Movie buffs in Mexico are abuzz with the possibility native son Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu could snag this year's directing Oscar for The Revenant, which would be an unprecedented third in a row by Mexicans.
If that's not enough for Mexicans to cheer about during Sunday's Academy Awards show, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki is a good bet to win his third cinematography Oscar in a row. That would be a first for an individual of any nationality.
Together with directors Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, they're part of a new Mexican generation that is responsible for many of Hollywood's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful films these days.
“They are at the head of a generation that demarcated a before and an after in Mexican cinema,'' said Jose Antonio Valdes, deputy director for information and special projects at Mexico's governmental film institute, the Cineteca Nacional.
“They come from a generation that has a different mentality, where the idea of the global filmmaker was already a reality, and I think we are seeing that now,'' Valdes said. “Mexican filmmakers no longer think in terms of Mexico; they think globally.''
Mexicans taking home statues on Oscar night has become something of an annual fixture. Gonzalez Inarritu won best director last year for Birdman, following Cuaron in 2014 for Gravity. Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth in 2006 won three Oscars and was nominated for three more.
All four, who were born in the early 1960s, came of age professionally in Mexico and first achieved fame in their home country.
In 1991, Cuaron put out the popular romantic comedy Solo con tu pareja (Alone With Your Partner), with cinematography by Lubezki and screenplay by Cuaron and his writer-brother Carlos Cuaron, which was honored with two Ariel awards — the Mexican equivalent of the Oscars. Del Toro's La invencion de Cronos (Cronos) in 1993 won nine Ariels. Lubezki won Ariels for 1992's Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), Miroslava (1993) and Ambar (1994).
Gonzalez Inarritu's debut came later — the widely hailed Amores Perros of 2000.
Indirect route to filmmaking
The lag was partly because movies didn't figure in his early career plans. From age 17 he traveled the world working on a cargo ship, and returned to Mexico only in the mid-1980s to begin studying communications at the Universidad Iberoamericana.
While still a student, both he and classmate Martin Hernandez, who later became Gonzalez Inarritu's principal sound engineer, became DJs at a Mexico City rock station. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Hernandez recalled he had the morning show and Gonzalez Inarritu the afternoon, and the owners let them stay late to play with the studio equipment.
“We took advantage of that, we made ourselves the masters of the station,'' Hernandez said.
They withdrew from college in what was supposed to be a temporary move, but both remained at the station until the following decade before striking out into film and never looking back.
Gonzalez Inarritu co-founded the Z Films agency, where he first directed commercials, and later a TV pilot and the 1996 short feature El timbre (The Doorbell) featuring Mexican actor Damian Alcazar.
Dark days for cinema
It was a time when Mexican cinema had fallen far from what the country considers its golden age of the 1940s and '50s. Many offerings in the 1980s were campy sex comedies or movies about narcos. The following decade an economic crisis crippled Mexico, including filmmakers who often depended on government support. Just 137 films were made in Mexico between 1994 and 2000.
“There were no opportunities in the second half of the 1990s. ... Today they make 140 movies a year,'' said Daniela Michel, director general of the Morelia International Film Festival.
Along with Lubezki and the Cuarons, Michel was part of a cinema club that devoured not only mainstream Hollywood fare but works by foreign directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Terry Gilliam.
“They all were already very clear that they wanted to make movies, and real movies,'' she said. “They were going against the current, because in Mexico we were being told that cinema was dead.''
Slew of successes
When Gonzalez Inarritu's Amores Perros hit screens in 2000, it captivated moviegoers with its innovative storytelling of a sibling rivalry. The film was a national box-office hit and swept 11 Ariel awards, including best movie, director and actor (Gael Garcia Bernal). It was also the first Mexican movie since 1975 to be nominated for the best foreign-language film Oscar.
The Cuarons followed up the next year with Y tu mama tambien, which also saw wide international distribution and earned the brothers an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
All four ended up moving to Hollywood and made increasingly big splashes.
Lubezki was first doing cinematography for 1994's Reality Bites. Alfonso Cuaron directed A Little Princess in 1995, in collaboration with Lubezki. Del Toro put out Mimic in 1997, and Gonzalez Inarritu directed 21 Grams, from a script by fellow Mexico Guillermo Arriaga, in 2003. It was followed by two other Oscar-nominated films, Babel with Brad Pitt and Biutiful starring Javier Bardem.