When Guillermo del Toro describes his friend and fellow filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, he couldn’t be more effusive with his praise. “He is a rare combination of zen, talent and crazy mother f***er,” the director explains.
Looking at Cuarón’s body of work, it’s easy to see how that summary applies. He might only have seven features to his name in three decades, with his eighth film, Roma, due for release in 2018, but what the writer/director’s resume lacks in prolific output, it makes up for in the feisty spirit of A Little Princess, the boundary-breaking passion of Y tu mamá también, the prophetic sci-fi of Children of Men, and the inventive technical and visual wizardry of Gravity.
Before you dive into Vice’s ode to Cuarón, we delve into the career of the first Mexican filmmaker to win an Oscar for Best Director — and the helmer of the best Harry Potter film as well.
The Cuarón essentials
Tell Alfonso Cuarón that he can’t do something, and he’ll find a way. That applies to kicking off his career after being expelled from film school, shooting an action-packed car scene in an unbroken four-minute shot and crafting one of the most visually ambitious, emotionally involving space features ever made, for example. The determination to strive and thrive in any scenario is embedded in his movies and in his approach to making them.
That’s one of the reasons a director with only one feature credit to his name, his Mexican debut, Sólo con tu pareja, could land the job of helming an American family drama, A Little Princess. It’s how, after the latter’s critical acclaim, he could then give an iconic piece of literature a modern spin — and still keep working when Great Expectations didn’t meet Hollywood’s own great expectations. And it’s also how he could not only return home to take two teenage boys on the road trip of a lifetime in Y tu mamá también, but then jump from that to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Now, Cuarón is best known for his two spectacular science-fiction films — the grim vision of an infertile future that is Children of Men and space survivalist effort Gravity — but every movie he has made seethes with his willingness to rise to a challenge.
A filmmaker known for his visual prowess, Cuarón’s features also demonstrate his enthusiastic, highly motivated spirit in their visuals, largely with the assistance of former classmate Emmanuel Lubezki. After being expelled from university alongside Cuarón, Lubezki has given six of the director’s seven films to date their distinctive look, including their penchant for long, complicated takes. When Cuarón won his Best Director Oscar for Gravity, Lubezki also emerged victorious for his cinematography.
Three things you mightn’t know
- Before Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban had even wrapped production, Cuarón was offered the chance to direct Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire but turned it down.
- He’s one of only nine directors to win a Golden Globe, Director's Guild award, BAFTA and Oscar for the same film, alongside Mike Nichols, Milos Forman, Richard Attenborough, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Danny Boyle, and his friend and compatriot Alejandro González Iñárritu.
- Cuarón also co-edits many of his films, winning an Academy Award with Mark Sanger for his work on Gravity and sharing a nomination with Alex Rodriguez for Children of Men.
Five films you really need to see
Sólo con tu pareja: Cuarón’s first feature, a comedy about a womaniser falsely told he has AIDS, became a box office hit in Mexico — a feat that would be repeated by his other Mexican production, Y tu mamá también.
Y tu mamá también: The talk of the art-house circuit upon its release in 2001, Y tu mamá también was the raw and resonant coming-of-age road trip effort that finally made the world take notice of Cuarón’s talents — and stars Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: The best book in the Harry Potter series became the best movie in the corresponding film franchise under Cuarón’s guidance, with the director proving a perfect match for the material’s darker tone.
Children of Men: A prophetic dystopian masterpiece designed to comment on the present by predicting a bleak future, Children of Men blends its memorable concept with just as striking performances and visuals, including a number of stunning one-shot sequences.
Gravity: Written with his son Jonas — and inspired by his own childhood obsession with space — Gravity turned a technical experiment into a big-screen success, in a space survival film with spectacular imagery and a beating heart.
Who’s sharing the Cuarón love?
George Clooney: After wanting to work with Cuarón for years, Clooney played a pivotal part as just one of two on-screen actors in space-set Oscar winner Gravity.
Emma Watson: The Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban star was won over by Cuarón when he asked her to write an essay about Hermoine, explaining how she perceived her famous character — and by the fact he let the teenage witch wear jeans.
Clive Owen: The star of Children of Men puts in some of the best work of his career playing the activist-turned-bureaucrat charged with escorting a young refugee to safety.
Julianne Moore: Moore featured among Children of Men’s all-star cast, alongside Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Charlie Hunnam.
Guillermo del Toro: The filmmaker behind Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water began forging his career in Mexico at the same time as Cuarón, with the two becoming firm trends.
Maribel Verdú: The Spanish actress starred in Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también, as well as in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which Cuarón produced.
What should I watch next?
Watch Cuarón discuss his fourth feature, Y tu mamá también, in a Movie Show at the time of the film’s release on SBS On Demand:
Watch The Vice Guide to Film now at SBS On Demand: