'Mail Order' delivers to West Coast film fest

SANTA BARBARA — The Santa Barbara Film Festival celebrated its 20 years of existence with a program balanced between in-person appearances by major Hollywood personalities and an eclectic array of indie and international film programs.

With three juries handing out a bevy of awards, fest’s American Spirit Award, for a “unique” feature “made outside mainstream Hollywood,” went to Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko’s “Mail Order Wife,” a withering look at wife-for-hire services that won the filmmakers a $30,000 camera package from Panavision.

International feature prize went to “Deadlines,” a drama about journalists in 1980s Beirut directed by Michael Lerner with Ludi Boeken.

Nueva Vision Award for Spanish or Latin American film was bestowed upon “The Other Side of the Street,” directed by Marcos Bernstein, about a retired woman who patrols the streets of Rio de Janeiro to provide tips to police.

Audience choice for best feature was the intergenerational heartwarmer “The Thing About My Folks,” directed by Raymond De Felitta and written by Paul Reiser, who also stars with Peter Falk. Aud favorite for documentary was Roberta Grossman’s “Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action,” about Native American environmental activists, and Latin feature fave was Luis Mandoki’s “Innocent Voices,” about the war in El Salvador.

Jury’s choice for docu was Goro Toshima’s “A Hard Straight,” about three prison parolees.

Among other prizes, Bruno Ganz copped the male performance nod in an international film for his turn as Hitler in “Downfall,” while Sibell Kekilli took the female thesping award for “Head-On.”

Special jury prizes were given to two docs, “Alone Across Australia,” directed by Jon Muir and produced by Ian Darling and Muir, for cinematic originality, and Adam Curtis’ “Power of Nightmares,” for handling of vital contemporary issues.

Elia Schneider took the special jury award for writing and directing a Spanish or Latin American film for the war satire “Punto y Raya” from Venezuela.

Bruce Corwin Awards went to Gary McKendry’s “Everything With This Country Must,” for live-action short under 20 minutes, and Carolle-Shelley Abrams’ “Oola Oop” for animated short.

Damien O’Donnell’s “Rory O’Shea Was Here” was honored with the $1,000 Antioch U. award for leadership and change. Sotheby’s student film competition, which provides for $3,000 equipment scholarships, was won by Nico Constantinides’ “The Meaning” in the high school division and Mark Legaspi’s “The Unfortunate End of Six-Gun Bill Sutton” in the college section.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Annette Bening and Kevin Bacon were honored with tributes, and Jeff Bridges and Ted Danson attended in conjunction with the world-premiere closing-night feature “The Moguls” on Sunday evening.

After the powerhouse producer and writer panels a week ago, second weekend offered a lively directors’ conclave that featured Joel Schumacher, Luis Mandoki, Terry George, Alejandro Amenabar, Kevin Bacon, Jeff Arch and Michael Traeger. Peter Guber moderated.

New this year was a discussion among film composers featuring John Debney, Rolfe Kent, Michael Giacchino, Mark Mothersbaugh, Aaron Zigman and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Panel, moderated by Jim Svejda, was so successful that it will become a regular annual event.

Smart and well-spoken, composers batted around such topics as whether time constraints make their job even more high pressure than during the classical studio era; how directors communicate their musical desires to them; their emotional investments in their most recent work; whether they would actually prefer composing and/or conducting over film work; and the negative influence of temp tracks.

Giacchino, for instance, said Brad Bird conveyed what he wanted musically for “The Incredibles” by telling stories about the film’s events so evocatively that the composer was able to develop musical equivalents. Debney, by contrast, reported Mel Gibson often was unable to put his musical ambitions for “The Passion of the Christ” into words but could sometimes suggest the emotions through gestures and facial expressions.

Kent, who scored “Sideways,” acknowledged an early dislike of classical music because it exists in a void. “I like music in relation to something. I like music in a context, be it opera, musical theater or movies. I think of myself as a filmmaker who happens to do the music.”

Next year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival will run Feb. 3-12.

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