You may not have analyzed it in quite the same way, but Tuesday was the biggest day in the history of Mexican cinema. On the heels of a Mexican export named Ugly Betty winning a Golden Globe for best TV comedy, a Mexican film captured 16 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture (Babel).
Some 30 years ago, Mexican movies meant masked wrestlers like Santo or Mil Mascaras. But over the past half decade, it has become one of the great international wellsprings of creativity, innovation and mesmerizing stories. Though there are other filmmakers who won't have as high a profile for several years, three directors have broken through to become the standard bearers for their country, even though their works are now more international in scope and setting.
This year, Alejandro González Iñárritu was nominated for Best Director, a distinction long overdue. Although Babel is just his third feature film, he has displayed the kind of competence that most people would call showing off, and it was present in his first movie, the masterpiece Amores Perros. An incredibly ambitious film, Amores Perros chronicles three storylines that intersect at a small point, a car crash at a busy intersection in Mexico City. There are shades of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois Colours trilogy in the storytelling, though Iñárritu's influences (and those on his collaborator, writer Guillermo Arriaga, also a nominee this year) are indisputibly American.
Following Amores Perros, he made his English-language debut with the hard hitting 21 Grams, which, again, used an isolated incident to tell three gut wrenching stories. The film scored a Best Actresss nomination for Naomi Watts and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Benicio Del Toro.
And now with Babel, a film I admired a hell of a lot but didn't enjoy as much as Iñárritu's first two, his approach is the same: A single incident and its ripple effect, this time, covering ground in Mexico, the United States, Morocco and Japan. Of Mexico's 16 Academy Award nominations this year, Babel can claim seven.
Although he had made a mostly energetic and visually captivating Great Expectations in 1998, Alfonso Cuarón found international success the year after Iñárritu's Amores Perros, with the sexual oddyssey, Y Tu Mama Tambien. Despite its subject matter, Cuarón's next film was, oh, a little different — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the darkest film in the series so far, and is distinctly different in its feel from the other three, and it does, in fact, feel like a Cuarón film. Tough to leave your mark on a franchise that's bigger than underage drinking, but Cuarón certainly did.
He found a project closer to his brand of storytelling with Children of Men, a grim look at the near future that received nominations for its adapted screenplay and its cinema verite approach in its cinematography and editing.
And Guillermo Del Toro followed a more Peter Jackson-esque route to career sustainability, plying his trade with blood n' guts fare before finding a steadier hand with 2003's Hellboy. Six Oscar nominations for Pan's Labyrinth later, and Del Toro has radically reinvented movie fairy tales with his unique sensibility for the gruesome.
Three filmmakers all under the age of 45, three tremendously gifted storytellers, three men with unique styles and three films with 16 Oscar nominations. Make no mistake — this is not a fluke.
Just as we look at movies before and after World War II and notice a stark difference and distance in their moralities and just as we can spot an old studio movie a mile away, and just as we can watch Citizen Kane or Double Indemnity or The Searchers or Bonnie and Clyde or Chinatown or Star Wars or Pulp Fiction and see – actually see – the firmament of moviemaking and screenwriting change in two hours, we'll always be able to look back at these three men and these three films (in classic Iñárritu fashion, sparked by one incident, no less) and chart their paths and those of their inevitable imitators for years to come.