These ten knockout films are worth every minute of your time. Hypnotic, haunting, mesmerizing, electric, poetic, and powerful were some of the words used to describe these movies, among the best of the terrific work we saw in 2015.
Latino filmmakers are not only entertaining and provoking audiences, they're also celebrating the cultures and people of their countries with brilliance and dignity.
Some of these movies are the first to use a region's indigenous language in film and are gorgeously shot in lesser known and remote areas. Others are eschewing the often one-dimensional portrayals of class differences in Latin America and creating characters with dignity and nuance.
These filmmakers are also making cinematic history: In some cases they are their country's first nomination to the Academy Awards.
It’s no surprise that La Jaula de Oro (The Golden Dream), a timely drama about four Guatemalan kids making the treacherous Odyssean journey to the US, is a favorite of film auteur Carlos Gutierrez of Cinema Tropical, the leading distributor and presenter of Latino and Latin American cinema in the US. In fact, the directorial debut of Diego Quemada-Diez is so fantastic that at times the film is also difficult to watch. You have to remind yourself that the reality kids face in the trek across desserts, rivers, jungles and nefarious characters is far worse. Quemada-Diez treats the immigrant youth crisis on the US border with the mastery that the issue deserves. For his stellar efforts, the first time director has been richly rewarded. The film is a darling of the international film circuit, winning over eighty international prizes, the most of any in Mexican film history. To date, Jaula has won an award for Best Director at the Chicago International Film Festival and Best film and Best Director at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, among many others. Critics have declared the film electric, poetic and powerful and a must-see if you want to go behind the headlines and understand the immigrant crisis at the border.
Ixcanul, the mesmerizing and remarkable Guatemalan film by first- time director Jayro Bustamante, was one of the most anticipated films of the year. And it’s easy to see why. The coming of age story of a young Mayan girl who faces an unwanted pregnancy and a western world that she only dreams about is a rare story on the big screen. Bustamante is intentional in his desire to tell a story that too often and for too long has gone untold: the plight of the modern day Mayan woman. He has said in previous interviews he was inspired to shed light on “the impossibility of an underage woman, who is Mayan and lives far from a big city, to determine her own destiny. “Mayans,” he declared,” “are found at the lowest point of this terrible scale and the lowest among the Mayan population are women.” Bustamante is shining a light on this part of the world and doing it with exceptional brilliance and inspiring authenticity. Shot in Spanish and Kaqchinel, an indigenous Mayan language, the scenes of the prayers of a mother over the child in this native tongue are gorgeous and sound like a sweet ancient song. Moving and marvelous, the film is also making history—it is Guatemala’s first contender for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
IndiWire called Pablo Larraín’s, The Club (El Club), a haunting drama about pedophilia and cover-ups in the Catholic Church, “startlingly fresh and surprising.” The movie won the Jury Grand Prix Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and is an early front-runner for an Oscar. The psychological drama and dark comedy explores repentance, redemption, guilt, and faith. The story unfolds in a remote and dim coastal town in Chile—where the sun only shines every once in a while-- where four priests and a nun are banished or protected (you choose) from the sexual abuse and violent crimes they have committed against children. Larraín tackles a deeply disturbing and serious topic and handles it with brilliance, even if it’s unpleasant. There is no doubt about the Chilean director’s position on the Church—an institution so fiercely protective of its sins that he equates it to a mob organization (hence the name of the film.) The trail of denial and of destroyed lives is confronted in this terrific film.
Masterful documentarian Patricio Guzmán, who some would call one of Chile’s moral conscience, ( the other is the poet Raul Zurita, interviewed in the film,) has done it again with his latest film, the brilliant and stunning, The Pearl Button (El Botón de Nácar). Guzmán turns his lens to tell two stories that on the surface seem disconnected. The main story is about the water nomads or Kaweskar people who inhabited the Patagonia islets for 10,000 years. Only twenty remain and Guzman interviews them. The other story layered in this remarkable doc is of the men and women who were killed by former dictator Augusto Pinochet and his henchmen and whose bodies were dumped in the ocean. Water is the connecting element of the stories, in fact, of all of humanity. This is a film that explores the harsh history of a country that in the filmmaker’s opinion refuses to recognize and repent from its past sins. The film, winner of Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, is a majestic, poetic and unforgettable account of two harrowing subjects-the systematic killing of Chile’s indigenous population and the thousands of murders and disappearance of young socialists during the 1970’s that remain unsolved. While Guzmán is telling the story about a specific people and historical accounts of a nation, in many ways, he is telling the history of the entire region. This is a must-see film.
Critics hailed Mala Mala, a fun and honest documentary film about the vibrant drag and trans community in Puerto Rico, as one of the richest, most complicated portraits of identity. Add to that, it's deliciously entertaining. The film follows sex workers, LGBT activists, business owners, and a drag queen club, The Doll House as they search for personal and communal identity. Shot over a three-year period ,the film depicts the stories of a group a marginalized people in search of identity and their rightful place in society. The scenes of dancing drag queens may be boisterous and over the top, but they help equalize the moments of anguish as this community grapples not feeling as if their humanity is recognized.
When you watch the documentary, We Like it Like That: The Story of Boogaloo make sure you do so in a space where you can dance. You’ll thank us later. Boogaloo is a funky sound that combined R&B, salsa and Afro Cuban beats and was birthed by innovative and adventurous Nuyorican musicians in East Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. It may have been short lived as a musical movement, but its recent popularity is proof point that classic sounds never die. This wonderful film by journalist Matthew Warren-Ramirez features rare and vintage footage and interviews with the music’s legends: Joe Bataan, Jimmy Sabater, Johnny Colon, and Pete Rodriguez among others. It showcases a music that defined a generation of New York in the 1960’s and shows why it is here to stay. Warren Ramirez stumbled upon boogaloo while rummaging through album crates in flea markets. He was so taken by the sounds that he started a Kickstarter campaign to tell the story of the rise and fall and rise again of this beautiful and soulful music. The film is making festival rounds and premiered at SXSW in Austin nabbing the Beast Feature Documentary Award in the Urbanworld Film Festival. A must-see for music lovers.
A woman’s desire to grow and follow an inner yearning outside her community is at the heart of the dazzling film, Gone with the River (Dauna. Lo que Lleva el Rio) written and directed by Cuban-Venezuelan Mario Crespo. Shot in the Orinoco Delta with local and unprofessional actors, the film is a stunning reflection on gender, culture, and community and the ramifications on the self and the community when one leaves to live out one’s dreams and desires. What is the price you and your community pay for your departure and desire to see the world outside of the tribe? Based loosely on a true story, the film, Venezuela’s entry in the Oscars, is even more special because the story is told in Warao, the language of the indigenous people of the northeastern part of Venezuela, a first for the big screen.
The Colombian film, El Abrazo de la Serpiente (The Embrace of the Serpent) is one of those rare films that has enchanted critics and audiences alike. Directed by the talented Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra and produced by his wife, Cristina Gallego, the film was inspired by the diaries of two European explorers who entered Colombia’s Amazonian jungle at the turn of the last century and their relationship to a shaman. Filmed in the Colombian Amazon jungle, this breathtaking movie featuring an impressive nine languages spoken on screen. It is a celebration of the resilience and beauty of the cultures and people of the region who have suffered greatly at the hands of Western invaders. The Hollywood Reporter called this film “a mesmerizing exploration of man, nature, and the destructive powers of colonialism.” Variety called it a “visually majestic film that pays tribute to the lost cultures and civilization of the Colombian Amazon.” The film has won accolades and several film festival awards including the Art Cinema Award at the Cannes Film Festival. But the biggest fans of the film are indigenous audiences. According to interviews with the filmmakers, indigenous communities are hailing the movie for its dignified and authentic representation of their story. Guerra translated the film to various indigenous languages and gave the screenplay to the groups for approval because he believed that their side of the story in history had not been told. The director was inspired to shoot the movie in black and white – a surprising move given the breadth of dazzling colors in the Amazon -- because the indigenous communities of the region have fifty words to describe the color green and with a black and white film, he wanted the spectator to be engaged in imagining the innumerable shades of green.
Sand Dollars (Doláres de Arena), based on the novel by Jean-Noel Pancranzi, Les Dollars de Sables, tells the story a lesbian love for money scheme. An unhappy wealthy older European woman (played by Geraldine Chaplin) travels to the Dominican Republic in search of sun, beach, and sex. She falls in love and lust with a young and poor, but cunning, local girl who trades her body for money and hopefully, to escape poverty. Directed by the wife-husband team, Dominican born Laura Amelia Guzman and her Mexico native husband Israel Cardenas, the film explores a topic of class, exploitation, inequality, and politics in the beautiful backdrop of Santo Domingo. For the beautifully shot scenes alone, the film is worth the time. The film is the Dominican Republic’s official entry to the Oscars.
At the center of Anna Muylaert’s delightful dramedy The Second Mother is Val, a live-in housekeeper and nanny who lives with a wealthy Sao Paolo family and who helped raise their only child since he was a toddler. When Val’s teenage daughter Jessica - whom she had left behind in the countryside with her grandfather - makes a surprise visit, class, family, and a fragile mother-daughter relationships are tested. Muylaert says that she was inspired to write the story after her own experience with a nanny and her discovery that “taking care of other people’s children is a sacred act.” Muylaert handled her working class protagonist with much care and dignity and not with the usual one-dimensional caricature common when poor women are portrayed on the big screen. The film represented Brazil in the race for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and nabbed international festival prizes including the Audience Award in the Berlin Film Festival and a special Jury Prize at Sundance. Look for it in major US cities in 2016.