Like his fellow “Three Amigos” Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu is unafraid to push the emotional and thematic envelope—in his case, by submitting the mostly ordinary people that inhabit his films to the most extraordinary tests of character. From the precipitous, interlocking tragedies of “Amores Perros” (2000), “21 Grams” (2003), and “Babel” (2006) to the uncompromising auteurist vision of “The Revenant” (2015), Iñárritu resists ingratiating himself to audiences, so much so that his oeuvre has been described as misery pornography.
Whether or not you agree with the kudos he’s amassed in the 15 years since his first feature, it’s undeniable that the director aims for, and achieves, a level of on-screen intensity rare in current cinema, particularly with regard to performances. (Even without Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s expected to add to the total next month, Iñárritu’s films have so far earned eight Oscar nominations in acting categories alone.) Exerting imperious control over minute details, the filmmaker puts his sprawling casts through the wringer, and inevitably draws out of them dramatic feats we had not known they could do.
It was a bit of a departure, then, when Iñárritu opened 2014’s Venice Film Festival with “Birdman”—a flashy backstage drama that was a soft lob to the showbiz-loving hearts of Academy voters, who later awarded the film Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography. Feigning a single, uninterrupted take as it chases Michael Keaton’s superhero franchise veteran through the bowels of a New York theater, “Birdman” may be sleeker and more crowd-pleasing than the director’s other work, but accommodating it is not: like its director, the film revels in creative freedom even as it acknowledges the depths of woe from which art is often born. —Anne Thompson and Matt Brennan
The third and last of Iñárritu’s “We Are All Connected, Anyhow” films, “Babel” is emotionally bombastic and brutal, the kind of filmmaking AGI wanted to divorce himself from with “Birdman.” The ripples of consequence sparked by split-second decisions affect four sets of individuals in the US, Mexico, Japan and Morocco, where the story begins with two brothers fiddling with a gun that ends up firing off at a bus of tourists including Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, who’s hit in the shoulder. Meantime, Rinko Kikuchi was deservedly Oscar-nominated for playing adventurously prurient deaf teenager Chieko, who’s the center of gravity in the film’s most arresting sequence, flying high on ecstasy in a Tokyo nightclub. Also Oscar-nominated, Adriana Barraza is a desperate nanny illegally living in the US who makes the very bad decision to bring the kids (belonging to Blanchett and Pitt’s characters) to a wedding back in Mexico. All of this goes horribly, horribly wrong of course but the film ultimately earns its heart without being sentimental: in the tender scene that follows, the camera pans out from Chieko, alone and naked to the world in her father’s arms on her balcony, to the vast expanse of the city of Tokyo. —Ryan Lattanzio
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”(2014)
Unlike the rigors of all his other films, for Alejandro
González Iñárritu shooting “Birdman” was “a joy.” When the filmmaker turned 50,
his examination of his life and psyche led him to collaborate with a team of
writers on this sharp show business comedy that skewers Hollywood’s obsession
with superheroes as it reveals the psychological pitfalls of the creative
process. The director and D.P. Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (“Gravity”)
took the logistical and aesthetic risk of shooting the film in a series of long
single takes that give the illusion of one continuous shot. They elaborately planned and rehearsed on a Los Angeles soundstage
encompassing the Broadway theater where Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is
directing and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.
From the start, we can see that our recovering superhero is
holding onto a fragile thread during previews leading up to opening night as he
tries to deal with the loss of one actor, replaced by another, more headstrong
talent (Edward Norton)—who is breaking up with the play’s leading lady (Naomi
Watts) as he flirts with Thomson’s daughter and assistant, Sam (Emma Stone), herself fresh from rehab. Needless to say, this does nothing to settle down Thomson,
whose producer/lawyer (Zach Galifianakis) is right to be worried about him.
Neither does the news that his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), who is another
costar, tells him she’s pregnant. He tells his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) that he’s
hearing a voice in his head telling him what to do—it’s Birdman, the mighty
winged superhero he played in a huge Hollywood franchise (not unlike Keaton’s
Right away, we’re thrown into a giddy maelstrom of Steadicam
shots, temporal disjunctions and percussive drumming alternating with stage
readings and performances, intimately quiet scenes, a wrestling match and
heated conversations at the bar next door with the intimidating newspaper
critic (Lindsay Duncan) who has the power to ruin everything. This radical
departure, originally intended as an experimental art film, is piercing, dark,
exhilarating, hilarious and entertaining, and earned four Oscars,
including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography. —Anne Thompson
“21 Grams,” which refers to the supposed weight we lose as our souls escape our bodies when we die, represents an artist finding himself and perhaps going overboard in the process in this tensely melodramatic meditation on mortality. For his second feature, Iñárritu once again follows a trio of storylines that intersect. But this time, the narrative is much more chopped up and shuffled (to sometimes dubious effect) as the fates of three people of varying social and economic backgrounds collide after a tragic accident. When once salvation was within their grasp, it is replaced by a woeful melancholy and a sense that no one can take anything for granted in their lives. Relief is provided by a gifted cast led by a trio of actors who make this grueling wallow in utter misery worth the effort and compels us to care for their characters.
Benicio Del Toro is an over-enthusiastic born-again ex-con and recovering alcoholic who can barely contain his raging demons after causing a fatal catastrophe. Naomi Watts credits her stable family life for keeping her junkie urges at bay until all that she loves is destroyed and she dissolves into a walking open wound. An unusually subdued Sean Penn is a math prof whose ailing heart is about to give out, until he becomes a reluctant beneficiary of the accident and begins to stalk Watts out of guilt and curiosity. While the splintered editing intrudes upon the path of their building emotions, the leads make sure we feel their unbearable sadness of being even as Iñárritu overreaches in his efforts to make a grand metaphysical statement. But Rodrigo Prieto’s handheld camerawork and grainy, washed-out images help to break down the barriers while keeping viewers constantly on edge. Flawed though it might be, “21 Grams” is a necessary step in the right direction, and allowed Iñárritu to show his skill with Hollywood-vetted actors. —Susan Wloszczyna
“Amores Perros” (2000)
Iñárritu’s first film might also be his toughest, a Mexico City-set crime drama that plunges into the world of dogfighting in the urban jungle. “Amores Perros,” a foreign language Oscar nominee in 2001, is bloody and exciting and full of life, pronouncing the arrival of a truly exciting independent filmmaker full of sound and fury. Iñárritu would never again be as angry as he was writing and directing these three violently interlocking tales concerning a car accident: Gael Garcia Bernal as a working-class dogfighter in love with his brother’s wife, a supermodel and her boyfriend whose dog is stuck in their floorboards and, gliding over all, a vagrant hitman who struggles to reconnect with his daughter. While “Amores Perros” certainly has the rugged swagger of a first-time independent filmmaker, you have to admire his bravado. —RL
“The Revenant” (2015)
Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (who also collaborates with Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuaron), had practiced extended long shots during “Birdman,” but this frontier actioner marked another order of magnitude in terms of epic scale and budget ($135 million). The filmmaker starts building a dream of a movie in his head before he puts his departments and cast together and painstakingly plans the production, which in this case was shot on harsh wintry locations in Alberta and Tierra del Fuego. The virtually all-exterior revenge adventure could have completely fallen apart without a very specific road map based on extensive rehearsals and intricately executed camera moves in an hour-and-a-half of natural light per day. This was tough on the actors, who had to find their characters while moving in perfect sync with Lubezki’s pre-choreographed new Alexa cameras. Very Malick with minimal dialogue and dreamy voiceovers, the movie required bearded Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy as 19th-century fur trappers hunted by Native Americans to haul their cold bodies through snow, across rugged terrain on horseback, and in and out of icy water. In this stunning visual tone poem about frontier survival accompanied by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s haunting score, DiCaprio delivers a quiet, athletic performance that could finally win him his Oscar.—AT
Iñárritu’s quietest film, sans the miserabilist gimmicks of his first three features and the preening self-assurance of “Birdman,” begins, aptly enough, with a whisper. As Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a single father and counterfeiter in Barcelona, sets his affairs in order—he’s been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer—the volume scarcely rises above a mournful hush; the film’s most powerful moment, in fact, comes enveloped in silence. “Biutiful” is no less punishing, in emotional terms, than the director’s other work, filled with characters living and dying along the modern world’s ragged edge, but Bardem’s formidable, Oscar-nominated performance clutches Uxbal’s resistance to the fates so tight that even Iñárritu’s taste for sudden tragedies can’t erase his protagonist’s agency. Scruffy and straightforward, “Biutiful” may lack the visual and narrative fireworks of the other titles on this list, but it remains the filmmaker’s most honest treatment of life’s unhappy accidents, in part because it refuses, mercifully, to play God.—Matt Brennan