It was an incredibly busy year for Latino cinema, with films premiering and winning prizes at local and international festivals. Unfortunately, most of these movies don’t make it to theaters in the U.S. and when they do it’s at a festival that only hardcore cinephiles may know about. So, even though Latinos love movies and go to the theater a lot more than other ethnic groups — they end up watching mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, not Latino indies. We know it’s hard to keep up with all the movies coming out of Latin America and/or made by home-grown Latinos and you can’t go to as many festivals as you’d like — so we’re here to help. Here is our list of the Top 14 Latino Films of 2014 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).
Brazil’s tropical coastline provides the stunning backdrop to documentary director Mascaro’s first dramatic film, which unfurls as a series of revealing accounts in the lives of Shirley and her boyfriend Jeison. When the latter finds a human skull while dive-fishing, it sets in motion a meditative sashay through themes of life and death, most poetically summed up by an elderly man: “Those who die here don’t end up in heaven or hell. They end up in the sea.” It is just one moment that captures the relationship between people and their environment, with the inevitability of death returning us to the elements from which we emerge. A mesmerizing and beautiful portrait of our place in the greater order of things.
At 37 years old, time is not on his side. Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez can drop the best boxers with his lightning strikes, floor the most beautiful women with his devastating looks, and has a hard scrabble immigrant story and work ethic that make him a natural hero. But a willingness to call it the way he sees it and speak truth to power, has left him a virtual pariah in the notorious corrupt world of professional boxing. This is story of a man fighting to fight. But the clock is ticking. It may already be too late.
Admitting that he wanted to take the hallucinatory experience of an LSD trip and replicate its intense visionary experience for the non-acid dropping filmgoer, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky recounts his experience trying to make a filmic adaptation of the classic sci-fi book Dune. At the height of his renown in the mid 70s, Jodorowsky took on a big budget and big challenges to shoot the story, but in the classic more is not always better lesson (shocker: yeah, even with Jodorowsky!), the project became mythic but never concrete. The film documents the fascinating, legend-inspiring what-if’s of whether Jodorowsky could have actually realized Dune with stars such as Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Orson Welles and countless amazing graphic artists. But more importantly, it’s a fascinating chance to listen to Jodorowsky speak in his own, utterly mind-opening and spellbinding words and to see the wizard behind the curtain. A more lucidly-compelling, messed-up master there never was.
Rock ‘n’ roll is hard when your band only has one song. Especially when you’re too busy trying to pop your cherry to write the second one you need for the local Battle of the Bands contest. Alex’s split priorities alienate his bandmates, who one by one drop out of Guadalajaran garage-punk outfit Mari Pepa (named in honor of marijuana and female genitalia). To make matters worse for 16-year-old Alex, his grandma is getting no younger and is becoming increasingly reliant on her Cobain-aspiring grandson. This coming-of-age tale, a big hit on the 2013 festival circuit for its quirky homemade style and heartening performances, is a nostalgic salute to the end of an era when all of life’s tribulations can be eliminated simply by turning it up to eleven.
The third film from the prolific director duo of Texas-born García and his Lebanese filmmaking partner Attieh, this dark, surreal comedy follows a young aspiring actress who heads to the border town of Del Rio to work on a low-budget horror film, The Return of the Phantom Guards about a satanic cult, and a Mexican cowboy ostensibly in town as a horticultural salesman but who may have a hidden agenda. Spliced with images from the film within a film, inspired by traditional Mexican folk tales, it jumps between US daytime television and late-night mariachi sessions to compelling effect, being part-celebrity satire and part-filmmaking homage. Both lead actors were awarded the Jury Prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Brazil’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2015 Academy Awards, this dramatic romance stars Ghilherme Lobo as Leonardo, a blind teenager who wants to study abroad but has one big obstacle, his overprotective mother. When new kid Gabriel shows up at school, drawing the attraction of both he and his best girlfriend, Leonardo’s world is turned upside down. A jubilant portrait of young gay love, this assured debut feature tenderly parses the terrain of growing up different in more ways than one. The film won two major awards at the Berlin International Film Festival this year and has been screened across the world at a number of LGBT film festivals, including L.A. Outfest and the Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Toronto.
There’s a distinct Cheech and Chong vibe in High Five. It’s a comedy of errors — if you consider doing multiple drugs in lieu of studying for your finals an error. Although college seniors Elias (Joaquin Tome) and Andres (Santiago Quintans) should be studying so they can graduate, they decide to call a few friends over to partake in a huge supply of illegal drugs they find. But when drugs like LSD get thrown into the mix, along with ecstasy, coke, and Special K, anything can happen in this chaotic comedy adventure by first-time feature director/writer Manuel Facal. But real life creeps back in when one student’s grandmother dies.
When happy couple Carmen (Daniela Rincón) and Alfredo (Andrés Almeida) decide to move to Mexico City and leave their quaint suburban lives behind so Alfredo can start a new job, they get more than they bargain for. The change in location puts a burden on both of them as they try to get settled in. But when Carmen starts feeling bad about her weight and Alfredo begins to stray from their relationship, can the couple survive in their new environment or will life in the big city destroy the happiness they once shared?
Of the five Paranormal Activity movies, this is the only one that features an all-Latino cast and is set in a working class neighborhood in Oxnard, California. Jesse and his best friend Hector are typical teenagers, spending their lazy summer days filming their silly hijinx with the camera Jesse got as a high school graduation gift. They make videos of Hector’s little dog Chavo, take tequila shots with abuela, and light fireworks in the parking lot. They joke about boners, R. Kelly, and their scary neighbor Ana who people around the hood call a bruja. When Jesse starts mysteriously developing freaky super powers his abuela is convinced that he’s possessed by a demonic spirit. She heads to her local botanica for advice and meets with a curandero who instructs her on how to carry out a limpia. Finally, a studio that set out to make a Latino film gets it right. It’s culturally-specific without pandering, plus it’s spooky, thrilling, and hilarious.
Brothers Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) and Fede aka Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) are desperately seeking famed singer Epigmenio Cruz in this road movie/coming-of-age tale hybrid. The 1999 UNAM strike provides historical context and some drama, but this is mostly a story of a “lost generation”: Sombra and his friends consider joining the protests for lack of anything else to do, and Tomás clings to a cassette tape and his past. When they hit the road to track down the aforementioned music legend, hilarity and edification ensue.
Come for the dialectics, stay for the gorgeous computer models of Bogota — we’ve had this throwback-animation film on our minds for a few weeks now. Desterrada is writer-director Diego Guerra’s vision of a near-future Colombia that has never fully resolved its class issues. The film focuses on the “have nots”; that is, the “have not really been adversely affected by Colombia’s civil unrest.” One of these privileged few is Ana (Monica Chavez), the daughter of a leftist professor. When Ana and her friends are eventually drawn into the conflict, she bemoans this “inheritance.”
Director Marcela Said sticks to her documentary-making roots in a film that’s more show than tell. The Summer of Flying Fish examines the real-life conflict between Euro-Chilean landowners who greedily protect their “real estate,” and the indigenous Mapuche tribe who look at themselves as belonging to the land. Said populates her world with non-actors who have a real stake in the events that unfold, and she relies on outspoken characters and their age-old hostilities in place of exposition. The end result is a very intimate film that’s just as heartbreaking as it is political.
The makers of Mala Mala hit the streets and clubs of Puerto Rico to film a joyous and often raucous look at the lives of trans women (mostly performers) in San Juan. Though they travel the road to transition differently, they are united in their fight for equality. The trans spokeswomen engage in street-level activism and march in support of an anti-LGBTQ discrimination legislation. But the film is careful not to define its subjects by their struggle, so there’s plenty of glitter and double-stick tape to go along with the blood, sweat, and tears.
A lot of record labels like to talk about the family dynamic within, but Wild Records in Los Angeles is truly a home for the prodigal sons and daughters of rock ‘n roll. The label’s rockabilly sound is personified by mostly Mexican-American performers (modern day greasers), but label owner Reb Kennedy is quick to point out the international appeal of the bands. Yes, Los Wild Ones first entered the pop culture consciousness last year, but this award-winning documentary continued its film festival wins well into 2014.