Long before Oscar went nuts for the Three Amigos, they were making fantastic movies.
Plenty has been written about how a trio of pals, all from Mexico, have dominated the Academy Award for best directing, winning five times between 2013 and 2018 (Damien Chazelle sneaked one in that period, for “La La Land”). But it took the awards a while to recognize the greatness of friends who had been making entertaining movies for years.
I’d argue, in fact, that most of the best movies from Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu came well before they started winning naked gold statues for “Roma,” “The Shape of Water” and “The Revenant,” respectively.
Although they work on each other’s films, the amigos are very different artists.
Del Toro is attracted to genre filmmaking, mixing horror and science fiction in not only “Water,” which won him two Oscars, but also “The Devil’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak” and “Pacific Rim.”
Iñárritu gravitates toward message dramas in which a broad swath of characters interact, starting with his debut “Amores Perros” and continuing with “Biutiful” and “Birdman.”
The chameleon is Cuarón, who has made movies for children, including the finest of the Harry Potters, “The Prisoner of Azkaban;” family dramas such as “Roma” and the dystopic adventure “Children of Men,” which I’d call the best work by any of the three.
Despite their differences, the amigos are simpatico. All worked in Mexican TV, where they learned to be creative on a budget, a skill that helped them immensely in early efforts, such as del Toro’s inventive “Cronos” and “Mimic,” and Cuaron’s “A Little Princess,” in which the low-cost special effects make storytelling sense because they are conjured in the brain of its youthful heroine.
That boundless imagination also is a key to why movies are the perfect form for them: When we go to the theater, we are demonstrating our willingness to believe in worlds that aren’t real, the kinds of worlds all three amigos love to conjure.
All three realized their talents weren’t going to be used to their fullest in Mexico’s tiny film industry, so they headed north to Hollywood, which embraced them almost immediately. In part, that was because all three like pairing ordinary characters with extraordinary events, a knack sure to get them noticed in Hollywood, which has always preferred its realism with a shot of the fantastic.
If you’re a movie fan, you’re already familiar with their Oscar winners, which also include Cuarón’s “Gravity,” with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, but now’s a great time to search streaming services for these early winners that may have escaped your attention.
Simply the best live-action children’s movie of the past three decades, Cuarón’s English-language debut is a riches-to-rags-to-riches fable. While her father is off fighting World War I, Sara gets sent to a boarding school presided over by an entertainingly evil Eleanor Bron. “I am a princess. Every girl is,” says Sara, and the stunningly beautiful movie will have you believing that. (It earned the first of eight Oscar nominations for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a three-time winner who also works with Iñárritu). Just in case you ever need this trivia: Sara’s klutzy school chum is played by Heather DeLoach, better known as the Bee Girl in Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video.
I know Iñárritu has won two directing Oscars (for “Revenant” and “Birdman”) and neither was for this drama but I don’t care. His first movie remains his best. Gael García Bernal also launched a Hollywood career with “Perros” (whose title’s English translation can’t be printed here). It’s one of those dramas in which seemingly unrelated stories come together in a dazzling finale.
Del Toro’s elegantly grisly vampire movie established him as a witty, inventive moviemaker right out of the gate. It opened here in art house theaters, simply because the dialogue is in Spanish, but it’s a gruesome crowd-pleaser that features a lovely performance by the late Federico Luppi as a grandpa/bloodsucker and launched del Toro’s long collaboration with actor Ron Perlman.
The first time I watched Cuarón’s rollicking road movie, a voice in my head kept saying, “Something about this is bugging me.” Which made it even more satisfying when a revelation at the end addressed my concerns in spectacular fashion. García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú star in a sexy comedy/drama that feels as fresh and youthful today as it did 20 years ago.
It wasn’t until this woozy romance came out that it was clear to what extent Cuarón is devoted to the color green. It is all over both “A Little Princess” and “Expectations,” as well as most of his subsequent work. The writer/director uses it to symbolize a number of things, but mostly it’s about imagination, specifically our ability to imagine better lives for ourselves. That’s why a director whose English still wasn’t great was the perfect choice for this Charles Dickens update, both a rags-to-riches fairy tale and a story of enduring love that stars Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Del Toro produced a movie called “The Orphanage” and wrote and directed this horror movie that takes place in one. The setting is Spain after the civil war and the chills come from ghosts that haunt our young hero as well as the lingering shock waves of combat that pits countrymen against each other.
It’s easy to see why Iñárritu was attracted to the material, a thriller in which disparate lives are connected metaphysically (the title refers to the supposed weight of a human soul). The movie is a stellar example of his acumen with actors, with Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro (no relation to Guillermo, by the way) earning Oscar nominations.