For Your Consideration: March 28, 2014

Everyone likes Diego Luna. As the Cuban boy dancing in “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”, as Harvey Milk’s lover in “Milk”, or even as the one that got away from Katy Perry in her music video, the Mexican actor/director with the boyish face and impish smile has managed to be one of the most likable actors around, even when most people have never seen him in much.  This week, however, Luna is taking American movie theaters by storm with “Cesar Chávez”, a biopic of the Mexican-American labor leader. But “Cesar Chávez” will see Luna behind the camera rather than in front of it in what is only his second directorial feature—and his first that is primarily in English. Just so you don’t get too disappointed by the prospect of not seeing Diego Luna, here are our picks to get your fix this weekend.


“Y tú mamá también” (2001)

Cast: Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna

Available streaming on Netflix Instant and Hulu

I’m not sure why, but in my head I always imagine “Y tú mamá también” as the breakthrough film for all parties involved. There’s a spontaneous energy to this coming-of-age/road-trip flick that defies those easy genre tags, and makes you feel that the filmmakers and actors, like their on-screen counterparts, were striking off into the unknown. That’s not true, of course – director Alfonso Cuarón was on his fourth feature, Verdú was already an established actress in Spain, Bernal had drawn raves for his part in Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros” the year before, and Luna had a small role in Julian Schnabel’s acclaimed “Before Night Falls.” But even if it can’t technically be called a debut, it’s a discovery for first-time viewers nonetheless. Chaotic, sexy, poignant, and the start of Emmanuel Lubezki’s lifetime love of beautiful, long tracking shots.


“Frida” (2002)

Cast: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Antonio Banderas, Valeria Golino, Diego Luna, Mía Maestro, Ed Norton

Available on disc from Netflix and on Amazon Prime

After a couple of disastrous projects (on both stage and screen), Taymor’s reputation is in need of a bit of a rehaul. Perhaps we can start by going back and revisiting one of her now increasingly under-appreciated works, her visually sumptuous and narratively lively depiction of the life of artist Frida Kahlo. It’s not exactly consistent, nor perfectly constructed, but that’s part of the appeal – Taymor is not the type to make a totally straightforward biopic. I mean, how can you object to a Day of the Dead-inspired animation sequence by the Brothers Quay in the same movie that Geoffrey Rush plays Trotsky, complete with terrible accent? You can’t fight that kind of bonkers. Taymor’s careening direction is grounded a bit by the great lead performances from Hayek and Molina – and of course don’t forget young Luna, playing Frida Kahlo’s first lover.


“Milk” (2008)

Starring: Sean Penn, Diego Luna, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Alison Pill, Victor Garber

Available on Amazon Prime 

Luna appeared only briefly in Gus van Sant’s biopic of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), but his turn as the San Francisco supervisor’s troubled lover was tender, vulnerable, and volatile—a perfect foil for Milk’s strength, compassion, and determination. Though “Chávez” has been criticized for glorifying its subject too much—a classic pitfall of biopics—“Milk” provides a fantastic counterexample of what a biopic can and should be, complex, riveting and emotional. Tracing Milk’s ascent to becoming the first openly gay to be elected to public office in America, it is a history lesson, a psychological portrait, and an acting tour de force that earned Penn his second Oscar and a first Oscar for screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. What uplifts “Milk” is that it never tries to make its hero heroic. Instead, the Harvey Milk we see is funny, flirty, kind, flawed, shrewd, and idealistic, an ordinary man in extraordinary times.


One Last Pat on the Back

First off, congrats to Best Films of Our Lives contributor Elaine Teng, who claimed victory in the Outguess Ethan 2014 contest! This was an exceptionally close year, as what seemed like an unpredictable year actually solidified into an incredibly predictable one (more on that later). So, despite nailing a personal record of 21 out of 24 categories, I couldn’t fend you all off in total points – in addition to Elaine edging me by one measly point, shout-out to Dana Kaufman (last year’s victor) for tying with me as well. Next year, I figure, I will finally predict Original Screenplay correctly – and then promptly lose every single other category.

As regards last night’s ceremony, there’s actually not much left to say regarding the winners. The logic that I used back in my predictions for the most part seemed to carry itself out – while the extraordinary technical elements of “Gravity” swept through the craft categories, the staggering weight and artistic achievement of “12 Years a Slave” was just too much to ignore when it came down to the big prize. And so “Gravity” walked away with the second-most wins ever for a film that did NOT win Best Picture (that somewhat dubious record still belonging to the eight trophies on the shelf of “Cabaret”), while “12 Years a Slave” became the first movie directed by a black man to take the top prize. Honestly, I consider that a relatively fair split between two incredible films with entirely different objectives. And after a few years of lighter, more crowd-pleasing films taking Best Picture, I believe the Academy’s affirmation of “12 Years a Slave” will go down as one of their most tasteful, foresightful picks – for all the cracks about “pandering” or “obvious” subject matter for an Oscar film, McQueen’s film is bold, challenging filmmaking, and I’m not just talking about the blunt depiction of horrific violence and cruelty. “12 Years a Slave” is a silent scream of a movie, a furious, painful open welt conveyed (rather than contained) by impeccable craft. On rare occasions, the combination of message and directorial achievement is sharp enough that not even the Academy can ignore it.

And again, say what you will about the Academy, but this year’s winners did indicate a major industry organization stumbling its way toward diversity. Alfonso Cuarón became the first Hispanic to win Best Director. Lupita Nyong’o, in far and away the best speech of the night, earned an instant standing ovation, and not because of the tokenism that seemed to hover over the wins of some past black actors – the force of her performance simply couldn’t be denied, no matter how you sliced it. 2 actors (straight, yes) won for a film about the early days of the AIDS crisis – perhaps not that revelatory to the world at large, but this is a group that couldn’t quite get with “Brokeback Mountain” less than ten years ago. John Ridley quietly became the second African-American to win one of the screenplay categories. Robert Lopez, for co-writing Original Song winner “Let It Go” with his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, became the 12th person to accomplish Tracy Jordan’s legendary EGOT perfecta. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s first black and female president, came out to declaim the organization’s bold plans for the Academy Museum, due to open in 2017.

I’m not trying to say that the game is over and there isn’t plenty of social injustice left to fight in Hollywood – Cate Blanchett, in another of the night’s frequently terrific speeches, made an impassioned call to arms for women in Hollywood, and we can only hope more producers pay attention. But in crowning, “12 Years a Slave,” Nyong’o, Ridley and Cuarón, as well as films like “Gravity” and “Her,” the Oscars, at least temporarily, seemed to be looking forward as well as backward. The selections played like a nice cross-section of what Hollywood film has been and could be.

Now, strictly in terms of the telecast, the Oscars are often in trouble when they have to rely on the awards themselves to provide the emotion and entertainment. They lucked out this year with winners both eloquent (Nyong’o, Blanchett, McQueen’s Best Picture acceptance, Spike Jonze) and humorously baffling (all right all right all right, Matthew McConaughey), but really the watchability of this year’s ceremony was no thanks whatsoever to producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The pair seemed to think that high-energy and touching performances of all four Original Song nominees (Pharrell in particular got the night off to a great start with the infectious “Happy,” almost stealing my personal vote for a minute there) gave them permission to completely check out on the rest of the ceremony. The “tribute” to “The Wizard of Oz” turned out to be nothing but a capable and trying-her-best Pink belting “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – a nice display of the pop singer’s not-inconsiderable vocal talents, but it hardly illuminated the film’s legacy or justified the wasted time. Likewise Bette Midler’s rendition of “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” which was bafflingly placed after the In Memoriam montage rather than concurrent with it, stretching that section out to interminable length and stomping on whatever energy was left in the already-dragging show. And I will defend clip packages and montages to the death (I was enthused that performance clips returned to the supporting categories this year), but they require a MUCH better theme than “Heroes,” an incredibly vague and lazy idea that resulted in the editors basically slapping together every movie from the past twenty years that had a protagonist in it.

Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t a lot of help either, unfortunately. I love Ellen to pieces, and I generally think her low-key, relaxed approach to hosting works. It makes the stars in the audience comfortable, and it’s always a good idea to get them as involved as possible – it gives us great unscripted moments like Leonardo DiCaprio’s face when offered a slice of pizza, or Lupita Nyong’o’s brother half-blocking Angelina Jolie out of a star-studded selfie. But it felt like she was short at least three bits for the night – both the pizza and Twitter running gags were mildly clever to begin with, and way overstayed their welcome. I know she’s not really the song-and-dance type, but a peppy lip-synch routine (a la the great trailer for this year’s ceremony) or something similar could’ve gone a long way to keeping the show’s pace up.

In the end, it was basically business as usual for the Oscars – an up and down ceremony, an industry dancing the line between laudatory and smug, and enough great moments to make us think, let’s do that again next year. Until then!

Take a Wild Guess

Well we’re still approximately a month away from the Oscars – the ceremony will be held on the evening of March 2nd, pushed back by a week or two from its normal slot to avoid viewership conflict with the Winter Olympics. If it were perhaps any other season, that extra time would honestly be agony, waiting and waiting for the inevitable victory of a steamroller “King’s Speech” or “Artist”-style campaign. Thankfully, the year we have some unexpected time on our hands also happens to be the most competitive and unpredictable year I’ve ever covered. The comparison going around out there is to 2000, when “Gladiator,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Traffic” took a three-way dogfight all the way to a heavily divided ceremony (in which “Gladiator” ultimately triumphed without winning a corresponding Director, Screenplay, OR Film Editing award).

And after the major guild awards, it certainly seems like we’re headed towards that kind of oddball result. The three major bodies ended up going with either a three-way, or even four-way split, depending on how you look at it: SAG unsurprisingly went with actors’ showcase “American Hustle,” the Directors opted for Alfonso Cuarón’s visionary work on “Gravity,” and the Producers couldn’t even make up their minds, splitting their top award between “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” in the organization’s first tie.

That latter result is particularly fascinating, since the PGA is the only guild that uses the same preferential voting system that the Oscars have used since expanding their Best Picture field – a system that, in theory, makes such a tie all but mathematically impossible. But there it is. Many bloggers are claiming that these past few weeks have put “Gravity” in the solid lead because it essentially got two mentions to one each for its competitors, but I’m not so sure. I’m just looking at that PGA tie and thinking it shows how divided and close this race is; there’s basically three camps in the industry (as well as those brave souls who are going to throw some votes the way of “Her”), and they seem to be about equal in size and passion.

So what does that mean? It means in the top categories this year, including Picture, Director and the Screenplay races in particular, your guess is as good as mine. The permutations are endless: do we have two years of Picture/Director split in a row? Or can McQueen and Cuarón end up sweeping their way to victory? Will the massive love in the acting categories (and a likely Original Screenplay win) leapfrog “American Hustle” over the auteurists? Or will Russell’s bullshit-and-glamor-fest walk away empty-handed, even in the acting races? It seems baffling for a film to get four nominations and no wins, but you wouldn’t call anyone from “Hustle” the front-runner in their respective category at the moment. This means there’s a lot of attention on the Brits – whoever walks away with the BAFTA on Feb. 16 (a few days before Oscar voting closes) will probably end up being my pick for Oscar as well. Right now I’d say both “12 Years” and “Gravity” have an equal shot at it, since both directors have the hometown advantage. Stay tuned!

Of course, one can’t check in on Oscar and not mention the past week’s kerfuffle in Original Song. Yes, “Alone Yet Not Alone,” that most unlikely of Oscar nominees, is now nominated yet not nominated. After one of the opposing campaigns that lost out on a nod reportedly hired a private investigator to peek into the tactics of Bruce Broughton’s obscure Christian tune, Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Academy Board of Governors took the unexpected route of disqualifying “Alone Yet Not Alone” from the Original Song race. There have been a few examples of the Academy rescinding nominations in the past, but they were all based on eligibility requirements (most famously, Nino Rota’s score for “The Godfather” was DQ’ed after it was found Rota recycled the film’s love theme from an earlier, obscure Italian film that he had also scored), making this the first case of campaign malfeasance to merit such drastic consequences.

The story is, Broughton indeed wrote personal e-mails to a large portion of Music Branch members on behalf of his entry, pointing out its number on the mix CD of clips from all eligible songs sent out to everyone in the branch (yes, Academy voting includes mix CDs as part of the official process). You might ask how this is different from “The Hurt Locker” producer Nicholas Chartier, who sent out similar e-mails on behalf of his film in early 2010, and was reprimanded simply by having his tickets to the Oscar ceremony revoked. Well, the problem is the Music Branch’s former representative on the Academy Board of Governors and a current member of its executive committee. Isaacs and the Board determined that this constituted an unfair advantage; presumably, if some third party had sent the e-mail on behalf of Broughton, everything would be hunky dory. C’est la vie.

You can talk about how “unfair” this really was compared to the inequity of studios with millions and millions of monies campaigning against a minuscule indie film that was released for about two weeks in three “Christian” markets; but really this just looks embarrassing for the Academy, considering cronyism is apparently so rampant in the Music Branch that they’ll just vote for their fearless leader’s entry because he asked. Just bad news all around, and it really seems like it’s time to either a) rehaul the Best Original Song category significantly, b) clarify campaigning rules, or c) ditch the category altogether. I would aim for a combination of a) and b) personally; perplexing as it’s been at times, looking back over the past decade, they’ve generally got it right when it mattered most. “Falling Slowly,” “The Weary Kind,” “Skyfall,” “Man or Muppet;” like it or not, those were pretty much the best options available in their respective years, and the weakness of the category overall is equal parts Academy staleness and shifts in the industry.

Plus, I mean, what are the ceremony directors going to do without song performances? Just have random tributes to whatever musical is having an anniversary this year? Oh, wait.