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Once-tiny Sarasota Film Festival now sparkles

William H. Macy, left; his wife, actor Felicity Huffman, and Sarasota Film Festival executive director Jody Kielbasa attend a festival event in 2006. This year Macy makes his fifth visit to the festival, to promote his movie The Deal, which got financing from friends he has made in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Getty Images (2006)

William H. Macy, left; his wife, actor Felicity Huffman, and Sarasota Film Festival executive director Jody Kielbasa attend a festival event in 2006. This year Macy makes his fifth visit to the festival, to promote his movie The Deal, which got financing from friends he has made in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

A decade ago, the Sarasota Film Festival was a blip on the city's social calendar: one weekend, eight films and a wrap party.

These days, eight movies and a shindig might be accomplished in a single day.

From modest beginnings, the Sarasota Film Festival has evolved into something for the community to brag about. Now it is a 10-day event with more than 200 works from 30 countries, plus an array of special events. The guest list is more impressive each year. Film industry insiders regularly rate it among the nation's top cinema showcases.

"It sends a statement that we're here and we're here to stay," said executive director Jody Kielbasa, who, along with keen programmer Tom Hall, has overseen the festival's growth.

Kielbasa said the turning point was 2003, when Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss visited to pick up a career achievement award and Aerosmith played at the wrap party.

"You just got a real sense that this was something special, something unique that was transforming our community in a lot of ways," Kielbasa said. "Frankly, it was hard to miss. That's when our (attendance) numbers spiked dramatically. It began to take on a life of its own."

This year's film lineup includes tonight's sold-out screening of The Deal starring William H. Macy, a comedy partly financed by Sarasota and Manatee county residents. Macy (Fargo, Seabiscuit) makes his fifth visit to the festival to introduce the movie, which isn't planned for another screening (but that could change at organizers' whims).

The festival centerpiece film is Blind Date (April 11 and 13), directed by and starring Stanley Tucci, this year's career honoree. Tucci will introduce his film at both showings and discuss his filmmaking (Big Night, The Imposters) and acting (The Devil Wears Prada) during the "In Conversation" series at the Asolo Theater on Thursday.

Academy Award winner Charlize Theron appears with her closing-night film, Battle in Seattle, at two screenings and an "In Conversation" interview at the Asolo alongside director, and her longtime boyfriend, Stuart Townsend. Tickets for Tucci and Theron's talks, and the closing-night screenings, are $20.

International film icon Liv Ullmann will be feted at Luncheon Under the Banyans ($100) on Wednesday, in conjunction with the festival's tribute to her work with the late director Ingmar Bergman. A complete retrospective of their 12 collaborations — including Cries and Whispers, Persona and Scenes from a Marriage — dots the festival schedule.

The festival also focuses on Israeli cinema with its Israel@60 sidebar of 11 films reflecting Jewish culture worldwide, led by Joseph Cedar's Oscar-nominated Beaufort (Tuesday, Wednesday).

Among new feature films, three interesting, unpreviewed choices are Then She Found Me (Thursday and April 12), the directorial debut of Academy Award winner Helen Hunt; recent Oscar nominee Mongol (Thursday and April 12), and Nick Broomfield's Iraq War drama, Battle for Haditha (Tuesday and Wednesday).

I can vouch for When Did You Last See Your Father? (4:45 p.m. Saturday), with fine performances by Oscar winner Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth, which I enjoyed at last year's Telluride Film Festival. Buzz at Telluride was also high for Sarasota documentaries Who is Norman Lloyd? (Thursday and April 11) and Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World (Thursday and April 12).

With more than 200 film choices, almost any taste except for blockbuster formulas can be satisfied.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or Persall@sptimes.com. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

>>fast facts

Sarasota Film Festival

The 10th annual event is today through April 13 at various locations, with most screenings at Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20, 1993 Main St. Tickets are $9 per program except for special events, which range from $20-$150. Tonight's opening-night film, The Deal, starring William H. Macy and Meg Ryan, and the April 12 awards gala are sold out. Schedule and tickets are available at www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.

Once-tiny Sarasota Film Festival now sparkles 04/03/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2008 11:53am]

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