Auteur of the Week: Alfonso Cuarón

I really love Alfonso Cuarón. He’s filmed a couple of my all-time favorite movies. I’ve seen all but one of his feature-length films. The one I haven’t seen is his debut feature film, Sólo con tu pareja, so I won’t be talking about that one. What I love so much about Cuarón is that he’s done an interesting variety of films. I think each one of his films is different from the other, but at the same time they all share Cuarón’s distinctive directorial style.

He was born Alfonso Cuarón Orozco on November 28, 1961 in Mexico City. He studied Philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico as well as filmmaking at Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos. While there he me cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who he would later collaborate with many times. While there they made his first short film, Vengeance is mine. However, the film was shot in English and Cuarón was expelled from the school. He then worked in television for years before making his first feature film, the 1991 sex comedy Sólo con tu pareja. The film was a big hit in Mexico and so impressed Sydney Pollack, he hired Cuarón to direct an episode of the short-lived Showtime show Fallen Angels. His first international success was 1995’s A Little Princess.

I really love this film. I saw it in theaters when it first came out and I was blown away. It is just so beautifully shot. Cuarón collaborated again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who had also worked with him on his first feature film. Lubezki was up for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on this film.

And for good reason. The film is full of lush scenes and I think Lubezki’s work is an integral part of Cuarón’s vision as a filmmaker. The film was also nominated for Best Art Direction.

There’s just so many wonderful shots in this film and the story is told so well. It is so much more than just a “family film,” a genre that is full of a lot of crap films. I think it really established Cuarón as a promising filmmaker with an impeccable eye.

His next feature film was 1998’s Great Expectations. Again Cuarón worked with Lubezki and the film has a similar lush feel to it. The film featured an all-star cast – Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert DeNiro, Chris Cooper, Hank Azaria and Anne Bancroft. Although it received mixed reviews, the performances, especially DeNiro’s and Bancroft’s, were praised. I don’t think it’s near as great as his other films, but it is in no way a bad film. I think the film’s worst fault is its screenplay; it starts off strong, but the end of the film pales in comparison with the beginning.

When I first saw 2001’s Y tu mamá también, I was a freshman in college and I’d never seen anything like it. I mean, I’d seen plenty of R-rated films, for sure. But I don’t think I’d ever seen anything as overtly graphic with its portrayal of sexuality. And I will admit I was really shocked by it. After a repeat viewing, however, when I was older, I liked it a lot more. The performances from the three leads – Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal and Maribel Verdú – are extraordinary. Again Cuarón worked with Lubezki. This time he also co-wrote the screenplay, with his brother Carlos Cuarón. The film was extremely well received and Alfonso and Carlos were nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards that year.

Cuarón then was picked to helm the third installment in the Harry Potter franchise – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Working on the film marked his first departure from Lubezki, instead working with Michael Seresin.

Although some Harry Potter purists did not like Cuarón’s take on the story, the film was critically received much better than the two previous films and J. K. Rowling said it was her favorite film adaptation up to that point.

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Score – John Williams and Best Visual Effects, although it lost both awards.

I remember at the time liking it a lot more than the previous films, although I will admit at this point I didn’t link Alfonso Cuarón with his previous films, and had yet to see Y tu mamá también. To be honest, I didn’t connect Cuarón to all of these films into 2006, when he directed what I believe to be his greatest film, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

I thought David Thewlis was absolutely brilliant as Remus Lupin. His performance in this film is one of my favorites from the whole Harry Potter franchise.

I feel I must admit I’ve yet to read any of the Harry Potter books (I know, I know) and by the time I’d seen this film I’d decided to wait until they are all finished before reading them so I won’t nit-pick the films. That being said, all of my opinions are based on the films being films and not in comparison to the books. Which brings me to Emma Thompson, who I loved in this film. She was so kooky and wonderful and over-the-top. I thought she was a great addition to the characters from the previous films.

Lastly, I have to talk about how much I love Gary Oldman. He is just too wonderful in everything he does. I think, as far as Harry Potter films go, his best performance was in this film. I attribute this partly to his character’s role in this part of the story and partly to Alfonso Cuarón’s ability to get really wonderful performances out of everyone he works with.

Not only do I think 2006’s Children of Men is Cuarón’s greatest film, I also think it’s one of the best films of the last decade and of all-time. It is a masterpiece from start to finish. I saw it in theaters twice and after I saw it the first time all I could think was “holy shit.” There have been few films I’ve seen in theaters that left me so completely speechless, but this film most definitely did. This film is Cuarón’s most highly acclaimed film and was placed on several Top Ten lists of 2006, including the #3 spot of Roger Ebert’s list. It also was named  the #2 film of the decade by Peter Travers of Rolling Stone Magazine. I really love what Travers wrote about this film:

I thought director Alfonso Cuarón’s film of P.D. James’ futuristic political-fable novel was good when it opened in 2006. After repeated viewings, I know Children of Men is indisputably great… No movie this decade was more redolent of sorrowful beauty and exhilarating action. You don’t just watch the car ambush scene (pure camera wizardry) — you live inside it. That’s Cuarón’s magic: He makes you believe.

I could not agree more with him, except I thought the film was great from my very first viewing.

I can’t talk about this film without mentioning that one long shot towards the end of the film. Cuarón  once again re-teamed with Lubezki and the result is one of the single greatest and most perfectly shot scenes in all of cinematic history. The film landed the #2 spot on the American Society of Cinematographers list of the greatest shot films from 1998-2008. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing – Alfonso Cuarón and Alex Rodríguez and Best Adapted Screenplay – Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby. I really think this film should have been nominated for Best Picture and Director and Actor – Clive Owen. I think Universal did a piss-poor job marketing this film and an even worse job campaigning it come Oscar season. I don’t think they knew that they had such a great film on their hands and thus treated it appallingly.

Although he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 2004’s Closer, I think his performance in this film is by and far Clive Owen’s greatest performance. The air of tragedy that surrounds his every move in the film is heartbreaking. Owen is one of those actors that attacks his roles with insane intensity and I love that about him. He also performs with his entire body as well as with his face. There are entire scenes wherein the main action is Owen’s face and really he does more with a few seconds of his silent eyes and mouth than some actors do in their entire careers.

Michael Caine gives are really zany performance in this film as well. It’s perhaps my favorite from him. His character has such a lust for life, even though the world around him is crumbling. There’s also a wonderful gravity to his performance. Caine is one of the greatest actors of his, or any, generation and he really shines under Cuarón’s deft direction.

Clare-Hope Ashitey gives a luminous performance as Kee, the first woman to be pregnant in over 18 years. It’s a shame she hasn’t done much since this film. She’s got great screen presence and Cuarón captures it masterfully.

It’s a shame that Danny Huston is only in the film for about 5 minutes because he is one of my favorite character actors. He’s delightfully serene amongst the film’s chaotic core. He and Owen play off of  each other well and the scene in which he is featured contains some of my favorite art direction in the film.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is also wonderful in this film. He plays his character with such perfectly crafted urgency. I think this film really demonstrates Cuarón’s ability to get such an amazing range of emotions out of each and every one of his actors. Each actor brings such a  different energy to the film. In lesser hands having such conflicting energies could have been discordant, but Cuarón manages to blend them all together seamlessly.

Lastly, I want to talk about Cuarón’s segment in the 2007 film Paris, je t’aime. Cuarón re-teamed with cinematographer Michael Seresin to shoot the segment, written by Cuarón, that features  Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier. The entire segment was shot in one continuous shot. Although it’s not quite as breathtaking as the shot in Children of Men, it is quite impressively done. The story is sweet and Nick Nolte’s performance is surprisingly tender. It’s definitely one of the best segments in the film.

His next film as a director is entitled Gravity. I haven’t been able to find any information on the film’s plot or when it is due to be released. Know Cuarón, though, I’m sure it will be nothing short of amazing. If you’re interested in buying any of Cuarón’s film, you can do so here.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on July 6, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. We’ve discussed my first viewing of Y tu mama tambien, right? Just out of high school, at a museum, projected onto a wall, surrounded by rich old people. So awkward, but the movie was wonderful enough to override that.

    I haven’t seen Great Expectations or his first film, but I’m a person, with a heart and eyes, so I love everything else he’s done. Let’s watch A Little Princess again next time we’re together.

    • Great Expectations is probably his weakest film, but I blame the screenplay and not his directing for that, because the performance and stylization of the film are all wonderful.

      and YES. I love A Little Princess so freaking much.

  2. A Little Princess was amazing. I had seen the version done in the early 20th century and had read the book when I was a child but this version was way way above what had been done before. Loved it so much.

    I also liked the Prisoner of Azkaban very very much. I saw it with my husband and some friends at the local theater and when I admitted that I had not read the books, two of my friends looked at me like I was crazy. In fact, the next day one of them showed up with his kids (I was babysitting) and a copy of the first book. It only took me 2 weeks to read all the books and it was this movie which made me want to read them.

    I saw Children of Men under less than perfect circumstances and need to see it again I think. This reviewer has convinced me. (Not the first time.)

    Nice article – as always.

  3. Hahaha, I think I have the same reaction you had upon watching Children of Men. I was sooooo in awe of that movie the first time I saw it, that I dragged my mother and aunt to watch it a second time.

    At the moment, it’s ranked #2 on my Top10 just behind Dancer in the Dark.

    What can I say… I like my bleak movies xD

  4. Love Children of Men, been a while since I’ve watched…..reading this makes me want to watch immediately

  1. Pingback: 2.25 – HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004) and Transformation – Kaiju FM

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