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Shortcuts: A not-so-brief overview of the Sonoma International Film Festival

“Larger, better, even more fun.”

Asked to describe the 19th annual Sonoma International Film Festival in a few words, this is how festival director Kevin McNeely defines the latest iteration of the event that has been bringing star power and tourist dollars to Sonoma every spring for nearly two decades.

This year, from March 30 to April 3, the message of “bigger and better” will have its symbol in the enormous “Backlot Tent” and adjoining circus tent – this year located adjacent to the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building – acting as the festival’s headquarters, part-time screening room, and party palace for the five-day run.

“Our tent will be 40 percent larger than the one we used last year,” McNeely says. “It will allow us to have a larger stage with more seating in the audience area. We will be taking advantage of that extra space by launching special events and parties that will blow your mind.”

P.T. Barnum could not have said it better.

Taking place at several locations throughout the downtown area, the 2016 festival promises some first-rate Hollywood star sightings, with special events featuring actress Meg Ryan, the director of WWII-set Tom Hanks film “Ithaca” (Sebastiani Theatre, Thursday at 3:30 p.m., screening and Q&A), James Cromwell of “Babe” fame (he’s a juror, so he’ll be hanging out at screenings), “Rhoda” actress Valerie Harper (the short film “Merry Christmas”) and others.

The films themselves feature world premieres, documentaries, shorts, classics, and foreign films, from the aforementioned “Ithaca,” the bittersweet story of a teenage War Department messenger that is Ryan’s directorial debut, and “Last Cab to Darwin,” a life-affirming Australian drama about a supposedly dying man on a cab ride across the Outback (Sebastiani, Friday, April 1, 2:45 p.m.; Vintage House, Sunday, April 3, 3:30 p.m.) to the salacious sounding comedy “How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town” (Veteran’s Building, Friday, April 1, 8 p.m.; Andrews Hall, Saturday April 2, 8:15 p.m.), and Denmark’s sensational “The Wave” (Veteran’s Building, Thursday, March 31, 8:30 p.m.; Friday, April 1, 10 a.m.), a disaster film about a geologist trying to save his family from a monster tsunami.

The festival opens with the U.S. premiere of “Louder Than Bombs” (Sebastiani, Wednesday, March 30, 7:15 p.m.), an acclaimed family drama starring Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Amy Ryan and Isabelle Hupert as a group of people struggling with the mystery of a war photographer’s death. Local screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen will be honored before the film with the SIFF Spirit Award as well.

Per tradition, various special film events are wrapped in and around the screenings.

Always popular is the annual UFO Symposium, this year highlighting two films inspired by Travis Walton, whose five-day disappearance in 1975 is one of the most famous alleged incidents of alien abduction in America.

Another traditional event, also a sure crowd-pleaser, is the Media Arts Program (Sebastiani, Thursday, March 31, 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.), featuring select shorts created by students of the Sonoma Valley High School Media Arts Program.

“Music is, of course, always a major part of the festival,” says McNeely, calling attention to several of the programs that combine film and music in interesting ways, including the screening of Australia’s penguin-saving-sheepdog movie “Oddball” (Sebastiani, Saturday, April 2, 9 a.m.). That will be preceded by a live performance by musicians from Everybody is a Star.

Also on the list is the Hemingway & Havana Party (Back Lot Tent, Thursday, March 31, 8 p.m. – 11 p.m.), a Cuban-themed celebration of music, food and dancing, riffing off the Festival’s screenings of the Hemingway drama “Papa” (Sebastiani, Thursday, March 31, 6:30 p.m.; Vets Building, Saturday, April 2, 2:30 p.m.) and the Cuban street-racing documentary “Havana Motor Club” (Sebastiani, Thursday, March 31, 1:15 p.m.).

“Colin Hay, of Men at Work, will be here too,” says McNeely. “A local filmmaker, Nate Gowtham, has made a documentary called 'Colin Hay: Waiting for My Real Life' and it’s fantastic. So Colin is coming to the Festival, and he’s bringing his guitar.” (Veterans Building, Saturday, April 2, 8:30 p.m.)

According to McNeely, though films will be screened all over town, from morning to night, the tent city will become especially lively in the evenings. Often that means a bit of theatrical burlesque and musical mischief in the La Tigre circus tent, featuring performances created by Sonoma’s Ann Goldberg and Jonathan Taylor, members of the La Tigre performance troupe.

“They will be doing a vaudeville variety show they’ve been traveling with for a few years through New Zealand, Australia and Europe,” says McNeely. “Jonathan started with Blue Man Group, and went on to Cirque du Soleil. The La Tigre Tent seats 110 people, and we’ll be showing films there during the day. And then at night, we’ll variety vaudeville burlesque show. Let’s see how well that goes over in Sonoma.”

Should film-going attendees grow hungry, the tent city will be the host area for a number of food trucks, including a Back Lot appearance on Thursday, March 31, by the pop-up wine-and-food group Feast it Forward, a philanthropic traveling troupe that uses wine, food and performance to advance philanthropic causes.

“Another new thing we’re doing this year,” says McNeely, “is our new ‘happy hour,’ held in the Backlot Tent between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. A variety of local vintners and spirits provider will participate in that, and there will be live music with that every afternoon. That’s open to anyone with a festival pass.”

Also new this year is what McNeely has dubbed “the Rush Card,” which allows patrons to attend up to four movies for $35, on a first-come-first-served basis after pass-holders have been seated.

McNeely describes the various passes available, including the Cinema Pass, granting access to all films, panels and the Back Lot tent, the Cinema Soiree Pass, granting holders early access to all films, reserve seating, entry to most of the parties and the Back Lot Tent.

“We are making the tent much more of a prime location,” McNeely says. “It’s a bit of a challenge, creating a whole little city there, but it’s going to be worth it.”

Write to David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com