Feeling lucky?

For much of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s 20-plus year history, filmgoers might have wanted to employ that line out of a famous Clint Eastwood movie. Because, if truth be told, it often took more luck than surviving Russian roulette – or a possible final bullet from Dirty Harry’s gun – to pick a winning film at the frequently hit-or-miss festival.

But while ever since Roger Durling took over as head of SBIFF for the 2004 event the star quotient at the 11-day fest has only continue to climb the Hot List in leaps and bounds – indeed, even multiple-Oscar winner and longtime film hero Eastwood himself has consented to receive the Modern Master award this year after handing it to Angelina Jolie (who he directed in “The Changeling”) in 2008 – what’s more surprising and even more rewarding is how quickly the quality of its film slate has grown.

“It really has gone up,” Durling said in a recent interview. “(In the past), we were mostly showing things that had been around for months on the festival circuit. Now we’re bringing fresher films, and more avant-garde movies. That’s been one of the mantras for this year.”

Because of SBIFF’s timing just a week after Sundance – a move necessitated by the Academy’s decision to stage the Oscars a month earlier a few years back – we’ll never get the major American independent releases to come here first. But in the past, programmers just took whatever came away. Not anymore.

“It’s easy to get world premiere films,” Durling noted. “Just lower your standard and you can get all sorts of (crappy) films.”

Largely gone are the grossly sub-par American Indies that justifiably often didn’t even make it to screens or even video anywhere and in their place are an increase in foreign films – both in English and other languages – documentaries, and offbeat Indies.

“It’s hard to put down the hatchet to say ‘no’ to movies, but there were just too many that were pre-digested, or more commercial,” Durling explained. “I don’t want us to show films that cater to audience. We want –as this year’s slogan says “Discover by Day, Dazzle by Night” – to take you on journey of discovery, and be at the vanguard.

Some fests fall into the mistake of programming films that fill a certain niche, or are middle of the road big crowd-pleasers only so they’ll be popular. But that’s not for me. A film festival should push you, force you on a journey where you wouldn’t usually go, broaden your horizons.”

In fact, these days, Durling says, if a film has been on the circuit for a while – screening anywhere outside of the very prestigious Telluride, Toronto or Sundance events – that’s a big strike against it getting into SBIFF.

“With the advent of Netflix and the Internet movie sites, you can see those films other ways. I make it a big point to go in another direction. I want what’s new.”

Durling estimated that only about a third of SBIFF’s films will eventually find distribution in the U.S., a figure that has prompted him to even steer away from country’s official Academy submissions – those figures are down considerably this year. “There are about 10 of them,” he said. “But I think it’s more interesting to see the other choices, the ones that weren’t officially sanctioned, because there’s often a lot of politics in those decisions.”

After six years on the job, Durling said he believes he’s found the right mix, which is why, for the first time in his tenure, there are no new film categories, sidebars, awards, panels or other special events. The only big change is the addition of screenings every day beginning at 8am, and an attendant new State Street pass that, for the bargain price of $300, allows admission to all screenings before 2pm and after 9pm daily.

“I’m trying to do more for the locals,” he explained. “There are only so many screening rooms we can use, so if you want to expand, you have only time to play with. Me, I’m one of those people who like to wake up and get to a movie right away, raring to go. And I can handle those heavy, demanding ones better fresh out of bed than I can at 4 in the afternoon, when I’m a little more worn out and can’t pay attention.”

And, as we’ve already mentioned, Durling is thrilled with the focus and breadth of this year’s slate.

“It’s getting easier to get the types of film we want. I don’t seem to have to fight with other festivals anymore. Now (the filmmakers) come to us. We used to have to compete with Miami for the Latino films, but that’s been put to rest. We’re definitely the No. 1 place for surf films now. We’ve established ourselves due to our proximity to Hollywood and the amount of press we get; I mean, the three main critics from Variety are here every year and Hollywood Reporter. Those are important. We have the national media on the red carpet.”

Durling’s current fave raves are the films from Eastern Europe, a section added just last year.

“That’s where the gems are,” he said. “Nearly all the films in that collection are among the best ones of the festival.”

The director also pointed to “Cliente,” “Loss,” “Nobody to Watch over Me,” and “It’s Not Me, I Swear,” as films not to miss.

The local Santa Barbara filmmakers have also come up in stature, with far more submissions allowing programmers to be more selective. Veteran director Mark Fiore is bringing his band behind-the-scenes doc “Linkin Park: the Marking of Minutes of Midnight,” to the fest (two band members are also expected to attend), director Mark Manning’s five-years-in-the-making “The Road to Fallujah” will feature a live video feed from Iraq so audience members can talk with soldiers following its initial screening, and Tod Lancaster’s “Mile High: How to Win…and Lose…the White House,” couldn’t be more timely, as it follows a 17-year-old Obama volunteer on the campaign trail.

But Durling’s recurring suggestion is to make your own selection with a keen eye toward country of origin and challenging your own preconceptions.

“What an economical way to travel, especially in our tough times,” he said. “You get to see all these cultures right here in our own living room for 11 straight days. That’s why it’s so much fun.”

Panelmonium

Save for last year, when the writers strike forced the cancellation of the popular and prescient “It Starts with the Script” seminar, SBIFF’s four panels – writers, directors, producers, and women in the business – are among its most important events, as award-garbed filmmakers discuss their craft and their films. Filmmakers have been a bit slow to commit this year, partly due to the late Oscar nominations – they won’t be released until early the morning the fest starts on Jan. 22. But we have several powerhouse names that have already committed.

Directors (11am Sat., Jan 24) include Andrew Stanton (“Wall-E”), Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”) and Uli Edel (“Baader Meinhof Complex), while the writers (2pm) have nabbed Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”) and Eric Roth (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”).

Next weekend, the producers panel (11am), will include Jim Morris (“Wall-E”), Neda Armian (“Rachel Getting Married”), Dan Jinx (“Milk”), Michael London (“The Visitor”) and Christian Colson (“Slumdog Millionaire”), while the women’s panel (2pm) has snared costume designer Jacqueline West (“Benjamin Button”), producer Heather Rae (“Frozen River”) and editor Dody Dorn (“Australia”).Check the sbiff.org website for late additions.

Timothy Bottoms

The end of 2008 wasn’t the best of times for native Santa Barbara actor Timothy Bottoms. His younger brother, Sam, died of a brain tumor on December 16, just nine days after his wife of 24 years divorced him on December 7 – “Pearl Harbor Day,” he said wistfully, forcing him from his Montecito home to a ranch up in Big Sur. All of which makes George W. Bush leaving office the day we spoke – the president provided four solid years of employment for Bottoms in “That’s My Bush” and “D/C 911” from 2001-04 – pale in comparison.

But Bottoms – the eldest son of famed Santa Barbara sculptor James “Bud” Bottoms (he created the dolphin fountain at the foot of Stearns Wharf) whose other brothers, Joseph and Ben, are also actors –plans to be back in town on Saturday, when his latest film, “Call of the Wild 3D,” has its world premiere at the Arlington as part of SBIFF’s AppleBox family film section. Kids will have the chance to walk their own red carpet to experience what it’s like to be a star at a festival prior to the free screening of the three-dimensional film (glasses will be provided).

He spoke about the role and his life in a brief telephone conversation this week while driving through Paso Robles.

Q. What can you tell me about “Call of the Wild”?

A. Aside from being a great excuse to go to Montana and see my son, who is going to school up there, it was a lot of fun. It’s “Call of the Wild” meets “Princess Bride.” Christopher Lloyd plays a grandfather who is reading the book to his granddaughter. They end up finding a wolf and he ties it all together. So the story is only loosely based on the Jack London story. I’m only in the modern-day part of the story. The real Jack London part, which they cut to as part of the girl’s imagination, I’m not in that. So it’s hard for me to talk about that. But I’d love to be in a real Jack London movie.

How was it to work with your fellow Montecitan Christopher Lloyd?

You know, he lost his house in the Tea Fire, which just devastated the Mountain Drive community; it will never be the same. It’s really so horrible. But he’s a wonderful man, fun and a generous, gentle, easygoing guy. He’s very comfortable to be with and a very easy actor to work with. It’s like you’re not acting at all.

What else are you working on?

It’s a lousy time for film. They’re dropping people everywhere, with mass firings at all the networks and studios. But there are little films happening. I have some meetings set up. It’s not much money but there is the opportunity to act and work. I’m jumping on anything right now, because I just still love it.

Can I bring up “The Last Picture Show,” in which you starred with your brother Sam and now Montecito resident Jeff Bridges? What do you recall from the film?

It was a very successful film, but it was a small one to actually make. But it got my career going and still keeps it going today. I have many, many memories…. (Pause). When my brother was dying, when he was taking his last breaths, the scene flashed before my eyes from the movie of me dragging my little brother (played by Sam) off the street, and holding him after he was killed by the truck. That really did come to mind on his deathbed. It was quite a moment to know that he was gone forever, and we’d created that same scene years and years ago. It’s a pretty powerful memory.

(Pause) Tim, I’m just speechless. Wow. I’ve got shivers up and down my spine. That was such a moving film and it still moves you now, like life imitating art. I don’t know what to say, except, of course, I’m sorry again about your brother. (Pause) Will we see you at the screening on Saturday?

I’d love to go to Santa Barbara; I mean, it’s been my hometown forever. I really miss it. I’m in a film right now with Malcolm McDowell and we’re supposed to have the day off, so we’ll see. But I will return. I will come back to Santa Barbara, get another house and get another job there. I need someone who has a big house in Montecito who can rent me a room. There are a lot of estates that are empty so I’m sure I can find one. I hoping you write something about it so I can come home, because I really do miss it.