Santa Barbara Film Festival turns 21

Santa Barbara rolls out the red carpet for its 21st Annual International Film Festival, featuring an eclectic line-up of international, domestic and local premieres, starry tributes, industry panels, and much more. What began as an ambitious weekend experiment has blossomed into a three-week event attracting a wide range of films and filmmakers. Now of legal age, the festival offers audiences 11 intoxicating days of fun, film and celebrations.

“We’re proud of this year’s line-up,” commented Roger Durling, Festival Director. “It’s the strongest in our history. I’m also excited that the line-up is anchored by films from Robert Towne, a master filmmaker, and Mike Binder, an emerging director, and Jason Reitman, a local hero returning to the festival.”

Towne, writer of Chinatown, returns as director with Ask the Dust, his first film since 1998\\’s Without Limits. Ask The Dust, starring Salma Hayek, Colin Farrell and Donald Sutherland, opens the festival with a screening Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m. Ask The Dust stars Hayek as a Mexican beauty looking to marry a wealthy American to escape her station, ending up falling for a first-generation Italian writer (Farrell) instead. Towne and Hayek are expected to attend the world premiere.

Comedian-turned-writer-director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger) debuts his latest romantic drama Feb. 7, 8 p.m. Man About Town stars Ben Affleck as a Hollywood agent looking for an outlet for his thoughts. Just as he embarks on a journal-writing class, his personal and professional lives begin to fall apart. Then his journal is stolen by a journalist threatening to expose his most personal thoughts. Rebecca Romijn, Gina Gershon, Jerry O’Connell, Bai Ling and John Cleese complete the cast. Binder and select cast members are expected to attend.

Jason Reitman’s hilarious satire on big business and the tobacco industry, Thank You for Smoking, closes the festival Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m. Aaron Eckhart stars as a tobacco spokesman spinning business for profit while trying to remain a hero to his son. The director and cast members Maria Bello, Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott and others are expected to attend the special presentation of the film which caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival.

This year’s tributes honor some of Hollywood’s best and brightest, including the Modern Master Award Tribute to George Clooney on Feb. 3, 8 p.m., moderated by Leonard Maltin. Clooney’s film,Good Night, and Good Luck, screens at 4:30 p.m. Academy-award nominee Naomi Watts (21 Grams) receives the Montecito Award Tribute, Feb. 4, 8 p.m. Watts is currently starring in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Director James Cameron receives the Attenborough Award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking, in partnership with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Feb. 6, 8 p.m. The tribute is in recognition of the director’s work which began researching and filming Titanic and his pursuit of exploring the ocean floor.

This year, the festival pays tribute to two front-runners in the Best Actor race. Heath Ledger, star of Brokeback Mountain, receives the Imperia Breakthrough Performance of the Year Award on Feb. 8, 8 p.m., while Capote star Philip Seymour Hoffman accepts his Riviera Award Tribute, moderated by Leonard Maltin, Feb. 11, 8 p.m.

“We feel honored to have so many artists at the top of their game,” Durling said. Best Actress front-runner Felicity Huffman follows a screening of her film Transamerica on Feb. 11, 11 a.m., with a question-and-answer session moderated by actor Tim Matheson.

Huffman’s appearance is part of the “Conversations With” series offering festival attendees the opportunity to discuss films with filmmakers. The series includes discussions with director Robert Towne Feb. 3, 5:30 p.m.; Tab Hunter, discussing John Waters’ Polyester, Feb. 5, 7 p.m.; Director James Mangold and producer Kathy Conrad answering questions following a screening of Walk the Line, Feb. 9, 6 p.m.; and Maria Bello fielding questions after a screening of A History of Violence, Feb. 12, 4:30 p.m.

Most impressive is the festival’s panel lineup, including many potential Oscar nominees. Directors on Directing, Feb. 5, 11 a.m., features Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), Tom Bezucha (The Family Stone), Mike Binder (Man About Town), Paul Haggis (Crash), Luc Jacquet (March of the Penguins), Bennett Miller (Capote) and Duncan Tucker (Transamerica), moderated by Variety editor Peter Bart.

With the addition of a third weekend offering screenings of winning films and festival highlights February 17-19, plus 32 world premieres and 12 U.S. premieres, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival isn’t getting older, it’s getting better.