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.