It seems odd to hail a director as one of my favorite filmmakers, given that he’s only released four feature films in his career. Such is the power of Alejandro González Iñárritu. A man determined to examine and expose how people behave when pushed to the edge. One of my favorite themes in film is the aftermath of tragedy; exploring those private moments of emotional decay and torment. That’s something Iñárritu, perhaps, does better than any living filmmaker. He doesn’t shy away from brutality, instead, he embraces the horror, and the unlikely beauty that can form from it.
Please don’t let my grades below dilute the power of Iñárritu’s films. I don’t know how many films a director has to make in order for that director to be labeled as one of my favorites, but in this case, four is surely enough.
Amores Perros is arguably the most brutal film Iñárritu has made. It opens with a frenzied car chase that results in a gruesome accident. From there, the film is split into three distinct character chapters that play out in chronological order. First, we focus on Octavio, the driver of the car, next on Valeria, an innocent victim of the accident, and finally on El Chivo, a homeless man who profited from the crash.
Although the carnage of Amores Perros lends itself to violent content, this is really a film about love. Octavio is in love with his sister-in-law, and will do anything, including becomingly entangled in a vicious dogfighting ring, to afford to move away with her. Valeria is a famous supermodel whose lover, Daniel, struggles to maintain his passion for her and her newly deformed body. And El Chivo is a layered man with many past secrets, namely the guilt he feels from walking out on his daughter decades ago.
The first time I watched this film marks one of the most important movie viewing experiences of my life. I was a senior in high school, and it was 11 p.m. on a school night. I decided to put Amores Perros on, knowing nothing more about the film than its critical comparisons to Pulp Fiction. I didn’t move for two and a half hours. I was paralyzed in amazement, fear and inspiration. My active mind didn’t allow for sleep that night, a small price to pay for being inspired so grandly. I had just watched a mesmerizing film unlike any other I had seen. And I ask, is there anything more fulfilling than that? A+
When BMW hired a handful of filmmakers to create short films to promote their cars, they certainly didn’t skimp on talent. Many notable directors contributed shorts to the collection, with Iñárritu delivering the most equally intense and reflective film of the bunch. Powder Keg stars Stellan Skarsgård as a veteran war photographer who lays injured in the back seat of a Beamer as The Driver (Clive Owen) desperately flees from hostile territory. In his last moments of life, the photographer recounts the horrors he’s witnessed, and his guilt in never helping the many victims he photographed.
With its gray and gritty cinematography, pulsating pace, a melancholic dialogue, Powder Keg is certainly one of The Hire’s finest offerings. (Watch Powder Keg here.) A-
11’09”01 September 11 is a collection of 11 films made by 11 filmmakers from 11 different countries. The anthology was developed and produced quickly, ultimately premiering at the Venice Film Festival just one short year after the attacks.
Like all anthology films, 11’09”01 September 11 has its strong and weak segments. Thankfully, we’re here to discuss the best one. The majority of Iñárritu’s segment is a black screen. Distorted sounds fade in, but we aren’t quite sure what they are. A flash of light jumps on the screen; gone as quickly as it appeared. The sounds become clearer – crying, screaming in the street, anxious news anchors, desperate voices on the phone. Another scream, another flash. The flashes start to gain focus, and we realize they are footage of people falling from the towers.
The first time I saw this short, I didn’t fully realize what Iñárritu was doing until the film concluded. Upon reflection, I feel confident calling this segment one of the most visceral and unsettling films ever made about 9/11. Not an easy watch, but an important one all the same. (Watch the short, with caution, here.) A
21 Grams is structured like a confounding, disorientating, fascinating puzzle. The film, again, deals with the aftermath of a tragic car accident, but instead of the accident being the starting point, it serves as a hidden, looming threat that overshadows the entire film. Because the film is presented in such a narratively fractured way, we have to put the pieces together to figure out what has happened. To add to the complexity, Iñárritu wisely opts not to show the accident in this film – a quietly startling juxtaposition to the grisly opening scene of Amores Perros.
The film is about three people: Cristina (Naomi Watts, delivering one of the best screen performances I’ve ever seen), a woman whose family is hit by a car, Jack (Benicio del Toro) a reformed ex-con who is driving the car, and Paul (Sean Penn) an extremely ill professor who receives the heart of Cristina’s husband following the accident. We meet these people in snippets – before and after the accident, never in chronological order, and never for very long.
The marvel of 21 Grams is the relentlessness of its pain. It grabs you right away and never hints at letting go. Similarly to my first viewing of Amores Perros, I’ll never forget the first time I watched 21 Grams. I stumbled out of the movie theater, unable to form a coherent thought, let alone operate my car. When I watched the film a few days ago for this post, I realized it hits just as hard as it did 10 years ago. Unsettling in its story, uncompromising in its execution – 21 Grams is one of the best, most unique films, from this or any decade, about loss and forgiveness. A+
The third film in Iñárritu’s unofficial Death Trilogy is an unrelenting examination of human nature. Essential to this trilogy is Iñárritu’s screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, who delivers his finest work in Babel, a film told through four intercut stories that play out in chronological order. However, the stories do not all take place at the same time, and some chapters don’t appear to link with the others at all (until, of course, they do). Needless to say, Babel is a challenge, riddled with a purposefully complex structure that forces the viewer to actively participate, as opposed to simply watch.
In Morocco, two young boys shoot their rifle at a tour bus for the hell of it. One of their bullets injures an American tourist, Susan (Cate Blanchett), whose husband, Richard (Brad Pitt), is forced to tend to her possibly fatal wound in a foreign land. In the midst of their troubles, the couple’s maid, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), takes Susan and Richard’s two children to her son’s wedding in Mexico, despite Richard’s strong opposition. Concurrently, in the film’s strongest episode, we meet a deaf Japanese girl, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), as she struggles to find her sexual identity.
Alejandro González Iñárritu doesn’t make easy films. In addition to his intricate storytelling methods, his films are goddamn painful. There’s nothing easy about the loss of love and innocence. And instead of Iñárritu’s characters getting away with the pain they inflict, he’s much more interested in watching them suffer through the consequences of their actions. To hail one of the Death Trilogy films over the other two is simply not something I’m able to do. They all fit perfectly in the world Iñárritu and Arriaga created. What I will offer is that, although Babel is taxing, the conclusion of this film, scored to perfection by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Bibo No Aozora,” is genuinely one of the most beautiful endings to a movie that I’ve ever seen. I’m forever enamored with its pain. A+
To Each His Own Cinema (or Chacun son cinema, as it was known in France) was an anthology film created by the Cannes Film Festival in which dozens of filmmakers were commissioned to create a three minute short about the importance of cinema. Not surprisingly, my favorite film of the series is Iñárritu’s Anna, a devastating portrayal of a young woman’s love for cinema being inexplicably taken away from her. No further details should be presented in print. This film is too beautiful to visually ignore, and deserves to be seen, instead of read about. A
Parting ways with Guillermo Arriaga (the two had a public falling out over Babel’s screenwriting credit), Iñárritu wrote a developed Biutiful, a film about a dying man desperately attempting to get his life in order before his cancer consumes him. Although the film introduces supporting characters that are given a substantial amount of screentime, Biutful is essentially presented as a straight story; a one man tale that plays out in chronological order. After Uxbal (a towering Javier Bardem) is told he has months to live, he struggles to set up a life for his young children. In order to maintain stability for his kids that will endure past his death, Uxbal attempts to make a lot of money illegally in a short period of time, and urges his bipolar wife to seek continuing care.
All of the hardships in Uxbal’s life are presented with equal measure, including his ability to occasionally speak with the dead, which consumes his life as a curse. Like all Iñárritu films, Biutiful is a challenge, and I’m honestly not sure it would work as well as it does without Javier Bardem’s dedication. As Uxbal, Bardem delivers what is, perhaps, the finest performance of his routinely perfect career. Uxbal isn’t a likeable man, but he clearly has goodness within him, waiting to be tapped into. And my, what a thrill it is to see Iñárritu bring out the beauty from behind the bleak. Really, is there anyone who does it better? A-
Birdman is a film about a washed-up actor who made a name for himself playing a superhero. The actor is played by Michael Keaton, and Iñárritu has said the film is a comedy. How many different languages can you say “Sold” in?
11’09”01 September 11, segment: Mexico
The Hire, segment: Powder Keg
To Each Their Own Cinema, segment: Anna
Just Plain Bad