On February 22, 2015, several months before Sean Penn’s now-infamous rendezvous with drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Hollywood actor stirred things up with another recognizable Mexican.
The occasion was the 87th Academy Awards, and Penn was presenting the award for best picture. He read off the nominees, picked open the envelope and…
“Who gave this son of a bitch his green card!?”
A grinning Penn announced that Alejandro G. Iñárritu and his film Birdman had won their fourth award of the night — now, for Best Picture. This came one year after another Mexican filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón, had taken home the top director’s award for Gravity. And now, history has repeated itself in 2016, with Iñárritu winning yet another Oscar for his frontier thriller The Revenant.
Oscar watchers could be forgiven for thinking that Mexico is taking over Hollywood. Indeed, the ascent of Iñárritu, Cuarón and fellow director Guillermo del Toro — sometimes called the “Three Amigos” in the U.S. press — seems to have come out of nowhere.
But in truth, their prominence in Hollywood has been a long time in the making, and has come alongside the impressive development of Mexican filmmaking over the last two decades.
The remarkable rise of Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro actually began as Mexico’s domestic film industry was in a state of transition, long after the curtains had closed on its so-called “golden age” and before the dawn of what has come to look like a second Mexican cinematic boom.
Mexico, perhaps more than any other Latin American country, boasts a long history of cinematic tradition and success. Its golden age lasted from the 1930s to the 1950s, and spawned indelible figures such as María Felíx, Dolores del Río and Pedro Infante. But the country’s modern industry was still in its infancy when Iñárritu received his first Oscar nomination, for Amores Perros, in 2000. That year, Mexico produced a total of just 28 films — less than a fifth of what it produced at its peak in the 1950s.
A lack of federal support for project development — a key element in financing international films in the modern era — probably accounts for why so few films were completed in the early years of the decade. It may also help explain what drove Mexico’s top directors to seek more consistent opportunities in the U.S.
Indeed, it was at this time that the Three Amigos became, in some ways, disconnected from the film industry in Mexico. Cuarón’s 2001 hit, Y Tu Mamá También, the film that propelled actors Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal to international stardom was, in fact, the last time any of the three directed a truly “Mexican” story. Though Iñárritu’s Biutiful (2010) and Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) were financed partly with Mexican resources, both told stories set in Spain using largely Spanish casts.
In the meantime, something extraordinary was happening back in Mexico, as renewed creative currents began once again to make the country’s film scene one of Latin America’s most significant cultural phenomena.
Mexico’s domestic film industry took on new life in the late 2000s as government incentives, educational centers and private investment became more readily available. Seasoned filmmakers like Carlos Carreras (The Crime of Father Amaro), whose early films appeared in the 1990s, had the experience — and now the leverage — to make bigger, more elaborate films than they had before. A new crop of filmmakers, too, was encouraged to experiment with subversive and festival-oriented, art-house narratives as well as easily digestible, more commercial fare. Similar segmentation has powered the artistic growth of other national cinemas, and it did for Mexico as well. The growth of Mexican film production was staggering: Less than 15 years removed from the paltry early days of the 2000s, Mexico produced 130 films in 2014 alone — a number that could be topped when production statistics are released for 2015.
Just as Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro were earning acclaim in the U.S., lesser-known filmmakers in Mexico were finding success of their own — and on a variety of fronts. With crude and uncompromising thematic elements and stylistic sensibilities inspired by the European verité approach, Mexico’s art-house set became a regular presence at festivals around the globe, from Cannes to Toronto — where they raked in the prizes. While their films may be not be well-known to Oscar connoisseurs, Mexican auteurs Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante took home the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival consecutively in 2012 (Post Tenebras Luz) and 2013 (Heli), respectively. Michel Franco, another rising figure in the Mexico’s alternative-cinema scene, was awarded the Un Certain Regard prize for his sobering film about bullying, After Lucia, in 2012.
On the commercial side, too, Mexican artists quietly began to dominate the Spanish-speaking market in the U.S. Comedian-turned-director Eugenio Derbez is a leading example of the ability of Mexican cinema to earn big profits in its own right. Derbez moved from a respected career in Mexico’s Televisa network to the film director’s chair with Instructions Not Included (No se aceptan devoluciones), a debut flick which he also cowrote, produced and starred in — and which not only became the most profitable film ever at the Mexican box office, but the most successful Spanish-language film ever released in the U.S. We’ll see how long that record holds: With 37 million Spanish speakers now living in the United States, and the cultural appetite for bilingual and Spanish-language arts and culture on the rise, the commercial prospects for Mexico-produced films in the United States seems bright.
As a business as well, and partially as a product of these demographic shifts, Mexican filmmaking has become more sophisticated both commercially and as a vehicle for independent art. The U.S-based production and distribution company Pantelion, a joint venture between Televisa and Lionsgate, is behind several films produced since 2010 that have earned sizeable grosses on both sides of the border. Following a path well-trodden by their counterparts elsewhere, actors Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal, Pablo Cruz, and Elena Fortes capitalized on their popular success to form Canana, an independent film production company aimed at finding vehicles for stories that might not fit within the constraints of a commercially driven company like Pantelion.
Meanwhile, Mexican animated films have not only won kudos on the international stage, but have earned significant profits as well. Top Cat: The Movie, a reinvention of one of Hanna-Barbera’s most beloved properties by director Alberto Mar and Anima Studios, opened theatrically in over a dozen countries in 2011.
Perhaps most encouraging of all for Mexican film buffs is the increasing number of women directors in an industry traditionally dominated by males. Directors like Mariana Chenillo, Claudia Saint-Luce and Andrea Martínez Crowther come immediately to mind. The gender imbalance is still worrisome, but it’s a sign of how much has changed in such a short time.
Mexico’s film industry, clearly, no longer needs the validation of an Oscar or the talent of a few individual figures to prove it has arrived — even if that’s what the Hollywood perspective suggests. Even as Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro keep mopping up at Hollywood awards shows, scores of Mexican filmmakers, actors and producers are winning respect as both artists and cultural entrepreneurs.
Serious challenges remain, such as the shortage of exhibition venues and the lack of efficient distribution networks at home, but the gaps are slowly being filled with a burgeoning number of local film festivals — for example in Morelia, Guadalajara and Los Cabos. These festivals are not only showcases for Mexico’s up-and-coming cinematic talents, but they are also fostering a burst of creativity that is certain to make Mexican cinema a world-class player in the decades to come. The “Three Amigos” should be proud. And Oscar presenters should keep practicing their Spanish.
Aguilar is a Mexico City-born freelance film journalist, critic and filmmaker. In 2014, he was one of six young film critics to be chosen for the first Roger Ebert Fellowship, organized by the Sundance Institute and Indiewire. He is based in Los Angeles.