4. “A Little Princess” (1995)
Cuarón’s personal favorite of his films (at least as of 2013, though it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that “Roma” has overtaken it since), a live-action fairy tale like “A Little Princess” might seem to be a hard left turn for a director whose only previous feature was a very morbid comedy about the AIDS crisis. But the beauty of this unexpected children’s film is in how the project actually plays to his strengths, revealing many of them for the first time.
A hyper-imaginative but delightfully old-fashioned adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel of the same name, “A Little Princess” may be far removed from Cuarón’s personal experience, but it’s touched with so much of his wonder and humanity. Starring Liesel Matthews (the heiress of the Hyatt Hotels fortune!) as Sara Crewe, a wealthy and wide-eyed pre-teen girl whose father leaves her at a New York boarding school when he goes off to fight in World War I, this whimsical adventure is a coming-of-age tale that carves out a special world from inside the one we know.
The story isn’t particularly fresh — Miss Minchin’s school is filled with all the usual archetypes, from the evil headmistress to the prissy students and the black scullery maid who’s in desperate need of some magic — but Cuarón proves just how much splendor and suspense he’s able to conjure from thin air (and a few incredible set). Confined to the scale of a child’s existence, which is often no bigger than a house and a few blocks in any direction, he creates an infinite playground where kids can be anything they want, and all women are princesses. Not only does the film’s heightened design capture the sheer curiosity of being young, but its regular flights of fancy also convey the relentlessly hopeful way that kids think.
Speaking to his young audience with the clarity of someone who never really grew up, Cuarón readily admits that it’s a cruel and nasty world out there. But, for neither the first nor the last time, he finds real grace in his characters’ refusal to become cruel and nasty, themselves. No wonder Warner Bros. wanted him for “The Prisoner of Azkaban.”
3. “Roma” (2018)
Ranking art can be a fun way of contextualizing a span of time or a body of work, but it’s a ludicrous task when it comes to a movie like “Roma,” Cuarón’s ravishing achievement, which requires repeat viewings to fully appreciate. Once may have been plenty for “Gravity,” but it’s not enough for this; there’s more guilt, nostalgia, love, anger, and raw audiovisual data packed into a single tracking shot in “Roma” than there is in many entire movies. At once the most formally astounding and emotional thing that Cuarón has ever made, the filmmaker’s magnum opus so flattens the distance between what it’s doing and how it’s doing it that you might need a lifetime to extricate the ideas it provokes from the feelings it leaves you.
Or maybe the sly magic of this one-of-a-kind memory play is that it’s so much simpler than it seems. At heart, “Roma” tells the story of an indigenous Mexican woman named Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, whose face reflects decades of feeling in every shot), a fictionalized version of the domestic worker who lived with and worked for Cuarón’s upper-middle-class Mexico City family when he was a child. Cleo looks after the kids, escapes to the movies, gets impregnated by her karate-loving crush, and wanders through an increasingly tragic whirlwind of experiences against the unsettled backdrop of the early ’70s. She lives just outside of the main house, but “Roma” patiently traces her true distance from it, as Cuarón combines the social-realism of early Fellini with the carnivalesque dreaminess of late Fellini. Even the film’s unspoken title, which alludes to the neighborhood in which it’s set, leads us back to the flamboyant Italian auteur.
And yet, there’s something so pure and sacrosanct about Cleo that Robert Bresson might emerge as Cuarón’s greatest influence; for all the love the director obviously has for his heroine (and for the woman who inspired her), the donkey from “Au Hasard Balthazar” might be the last movie character who’s suffered through so much with such dignity. As the credits appear, it’s hard to tell if “Roma” was patronizing, profound, or some unknowable combination of the two. After just one screening, the only thing that was clear to me was that I immediately wanted to watch it again.
2. “Y tu Mamá También” (2001)
Has any film more vividly captured the difference between how little something matters to you now, versus how much it mattered to you then? This is the last of the many feelings that Cuarón’s oversexed road trip leaves you with, and perhaps the hardest of them all to shake. It’s the infinite narcissism of youth that keeps Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) in the present tense — that allows them to live in the moment at hand. It’s the gift of obliviousness, and it can only be received by kids who are going to waste it.
A film that hinged on Cuarón and Lubezki unlearning all the tricks they had picked up during their first stint in Hollywood, “Y Tu Mamá También” is endowed with the primitive horniness of its affluent and carefree teenage leads, but told with the wisdom and the distance of someone who’s grown up and gained a little perspective. The chemistry between old friends Bernal and Luna is completely alive on the screen, and the competitiveness that builds across their road trip to the “Heaven’s Mouth” beach they’ve invented for their beautiful older passenger (Maribel Verdú) paves the way for a tender but damning critique of upper-class insensitivity.
After watching “Roma,” it’s almost irresistibly tempting to see the film as a nascent expression of the guilt that Cuarón has lived with since coming of age and achieving some greater degree of clarity. This feeling is front and center during the monotone asides, in which the narrator flatly alludes to grim happenings beyond the frame, like a migrant worker who gets hit by a bus, his unclaimed body causing an inconvenient traffic jam. When national politics try to worm their way into the periphery, “Y Tu Mamá También” might as well be a cross between “In the Realm of the Senses” and “American Pie,” but less salacious than either and blunter than both. It’s a film that’s nostalgic for the banality of being young, and furious at the myopia that makes youth possible. The genius of Cuarón’s approach lies in how he balances those two attitudes against each other.
1. “Children of Men” (2006)
“Children of Men” arrived in theaters on Christmas Day, 2006, and immediately announced itself as the best and bleakest sci-fi movie of the 21st century. It’s also proven to be the most prescient, anticipating a time when Britain has closed its borders, hateful isolationism has taken root, and xenophobia spores out of walled gardens across the world. If once this story provided a window into a dark possibility, recent events have warped it into a funhouse mirror that reflects our new reality.
Set in a future without a future, Cuarón’s masterpiece immerses us in a grim tomorrow where women have been inexplicably rendered infertile, and society has responded to the crisis by hoarding power, normalizing catastrophe, and dehumanizing the disenfranchised. By the time the film begins, most people have already become so afraid of what’s over the horizon that they no longer have the heart to look at it for themselves. Theo (Clive Owen), a white Londoner with nothing left to lose, is one of them. Kee (the unforgettable and fittingly named Clare-Hope Ashitey), a pregnant refugee, is not. She’s got hope growing inside of her.
And so the stage is set for the rare dystopian movie that has the courage to convey the fragility of modern civilization, as well as our incredible capacity to live in the shadow of imminent disaster. It’s a movie about a world — this world — in which everyone already knows they’re doomed, and the only remaining struggle is what people ought to do with that information. It doesn’t bother tracing the path between infertility and extinction; it simply creates such a vivid state of hopelessness that you can connect the dots for yourself.
“Children of Men” may not be Cuaron’s most “personal” film, but it’s the one that most fluently connects the director’s form to its function. And so the more our world comes to resemble that in “Children of Men,” the easier it is to see a way forward, however dim and abstract it might be.