If anything can be said about Latin cinema, it’s that there are a lot of really good films and a lot of really bad films. If you’re looking for the bad movies, check out our Worst Latin Movies of All Time. However, this here is nothing but the best of Latin cinema, and while there will inevitably be disagreement (we know what you’re going to say, but YES, Brazil counts as Latin, and YES…Children of Men is included because Alfonso Cuaron is Latin), the films listed are nothing less than gold.
How did we come to this list? By watching and watching and watching until our eyes burst, that’s how. If you’re asking, “Fine, you film nerds love this bourgeoisie crap, but will I like it?” We can only say that films are like fine dining: they open you up to new experiences, refine tastes, and build appreciation for stellar craftsmanship.
Making a list like this is inherently arbitrary, but film itself is subjective anyway. There should be no “safe” choices in this list and rather than opt for stuff like Viridiana, which is OK in my opinion, just not the film equivalent of an orgasm, though I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the innate hotness of Silvia Pinal in said film. So, as I excuse myself to the men’s room, here are the best Latin movies, conveniently packaged according to your mood of choice. And of course, this is only the preliminary list. More to come!
THIS SHIT’S DEPRESSING.
While Luis Buñuel has done more risqué work, his 1950 film, Los Olvidados, remains a classic of world cinema. His unvarnished take on urban poverty and crime in mid-century Mexico City mixed both social realism as well as Buñuel’s own surreal touches. Aside from that, the film shows little resemblance to his latter work. Instead of satire, he trades in a barely-hidden disgust over the fate of the impoverished. Mexico was undergoing its own version of the post-war economic miracle, but no one wanted to remember or even acknowledge the people who were left by the wayside. Of course, much of that is with the benefit of hindsight, but even then, Buñuel sensed, if not completely felt, the sheer emptiness of poverty. He ended up creating a film that at once is grounded in reality while allowing for a certain playfulness with cinematic technique. Don’t believe me? The majority of critics can’t stop creaming in their pants over this film.
2002’s City of God came out of nowhere and shot its way to immortality. While recent films get short shrift in many all time polls, this gem is holding its own quite well. Set in the 1960s and ’70s, City of God takes the familiar themes of crime and poverty in Rio De Janeiro and turns it into a story as much about the quest for validation as well as riches. Anyone and everyone in the favela is there to make a name for themselves. If poverty makes people long for better days, then crime turns that wish into a grotesque Darwinian contest. From Buscape to Ze Pequeno, no one is immune from the primal need to prove one’s existence. Of course, that theme pervades all types of media, from rap, to literature, to other crime films such as Goodfellas. The people who populate these films are in no way going to rise out of their stations but the very fact that they do it on their own terms says something about the human condition.
Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos was made right after Francisco Franco’s death and the pain and trauma of the Franco years is on full display. Ana, played by a very young pre-Tesis Ana Torrent, is a very disturbed girl who blames her dad for her mother’s death. She even claims to have killed him with poison. Her father, a military man, is just what you’d think: authoritarian and hypocritical. As the film progresses, reality and fantasy mix seamlessly and Ana is shown to nurse feelings of guilt and grief. Outside her internal crisis, her family, a model of traditional values, is shown to be hollow. Childhood, long seen as the preserve of innocence, is shown to be as or even more harrowing than adulthood. Free will is nonexistent as the words of parents are seen as gospel. Reality or even morals are only relative. The same could be said of the years of dictatorship and Ana deals with grief in a sublimely human, even logical manner: she retreats to her own refuge. After one viewing, you’d be hard pressed not to want to watch this again.
Of all the things humans can do, we can barely establish–let alone–maintain connections to each other. Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her (Hable con Ella) is not only possibly his best film, but one of the finest on l-o-v-e itself. The emotion has been tarnished in many a romance film, but the best are the ones that refuse to provide an entirely logical journey, because that, in itself, is love. The film in question shows two men who love two women who both are in a coma. Love comes in unexpected ways and Almodovar shows the strength of it through loss, dislocation, and even death. The emotion can fade and change, but once it is set, there is no limit to what one can do in the name of love, even if it defies logic or even morality.
Almodovar closed the end of the decade with a bang with Broken Embraces. Filmmaking itself is something to be recounted, as the visions of a lone person are transformed into something immortal, for all to see. Passion, like in all of Almodovar’s films, is the driving force here, but the act of filmmaking itself can also be seen as the act of procreation from a director to a star. Lluis Homar plays Harry Caine, formerly known as Mateo Blanco, a hotshot director who gets involved with Penelope Cruz, an aspiring actress in a love triangle. As their fortunes rise and fall, their work, the only legacy of their love, is endangered. Almodovar’s take on the biz is nothing less than an ode, as film noir is heavily referenced as well as the rise of technology in film production. In the end though, it’s that as well as devotion that drives the protagonist to redemption. In the words of Vincent D’Onofrio from Ed Wood, “Visions are worth fighting for.”
Mexico in the late ’90s and early 2000’s appeared to be on the verge of a change. The rest of the decade proved those assumptions to be right, for all the wrong reasons. Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna are two youngsters in a tug of war over an older woman’s heart. They go off on a road trip in search of a fabled vacation spot and learn a thing or two on just about anything. The three of them, belonging to the middle class and upper class, are perversions of the battle cries of the PRI party. Far from being guardians of the revolution, they have allowed themselves to revert to a closed government. Both are exposed to new viewpoints and struggle to accept them. Road movies are defined by self discovery. This is one of purest.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men takes on two beaten-to-death subjects–the end of the world and immigration–and creates a tour de force. Children of Men portrays a world in the near future that is on the brink of extinction. For unexplained reasons, women are rendered infertile and Clive Owen is the unlikely hero. Cuaron takes real world situations such as illegal immigration and terrorism to create a world that has lost all hope. Humanity’s legacy to earth means nothing without someone to appreciate it. Suicide drugs are marketed, rebels fight and die in their last grasps at dignity. Cuaron’s real achievement is to frame this in a brisk action film that grips you on a visceral level, as well as on a philosophical level.
In 2000, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu seemingly came out of nowhere with Amores Perros. Three stories are linked together with a car crash in Mexico City. Iñarritu, who did not start the whole hyperlink cinema craze, certainly ran with it. The difference with Amores Perros is that it simply takes a look at three disparate stories without shoving some major moral in your face. The stories, from a dog fighter, a supermodel, and a hitman posing as a homeless man deal with cruelty in all its forms. Much less a crime film than a thriller, Amores Perros also concerns itself with elitism, corruption, and just how lame it is to be on the shit end of the rope. Iñarritu’s 21 Grams and Babel continued his concerns with random people being brought together, but Amores is definitely the better of the three. Iñarritu probably thought this as well, since his next film has dispensed with that mechanic altogether.
The Mexican Revolution is one of the most remembered events in Mexican history. As a consequence of its continued effects on the country, the revolution became surrounded in mythology, false memories, and blatant whitewashing. 1936’s Vamonos Con Pancho Villa is iconoclastic to the bone and makes no apologies for it. The fact that it came so soon after the revolution itself is fascinating, but the film shows the terrors and cruelties of war, as well as the callousness of Villa. Villa is reduced to a cruel bandit dressed up as a noble rebel. Despite the tone, the film is a brisk treat that shows Villa through the eyes of group of peasants who buy into the myth of the man. In battle after battle, Villa sends his men to their deaths by the hundreds, even thousands. The similarities between this and films that showed World War I in a negative light are uncanny, but the film is concerned more with the destruction of idols rather than an anti-war message. Very few other films exist that show the Revolution as anything other than a righteous struggle.
2008’s Che shows the legendary guerilla on familiar ground, but it’s 2003’s The Motorcycle Diaries that shows the genesis of a man later to be known as Che. Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna play Che Guevara and friend Alberto Granado. They head off on a trip throughout Latin America and experience the sights and sounds of societies that are inherently unequal. Of course, Che Guevara is a controversial figure and a film that shows him gazing at peasants in wonder is bound to attract some criticism. There is no denying that the ideology that he fought for is cruel and inhuman, but the inspiration for his latter struggles was genuine. Brazilian director Walter Salles turned an uncertain premise into a triumph.