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Jennifer Aniston at the 2015 Santa Barbara International Film Festival | Barbara Singer Photo
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Eddie Redmayne and Feliticy Jones at the 2015 Santa Barbara International Film Festival | Barbara Singer Photo
Eddie Redmayne and Feliticy Jones at the 2015 Santa Barbara International Film Festival | Barbara Singer Photo

It’s film festival time and the American Rivera city of Santa Barbara has been besieged with moviegoers, Academy Award hopefuls, and a barrage of films from all over the world.

Michael Keaton at the 2015 Santa Barbara International Film Festival | Barbara Singer Photo
Michael Keaton at the 2015 Santa Barbara International Film Festival | Barbara Singer Photo

Celebrating its 30-year milestone, this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) runs from Jan. 27 to Feb. 7 and features tributes to Michael Keaton (“Birdman”), Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”), Jennifer Aniston (”Cake”), and Jean-Michel Cousteau and his children, Celine and Fabien, dedicated to protecting the oceans and endangered marine life, as well as educating others through amazing underwater films. The SBIFF is sponsored by UGG Australia.

Movie frenzy, a tradition of tributes and sunny skies of Santa Barbara sparks the momentum of each day. SBIFF has been recognized as a major force in the countdown to the Oscars. Searchlights flashing across the evening sky direct crowds to the historic Arlington Theatre to become immersed in the major tribute of the day.

Opening the 30th Annual SBIFF, Mayor Helene Schneider welcomed everyone and presented a Proclamation to Jeffrey Barbakow, Chairman of SBIFF Board of Directors. The opening film “Desert Dancer” was introduced by its director Richard Raymond and follows the life of an Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie), who invokes his friends to create a secret and forbidden dance troop to perform in the desert — which could invoke fatal consequences.

As always, executive director Roger Durling has worked his magic to invite acclaimed talent to the festival. The festival has something for everyone, including 210 film screenings representing 54 countries (23 world premieres and 53 U.S. premieres), 700 volunteers, and an anticipated 85,000 in attendance. The festival features lots of free films for both kids and grownups, as well as the Silent Film Classic. Panels with producers, screenwriters and women in the biz is another popular festival feature.

It is well known that Santa Barbara holds eco-systems and public awareness of the sea in esteem. The Attenborough Award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking 2015 has been awarded to Jean-Michel Cousteau and his children, Celine and Fabien, all dedicated to preservation and protection of the oceans for the future. The festival screened Cousteau’s “Secret Ocean,” an amazing underwater nature film with breathtaking photography enhanced by 3D.

This award was created by the late and beloved underwater nature filmmaker Mike De Gruy and his wife Mimi. De Gruy is still in the hearts of Santa Barbara residents, and his contributions to the SBIFF continue to be appreciated.

The Cinema Vanguard Award recognizes actors who’ve forged their own path taking artistic risks making a unique contribution to film. The duo of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were presented with this award for their amazing work and portrayals of Stephen and Jane Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne has already garnered the Golden Globe for Best Actor Drama and the  SAG award for Outstanding Performance Male.  Jones, nominated for a Golden Globe and SAG for Outstanding Performance, shared that the Jane Hawking book “Music to Move the Stars” was “my bible”and “it gave me such insight into who Jane was.”

Redmayne noted that he met the “incredibly kind and generous” Stephen Hawking when he came to the set a few days before filming. Redmayne and Jones, both nominated for Academy Awards, consider “The Theory of Everything” a very special film.

With her break-out performance in “Cake,” which earned her a Golden Globe nod and SAG nomination and the Montecito Award at the SBIFF, it’s been an exceptional year for Jennifer Aniston. She arrived at The Arlington with fiancé Justin Theroux, who scurried into the theater noting, “This isn’t about me,” leaving fans to shout and cheer for the former “Friends” star.

This year’s Montecito Award recognizes Aniston’s portrayal of Claire Bennett, a troubled woman dealing with chronic pain in “Cake.” Her natural candor and wit won over The Arlington sold-out audience, while talented moderator Pete Hammond of Deadline Hollywood told everyone that when he saw “Cake” at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, he knew this was a performance to remember.

Clips from Aniston’s versatile film work included “Horrible Bosses,” “The Millers,” “The Good Girl,” “Friends With Money” and more. The award of the evening was presented by Chairman of the Board of the SBIFF Jeff Barbakow, and Aniston could not have been more pleased as she told the audience, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

This year’s “Modern Master” award, Santa Barbara’s highest honor established in 1995, went to Michael Keaton for his riveting performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman” and his amazing body of work, including “Pacific Heights,” Batman Returns,” “Clean and Sober,” “Beetlejuice,” “Mr. Mom,” and more. The award is newly named the “Maltin Modern Master,” recognizing the award’s 25-year moderator, film critic Leonard Maltin.

Past recipients of the “Modern Master” award, which honors individuals who’ve enriched our culture through accomplishments in the motion picture industry, include Bruce Dern, Ben Affleck, Christopher Plummer, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Clint Eastwood, Cate Blanchett and George Clooney.

Keaton has picked up a multitude of awards this season, including the Critics Choice Best Actor, Golden Globe Award for Best Actor Comedy, and the SAG Outstanding Cast Award for “Birdman.” This is a man who really loves films and readily talks about his life and his career, and his friends and co-stars have noted that they enjoy working with him.

In this unique film, Keaton plays a middle-aged actor who once played a superhero, and is now debuting in a Broadway play while fighting his own demons. The emotions are complex and unexpected, and the depth of the film touches a nerve. Michael Keaton emerges as the Maltin Modern Master 2015, newly named for the award’s 25-year moderator and film critic extraordinaire Leonard Maltin.

SBIFF’s fully packed days include amazing panels such as the Movers and Shakers Panel, a tell-all of how the movies get made, direct from their producers. Many films were years in the making, including, of course, “Boyhood,” which took 12 years to make. Then there are the movies … standing in front of the Metro Theatres on State Street, film fans swap up-to-date information on which films not to miss.

My favorite film so far is the romantic comedy “The Truth About Lies,”written and directed by Phil Allocco. It’s clever, creative, and kept me laughing. The main character, Gilby,  played by Fran Kranz, has lost his job and his girlfriend, and keeps putting his foot in his mouth with one lie after another.

Note to “Friends” fans: David Schwimmer was my fourth grade student at Bellagio Road School in Bel Air, California, where he was a budding actor.

Don’t forget to read part two of my coverage of SBIFF 2015; meanwhile, check out all the film festival news at www.sbiff.org.

All photos by Barbara Singer

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