Halfway to the 37th Santa Barbara International Film Festival

The 37th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) came to town on Wednesday, March 2. It continues until Saturday, March 12. So far, the general response has been a mix of reunion bliss and mild culture shock. The annual event, a highlight of Santa Barbara’s cultural calendar for decades, last met in person 25 months ago, shortly before the pandemic lockdown began. In 2021, the festival featured a mostly streaming schedule, with content seen on temporary drive-in screens near the beach.

The 37th Santa Barbara International Film Festival opened Wednesday, March 2 with a return to the Arlington Theater for an in-person screening of the opening night film, “The Phantom of the Open.” | Credit: Getty Images for SBIFF

Now the familiar SBIFF is back. It kicked off with a crowd-pleasing opening night film, Phantom of the Open, which drew a large crowd of masked humans to the Arlington Theater. SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling, who is currently celebrating 20 years at the helm, launched a mantra of appreciation throughout the festival for seeing live audiences again and expressed concern for the Ukraine crisis. SBIFF has linked to Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief on its website, raising more than $50,000 to date for Ukrainian relief efforts.

Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis | Credit: Erick Madrid

The Arlington also hosted a star-studded gathering of mostly Oscar-nominated celebrities over the next four nights, including dedicated tributes to Kristen Stewart, co-stars Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis, a string of up-and-coming actors and of support, and a night of toasting high-profile administrators. On Thursday March 10, Leonard Maltin will participate in the presentation of the Maltin Modern Master Awards to Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. Bardem also stars in the comic book lead in the satirical Spanish gem The good boss, a lighthearted highlight of the festival. Penélope Cruz, Bardem’s wife, received the Montecito Prize on Tuesday March 8 for her performance in Pedro Almodóvar Parallel mothers.

Meanwhile, in the all-important screening trenches of the Metro and Fiesta multiplexes, an unusually dense program of more than 200 mostly serious and artsy films unfolded, curated by new chief programmer Claudia Puig (USA today critic) and his colleagues.

Kristen Stewart during her acceptance speech after receiving the American Riviera Award. | Credit: Erick Madrid

Events such as free 2 p.m. screenings and panel discussions are in Arlington this year. There is also a new place reserved for round tables, the courtyard of Casa De la Guerra.

Sir Kenneth Branagh did double duty over the weekend. The writer-director of his personal and nostalgic film Belfast appeared in both the Directors’ Tribute alongside Paul Thomas Anderson and the popular Writers Panel. When he talked about deciding to embark on this scenario during the COVID lockdown, he spoke for many who faced soul-searching during this time. “All bets were off,” he said. “It was difficult to know how to navigate the future, so it was a good time to revisit the past.”

Paul Thomas Anderson (L) and Kenneth Branagh | Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

On Sunday evening, Will Smith said that King Richard struck such a deep chord with critics and audiences because “there’s magic in what works with a movie.” He added: “The lighting is hitting. No one can control lightning.

Halfway through the 11-day festival, my best list includes: The good boss, 107 mothers, The hijah, A Road to Quartzsite, The Just, Ricochet, wild roots, Cadejo blanco, you look like meand Our words collide.

To see sbiff.org and follow our daily SBIFF coverage on independent.com/sbiff. Don’t forget to grab our festival coverage package here.

Artwork by Ben Ciccati

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