Alfonso Cuaron is one of Mexico’s most important filmmakers. He welcomes humor into his tragedies, sometimes turning what could otherwise be depress-fests into pitch-black larks. His long takes and Steadicam shots are often marvelous and enthralling — and rarely self-indulgent. Cuaron’s best films make bravura camerawork and technical virtuosity essential to narrative and structure. Nothing in a Cuaron film feels forced…well, almost nothing.
After almost two decades of usurping cinematic norms and dismantling the Hollywood institution one long-take at a time, Cuaron finally nabbed a Best Director statue for his worst movie. “Gravity” isn’t bad per se — it’s a technical marvel, impeccably directed and arguably the most important mainstream science-fiction film since Kubrick’s “2001.” It made the first compelling argument in favor of 3D since… well, ever. Cuaron crafts a visually and aurally astounding experience, but it’s an emotionally hollow vehicle intended to further the possibilities of 3D at the expense of themes, idea, characters, emotions — you know, all those things Cuaron used to care about. If you’re the kind of person who would willingly see a post-“Hail Mary” Godard film, think of “Gravity” as the antithesis of “Goodbye to Language.” Godard’s movie is a formal experiment in sensory manipulation. Cuaron’s film, on the (very distant) other hand, immerses you, envelopes you like a magnanimous, tar-black ocean and suffocates you.
But once you get over that initial adrenaline-fueled high, you can see the vast nothingness at the film’s core. A genuinely great film, even one “made” for the big screen, should be able to work on a small screen, if there’s more to it than simple visceral excitement. “2001,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Playtime,” all work on a TV because they transcend visual grandeur. “Gravity” doesn’t. It’s a 21st-century reincarnation of Cinerama, a pretty but pretty superficial gimmick.
6. “Great Expectations” (1998)
As visually-striking as it is uneventful, Cuaron’s gorgeous but placated reimagining of Dickens’ classic feels like a beautiful painting of a boring scene. Ethan Hawke is fine as Finn (Pip in the book), as is Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella, but there’s something missing here; Cuaron fails to find the lurking tragedy in the story. Cuaron has since said that he didn’t enjoy making the film, and a perceptive viewer should be able to notice how his singular voice really doesn’t sing out here like it does in many of his other films.
5. “Solo Con Tu Pareja” aka “Love in the Time of Hysteria” (1991)
Cuaron made his formidable presence known with his debut feature, which played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1992 but took another 14 years to make it to America. It’s a good little film, well-acted by all and laced with Cuaron’s still-evolving wicked sense of humor: Tomas Tomas (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a young yuppie with a seemingly insatiable lust for young women, screws (over) the wrong nurse, who in turn falsely tells him he has AIDS. His life, which was already spinning out of control, subsequently takes a series of strange turns. It might seem insensitive, but Cuaron has actually crafted a lacerating satire of Mexico’s misguided anti-AIDS campaign (which lent the film its title, which literally translates to “Only With Your Partner”). All of the facets of Cuaron’s signature style are evident here — lush photography that oscillates between claustrophobic interiors and sun-steeped exteriors; playful camera movement; witty wordplay and bickering; sex — though “Solo Con Tu Pareja” admittedly feels a bit light compared to his other movies.
4. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004)
Take note, Francis Lawrence: this is how to you translate a massively popular YA novel into a massively popular blockbuster. When Cuaron signed up to helm “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” in the wake of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” stupid people were worried that he was going to turn the beloved book into a magical sexcapade. Instead, he delivered a masterpiece of style and pure, unadulterated fun that almost makes one forget the bitter disappointment of Chris Columbus’ two stinkers. Imbued with Cuaron’s wry sense of humor, the compositions, mise-en-scene and lensing all work in tandem to set up visual jokes that keep the adults satiated while the kiddies are beguiled by Harry’s misadventures. It’s easily the most playful Potter entry, with its eccentric transitions and Brothers Grimm-channeling sense of excitement, from carnivorous books to a garrulous old woman bloated-up and blown away like a fleshy balloon. Sure, these moments are taken straight from Rowling’s book, but Cuaron and cinematographer Michael Seresin (who’s had a really strange, eclectic career) extrapolate and accentuate the jokes — from the outrageous fonts and layouts of the wizard newspapers to the willing insolence towards Potter-verse continuity in favor of pure entertainment. It’s not as emotionally rich as the two “Deathly Hollows,” but no other Potter film is as much of a personal statement. Cuaron, with his wandering camera and keen sense of timing, makes the abundance of CGI work in his favor; instead of aging the film, the copious digital effects add to the child-like sense of awe. Plus, the great Gary Oldman and David Thewlis are both at the top of their game, especially in their brief time together on-screen.
3. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001)
Cuaron returned to Mexico to helm what would become his breakout feature, a lewd but affectionate coming-of-age sex comedy about two perpetually horny young men, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna). The duo are close enough friends that they can lounge on swimming pool diving boards and jerk off while carrying on a conversation (a scene that’s capped-off with an unflinching pay-off shot). Together they embark on a road trip with a young married woman (Maribel Verdu). Cuaron and Lubezki forgo the lush camerawork and vibrant colors of their other efforts and instead rely on banal but practical long takes, which allow us to concentrate on the performances and dialogue (though English-speakers still have to read the copious dialogue via subtitles, unfortunately, as it comes fast and furiously). Mingling fart jokes with graphic sex and earnest conversations about boys, girls, and that unbridgeable chasm of adolescence, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” went on to become one of the most important films in the modern history of Mexican cinema.
2. “A Little Princess” (1995)
Foreshadowing the kind of fantastical story-within-a-tragedy Tarsem Singh would employ a decade later in his visually excessive “The Fall,” Cuaron’s second feature ranks as one of the great fairy tale adaptations. Few films feel truly magical, but this one pulls it off with its story of a young girl named Sara (cherubic-faced Liesel Matthews) who moves into a boarding home for girls and must endure the torment of the cankerous, despicable Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) — a woman so callous and selfish she makes Miss Hannigan seem saintly by comparison. Lubezki’s radiant photography captures that feeling of a world at once familiar yet foreign, an otherworldly realm of dark greens, long, eerie hallways and old staircases twisting up into forlorn attics unfit for house pets, let alone little girls. Cuaron has fun with visual motifs (likening the iris-in opening shot of a prince to Sara peering through a keyhole and seeing her beloved doll) and treats the material earnestly without delving into anything too self-serious. Cuaron has an uncanny grasp of the ephemeral feeling of childhood. While it may not receive the same level of recognition, “A Little Princess” belongs to the same special breed of fantasy as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and Cocteau’s “Beauty and Beast.”
The paragon of Cuaron’s myriad talents, “Children of Men” is a monumental cinematic achievement. This utterly bleak, cryptic depiction of the future still retains an inkling of Cuaron’s singular humor: Consider the brief respite from gravitas near the end, when Owen exits the bullet-ravaged building and slowly walks through the gray concrete carrion of a war-torn city as everyone momentarily pauses to watch him walk by, the soliders all adhering to a sudden, inexplicable cease-fire. Then a single shot cuts through the silence and the all-out gunfire starts back up again, unperturbed, as if nothing happened. It’s a brilliant, ballsy bit of levity in the thickest moment of dramatic tension. A lesser, more fearful filmmaker might hesitate, muff up the excruciatingly precise timing necessary to pull this trick off or just eschew it altogether. But Cuaron settles for nothing less than maintaining a daring tonal balance all the way through. It’s the minute details that make “Children of Men” such a masterful achievement.