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DISPATCH FROM SANTA BARBARA | Universal Pictures: SBIFF Celebrates the Yin and the Yang

DISPATCH FROM SANTA BARBARA | Universal Pictures: SBIFF Celebrates the Yin and the Yang

Nobody can accuse this festival of not being well-rounded. The Santa Barbara International Film Festival is motivated by high contrasts. Though it began with a high-profile studio premiere of “Definitely, Maybe,” clearly the biggest hit was a locally-produced surf film. And this eclectic approach applied equally to the celebrity tributes, which have been a big part of this festival and grew much larger this year, with honoree nights ranging from silver screen veterans like Tommy Lee Jones and Julie Christie to a whole new category of awardees the festival labeled “The Virtuosos–a group” that included indie stars Casey Affleck and “Juno“‘s Ellen Page. The common denominator is an eye on the Academy Awards, which festival chief Roger Durling now in his fifth year seems quite skillful at predicting. “But we want to reach out to all the people who come to Santa Barbara,” Durling told me. “The people who go to see Julie Christie are not the same as those who are there for Ryan Gosling.”

But all the same people seemed to hit all the films in this still-small-enough-to-negotiate fest, which opened to sold out crowds under torrential California skies, and then paradoxically seemed much quieter as the city dried. But even here, the rule of variety prevailed. Before the fest insiders hinted that documentaries would rule the aesthetic, reflecting the strong preferences of festival programmer Candace Schemerhorn, and, indeed most of the regions represented had strong documentary offerings. Santa Barbara has a long historical good relationship with the surf film dating back to “Endless Summer” — Bruce Brown and his illustrious son both lived in Santa Barbara at different time — and an even bigger history of riotous sold out exhibition.

Aptly, the most popular to premiere at the fest was clearly “Bustin’ Down the Door” by Jeremy Gosch. A lot of heat was generated by docs premiering at the fest, like “When the Clouds Clear” and “The Sky Below.” Rockumentaries were strong, though the world premiere of “D Tour,” a film about Tenacious D, seemed to be under-attended just to prove the film’s bittersweet Spinal Tap thesis. The Red Hot Chili Pepper‘s “Untitled Documentary,” an omnibus of director like Chris Rock, attracted a requisite flock of middle aged women who still need to shake it.

But features emerged early as crowd magnets. Soon-to-be-released foreign films were very dominant, particularly if they peered Eastward; including “The Counterfeiters” — Austria’s Academy Award entry this year — “Mongol” and “Beautiful Bitch,” an East German film that seemed a little ‘message-y’ and stilted at the end but had everybody murmuring — perhaps it was the naughty joy of enunciating the title. Later in the week, though, another set of films took over, though. The powerful Flemish film “Short Circuits,” a European answer to films like “Crash” or Magnolia played well as did the magnificently strange and gorgeous “XXY,” an Argentine exploration of the crazy specificities of desire when a boy at the seaside meets an anguished hermaphroditic girl. As usual, the Asian sidebar of the fest, curated by actor director Tim Matheson offered a delectable range from fanboy action films (“Death Note“) to masterful evocations of real human drama like Yang Li‘s “Blind Mountain,” a follow-up to “Blind Shaft,” another chapter in his ongoing investigation of the moral state of contemporary mainland China. Among the strong previews offered at the fest was the gorgeous stylistic exercise “Triangle” a three-way collaboration between Hong Kong masters Tsui Hark, Tingo Lam and Johnnie To.

Cate Blanchett at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Photo by DJ Palladino.

As suggested earlier, though, the eastern end of Europe seemed to be the strongest geographical source of origin for fest bests. “Ben X,” a Belgian film by director Nic Balthazar combined computer game graphics, the outsider story of a powerfully charismatic Asperger syndrome sufferer, and the reliable frisson of an unexpected conclusion. An Israeli spy thriller, “The Debt,” drew huge lines on the second weekend, when rains once again came and crowds once again inexplicably thickened. Another US premier, though from the other end of Europe that had people talking was the bleak beauty of “Sur les toits de Paris.” If there was a theme beyond raw variety, it escaped me.

For me for some reason, the films by accomplished veterans seemed far more rewarding than new voices with one exception. “Alexandra,” the almost Dostoyevskian film of a soldier and his grandmother by the great Alexander Sakurov, for instance, and the high-spirited “Roman de Gare” by Claude Lelouch; even the aforementioned “Triangle” by the Hong Kong directors seemed more ultimately satisfying tan most of the films by vibrant newcomers. The biggest exception, though, was “In Bruges,” a film that opened Sundance and will open wide soon, directed by playwright (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane“) and new auteur Martin MacDonough, a tough guy movie with a moral dimension that distanced it a long way from easy surmises it would be “Lock, Stock” and Colin Farrell.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Photo by DJ Palladino.

Of course celebrity sightings are de rigeur in this town so near to Hollywood proper — just 90 miles as the Bentley flies. The streets were rather uncrowded with celebritude besides locals like Anthony Zerbe and Christopher Lloyd, but the presentations began with Cate Blanchett, reached an early peak for Ryan Gosling (girls were screaming) and then after nice showings by others too numerable to mention peaked again for Brangelina (both showed though the tribute was meant to honor her role in “A Mighty Heart“) who spent an unexpectedly long time with the red carpet fans. None of the presentations offered more than a glimpse of astral bodies in the flesh. On the other hand, the Director’s Panel, including Brad Bird, Julian Schnabel, Judd Apatow, and Jason Reitman was rollick — some fun, even Schnabel riffed for the adoing crowds. They tiptoed around questions of the writer’s strike and the separate peace they made. The writers, on the other hand, showed bad form by staging something of a sickout for their panel during the first week.

The fest closes tonight with a screening of “An Unknown Woman” by Giuseppe Tornatore (“Cinema Paradiso”). But the gist of the festival befell on Saturday when a film made by Akira Kurosawa‘s assistant director Takashi Koizumi, “Best Wishes for Tomorrow” starring the son of Steve McQueen and popular Santa Barbara actor Robert Lesser brought a room full of strangers to consciousness about American and Japanese war crimes, in a film that had only shown once previously in Japan. That’s something for everybody.

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