The Case for: Alfonso Cuaron


[This is not an advertorial – all five Best Director contenders will be featured]

Alfonso Cuarón was born in Mexico City. His father, Alfredo Cuarón, was a nuclear physicist who, according to Wikipedia, “worked for the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency.” Cuaron did not go into science but instead studied Philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and filmmaking at CUEC (Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos) where he began his rich collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Cuaron’s career as a filmmaker would begin there, starting with short films and eventually moving on to television where he caught the attention of Sydney Pollack, who hired him to direct an episode of Fallen Angels for Showtime in 1993.

Cuaron next directed A Little Princess, before really hitting the big time with Y Tu Mama Tambien, which was where his thumbprint move of long takes would first be noticed. This would end up being his last relationship movie as he became drawn to films that were more visual, sort of in between the magic realism of his two Mexican friends, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu. Cuaron’s striking visuals would deliver the best of the Harry Potter series, the Prisoner of Azkaban, and then Children of Men, which would receive much critical acclaim, several awards for Lubezki, and three Oscar nominations — but no wins.

His next project would be to direct a script he co-wrote with his son Jonas about a woman stranded adrift in space. Cuaron provides a seamless line between fantasy and reality as there isn’t a moment in Gravity that doesn’t feel believable and true. He managed to capture mood and feeling while wrestling with the astonishing visuals. Cuaron has an especially good hand when directing women, or themes about women, which is why it was essential to him that Dr. Ryan Stone be a woman.

Gravity doesn’t fit the typical mold of a “important” film but it is an emotionally engaging one, a visual masterpiece that has had the power to move audiences all over the world. Gravity took the critics by storm, becoming one of the best reviewed films of the year. It tied with 12 Years a Slave at the Producers Guild, and tied with Her at the Los Angeles Film Critics awards in a year of very competitive films.

Similar in some ways to Life of Pi last year, Gravity really is a high-tech think piece, this time a meditation on mortality. All that holds us to the Earth can be summed up in the film’s title. But being grounded is more than just letting gravity do all of the work. It also means keeping the fleeting gift that is life in full perspective. Like Life of Pi, it is the singular survival story of one person finding both the will to live and the skills to lead him/her back home.

Sandra Bullock is not swallowed up beneath the razzle-dazzle of the special effects, which would ordinarily be easy to do. But in fact, much of the film’s emotional pull rests entirely on her shoulders. She has to make us believe that she’s really in zero gravity, really dealing with loss of oxygen, really hurdling through space and grasping at whatever she can. That Bullock is a woman nearing 50 makes it all the more remarkable. She is defying the age barrier just by appearing in this film. Cuaron chose an older actress as opposed to any younger ones who almost starred in it (Blake Lively, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard and Natalie Portman).

In retrospect it seems crazy that they could have chosen anyone else and I think I can say with a good deal of certainty the film would be nowhere near the Kodak had it starred anyone but Bullock. That is the power of her performance. If you say Gravity is all about Bullock or it’s only about the visual effects, why then is Cuaron winning Best Director? Because people love the movie, that’s one reason, and because it’s all Cuaron’s vision being realized — the mood and atmosphere of the film, the loneliness of it, the vastness of outer space and the pretty blue planet below make us all yearn to be back here on Earth where we belong and not in danger of slipping away into infinity.

Gravity is perhaps not the most personal film for Cuaron, but it is his masterpiece, without question. Difficult to mount, the film is stunningly beautiful from frame to frame, there aren’t many directors who could believably pull off a woman in space hitching a ride to a spacecraft that is about to accidentally crash into Earth’s atmosphere, land in water, then open the hatch and have the main character swim out then stand on solid ground.

The film is its own poem, in a way, working its way to the final conclusion — Bullock transformed suddenly into the 50 foot woman with more power than she could ever realize just by being able to walk on solid ground. It is the kind of message that could touch anyone, and does not require you walk in with morality intact, or with an axe to grind. Anyone can watch it and get it. That is the very definition of an Oscar winner.

But you don’t need me to make the case for Cuaron to win Best Director. He’s already first in line. You certainly don’t need me to tell you why Gravity is a great movie — you’ll have your own reasons. Either you will have been carried away by one woman’s emotional vulnerability laid bare in a most unexpected way, or you will have been moved by a cinematic experience like no other. Or you will have witnessed something thoroughly satisfying and engaging it has obliterated every other film you’ve seen this year.

There is no doubt that Gravity is one of the more challenging films to hit the mainstream in a while, but its box office success proves that its emotions are universal. The visual effects part of it would appeal to wide sections of the world population even without the story but it’s not easy to buy the film resting on the shoulders of a singular female protagonist. That this one does makes it a pioneering effort and a simple act of courage.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Thanks, Sasha. Beautiful and moving. You almost placed me back at that arresting place you get thrown into when you experience GRAVITY.

  • Blakely

    I think the main reason Gravity worked for me: Alfonso Cuaron. It will be the highlight of the evening March 2 to see him win Best Direction.

  • Eric P.

    I liked “Gravity” a lot. But nothing comes near the masterpiece that is “Children of Men”. Having seen that film over 20 times, there are stunning images in it that have burnt their way into my mind’s eye.

  • m1

    What a beautiful, haunting movie this is. Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess, Children of Men, and Harry Potter 3 are all wonderful movies. But Gravity is easily Cuaron’s best. I really hope he wins Best Director.

  • Evan

    Beautiful article. But I don’t feel you coming to terms with Cuaron winning Best Director. Or Gravity for Best Picture for that matter. Yes, Gravity is my horse to with both awards, and some other 6-7 awards.It is a cinematic experience, and at the end, it’s all about that. It may not be an “important movie” like Schindler’s List, The Last Emperor or Gandhi (even “important films” like To Kill A Mockingbird lost to Lawrence of Arabia or Saving Private Ryan lost to Shakespeare In Love), but it’s for space films what Schindler is for Holocaust films (based on it’s subject): a cinematic experience, something great to watch, something that keeps you coming back to watch. None of the other 8 nominees did that for me (I’m not saying they are bad, I liked all of them.)
    Now, Gravity faces some difficulties. Screenplay nomination. Last yest a film with no Director nomination won, so it doesn’t seem like a big hurdle. Genre. Science Fiction has not been rewarded yet, even when masterpieces like A Clockwork Orange and Star Wars have came close. The Academy members may be the old voters now that were young when those movies were nominated, and even then they didn’t voted for those films. But we’ve seen in the last years that Academy taste has change, where now a film like Slumdog Millionaire can win, a film like District 9 can be nominated, so I believe Gravity can pull that off too.
    The only bad thing I see in a strong year like this (and I thought last year was strong!), is that, whatever the results are, it won’t be an upset, and once the winners are revealed, it will all make sense. But the wait is exciting.

  • Sasha Stone

    But I don’t feel you coming to terms with Cuaron winning Best Director. Or Gravity for Best Picture for that matter.

    As much as I love the movie the depth of it, the importance of it, what it means in the bigger scheme of things is hard for me to argue. I do know it is dazzling, beautiful and moving. Beyond that there isn’t much to sink into for me anyway. I like complicated stories or filmmakers who leave some stuff up to thought and mystery. Love Gravity – it was in my top five. I find writing about it not as easy as I thought it was.

  • Igor Sousa

    I might be the only one but I really like Great Expectations and it’s sad that it’s quite a forgotten movie

  • Rover

    This article is just not that moving..Probably you should have done just Steve McQueen and Martin Scorcese and leave this one for a more passionate piece by a guest editor.Probably even a contest among readers?!

  • Robert

    This was a beautiful post Sasha. But I find it more engaging than watching the film itself. I LOVE Cuaron’s films up to now– especially Little Princess, Y Tu Mama and Prisoner of Azkaban. I went in woith high expectations. But as visually stunning as Gravity was, and although I appreciate what a technical marvel it was to make, I just don’t get the praise for this film. I was not engaged in the story and was a bit bored. Didn’t care if she made if or not and found her backstory a bit clichéd. I’m clearly in the minority but I just didn’t get it. I’m going to see it again in IMAX to give it another chance. I wish Cuaron had been nominated for and won for Children of Men– that to me is his masterpiece. I won’t be upset when he wins for Gravity because of his body of work, but for me the best directed film this year is 12 Years a Slave.

  • seren

    Great article. Whether Cuarón wins or not, “Gravity” will be remembered for a long time as one of the most challenging films.

  • MauiJim

    I fall into the camp of folks who marvel at Cuaron’s vision and visual accomplishments but feel the film fell short in what it had to say. This is why I think so many pundits are predicting a split this year. It makes so much sense to me that Cuaron will pick up best director while best pic will go to the more socially profound 12 Years a Slave. Yeah, AMPAS tends to attach pic with director, and that would result in a sweep for the more “popular” film. But in this competitive season with top awards having been thrown to more films than usual, I say, expect a split.

  • Robert A.

    @ Robert

    I agree. I found Gravity to be visually stunning and all that, but I also found the story a bit lacking (I know, I know, I’m supposed to find it daringly minimalist) and the whole SaBu’s child subplot somewhat clunky. I know I’m in the minority on this as well, but what can you do? I liked Gravity well enough but don’t get the fawning hosannas for it, and I find myself wondering if Gravity is on the cusp of a turning point we’re seeing in film…we’re becoming such a technological/visual society that what we value in film is becoming increasingly technological. As long as the special effects and cinematography are “groundbreaking” (from Gravity to Inception), and as long as there are some cool set pieces, we don’t really require much else, like those pesky old-fashioned virtues such as acting, writing and so on.

    Or maybe Gravity is just a movie that Roberts don’t get?

  • murtaza

    oh no please don’t compare Gravity to Life to Pi, couldn’t watch Ang Lee turning into a director for 10 year olds. Life of Pi was even more childish than i expected it to be.

  • Kirenaj

    I am among those who see Gravity as a visually stunning but artistically realatively minor work but who still want Cuaron to win best director mainly because of body of work. Children of Men was a masterpiece, and Azkaban is the only Potter that I liked as a movie (it was so much better than the rest that it was almost embarrassing). Gravity as a movie is over rated by its supporters and under rated by its detractors (there are things going on below surface here), but it is clearly a directors piece, and since none of the other nominees really hits it out of the park (McQueen has done more interesting work before, as has Scorsese; they are my next two picks) I hope he wins.

  • Jesus Alonso

    I am afraid that, once more, going against the flow, the Oscar that Gravity deserves the most, is, Best Lead Actress.

    Don’t get me wrong, but Gravity felt to me like a personal challenge of Cuarón, for he was given a sh*tload of money… and he still felt the need to cheat, quite obviously, to the audience, draining some of the awe from the experience.

    However, Sandra Bullock faces one of the biggest challenges an Oscar winning, box-office successful, widely liked superstar, has ever faced: to be the basically only face and voice, the audience has to relate to… to keep track and be conscious ofthe right moment for the right emotion, to keep her character’s evolution completely believable and stranded in front of the visual effects that flood through the whole film. It’s not a small challenge, and I was absolutely stunned Bullock pulled it off to perfection.

    It’s heartbreaking to listen she is really good but not great, nor Oscar deserving. I would accept she’s earning now, her “The Blind Side” awards, I am OK with that. Also OK with not giving her a 2nd Leading Oscar so soon and spread the wealth (I’m thinking in Amy Adams, more than in Cate, for the matter, as Cate already has one, even if in Supporting). But Bullock’s performance is probably one of the top 10 female lead performances I’ve seen in my whole life, FULL STOP.

  • Chris

    I second every word Jesus Alonso said.
    You’ve perfectly articulated my feelings towards Bullocks position in the race this year.

  • Ismael Ibarra

    Anyone can watch it and get it. That is the very definition of an Oscar winner.

    Really? Because a lot of people who saw (in fact almost 90%) thought it was a movie about Space but “nothing” really happened. They didn’t get the spiritualism and metaphors of the movie. That’s the challenging part.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    “Anyone can watch it and get it.”

    And this is true of every Best Pic nominee this year. Let’s not be condescending and self-congratulatory at once –unless I missed it, nothing by Tarkovsky was nominated.

  • Simone

    Alfonso Cuaron has long been one of my most favorite directors. He created yet another film I enjoyed very much. Whatever happens on Oscar night between him and McQueen, I will be happy and supportive.

  • Valerie

    Wonderful piece.

    I get why there are some who can’t connect to this film. But what narrative is stronger and more powerful than spiritualism and our own connection to a greater power. I guess when I read it doesn’t have a strong narrative, does a film need to encompass a larger amount of dialogue or be based on known history to be compelling? But then I also thought All is Lost was terrific, so I guess perhaps I connect more with the Asian beliefs versus the concrete messages the western culture seems more in tune with.

    I thought 12YAS an exceptional film, but it’s not like we are talking about subject matter that’s never been attempted. Roots was a groundbreaking production, and it’s repeats 30 years later still draws powerful viewing numbers on cable. I’m still going to gravitate to the fact that films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or Coogler’s Fruitvale Station had stronger messages for our current culture and more powerful narratives than 12YAS.

  • Robert A.

    “I get why there are some who can’t connect to this film. But what narrative is stronger and more powerful than spiritualism and our own connection to a greater power. I guess when I read it doesn’t have a strong narrative, does a film need to encompass a larger amount of dialogue or be based on known history to be compelling? But then I also thought All is Lost was terrific, so I guess perhaps I connect more with the Asian beliefs versus the concrete messages the western culture seems more in tune with.”

    I agree with you about All is Lost. I’m in the extreme minority of people who liked All is Lost better than Gravity. It’s more quiet and meditative than the noise and thunder of Gravity, and I found All is Lost more genuinely resonant than Gravity. A lot of people assume that people who don’t respond rapturously to Gravity must not “get” the spiritualism or metaphors of the film, when in fact, a lot of us do–we just find the spiritualism and metaphors somewhat obvious and therefore not totally engaging.

    In short, I found All is Lost to be more spiritual, in its own way, than Gravity, even though All is Lost wasn’t trying as hard to work that element.

    (P.S. I’m starting to feel guilty about my criticisms of Gravity on a thread that’s supposed to be a Cuaron/Gravity love thread. I did enjoy Gravity, for whatever it’s worth.)

  • Aragorn

    What’s missing in this piece is passion that was there for the previous director piece.. This feels like she had to write this just to look like she is giving “equal” opportunity to all directors…it is like a summary of his career…it almost equally talks about Sandra Bullock…and of course nowhere in it there is a mention that his win would also be historical …as mentioned in this site before black director winning an Oscar is much more important and historical than a Mexican director!!!!(by the way if you dare to say the opposite you would be labeled as racist!)..

    So, task is completed for now…three other pieces will be written…check, check, and check! And probably another lengthy one why history should be made by giving it to a Black director….

  • Well


    That wasn’t a very strong/convincing case

  • Julian Walker

    I don’t mean to start an argument here…but Coogler is just getting started. Fruitvale Station was not a movie on the same level as Do the Right Thing….I think 12 Years a Slave will be remember as the slave movie that didn’t hold the audience’s hand though sentimentality.

  • Valerie

    I guess my point was that you don’t need to have a film or production be about slavery for it to resonate with African American culture. The other two films I mentioned really focus in on CURRENT cultural dilemmas not something that happened 150 plus years ago. Plus, while I haven’t looked it up, I have to believe that Roots was recognized at the time by the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences. I am old enough to remember when Roots was released and it was must see TV for nights in a row and was the only thing people were talking about.

    I’m not diminishing 12YAS’s as a great film, but it’s not like it’s a subject matter than has never gotten attention. I do think minority filmmakers should be recognized equally. Cuaron is also a minority and the fact that his film isn’t about Mexican culture doesn’t diminish his accomplishments or historic significance if he wins. I mean should we take Bigelow’s BD Oscar from her or diminish her win because her Oscar was for a male centric film?

  • Zach

    Based upon much of what’s been written on this site, I’ll save everyone the time in reading these “The Case for..” articles:

    — Alexander Payne: Shouldn’t win because he’s white.
    — David O. Russell: Shouldn’t win because he’s white.
    — Martin Scorsese: Shouldn’t win because he’s won before. And he’s white.
    — Alfonso Cuaron: Shouldn’t win because he’s not black.
    — Steve McQueen: Should win because he’s black. And him winning helps erase everything wrong with the racial talent divide in Hollywood much like Kathryn Bigelow’s win was to open doors. His win will be historic and change everything about how movies are made and how the AMPAS is perceived. Also, he’s black.

  • Evan

    What worries me is that, if Academy members take a look back, this is how the Director category would look like:

    2008 – A British
    2009 – A Woman
    2010 – Another British
    2011 – A French
    2012 – A Taiwanese
    2013 – A Mexican

    Maybe they could feel the need to reward an American director, if they feel the need to reward a movie “that resonates with American history”. I hope not. But then I remember that it took a Mexican to be Scorceses’ main competition (Gonzalez-Iñarritu, Babel, 2006, Cannes Best Director) to finally win Best Director. That it was needed for Meryl Streep’s third Oscar to have a black actress as her main competition. Now that the two frontrunners are a Mexican and a British Black director, could O’Russell finally win? After all, 3 noms, 11 acting noms and 3 wins, 3 Best Pic films, and some other nominations in writing… All in four years…that’s quite an achievement too.

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