I spent a lot of November and December 2016 getting into Gael García Bernal’s filmography. What started as a random choice to watch A Little Bit of Heaven (2011) began a quest to finish as much of his work as I could. It didn’t help that Amazon had such a good deal on his films at the time, and it was fairly easy to acquire even the most bizarre ones.
So over those two months, I watched thirty films starring García Bernal. He has now become my most-watched actor of all time, clocking in at thirty-four films total. And I’ve never felt better about myself as a movie lover because he is very, very talented. None of his performances have left me wishing he’d done something else. That’s not to say that all of his films are gems. I’ve found that many of them are only okay at best, and some are outright terrible, despite the fact that he’s either worked with a director I admire or his own acting isn’t the thing to blame (it is oftentimes the best part of those bad movies).
I’ve decided then to compile a list of my favourites. Some of it is probably expected, yet others feel vastly underrated. Also, I just want to point out that I haven’t seen Neruda (2016) yet, but I’m expecting that the moment I do, one of these films will probably be bumped off the list.
10. A Little Bit of Heaven (2011), dir. Nicole Kassell
Blindness (2008) or Zoom (2015) would and perhaps should be in tenth place considering their distinctive filmmaking and technical achievements. The latter film has García Bernal as an animated version of himself, and that on its own should get people curious as to just how his usually expressive face is allowed any room to breathe. But I picked A Little Bit of Heaven because I definitely enjoyed the experience of watching this a lot more than those other two films. I went in expecting a lot more from both Blindness and Zoom – I like dystopian fiction, and certain types of comedy – but I was a bit disappointed by them content-wise. On the other hand, this little romantic romp in which García Bernal gets to be a hot doctor and wear purple? I’m going to be superficial and keep it in the top ten. Even without my bias, I like it simply in terms of story and characterisation. It surprised me in a good way.
9. No (2012), dir. Pablo Larraín
Probably the first film that made me really aware of García Bernal as an actor, but also one of the last films of his I saw. In the case of ‘expectations vs. reality’, this really met it. I believe it’s only coming up short because I saw it while I was extraordinarily tired and haven’t done a rewatch. But it definitely ticked all the boxes for Oscar bait – the good kind. I’m a sucker for aspect ratio changes, and the tangibility of the camera being present within the narrative fabric of movies. This self-consciousness makes the experience of ‘watching a FILM’ very apparent, which kind of displaces the feeling of realism it has too. It’s become even more fulfilling as I’ve come to realise that that’s how Larraín puts his mark on films (just watch the Neruda trailer!); there’s a mix between reality and fantasy in terms of how the camera interacts with the politics in this movie, and it’s a beautiful marriage.
8. Who is Dayani Cristal? (2013), dir. Marc Silver
A greatly empathetic documentary with a straightforward message and purpose, featuring García Bernal as an activist embedded with a group of migrants. Such films normally feel exploitative of the plights they hope to draw a spotlight towards. It’s usually done in a way that feels voyeuristic and creepy, but not this one. Silver blends interview and ‘re-tracing’ seamlessly together, and sustained a level of brutal honesty throughout. That’s accompanied by an understandable level of sadness. But the subject matter remains important to talk about and people should be emotional about it. So this film presents a good place to dip a toe in, especially if you don’t watch many documentaries, let alone activist ones. It’s a very worthwhile experience.
7. Rudo y Cursi (2008), dir. Carlos Cuarón
Here’s a fun one! García Bernal re-teams with childhood best friend Diego Luna in a movie by a Cuarón about football, music videos, generally ridiculous dude antics, and family. It is genuinely so funny. García Bernal and Luna are perfect acting partners, and the fact that they still manage to come up with fresh ways to explore that onscreen relationship is a testament to their talent – individually and collectively. They physically transform into their roles – respectively sporting blond highlights and a rather severe moustache – which adds to the truly straight-up comedy of the film. It helps that this has a lot of heart. Carlos Cuarón’s script echoes his previous works, such as Y Tu Mamá También. He deftly presents a brotherly atmosphere between García Bernal and Luna; one that they can truly fill to their fullest potential.
6. Amores perros (2000), dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Not all of the films in this list are particularly light-hearted. I would say Amores perros is the most harrowing movie out of all ten, but I couldn’t leave it out. I feel like, upon rewatch, I would rank this much higher as well, but it’s not really one of those films you ‘enjoy’ and then forget about. I have to give content warnings for severe animal cruelty. That stuff is integral in the narrative, but that makes it all the more heartbreaking and frustrating to watch. The ending of this film is one of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen, though. I can’t stop turning it over. I’ve had an odd, unsteady relationship with AGI movies where a lot of them just don’t do it for me completely, but this one punched me right in the gut. Gripped me and wouldn’t let go. It’s poisonous and coldly real, and as the first of his Trilogy of Death, really sets the tone of what’s to come from movies like 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). I think it’s even the one with the most ‘heart’, if one could say that about such a bleak film. Essential viewing, in my opinion, but brace yourselves.
5. The Loneliest Planet (2011), dir. Julia Loktev
I truly gravitate towards smaller films like these, and I love when they surprised me. I recently reviewed Una (2016), and I find that this film has quite a similar touch to that one in terms of how contained it is in a dramatically larger setting. It’s also about two people just interacting with each other; small-scale relationships. That’s about where the similarities end, because where Una was consistently discomfiting (for good reason), there is at least a portion of The Loneliest Planet where you can truly say it’s fun to watch García Bernal and Hani Furstenburg interact. I love their chemistry, and they bounced off each other phenomenally. You really root for them. But the narrative, despite its simplicity, manages to touch on themes that have a ripple effect into so many wider-reaching elements – gender dynamics within relationships, conceptions of masculinity, and personal responsibility are just a few. This is one of those films where ‘nothing happens’ yet everything does, and by the end of it, you can’t help but feel completely overwhelmed and unsure of how to process anything.
4. Desierto (2016), dir. Jonás Cuarón
I feel like I’m one of the few people who genuinely loved this movie for what it is, but I loved this movie. Every little bit of it from the acting to the suspense; the cinematography to the music. But especially the subject matter, which I guess some people find a no-brainer? Too ham-handed? I really disagree with those sentiments. There are few films that look any kind of immigration struggle in the face at all, what more from such a perspective. It’s a story about disenfranchisement externalised in a stylised genre format. Considering how so many ‘lone ranger’ movies of the same sort exist but barely scratch the surface of anything political or even real, the fact that Desierto does so in such an intentional way is definitely my favourite part about it. It’s allegorical and over-the-top for sure – like a treacherous theatre piece juxtaposing the real – but I love the idea that humans are shown to be much more parasitic and terrible than the literal deathly nature surrounding them.
3. También la lluvia (2011), dir. Icíar Bollaín
Political pieces have rarely been as balanced as Bollaín’s Even the Rain. Once again, the idea of filmmaking, film-watching, and activism are married in a perfect symbiosis. I love this film not just because García Bernal is wonderful in it; whenever he plays characters who are this self-interested and even conceited, he always does a fabulous job. But this movie has so much more going for it, and puts in a lot of character and narrative development in it’s relatively short run-time (104 minutes). It attempts to lay out multiple sides of the primary conflict in the story, while still managing to keep a strong ethos overall. It’s more standard on the technical front, but that definitely works in its favour because it is so narratively strong and complex that it ends up being very haunting anyway.
2. Diarios de motocicleta (2004), dir. Walter Salles
This movie isn’t a ‘trip’ in the way Amores perros or even No is – in fact, The Motorcycle Diaries is decidedly less exciting, with a distinct two-part structure that starts off fun and vibrant before sobering up and slowing down considerably. I guess that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But Salles crafted a very deliberate movie, and although it is saccharine and idealistic to some degree, it’s important to remember that this is also a film about Che Guevera’s beginnings. That, to me, justifies the sweetness, because it reminds me of any kind of budding activism; the want to change the world when it seems like you’re the only person willing to do it. Such a thought doesn’t always reap the most benefits later on, but there is something very heartwarming and motivating about watching García Bernal navigate the mindset of a 23 year old Che who was all about road-tripping with his best friend. That is, until he gets struck by a cause; almost like he’s suddenly waking up. Despite the neatness, it definitely still has poignancy. Watch it, then watch the two-part Soderbergh epic Che (2008) for even better results.
1. Y Tu Mamá También (2001), dir. Alfonso Cuarón
I’m fairly certain this is tied with The Motorcycle Diaries as my favourite film in this list, but I’m putting it in first place because it interacts with the filmmaking process much more evidently. It approaches its varying topics and narrative shifts by way of amazing juxtaposition. The Arrested Development-esque voiceovers almost marring the entire experience of the boys’ epic road trip definitely serves to cut not only the awkwardly forced romance between them and the older woman they’re travelling with, but obviously situates the film politically and socially. It’s like a voice that keeps going, “WRONG!” the entire time; an omnipresence of reason over the boys’ lives and the politics pervading the story. You laugh so hard, and then realise there isn’t much to laugh about. The film keeps this up until the very end, when you’re is suddenly hit by emotions you didn’t really know you were experiencing throughout. I still can’t quite describe what it is that makes this movie so special, but the fact that a story about two teenage boys makes me feel so much and love so much is a grand feat on its own. It is quite transcendental, and definitely unlike any other film I’ve seen in recent months; indeed, it’s unlike many films I see on a regular basis. Endlessly rewatchable, and it grows more affecting each time.