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Santa Barbara draws stars to its festival

The international film event gets extra mileage from Oscar nominees who will attend the shows.

January 25, 2008|Benoit Lebourgeois | Special to The Times

SANTA BARBARA -- To schedule a festival's opening date two days after Academy Awards nominees are announced almost guarantees a place under the spotlight. Banking on Oscar hype can also be an exercise in humiliation if the invited honorees turn out not to be in competition.

So it takes some chutzpah as well as sharp forecasting skills to select talent for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which opened Thursday and runs through Feb. 3. That task falls to Roger Durling, the festival's executive director, who has an enviable track record, including this year's roster of guests.

During the next 10 days, the L.A. crowd need only travel 100 miles to see Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age"), Julie Christie ("Away From Her"), Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") and Ellen Page ("Juno"), all in competition for lead actress -- Blanchett is nominated for supporting actress as well, for "I'm Not There" -- walk the red carpet.

Other Oscar nominees will be there as well, including Amy Ryan (supporting actress for "Gone Baby Gone"), Tommy Lee Jones (lead actor for "In the Valley of Elah") and supporting actor nominees Casey Affleck ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") and Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men"). Brad Bird, nominated for best screenplay and best animated feature for "Ratatouille" will be in attendance as well. Other notables making the rain-soaked trek to Santa Barbara are Abigail Breslin, Norman Jewison, Angelina Jolie, Ryan Gosling and James McAvoy, But glamour alone does not a festival make. The Santa Barbara fest, which will screen 220 films from 49 countries, has achieved a critical following in the last few years thanks to its programming. Santa Barbara has its share of premieres and special presentations, but "we're not a cookie-cutter festival" said Durling.

Collections of movies arranged thematically, called sidebars, define the festival's creative reach. They provide a window into an unfamiliar world and expose audiences to unique films, enterprises that seldom break the uniform shield of the multiplex.

"We look for gems, we try to uncover new and innovative work" said festival program director Candace Schermerhorn. Characteristic of this approach is "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains," a retelling of the 1973 crash in the Andes, which she said, "impressionistically re-creates a time and place."

The festival also focuses its cinematic gaze on unexplored Eastern European cinema. Schermerhorn said she hoped the sidebar will lift the genre out of obscurity, and that audiences will appreciate its unique storytelling qualities. "Alexandra," "The Edge of Heaven," "Time to Die" and "The Trap" capture, respectively, Russian, Turkish, Polish and Serbian sensibilities rare in our celluloid consciousness.

Several panels gather industry heavyweights to discuss their profession and entertain questions from the audience. Writers Diablo Cody (an Oscar nominee for "Juno"), Robert Eisele ("The Great Debaters"), Nancy Oliver (also a nominee for "Lars and the Real Girl"); directors Adam Shankman ("Hairspray'), director nominees Julian Schnabel ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") and Jason Reitman ("Juno"); and producers Jennifer Fox (best picture nominee "Michael Clayton"), Daniel Lupi (best picture nominee "There Will Be Blood"), James L. Brooks ("The Simpsons Movie") and others promise to share their expertise.

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