Among the most successful and talked-about Mexican filmmakers of his generation, director Alfonso Cuarón has shown a remarkable versatility, able to embrace old-school Hollywood elegance as well as rough-edged and darker-themed contemporary stories. Cuarón was born in Mexico City in 1961, and grew up in the city as well; he went on to study both filmmaking and philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. After graduating, Cuarón began working in television in Mexico, first as a technician and then as a director. Cuarón's television work led to assignments as an assistant director for several Latin American film productions (including Gaby: A True Story and Romero), and in 1991, he landed his first big-screen directorial assignment. Sólo Con Tu Pareja was a dark comedy about a womanizing businessman who learns he's contracted AIDS; the film was a massive hit in Mexico, and was enthusiastically received around the world. Director Sydney Pollack was impressed enough with Sólo Con Tu Pareja that he hired Cuarón to direct an episode of Fallen Angels, a series of neo-noir stories produced for the Showtime premium cable network in 1993; other directors who worked on the series included Steven Soderbergh, Jonathan Kaplan, Peter Bogdanovich, and Tom Hanks.
In 1995, Cuarón released his first feature film produced in the United States, A Little Princess, a graceful and elegant adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel. Cuarón's next feature was also a literary adaptation, a modernized version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Robert De Niro. While some were impressed with the film's lush, fervid romanticism, many felt it campy and overwrought, with a leaden central performance from Paltrow. But Cuarón's next project found him making a severe left turn; shot in Mexico with a Spanish-speaking cast, Y Tu Mamá También (2001) was a funny, provocative, and controversial road comedy about two sexually obsessed teenagers who take an extended road trip with an attractive woman in her thirties. The film's open portrayal of sexuality and frequent rude humor, as well as the politically and socially relevant asides, made the film an international hit and a major success with critics.
In 2004, Cuarón inherited the reins of the successful Harry Potter series, shooting Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with a sense of atmosphere and character theretofore lacking in the Chris Columbus-helmed installments. Predictably, the film became a mammoth blockbuster, although some Potter purists objected to the liberties Cuarón took with the story. In 2006, Cuarón passed up a chance to continue with the Potter series in order to release an ambitious science fiction tale called Children of Men. Based on P.D. James' near-future tale of a totalitarian Britain stricken by plague, infertility, and xenophobia, Cuarón echoed a very urgent sense of fear and dread over terrorism and the conflict in Iraq. Working once again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the director put lead Clive Owen through grueling long takes to achieve a "you are there" immediacy. Released in time for awards season in the U.S., Children was met with glowing reviews and promising box-office results, given its grim nature.