Alfonso Cuarón is the Mexican-born director who finally won an Oscar for his groundbreaking work on the movie Gravity (aka, the one movie people ponied up the extra dough to see in 3D without feeling embarrassed about). Before that, though, and even before his masterpiece Children of Men, he was a visionary filmmaker with a body of work worth visiting for anyone unfamiliar with his past films.
A Little Princess (1995)
A Little Princess is Cuarón’s first American film, an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name. Even though the movie was considered something of a flop at the time, not even making back its meager budget of $17 million at the box office, it was really well-received by the critics. Even today, it’s a classic among some households. If you have a friend who still has some VHS tapes in a clamshell case, A Little Princess might be among the collection.
The entire movie is worth watching if only for its great ending. Even if the whole movie sucked (it doesn’t), it would be worth it for how well-staged and executed the ending is.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s always-goregous cinematography was nominated for an Academy Award, as was art direction and set design. Not bad for a first film for a foreign director, eh?
Great Expectations (1998)
In a 2013 interview, Cuarón said that he regretted making Great Expectations because of the horrible experience he had during its production. Great Expectations is one of those 90s movies that adapts is a classic novel or play and sets it in modern times, with the plot largely unchanged, except that it’s populated with newer pop songs. But… it’s hard not to have an affinity for it. However you react to it will depend almost entirely on how you feel about Ethan Hawke. Me? I like Ethan Hawke, but I also sort of hate him–it’s a complicated love/hate relationship. He’s a fine actor, but goddamnit he’s got a punchable face.
Some of Cuarón’s trademarks were being flushed out. In one scene, there is a fantastic single-take that begins in an art gallery and flows around inside, before heading down the street, to a restaurant, for a romantic kiss in the rain.
The supporting cast has Robert De Niro (this was before he totally stopped giving a shit), Anne Bancroft and Gwyneth Paltrow is Pip’s–er, uh, Finn’s love interest.
If I have an overly negative thing to say about Great Expectations, it’s that Ethan Hawke’s paintings fucking suck and it’s hard to pretend he’d find success with those ugly-ass things.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Y Tu Mamá También was Alfonso Cuarón’s first great movie made with an adult audience in mind. For every bit the movie A Little Princess is just about a perfect movie for kids, Y Tu Mamá También is perfect for the age of confusion when you’re too young to be a child, but way too immature to be anything close to an adult. It’s all about the sexual confusion and frustration in that age where you’re expected to get your shit together, but you would rather smoke pot with a buddy and talk about girls you want to fuck.
When this movie first came out, it was the center of a lot of discussion and controversy for its rather frank and straightforward depiction of its sex scenes. Rarely sexy, the act itself is shown for what it is, usually as an awkward meeting of bodies with the express intent to find pleasure. Later, maturity begins to develop and an emotional connection is made an associated with the act.
Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal star as the two young friends on a road trip with the older woman played by Maribel Verdú. Since this is a road trip movie, it’s a movie about a lot of self-discovery–all three characters learn a lot about themselves, and the ending is so perfectly bittersweet.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Out of all the Harry Potter movies, The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite. The first two were a great introduction to the world that Harry Potter and his friends live in, but the third entry is the first one to really have emotional depth and explore what it’s like to actually grow up there, to suffer from the pains of puberty in Hogwarts. It even begins with a funny little visual gag mirroring masturbation. The rest of the series of movies, while always fun and entertaining, seemed more focused on simply telling the story that the book had gone over.
The Prisoner of Azkaban was also the first Harry Potter movie to not be directed by Christopher Columbus and it showed what the movies were capable of, with a complete shift in visual style. The Dementors are still some of the coolest special effects that these movies showcased and they’re a legitimately terrifying-looking creature.
Gary Oldman joined the cast and this was in the days where when he popped up in something, it was a real treat, because he brings a lunacy and a special something to his performance.
Children of Men (2006)
There aren’t enough words that can accurately describe how much I love Children of Men that don’t sound hyperbolic or like top-shelf, $10 words to just reiterate that it’s “great.” Children of Men is Cuarón’s masterpiece. Everything he had learned about the filmmaking technique culminated in this… this post-apocalyptic tale of desperation and hope, and of finding redemption in the least-likely of all places.
Howard Hawks once described a great film as being a film which contained three great scenes, and no bad ones. Children of Men’s three great scenes would be:
- The single-take scene in the car that ends with our characters being ambushed. It’s a work of beauty.
- Any scene, really, with Michael Caine as Jasper, the old stoner and voice of reason for Clive Owen’s character Theo. But, if it had to be pegged down to just one, it’d be that character’s tragic, but still badass, death scene.
- The climactic battle scene, the “all hell has broken lose” scene all done in one seemingly long take that whisks us through a prison landscape and to a dilapidated building under fire. It’s a thing of total beauty.
If there were some weird, hypothetical scenario where I could only watch one Cuarón movie again, it’d be Children of Men. No question.
Not without its faults, Gravity is an exercise in just pure tension. From the beginning to the end, it never lets up. Space is a terrifying setting to begin with, but to pit the protagonist against the cold, indifferent dangers of space with such endless plot inventions of struggle is a fantastic way to fuck with the audience.
Though Gravity stars two A-listers (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), and it was a special effects extravaganza, with great 3D design, it’s still surprising to me how successful it was–making over $700 million worldwide at the box office and winning multiple Oscars–because it’s a largely dialogue-less film with only one character present for most of the action.
Most of the science in the film doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but none of that shit matters. What Gravity is, what it sets out to be, is a campaign of nonstop suspense to make the audience watching it feel slightly ill by the time the movie ends. And it’s masterfully done. Apparently, most of the effects are achieved through digital animation, but it looks gorgeous. It looks like you’re actually watching actors struggle against the elements just outside of Earth’s atmosphere, with the planet looming below as a cruel reminder of the safety that used to exist for them. Little things like gravity will never be taken for granted again.
Final Ranking (in order from my most to least favorite)
Children of Men
Y Tu Mamá También
A Little Princess
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban