Roger Ebert Home

Meet the Writers: Carlos Aguilar

Editor's note: To give you a chance to get to know our writers better, we've asked them to respond to some questions. Here's Carlos Aguilar. Read his work here.


1. Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I was born and grew up in Mexico City, a massive metropolis brimming with contrasts. Its relentless chaos and majestic beauty are always at odds. Throughout my childhood my parents and I (and later my younger brother) lived in a small room in my paternal grandmother’s house located in a working class neighborhood in the northern part of the city near the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. My elementary school was around the corner from home. I didn’t have many friends, but I excelled academically. Not because my parents demanded it, but because I was an annoying little overachiever. I was also a voracious reader thanks to a teacher who lent countless books and who was kind enough to read the short stories I wrote on my free time. Unfortunately, at home we were dealing with economic hardship and domestic violence tied to my father’s alcoholism. But while it wasn’t always a happy upbringing, my mother’s efforts to expose my brother and I to culture made a difference. We had no money, but she would find free events, museums, or discounted reading materials, so that we wouldn’t feel completely trapped by our circumstances. In my early teens, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to continue to support two kids and much less provide an education, my parents agreed for my aunt in the U.S. to take me in. Today I look back at those formative years in Mexico City with a bittersweet lens.

2. Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

I owe my passion for film to my mom. She has been an avid cinephile her whole life. Her taste ranges from a profound love for James Bond flicks to a great appreciation for Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman. Her curiosity for learning has always astonished me. Though she was only afforded a grade school education, she’s read all the classics and always sought out movies from around the world. As a kid, we couldn’t afford to go on vacation or to have video games; so going to the cinema with her was the biggest treat for me. Beyond influencing my taste, her respect and love for the arts validated me. Even if objectively there was no real path for me to ever work in the film industry, she never told me it wasn’t feasible. She let me believe there was a chance, somehow, somewhere. Coming from where I come from, if she hadn’t allowed me to dream, I wouldn’t be writing this today.

3. What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on a bootleg Betamax tape my parents bought for me at a street market. I’d watch it obsessively, so much that at some point they had to get a replacement copy. While the amazing songs (in their Latin American Spanish dubs) and the score were a big part of the appeal, it was the magic of the animation that bewitched me. The first movie I remember watching in a theater was "Aladdin" when I was around three years old. Soon after, I told my mom one day I would work for Walt Disney. Sad to report that never happened. But unlike some people that believe animated works are only for children, I never grew out of my love for the medium.

4. What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."

Probably “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” As a child watching it on television I was perplexed by the notion that flesh-and-blood individuals could interact with cartoons so seamlessly. Although from an early age I was aware that animation was created through a series of drawings, what Robert Zemeckis and his team achieved blew my young mind away. It wasn’t until years later that I would become fully conscious of how they did it.

5. What's the first movie you ever walked out of?

Seventh Son,” that awful fantasy epic starring Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. It’s so recent because I’m a completist. Even if what’s on screen is bad, I usually fight the urge to leave and stick around till the end. As a film critic I’ve sat through terrible movies with the purpose of reviewing them, but on this occasion I was casually watching with friends. After about 15 minutes of that dreadful tale, we collectively decided we couldn’t endure it any longer. We headed to the ticket booth and asked if we could watch “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” instead. That was a much better choice.

6. What's the funniest film you've ever seen?

Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” is definitely a laugh-out-loud marvel that comes at you fast with the gags. But there’s also the Norwegian film “Kitchen Stories,” which is delightfully quirky and insightfully hilarious. Both of these, for distinct reasons, really put a smile on my face.

7. What's the saddest film you've ever seen?

I’m sure there is many movies that have made me cry, but if I think of a single moment in a film that’s uniquely devastating it’d be the scene in “Dumbo” when his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, caresses him and sings to him through the bars of the place where she is being kept captive. 

8. What's the scariest film you've ever seen?

Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (the 1997 original to be precise) without a doubt. It’s not only that the murderers are so deceitfully unremarkable in their appearance but the casual and nonchalant calmness with which they carry out their evil acts. The element of randomness in picking their victims and, of course, how by breaking the fourth wall Haneke eviscerates the viewer’s hope for the characters’ salvation, is bone chilling.

9. What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?

Easily Todd Hayne’s “Carol,” which brims with melancholia as the two women at the center of the love story fall for each other in secret. The winter setting and the gorgeous color palette soothe us as we witness the soft-spoken exchanges in an incandescent connection that 1950s American society rejects. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett grace the film with some of their finest work to date.

10. What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

As a kid I watched tons of anime, and, like for many children growing up in Latin America at the same time, “Saint Seiya” was a favorite. It was admittedly a violent show, but it blended high-stakes drama with Greek mythology, astronomy and astrology in a tale of friendship. It was impressive visually, considered it was first released in Japan in the '80s before becoming popular abroad in the '90s, and from a narrative standpoint it dealt with serious themes beginning with all the major characters being orphans. Even as a young viewer I knew that “Saint Seiya” or “Los Caballeros del Zodiaco” was operating on a different and much more sophisticated wavelength than American cartoons.

11. What book do you think about or revisit the most?

Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which I read as a teen based on a teacher’s recommendation and completely enthralled me with its candor and approach to the notion of youth from the point of view of a perceived outsider.

12. What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

It’ll always be The Killers. They became popular just as I starting high school, so in a way their first two albums (Hot Fuzz and Sam’s Town) feel like the soundtrack of my teenage years. I’m fascinated by Brandon Flowers’ lyrical storytelling and the epic quality of the band’s stadium-ready anthems. It also doesn’t hurt that some of their music videos cinematic quality such as “When You Were Young” (filmed in Mexico) or “Bones” (directed by Tim Burton).

13. Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.” It’s a film I admire and truly believe is a daring and masterful achievement, but I might need a very good reason to ever stomach it again.  

14. What movie have you seen more times than any other?

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie.” It was the movie that introduced me to cinema beyond Disney animation and the Hollywood mainstream, and I find every aspect of it wondrous, from the dreamlike cinematography to Yann Tiersen's magnificent score. Watching it brings me instant joy. I even went to see the short-lived and not particularly great stage adaptation.

15. What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

Every Saturday, one of Mexico’s local channels, Canal 5, would program American movies, from action flicks to horror. One of those nights when I was very young my parents and I watched “The Exorcist.” And though films that showed there were heavily edited for broadcast television, I was terrified. My Catholic upbringing was certainly to blame. I probably watched many bits and pieces of R-rated movies on that channel growing up, but “The Exorcist” and “Child’s Play” remained vivid for a long time. I clearly didn’t enjoy them, but they were for sure effective in scaring me. 

16. What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?

Spirited Away.” Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece left me speechless when I was finally able to see it at a theater in Mexico City after having read about it for a long time. The world he built by hand and the set pieces that miraculously unfold will never stop stunning me. I’m always shocked when anyone dares choosing anything else as the greatest animated film of all time in the ever-present best-of lists.

17. Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Pedro Infante, Gael García Bernal, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Antonio Banderas, Mads Mikkelsen, Ryan Gosling, Joaquin Phoenix, Danny Glover.

18. Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

Isabelle Huppert, María Felix, Nicole Kidman, Emmanuelle Riva, Sonia Braga, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Salma Hayek.

19. Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?

A tie between Asghar Farhadi and Pedro Almodóvar

20. Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?

Andrew and Jon Erwin

21. What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

Disney’s “Treasure Planet” is truly an underrated and unloved gem. Watching it now as an adult I continue to be impressed by the layered relationship between these versions of Jim Hawkins and John Silver amidst gorgeous space landscapes. Let’s also not forget that Morph is among the most adorable Disney sidekicks.

22. What film do you hate that most people love?

A hateful tie between Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” and Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” 

23. Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

A couple year’s ago, the opening night screening of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) took place at the iconic Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and it was the documentary “The Sentence.” The film follows director Rudy Valdez’s journey documenting the years his sister was imprisoned and away from her daughters. As the heartbreaking conclusion approached, the entire, sold-out theater was audibly crying. Some people were so loud in their uncontrollable outburst of emotion that others around had to calm them down. Such a spontaneous and collective release of pain has stuck with me.

24. What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?

By far the lack of respect and consideration some moviegoers have towards others trying to enjoy the film up on the screen, namely texting, talking, or even worse, taking photos of the screen or taking phone calls. This behavior has become so pervasive that when you politely ask someone to put their phone away they often react aggressively as if you are in the wrong. The entitlement of some people ruins the collective experience. 

25. What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

Growing up in the '90s in Mexico there were movie theaters were you could watch more than one movie for the price of one, with an intermission between shows. One in particular catered to young kids and had its walls decorated with animated characters.

26. Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?

Not damaged a friendship, but my friends know that if they use their phone or talk excessively while we are watching a movie in a theater, I probably won’t ever ask them to go to the movies with me again. We can still be friends, but I’ll think twice about asking them.  

27. What movies have you dreamed about?

Definitely those set in Mexico City, like “Güeros,” “Museo,” or even “Roma,” as I’m reminded of the city I used to know. It recently happened to me with the movie “I Carry You With Me,” which is not set in my hometown but speaks about how sometimes we confuse memories with dreams in relation to the people or places we long for.

28. What concession stand item can you not live without?

Peanut M&Ms

Carlos Aguilar

Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. 

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Janes
Crimes of the Future


comments powered by Disqus