Movie: A Better Life
Year: 2012Nominations: Best Actor (Demián Bichir)
Wins/Snubs: The Artist was an unstoppable force last year, and Jean Dujardin took the Best Actor trophy, deservedly. But Bichir was pretty great too. It was a strange year for nominated performances - usually there is at least 1 or 2 where you say it's a career high for the actor and a really terrific movie. An unknown (in the US) man won for a silent film, and two former heartthrobs were nominated (Clooney and Pitt for career best performances in The Descendents and Moneyball, respectively), another unknown in a semi-foreign language film (Bichir) and then an old standby who had actually never been nominated (Gary Oldman for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). One of the things I've learned looking back at so many performances and so many movies, you can never predict who will get nominated - there are definitely some years where it completely makes sense and there's very little dispute (any year Daniel Day-Lewis is in the running seems to be an example), but then there are years like 2012 that history will have to decide if Oscar was right.
Carlos (Bichir) is an undocumented Mexican, working in Los Angeles for a landscaper who is about to sell the business. Carols is taking care of his son, Luis (José Julián) who is trying to figure out what kind of life he wants - he's not particularly keen on joining a gang (though he might not get to choose) and he knows he doesn't want to be anything like his father. His mother split when he was little. We see Carlos struggle make enough money to support him, while not actually having enough time to raise him. Eventually Carlos' sister lends him enough money to buy the truck and landscaping business. Unfortunately, that doesn't go quite as planned, despite Carlos' best intentions. The adventure that follows helps bring father and son back together for a little bit.
I'm definitely being a little cryptic because I sense most people missed this really terrific, thoughtful performance. Particularly if you looked up Bichir's filmography and recognized him as the druglord Esteban from "Weeds". Thankfully, he's unrecognizable as Carlos and the role is amazing. The movie could have fallen on cliche - all Hispanics are in gangs, they will all get deported by horribly sadistic border patrol, they don't work or have money, and they just have huge families they can't support (I list these because the movie actually points the finger at all of them). Bichir's performance is mostly with his eyes - seeing his son become a bit of an ass who has very few manners and doesn't pay attention to the niceties of life or has much sympathy for who Carlos calls "his people". Luis doesn't identify with the immigrants (legal or otherwise), his father has protected him, perhaps too much, from that kind of life, trying to build something for them together. I really enjoyed this movie from start to finish. It's definitely sad, but not in the cliched way a lot of movies about immigrants or Hispanics can be.