Three Amigos Make a Splash at Oscars

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Tres mexicanos buscan unas reliquias doradas en el sur de California…

It sounds like a movie tag-line (probably for a bad western), but for directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, it describes this Sunday evening. On that night, the directors of Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men, and Babel, respectively, will shake their sifters and find out if any of them will take home that shiny, li’l fella known as Oscar.

No Latino has won an Academy Award for best directing, but González Iñárritu has a chance with Babel, which also received a nomination for best picture. But, he doesn’t have a huge chance. Everyone seems to favor Martin Scorcese this year, finally giving the legendary cineaste a chance to take home the naked, golden guy.  Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima will give Scorcese a run for his money — and really is the more impressive film.  Babel is pseudo-interesting and must have been a feat to put together, leaping around the globe, high-mindedly illuminating the random interconnectedness of tragedy in our world. It has some great moments, particularly in Japan and Mexico, but something just felt missing. Plus, the narrative device González Iñárritu re-used from Amores Perros and 21 Grams really has to stop. It’s the same one Crash used to win best picture last year.  That will cost him — even though Babel does it better. In the best-picture category, Babel should lose to Iwo Jima, The Departed, or The Queen. I think Children of Men would have had a better chance in these categories.

As for nuestro/as actores, Penélope Cruz does great work in Almodóvar’s Volver — though it’s not her best — and she proved that she and her work will just get better with age. But now is not her time. The part is too subtle, and she’s up against a really tough best-actress field in Dame Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, and her highness Helen Mirren (who should win). Plus, in this country she’s still just a sex-pot movie star with bad taste in men. (Tom Cruise?) It will take some time for the U.S. movie public to catch up with her brilliant work in Spanish-language films. But don’t cry for her. She’ll be okay.

Mexican TV star Adriana Barraza (Babel) faces off against nigh-impossible odds in the best-supporting category. It feels like Jennifer Hudson will win for her powerhouse performance in Dreamgirls. (She should have gotten a lead actress nom, though. Didn’t they get the point of the movie?) Rinko Kikuchi does mostly great work in Babel, plus she plays a mute, and the Academy are suckers for things like that. Toss out the kid from Little Miss Sunshine because kids have an unfair advantage. Cate Blanchett is stupendous in Notes on a Scandal (and certainly made one teenage actor pero muy happy). She will win if Hudson doesn’t.  Barraza also does stunning work. She’s created a real person out of a stereotype, and the image of her staggering through the desert in a filthy red dress, smeared make-up, parched lips and on high heels is phenomenal, her interactions with the Border Patrol and immigration officers heartbreaking. But the problems for Barraza are multiple:  She’s unknown here; she plays a supporting role in a cast full of them; she doesn’t seem to “perform”; and, yes, she’s playing an undocumented, Mexican nanny, which some might think was type-casting rather than acting. I doubt she’ll pull a Hattie McDaniel.

Onto best foreign-language film.  Say ¡felicidades! to El laberinto del fauno. Ok, I haven’t seen any of the other movies nominated in this category, but I don’t care. I love Pan’s Labyrinth so much that I might go see it again today — for the third time. Del Toro’s film is gorgeous and horrible, fantastic and real. It explodes with imagination. The acting quietly kicks ass. The film is so simple and clear at first glance but holds layers of discovery that reveal themselves with each subsequent viewing. And it teaches us great things about people and our world. It fulfills the potential of cinema as an art form. And anyone who gripes that it’s “fantasy” and intended for children should have their eyes gouged out by Captain Vidal because they obviously can’t use them correctly.

That said, I give the cinematography nod to a different film — Cuarón’s Children of Men, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. It’s a tough field. All of the nominees works look great. (1940’s noir murder mystery The Black Dahlia and magician flicks The Illusionist and The Prestige round out the field.) They capture their eras well, all with rich, smooth movements. But only Lubezki’s camerawork stood out to me. I think I shrieked in glee when I realized what was happening during “the shot”. (See it, and you’ll understand.) It felt historic.

Best original screenplay will prove tough. I don’t think Babel (Guillermo Arriaga) has a chance — the dialogue doesn’t impress and the narrative device is, again, warmed-over fare.  Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro) could win for its imaginative lyricism and simple, powerful language. But does it translate for the English-only voters? Of the other films, Little Miss Sunshine (Michael Arndt) is acerbic and hilarious, while The Queen (Peter Morgan) exhibits subtle, complex, high-level writing — you know, British. Letters from Iwo Jima (Iris Yamashita with Paul Haggis) is the most literary and epic and weaves actual letters into the script. (Plus, she wrote it in Japanese.)  The Mexicans will probably miss out here.

But both Babel and Children of Men stand a chance for editing, and I’d like to see Babel take it. The quick cuts among stories refuse to coddle the audience and really serve the message of the film. But rumor has it that United 93 could win. (Blood Diamond and The Departed round out the category.)

In music, Javier Navarrete created a magical, memorable, lullaby-themed score for Pan’s Labyrinth, but he faces tough competition in legendary Philip Glass (Notes on a Scandal), The Queen’s Alexandre Desplat, Thomas Newman (The Good German), and Babel’s Gustavo Santaolalla (though I hardly noticed the last).

The remaining Latin nominations:
Pan’s Labyrinth for Makeup
Pan’s Labyrinth for Art Direction
Children of Men for Adapted Screenplay
Éramos pocos for Live Action Short Film
Recycled Life for Best Documentary Short

(And a special shout-out to my boy Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.)

Out of the 17 major nominations for Latin/Hispanic films, however, the only one not pertaining to Mexico or Spain actually belongs to the USA. (Though Recycled Life investigates people living in a huge trash dump in Guatemala and is narrated by Edward James Olmos, it was directed by U.S. director Leslie Iwerks.) And both Babel and Children of Men treat decidedly international topics. Other Latin Americans also make great film. Perhaps the Academy will recognize some of their work next year.

As for the three Mexicans, ¿Encontrarán el oro elusivo? ¿O sufrirán a las manos del destino?