SANTA BARBARA - The 27th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival kicked off tonight with the world premiere of Lawrence Kasdan's "Darling Companion," starring Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline. Unfortunately I couldn't make it down in time to catch it, but I'm here now and ready for a few days of awards season awareness.

The Santa Barbara fest smartly positioned itself a number of years back as a destination for Oscar contenders. Being the biggest phase two exposure of that sort, the festival's profile has sky-rocketed since Roger Durling took over executive director duties some time ago, adding lengthy tributes scattered throughout the fest as well as the Kirk Douglas Award (which is handed out every October at a private dinner -- this year's recipient was Michael Douglas). This year, a number of Oscar nominees will be appearing at the fest to have a little love thrown their way.

Viola Davis's Outstanding Performer of the Year celebration will kick all of that off tomorrow night, while Christopher Plummer, Martin Scorsese, Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Melissa McCarthy, Demián Bichir and Rooney Mara will all be on hand throughout (in addition to close-but-no-cigar Oscar hopefuls Shailene Woodley, Andy Serkis and Patton Oswalt as part of the big Virtuosos Event next weekend).

Then, of course, there are the panels. My Oscar Talk colleague Anne Thompson will again be moderating the "It Starts with the Script" panel with screenwriters from some of the year's high profile films, including Mike Mills ("Beginners"), Tate Taylor ("The Help"), Will Reiser ("50/50"), Jim Rash ("The Descendants") and surprising nominee J.C. Chandor ("Margin Call").

Also, the novel "Women in the Biz" panel this year will feature the producers of "Cars 2" (Denise Ream), "Beginners" (Leslie Urdang), "The Tree of Life" (Dede Gardner) and "Kung Fu Panda 2" (Melissa Cobb), as well as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star and producer of the short film "Picture Paris." Next weekend will bring the directors and producers panels, line-ups still to be announced.

I've got a little more on my plate this year as I'm on the festival's International Films Competition jury with filmmaker Glenn Jordan. Films on that slate include "Alois Nebel," "Another Silence," "Free Men," "Generation P," "Here, There," "Horses," "Lucky," "Romeo Eleven," "Sleepless Night" and "Sons of Norway." I look forward to that.

Elsewhere, the restoration of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" is screening here, a must see for me, as well as the U.S. premiere of "Samsara" from director Ron Fricke. (I'm a huge "Baraka" fan and I've been dying to see this one.) Another U.S. premiere of note is "Barrymore," which stirred some Best Actor buzz for Christopher Plummer in Toronto but wasn't acquired. "West of Memphis," which I missed last week in Sundance, will also be here.

Lots to do, lots to cover. So keep it here for more as it happens from Santa Barbara.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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