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Each day during this special week we will be highlighting the filmmakers and actors that Roger championed throughout his career. A table of contents for all of our "Roger's Favorites" posts can be found here. Below is an entry on directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
It was the “genuine visual sense” of Guillermo del Toro that first caught Roger’s eyes in his three-and-a-half star review of “Mimic” (1997). “It's not often that a movie like this can frighten me, but I was surprised at how effective ‘Mimic’ is,” Roger wrote. “The hand reaching into darkness had me sliding down in my seat.” When Roger saw “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001), he acknowledged in his three-star review that del Toro was “a master of dark atmosphere, and the places in his films seem as frightening as the plots.”
Even with a picture like “Blade II” (2002), that could’ve easily been treated as standard commercial fare, del Toro transformed it into “a really rather brilliant vomitorium of viscera, a comic book with dreams of becoming a textbook for mad surgeons.” In his three-and-a-half star review of the film, Roger wrote, “You can sense the difference between a movie that's a technical exercise and one steamed in the dread cauldrons of the filmmaker's imagination.” Roger also awarded three-and-a-half stars to del Toro’s own attempt at kick-starting a franchise, “Hellboy” (2004). “Unlike some CGI movies that lumber from one set piece to another, this one skips lightheartedly through the action,” wrote Roger. Four years later, Roger bestowed the same high rating on the film’s sequel, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008), in which del Toro displayed “an endlessly inventive imagination.”
Yet in 2006, there came a film that dwarfed all of del Toro’s past and future achievements to date: “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Roger inducted the film into his Great Moves series only a year after it was released, which caused a reader to question him via the Movie Answer Man column whether that addition was too soon. Roger answered, “I have had an informal rule that 10 years should pass before a film qualified as a Great Movie, but illness has caused me to rethink that time span, and so with a few extraordinary recent films I am going to bend the rule a little.” From the moment it debuted at Cannes, Roger was certain that the movie was a masterpiece, and in his Great Movies essay, he hailed it as, “one of the greatest of all fantasy films, even though it is anchored so firmly in the reality of war. […] Because there is no compromise there is no escape route, and the dangers in each world are always present in the other.” Though it was widely assumed that the film’s fantasy sequences took place in the mind of its young heroine, Roger suggested that they could also be interpreted as “a real but parallel world,” in which evils such as fascism could be corrected.
It was hardly a surprise when Roger placed “Pan’s Labyrinth” at the top of his list ranking the best films of 2006. Yet two other Mexican directors also had their work featured on Roger’s list, and both men also happened to be friends and contemporaries of del Toro: Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. “Isn't it time to start talking about a New Mexican Cinema, not always filmed in Mexico but always informed by the imagination and spirit of the nation?” wrote Roger. “The three directors trade actors and technicians, support each other, make new rules, are successful without compromise.”
Roger was dazzled by Cuarón’s early adaptations of classic literature, such as “A Little Princess” (1995), which received three-and-a-half stars from the critic. “Cuaron's version of magic realism consists of seeing incredibly fanciful sets and situations in precise detail,” wrote Roger. He also felt the director’s version of “Great Expectations” (1998) was “visually enchanted” and enhanced by the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, who “uses lighting and backlighting like a painter.” Though he gave the film three stars upon his initial viewing, he later referred to it as “an overlooked masterpiece.”
What struck Roger as a masterpiece right out of the gate was Cuarón’s next film, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2002), a film about sexual discovery that provided “a perfect illustration of the need for a workable adult rating: too mature, thoughtful and frank for the R, but not in any sense pornographic.” Roger masterfully took the MPAA to task in his four-star review, accusing them of perverting “a generation of American movies into puerile masturbatory snickering.” He also noted that the film was about much more than two teenage boys. It was also about “the two Mexicos,” “the fragility of life and the finality of death.” The critic also favored Cuarón’s installment in the “Harry Potter” series, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004), awarding it three-and-a-half stars. Roger said that it was easily the best-looking film in the franchise, but felt that some murky plotting caused it to fall just short of a perfect rating.
Then came “Children of Men” in 2006, which ranked at #3 on Roger’s Top Ten list that year. It directly reflected Roger’s own fears that “the rule of law and the rights of men will be destroyed by sectarian mischief and nationalistic recklessness” in the near future, causing him to ponder whether we are “living in the last good times.” In his four-star review, he likened the film to “Metropolis” and “Nosferatu” in how the story is secondary to “the visual world we are given to regard.” Whereas typical action scenes register as little more than slick choreography, Roger wrote that Cuarón and his leading man, Clive Owen, “get the scent of fear and death.” Ultimately, Roger felt the film stood as “a cautionary warning,” reminding us that the “only thing we will have to fear in the future […] is the past itself. Our past. Ourselves.”
Unlike his two contemporaries, Iñárritu instantly garnered hype with the release of his Oscar-nominated first feature, “Amores Perros,” which marked—in Roger’s mind—the emergence of “a born filmmaker.” In his three-and-a-half star review of the film, Ebert likened the film to two other directors associated with Mexico, Arturo Ripstein and Alejandro Jodorowsky. “Their works are also comfortable with the scruffy underbelly of society, and involve the dangers when jealousy is not given room to breathe,” wrote Roger. The critic was less enthusiastic about Iñárritu’s next film, “21 Grams” (2003), which borrowed the same fractured narrative structure that had been utilized to more successful effect in his previous film. “While the film is a virtuoso accomplishment of construction and editing, the technique has its limitations,” Roger wrote in his three-star review. “There is a point at which this stops being a strategy and starts being a stunt.” He cautioned the director that this technique would likely “inspire impatience a third time around.”
Iñárritu’s third feature, “Babel” (2006), did indeed utilize a similar nonlinear narrative structure comprised of interlocking characters, yet instead of leaving Roger feeling impatient, it ranked at #9 on his Top Ten list of 2006, and earned a Great Movies essay the following year. “‘Babel’ finds Iñárritu in full command of his technique,” wrote Roger. “The writing and editing moves between the stories with full logical and emotional clarity, and the film builds to a stunning impact because it does not hammer us with heroes and villains but asks us to empathize with all of its characters.” Rather than simply make a film about man’s inherent inhumanity, Roger felt that Iñárritu had “something deeper and kinder to say: When we are strangers in a strange land, we can bring trouble upon ourselves and our hosts.” It was Iñárritu’s humanistic touch that led Roger to recommend the director’s follow-up, “Biutiful” (2011), a film that garnered an Oscar nomination for its lead actor, Javier Bardem. In his three-star review, Roger wrote, “He grants his characters the dignity of having feelings and reasons, and not simply behaving as mechanical inhabitants of a crime plot.” One can only ponder what Roger would’ve thought of Iñárritu’s future Oscar winners, “Birdman” and “The Revenant.”
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