This year, countless articles touted the box office power held by Latinos. It turns out we go to the theater way more than any other ethnic group. It’s nothing new, statistics have shown that Latinos love going the movies for years. What’s different is that movie studios are scrambling to cater to what they see as a loyal audience. Most of the films that Latinos watch are mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. At the same time Latin American movies are blowing up the international film festival circuit, are heralded by critics, and are winning coveted awards. The American Latino film scene is also burgeoning yet remains less lauded than our neighbors to the south. So, why aren’t Latinos watching Latino films?
It’s a good question that’s hard to answer. Some of the obvious answers are lack of information and lack of distribution. A lot of these movies don’t play in a theater in the United States and when they do most Latinos won’t hear about them. If we are lucky some of them get to iTunes, Netflix streaming, or on DVD. As always, Remezcla is here to help. Here is our list of the Top 10 Latino Films of 2013 That You Probably Didn’t See But Should.
*In case you are wondering how we picked the movies. It was a complicated process that is akin to an election in Latin America –- back-room deals, bribery, and threats of violence. Eventually, we agreed on a totally unfair system of rating the movies we liked that played in U.S. theaters or prestigious film festivals throughout the year and may have won some awards. And before you get all huffy, we chose to include films directed by American-born Latinos, Latin Americans, and by non-Latinos (but on Latino subjects).
Director: Benjamin Avila
Infancia Clandestina (Clandestine Childhood) draws from the director’s own life experience growing up in Argentina in the late ‘70s when a military junta was in power and carried out the dirty war, targeting leftists. Young Juan and his family have been living in Cuba, in exile, because of his parent’s involvement with Montoneros, a group of leftist guerillas. His parents decide to return to Argentina with their comrades to fight against the dictatorship. They enter the country under assumed identities with fake passports — Juan’s new name is Ernesto. His family is always under threat of being found out, they are in a constant state of fear. He must learn to get rid of his Cuban accent, to speak like an Argentinean. He practices his new name over and over; his dad shows him the secret room he must hide in if need be. Then at his new school he meets Maria, his very first crush. The handheld camera with skewed frames, low angles, and bright colors, together with its melodic score take you inside the director’s cinematic memoir. It is a portrait of a loving family and a regular kid living under exceptional circumstances. There are terrifying moments when Juan’s life and that of his family is in danger. His mother yells at him to hide in the secret room; the only sound we hear is his heavy breathing. His fear pulsates through the screen. There are also tender, sweet moments like the first time he kisses Maria or when he holds her hand on the bus ride home from camp. His intense feelings for Maria provide an escape from his constant fear. The film won ten awards at the Premios Sur, Argentina’s equivalent of the Oscars and last year was their official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s funny, moving, and just so darn cute.
Director: Fernando Eimbcke
The delicately balanced tone of Club Sandwich relies on a simple premise. Hector, a boy on the verge of manhood, is on vacation with his mother, Paloma. She is young, has an eyebrow ring, and at first seems more like an older sister than his mom. They spend their days in lounge chairs sunbathing by the hotel pool, listening to their iPods. Hector’s budding sexuality and impending puberty come up against one obstacle. He has never met his father and his mother is his best friend. He has to learn how to be a man on his own. When he notices that he starts to smell bad he has no choice but to use his mom’s flowery-scented deodorant. When he shaves his faint moustache for the first time he uses his mom’s pink disposable razor. Then, he meets teenaged Jazmin who is staying at the hotel with her parents. She and Hector quickly become friends and Hector slowly pulls away from his mom. Emotions are understated, communicated mostly in glances and gestures. The interactions often banal, the hot, sticky weather a favorite topic of conversation. The humor doesn’t come from jokes but from long awkward silences and short awkward conversations. The crux of the film is in the painful moment when Paloma must learn to let go, to let her little boy grow up. But at night lying in bed with the lights out things remain the same. “I love you,” she tells him. He replies, “me too.” The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and continues to play the festival circuit.
Directors: Nadine Mundo, Rena Mundo
Country: United States
In the sixties, amidst the growing discontent with mainstream society in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district was a man who many saw as a spiritual guru, Stephen Gaskin. In 1970, he led a ragtag group of 300 hippies across the country driving from California to Tennessee in brightly painted vans and old school buses until arriving in Summertown. This is how The Farm, the largest commune in the United States, was born. Amongst the hippies and dropouts were Jan and Jose Mundo an,“unlikely coupling of a Puerto Rican from the Bronx and a Jewish girl from Beverly Hills.” They would spend over a decade living on The Farm raising their children under a vow of poverty. Then the Mundos’ marriage began to fall apart. Though painful they decided to leave the commune, separately. There was a mass exodus from The Farm starting in the eighties and it included sisters Nadine and Rena, along with their mom who moved them to their grandparents’ luxury apartment building in Santa Monica, California. Life off The Farm wasn’t an easy transition for pre-teen Nadine and Rena. On The Farm there was no T.V., they didn’t have makeup, they didn’t eat meat and shared everything they owned. They struggled to fit in and kept their past a secret from their new friends. Fast forward a couple of decades and the Mundo sisters having spent their childhood never watching television found themselves working for Viacom, one of the biggest media conglomerates, as directors for MTV. It was this paradox that sparked the idea to make a documentary. The footage they shot of themselves — riding in a car to the commune, putting on make-up, looking through old family pictures and reminiscing about family stories with their mom — feels like you are watching home movies. Not the shaky kind that make you feel nauseous but the type that capture intimate moments no outsider could ever get. It’s a deeply personal film but at the same time tells the story of the thousands of people who passed through The Farm.
Director: Petra Costa
Any piece of art — a book, a painting, a film, a song — should make you feel something, should stir something up inside of you. Elena does just that. It elegantly and delicately punches you right in the gut. It’s a devastating story and what makes it even more tragic, is that it’s true. In this documentary Petra travels to New York to pursue her dream of acting just like her older sister, Elena, did many years before. But sadly, Elena never returned to their native Brazil. Petra is not just in New York in search of a dream but she’s also in search of her lost sister. She wanders the streets wondering if Elena had done the same. Home movies, dream sequences, hauntingly melancholic music, grainy footage, and Petra’s soft-spoken poetic narration reveal her need to resolve the deep sorrow she carries inside. She must dig further to find out the truth. She interviews her mom asking questions about what Elena was like as a young child, visits the different places her sister called home, and uses a treasure trove of family pictures and videos to relive the memories, to bring Elena back to life. In one of the most captivating scenes, a woman floats in a pool of water and in voice-over Petra speaks directly to her sister. Shot from above, the woman floats aimlessly. Like Petra, she is lost. The scene is quiet and contemplative, the images ethereal, and the despair palpable. Petra and her family’s enduring grief is heart-wrenching to watch but the emotional upheaval it causes in the spectator can be cathartic to those who have experienced a similar loss.
Director: Sebastian Lelio
In his fourth film, Sebastian Lelio struck a chord with Gloria, a humorous look at a middle-aged woman who navigates dating life after a divorce. When it opened theatrically in Chile women packed the cinemas. Afterwards they came back with their sisters, daughters, and friends to watch the movie again. It is an audience that is starved for relatable images on the big screen as it’s rare for a film to center on a fifty-something woman as its protagonist. In her role as the titular Gloria, Paulina Garcia is magnetic, endearing, and radiant. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Gloria at times. She is clearly very lonely. She’s divorced, works a boring office job, and her children are grown and too busy to return her calls let alone spend time with her. She finds solace at a nightclub, drinking and dancing the night away. On one of these outings she meets Rodolfo, also newly divorced. He’s nervous around her, fumbling his words but asks her to dance. Then he asks her out on a date. Quickly, Rodolfo falls hard for Gloria. She seems to be smitten as well. Together they are youthful and exuberant and seek new thrills bungee-jumping, paintballing, and on dinner dates. On a romantic weekend trip things start to fall apart. She’s alone again, lost, and longing for a connection. She takes to smoking weed and lying listlessly in bed. Then through a series of events she finds herself, becomes comfortable in her own skin. It’s a story of redemption, of conquering chronic loneliness, and of female strength. In the end, it’s the ultimate feel good movie that we all often need. Chile selected it as this year’s submission to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. Its scheduled to open in U.S. theaters in January of 2014.
My Sister’s Quinceañera
Director: Aaron Douglas Johnston
Country: United States
Director Aaron Douglas Johnston knew he wanted to make a film in his home state of Iowa and decided to tell a story about the growing Mexican-American population. There was one problem, he didn’t have a script or any idea what the movie would be about. So, he set up an acting workshop in Muscatine, Iowa and invited members of the local community to participate. In that workshop was a single mom, Becky and her oldest son, Silas. Out of the acting exercises led by Johnston and input from the participants came the idea to make a film about a quinceañera. He cast Becky and Silas to play characters based on themselves even though they had never acted before. Throughout the shoot they continued to improvise the story and dialogue as they went along. The resulting film is a slice of life of a family in the midwest that just happens to be Latino. Silas, as the oldest child, helps his mom wrangle the responsibility of raising his many younger siblings. He’s just a teenager but has to act as the man of the house. His mom works lates and he cooks dinner, puts the kids to bed, and plays video games. Silas dreams of the day he can be free, when he can move out and leave his small hometown. In the meantime his mom is planning his younger sister’s quinceañera. They have to find the perfect dress, practice the choreographed dances, and buy a crown. Everything moves along at a leisurely pace, like a lazy summer day. The kids jump on a trampoline against a shimmering, golden sunset. The littlest siblings get in fights and throw tantrums, Silas soothes their tears. Amidst the mundane everyday chores — cooking, shopping, washing a car — we hear about Silas’ dreams and fears. Using non-professional actors makes this film feel authentic and genuine. It‘s as if we are watching a real family in their midwestern suburban home, sharing their most intimate moments.
Director: Bruno Irrizary
Country: Puerto Rico, United States
Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Broadway’s “In The Heights” fame stars as a Nuyorican comic book writer in this bilingual romantic comedy. Raul is out one night at a club with his best friend trying to hit on women but mostly striking out. A beautiful woman walks in, her name is Maria Sanchez and he falls head over heels in love. Of course, there is a catch. She’s in New York on vacation and the following day returns home to Puerto Rico. After Raul and his friend get in a fist fight with some of the bar patrons, Maria runs out of the place but somehow leaves her necklace behind. Raul decides that he must go to Puerto Rico, to find his love, and give back her shiny necklace. After some hijinx, together with his best friend Raul lands in la isla del encanto. Now they must find Maria Sanchez. After a thorough search in the phone book they discover that her’s is a very common name; there are 200 women listed. After a few fruitless phone calls he changes tactics and sends letters to all of them in which he asks the real Maria Sanchez to call him so he can return the necklace to its rightful owner. Impatient and nervous that he won’t find her he goes on a road trip across the island on the hunt for his beloved Maria Sanchez. Along the way are silly gags, poop jokes, cheesy coincidences, and a trip to a santera (played by Iris Chacon) but ultimately the search itself becomes the real journey. With its animated sequences, upbeat music, slapstick comedy, and earnest love story it’s a charming, entertaining film that will leave you all smiles. When it opened in Puerto Rico it broke box office records outselling all other films playing that weekend including big budget Hollywood blockbusters.
Director: Carlo Guillermo Proto
Country: Canada, Chile
We all contemplate our own mortality from time to time but Gustavo Proto, a 58 year-old Chilean immigrant is obsessed with his own death. Gustavo’s father committed suicide when he was only 16, his mother died in his arms after struggling with Alzheimer’s. Suffering from memory loss, he’s convinced that he also has Alzheimer’s and threatens to commit suicide to avoid the onset of the devastating illness. Gustavo’s son Carlo, having spent his life constantly dealing with his father’s threats of killing himself, picks up a camera and turns it on himself and his family. He follows his father to doctor’s appointments and to a funeral home where he picks out coffins. Intimate footage of frank discussions about Gustavo’s choice to end his own life punctuates the difficulty and complexity of the situation. In a particularly touching yet unsettling scene Gustavo asks his young grandson, “Are you going to be ok when I die?” He tenderly responds, “I would be crying the first day and the second day but then after I will be ok.” Even the youngest family member intuitively knows that his grandfather needs support and validation of his morbid plans. After all, Gustavo sees it as protecting his family from the anguish of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s. Despite its heavy and intense content there are moments of levity and even humor. The open communication amongst Gustavo’s wife and children about suicide, a subject that people often remain silent about, is compelling and instructive. When Gustavo reveals his dream of returning to Chile and competing in rodeos with the other huasos (Chilean cowboys) the documentary takes us down a path that his family has clearly trekked many times — questioning his right to even entertain thoughts of suicide. He has so much life left and dreams to pursue, why would he end it? Ultimately, his family and the audience must come to terms with the troublesome fact that ending his own life is a choice that Gustavo has the right to make.
Directors: Ana Guevara, Leticia Jorge
When the directors cast a teenager without prior acting experience to play Lucia, the protagonist of their film, they didn’t imagine that the shoot would mirror their film. Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge had to endure mood swings, crying fits, and teenage angst. As it turns out the real life drama on set added a level of naturalism that a professional actress just couldn’t have replicated. It’s a familiar story told in an unconventional way. Divorced dad Alberto (Nestor Guzzini) wants to spend time with his two children, teenaged Lucia and her younger brother Federico. He plans a week-long vacation for the three of them at the nearby hot springs. On the car ride there it becomes obvious that the kids aren’t too thrilled about the trip, they mostly ignore him listening to music and napping. When they arrive to their small cabin Federico looks around and asks, “Where’s the TV?” His dad explains that there is no TV. He says, “No TV for a week. You have the rest of your life to watch TV.” This little moment and countless others like it amount to a tragedy of epic proportions for the young siblings. They are perpetually bored. The worst part of all, the rain. It won’t stop pouring. Most of the outdoor activities that the hot springs have to offer are halted by the gloomy weather. The pool is off limits because of an impending electrical storm, they can’t go fishing or sightseeing. They’re trapped in their tiny room playing board games but they can’t even agree on what game to play. As comes with the territory of living with a teenager, there is lots of sulking. The continuous sound of rain, the soft, moody score, low-key acting, teenage hormones, cringe-worthy moments, and sweet, tender interactions between a dad and his kids make this film work. It’s fresh, charming, absorbing, and intimate. Who knew that a boring family vacation could be so entertaining?
Director: Mariana Rondon
Set in a housing project in crowded Caracas, Pelo Malo (Bad Hair) introduces us to 9 year-old Junior who beats to his own drummer. His mother, Marta, is struggling to find work after recently being let go from her job as a security guard. She cleans houses and does what she can but is constantly worried about having enough to eat for her two young children. Adding to her distress is Junior’s eccentric behavior, he just isn’t like other boys. The school is requiring a new picture for his ID card and he desperately wants to have a makeover. He hates his curly hair and begs his mom to straighten it. She won’t listen, little boys shouldn’t be worried about their looks. She doesn’t understand his effeminate behavior and lashes out in anger when she finds Junior staring at himself in the mirror. His grandmother, Carmen, is more forgiving. When she catches him glancing at a cute teenage boy at a newsstand she realizes what his “eccentric” behavior is really all about. His mom is furious when she realizes her son has a crush on a boy but his grandmother accepts him for who he is. The performances are natural and realistic owing in part to the artistic freedom given to the actors while on set. The director never let the cast see the script preferring for them to improvise their lines. It’s a delicate story about dealing with awakening feelings and exploring a new identity in a hostile, homophobic environment.