Celluloid Memories

In summing up the 2007 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, I’m tempted to pirate the title of one of its movies (from a Montecito filmmaker, no less): “Good to Great.”

The festival has for more than a decade had plenty to offer: a plethora of filmmaker panels that serve as previews for the non-acting Academy Awards, tributes to stars and auteurs alike, a full offering of fine foreign films, daring documentaries that delve deep into specific issues and more. But this year seemed to outdo all others on just about every level.

The quotient of suddenly sizzling Hollywood properties rose dramatically this year, and not only in the previously announced tributes that for the first time more than likely gave awards to the man and woman (Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren) who will be taking home Best Actor and Actress Oscars in less than three weeks. SBIFF also snagged Sacha Baron Cohen, “Borat” himself, for a rare out-of-character Q&A session, and lured some of Hollywood’s most enduring stars – or at least ongoing tabloid sensations – including $20-million man Tom Cruise to give Will Smith his trophy, and Jennifer Aniston, who rarely goes a week without a mention in the People-type rags, for an on-stage Q&A following a screening of her directing debut, a short film called “Room 10.” The latter’s slot made SBIFF seem all the more mature in that there was hardly any hoopla about that final Sunday appearance, as if the festival no longer has to shout “Look at me!” to get attention.

That was echoed by the presence of such studio powerbrokers as Peter Block, head of Lions Gate acquisitions department, who showed up for a screening of the company’s new zombie-comedy “Fido,” and Bob Yari, he of the big producing controversy over “Crash” last year, who flew out for closing night film “Gray Matters” (the studio also had opening night pic “Factory Girl” and “First Snow” screening here). Santa Barbara still isn’t an acquisition haven – and probably never will be as long as it’s slated on the heels of Sundance – but the studios have started to take notice.

“This an ideal festival because it’s so close to Hollywood,” said Yari, who has an affinity for Santa Barbara dating back to his days as a student at both Brooks and UCSB. “It’s growing in stature and important films every year,” Yari said. “We will definitely be back.”

Although the final figures haven’t been released yet, attendance seemed up at SBIFF ’07, despite unseasonably cold temperatures and several days of rain. Proof of its popularity could be found just last Sunday afternoon: while the Super Bowl was in full throttle and the temperatures hovered in the mid-70s for the first time in two weeks, more than 200 people turned out for the third screening of “Water” – admittedly one of the five Oscar nominees, but also a slow-paced film that had played for at least two weeks at the Riviera over the summer, and has already been out on DVD for months.

On the film slate itself, this was a remarkable year, with virtually no clunkers save for the execrable “Bella,” which you can’t blame SBIFF programmers for booking since it won the audience award at Toronto. Documentaries covered Iraq, of course, but we also got “Ahlaam” (Dreams), the first film shot inside the country by an Iraqi since the invasion, as well the world premiere of “Henry,” which examines the life and motivations of Canada’s abortion advocate doctor who has performed by his own count more than 75,000 abortions and virtually single-handedly changed his country’s laws.

The features included Sarah Polley’s directing debut, “Away from Her,” which starred a still sexy 65-year-old Julie Christie in an astonishing performance as an Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife and proved more moving than any of more highly touted films at the fest.

Meanwhile, the parties exceeded all expectations, ranging from the expansive opening night bash at the entire Paseo Nuevo center to the hilltop mansion at Brooks, to the huge warehouse decorated to represent various ecosystems (for the Gore/Guggenheim tribute) to a multi-level soirée at Q’s. The latter, which followed the Bill Condon “Dreamgirls” fete, featured a heaven and hell theme, complete with foot massages on the top level and devilishly strong drinks below; it outshone even the spectacular quarter-million-dollar celebration at the newly refurbished Four Seasons Biltmore.

There were virtually no major SNAFUs at all. Sure, the print of “Little Children” burned briefly, causing a 15-minute delay in Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley’s “Conversation With…”, and miscalculations on theatre sizes and demand caused a few disgruntled stragglers to be shut out of a favorite film, but these sort of things are unavoidable even for a festival with the proven foresight of SBIFF.

The biggest downer remains the same from previous years: tributes that run at least 30 minutes too long (and I’d still rather see Alex Simon – who moderated some of the “Conversations With…” – replace both the fawning Pete Hammond and the often befuddled Leonard Maltin).

By the time the fest came to a rest at the final party at El Paseo, Montecito resident and SBIFF Board President Jeffrey Barbakow, winding up his first festival in office, might have been the only person who wasn’t all that sad to see SBIFF come to an end. “It was fantastic to spend all eleven days at the festival, but I can’t wait to get back to the office, I’ve been away far too long,” Barbakow says. “But I’m sure I’ll be missing the movies again in two days.”

A Final Weekend

Alas, there will be no Q&A, no post-screening parties, no red carpets and no fanfare (but also no 30-minute lineups and no passes needed) as many of the award-winning films in the festival are shown for free this weekend at the Riviera Theatre.

Friday: 7 pm – “Man In The Chair” (Best Independent)

Saturday: 1 pm – “Darius Goes West” (Audience Award), preceded by 10-10-10 winners; 4 pm – “Darkbluealmostblack” (Spanish/Latin American); 7 pm – “Beauty In Trouble” (International feature)

Sunday: 1 pm – “Welcome Home” (non-winner); 4 pm – “Crazy Love” (Documentary); 7 pm – “Spiral” (Gold Vision)

Dance Transitions

If the transition back to our regular lives is difficult for most festival-goers, imagine what five female members of the State Street Ballet are going through. Led by seven-year veteran Alyson Mattoon, the contingent spent countless hours go-go dancing at several of the after-event parties over the last 10 days, on stages, platforms, behind gauze curtains and on the dance floor.

Now the girls have to trade in their skimpy bikini-style tops and ultra short hot pants with fishnets stockings and go-go boots for frilly tutus and ballet slippers, and eschew pelvis thrusts for pliés and en pointes as the company takes on one of the most classical of ballets, “La Sylphide,” this weekend at the Lobero. The ballet dates from the mid-1800s, and is one Mattoon described as “very particular and specialized, and just aesthetically beautiful.”

While detractors found the go-go dancers sexist, Mattoon maintained the performances were not at all demeaning.

“Go-go dancing has a bad reputation associated with stripping, but we’re an eclectic group of professionals and I think we do it tastefully,” she says. “All of them have extraordinary talent and we’re just used to performing. It’s just another outlet. And it’s fun. And we’re promoting the ballet at the same time.”

In any event, the quintet will have to trade in those improvisational moves for well-rehearsed choreography.

“It’s different but when we’re all dancing in unison, which is unusual in modern ballet, it’s very dreamlike and romantic,” Mattoon says. “Just in time for Valentine’s Day.”