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The Big Little Festival: Santa Barbara Fest Basks in the Limelight

The Big Little Festival: Santa Barbara Fest Basks in the Limelight

Months ago, before “The Wrestler” was released, when Santa Barbara International Film Fest chief Roger Durling announced that Mickey Rourke would be one of this year’s honorees, a wag close to the organization commented, “What’s the matter Roger, wasn’t Gary Busey available?”

If there’s one thing people in this town constantly underestimate from the spiky-haired festival director, it’s his ability to anticipate Academy nominations during his five year run of this 10 day-long concatenation of films and personality appearances in the postcard-pretty beach city 90 miles north of Hollywood proper. This year’s been no different. Durling got both Boyle and Fincher early too. A Q&A with Danny Boyle after a screening of “Slumdog Millionaire” was packed and spilled over into the next scheduled screening’s time slot. An evening with David Fincher drew a packed house in the giant Arlington Theater, and over the weekend, Rourke himself, ever irascible, even now while he’s outwardly professing his gratitude to be back, appears earning no less a presence than Francis Ford Coppola as presenter of the fest’s Riviera Award.

A month ago, I asked Rourke if he enjoyed all this limelight. “I was out of the loop and I couldn’t get a job for 13 years and I’m really really grateful,” he said, blaming his inability to land parts on “The way I behaved for the first 15 years.” It was a fine balancing act for Rourke in front of 1000 fans who adore his bad boy demeanor as much as they appreciate his apparent humility.

The fest this year has also been a fine balancing act between the glitz of big stars like Clint Eastwood – given this year’s Modern Master award and the joys of a very eclectic satisfying variety of cinema including a gaggle of Asian B movies (“K20,” “Legend of the Mask” and “Evangelion 1.0 You Are Not Alone”).

The films of the fest have been the most satisfying in memory, despite the absence of virtually any U.S. independent filmmaking. Durling admitted the scarcity of American works, which makes him both rueful and philosophical. “I just can’t compete with Sundance,” he said.

In every other category, Durling and his programmers get great grades though. Besides the pop Japanese entries, SBIFF presented gems like “Suspect X,” a riveting mystery that examined the difference between scientific and emotional truths, as well as the psychologically rich “Nobody to Watch Over Me.”

A scene from Rod Lurie’s “Nothing but the Truth.” Image courtesy of SBIFF

A number of films by masters like Jan (“The Immigrants”) Troell’s “Everlasting Moments” topped local critic’s lists; while Oscar nominees got popular acclaim (Norway’s O’Horten) and even widespread puzzlement if not revile (“Three Monkeys” from Turkey). A number of documentaries were on everybody’s lips including “Inventing L.A.,” “The Chandlers” and “Their Times,” which will soon be seen on PBS stations. Durling has also championed local filmmakers, and “The Brothers Warner,” made by a Santa Barbara woman Cass Warner Sperling whose grandfather was Jack Warner. It was getting rave local reviews. (My own son’s graduate film, “Ten Minutes to Ithaca” made the fest and his parents proud. No doubt other entrants’ folks felt similarly.)

In an odd way, this fest was sandwiched between and accidentally independent film and a film about becoming independent almost accidentally. “Nothing but the Truth,” a political thriller loosely based on the Valerie Plame affair starring Kate Beckinsale, David Schwimmer and Alan Alda was a big film that actually opened last fall only to find that its distribution company went bankrupt. Durling stepped in and previewed the film on January 22 opening night of the fest, where director Rod Lurie introduced the film by asking, “Is there a distributor in the house?” It’s a kind of parody of the situation a film like “Lightbulb,” the fest’s closer faces. Made in Santa Barbara by a marketer/screenwriter Make Cram, the film is directed by Jeff Balsmayer (Danny Deckchair). And though this story of a lucky inventor has chutzpah and Durling to promote it, it too looks for a distributor in a fest where big stars and bigger dreams seem to rub shoulders regularly.

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