[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.