eastern Bloc Award:
If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle (Eu Cand Vreau Sa Fluier, Fluier) (Romania, Flori Serban)
Best Documentary Film Award:
The Boy Mir: Ten Years in Afghanistan (UK, Phil Grabsky).
Bruce Corwin Award for Best Live Action Short Film Under 30 Minutes:
West of the Moon (U.S., Brent Bonacorso)
Bruce Corwin Award for Best Animation Short Film:
The Lost Thing (Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan)
The Fund for Santa Barbara Social Justice Award: (Two Awards)
When I Rise (U.S., Mat Hames)
Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia De La Luc) (Chile, Patricio Guzmán)
The SB Audience Choice Award
Troubadours (U.S., Morgan Neville)