This year's obligatory WTF Oscar nomination went to Demian Bichir for Best Actor in A Better Life. (I was hoping that the "performance no one saw" nod would be awarded to Dominic Cooper for The Devil's Double, but it was not to be.)
So what are you missing if you missed Bichir in A Better Life? An admittedly excellent performance in a movie that never really rises above a Crash-esque sentimental social tract. Bichir plays Carlos, an illegal immigrant barely holding onto either his small home in East L.A. or his son Luis, who is an American citizen by birth, and increasingly seduced by the power and riches promised by life in a gang. Carlos has a chance to make more money and spend more time with Luis, whom he desperately loves, by buying his partner's landscaping truck, tools, and clients, but he's afraid that the higher profile will put him in greater danger of deportation. With a few small surprises and one big one, all the bad things you can imagine that would result from such a premise pretty much do. A Better Life will make you cry, but you won't feel good about yourself in the morning.
Director Chris Weitz was half responsible for another, better, film that mined the dynamic between fathers and sons, About a Boy, and can keep the credit for The Twilight Saga: New Moon all to himself. He is undoubtedly a competent filmmaker, and he manages to shoot East L.A., Beverly Hills, and quite a few Southland sites in between, with a gorgeous crispness that unfortunately only adds to the saccharine didacticism of the movie. A perfunctory scene with an NGO representative in which the draconian and labyrinthine nature of our country's immigration laws are dispassionately outlined does the same.
But the big question: Does Bichir deserve the nomination? He's unquestionably a lot better than the material. He doesn't go for the easy emotional outpouring, except when the script really gives him no choice. However, I can't help but think his nod was a way for the Academy to pat themselves on the back for paying attention to (through the painless route of watching a film) the impossible choices that many men and women who live in Hollywood's home turf face daily. So what to say at the Oscar party? Bichir was good, but better in the criminally overlooked Che, and the nomination should have gone to Ryan Gosling.