A short hour and a half drive north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is one of those classic “get away” coastal towns, but the kind that threatens to keep you there—never again returning to the traffic-laden freeways of the metropolis just south, trapping you under its spell with its beautiful vistas and friendly locals.

SBIFF is aided by a slew of theaters on the main stretch of State Street. Image courtesy of Santa Barbara International Film Festival

This is a slow-moving town where all the middle-aged men seem to possess stark white hair (a carefree existence and ample convertible cruising seems to accelerate past the usual salt and pepper phase entirely).

For the last 33 years, this sleepy beachfront tourist destination has rung in the New Year right with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF). With star-studded galas to rival another high-profile festival it narrowly overlaps with, SBIFF 2019 honored Hollywood A-listers Michael B. Jordan, Glenn Close, Viggo Mortensen, and Rami Malek, among others, drawing packed crowds to the 2,000 seat Arlington Theatre. These galas, alongside robust international programming, led to a first in the festival’s storied history—all of the passes sold out. Executive Director Roger Durling, who has been with the festival for 16 years, had this to say about the festival’s history: “When I took over it was a small community event, and now it’s become an international event where you have 90,000 people in attendance. The key to our success is specificity—keeping it representing Santa Barbara. From that specificity, you get universality.”

Left to Right: Adam McKay (Vice), Paweł Pawlikowski (Cold War), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) drop wisdom at SBIFF’s annual Director’s Panel.

All moviemakers had similar sentiments on the remarkable beauty of this town, couched between a mountain range and the Pacific ocean, but Sam Friedlander, director of the Panavision Spirit Award-winning Babysplitters, commented on the sheer number of festival theaters lining the main strip of State Street. “It’s nice to be in a place where everything’s centralized—where you’re not having to take buses to different screenings, and screenings are in makeshift theaters. There are great audiences because of that. People can bounce from one thing to another. I love it,” he tells MovieMaker.

SBIFF 2019 marked the first year that all passes sold out in advance.

When not catching one of the more than 200 programmed films, there are other pleasures—both touristy and hidden—to be had. A stop at Julia Child’s favorite SB dining spot, the cash-only La Super-Rica Taqueria, is a requirement for any first-timers. During a break, I also trekked over to Randall House Rare Books to marvel at their collection of first edition treasures.

On the last afternoon of the fest, I caught Tyler Taormina’s debut feature Ham on Rye, a delightful low-budget indie tracking a group of teens who nervously prepare for a strange ritual held at a local deli. Divided into two distinct halves with the ritual at its center, the first half plays out like a large-ensemble Richard Linklater comedy, whereas post-ritual, the film’s tone shifts toward reflective melancholy.

Director Tyler Taormina (L) directs a scene of Ham on Rye which debuted at SBIFF 2019. Photograph by Nestor Carranza

Another standout was Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story, a documentary tracking the volatile career of notorious NBA hothead Ron Artest. The film digs far deeper than sensational YouTube clips and adds to recent conversations that push back against the entrenched stigma of athletes struggling with mental health issues in the NBA and beyond.

Closing night illustrated just how tied to the community the festival has grown, as a sold out Arlington crowd was treated to a selection of local documentary shorts, culminating in the surfing documentary feature Spoons: A Santa Barbara Story. Chatting pre-screening with those seated near me and taking note of the hoots and hollers throughout the proceedings, it was clear to me that this night belonged to the community the film screened in. SBIFF is that rare festival where local flavor and community support and robust American and international cinema are perfectly intertwined. MM

Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2019 ran from January 30-February 9, 2019. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue. Featured image: Michael B. Jordan receives the Cinema Vanguard Award at SBIFF 2019. All images courtesy of Santa Barbara International Film Festival