As usual though, there are several films from Latin America and produced here in the U.S. by and for Latinos that you’ve probably missed. Sure, you don’t need reminding that Eugenio Derbez was at it again trying his hand at mainstream comedy and upending Latino stereotypes but we wanted to highlight the kinds of projects that don’t quite get the press that some of these more mainstream flicks do. It’s why we came up with a foolproof guide to 2017’s Latino films you should catch up with. They encompass the varied work being produced by some of the best in the business.
From a tour-de-force character study starring breakout trans Chilean actresses to an uplifting documentary about a civil rights heroine, the list includes Sundance, Cannes, and Berlin film festival darlings, Ariel Award winners, and plenty of Oscar submissions in the Foreign Language Film category. So consider adding them all to your personal must-watch list; some are already available to stream! — Manuel Betancourt
Editor’s Note: The process behind selecting these films was complicated and akin to a hotly contested election in Latin America including back-room deals and occasional bribery. 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. We chose to include films directed by American-born Latinos, Latin Americans, and by non-Latinos, but on Latino subjects and tried to be as inclusive as possible in terms of genre, region, and themes.
Dolores will air Monday, March 27, 2018 on PBS at 9 p.m. as part of the Independent Lens series.
History tells us Cesar Chavez transformed the U.S. labor movement by leading the first farm workers’ union. But missing from this narrative is his equally influential co-founder, Dolores Huerta, who fought tirelessly alongside Chavez for racial and labor justice and became one of the most defiant feminists of the twentieth century. Like so many powerful women advocates, Dolores and her sweeping reforms were—and still are—sidelined and diminished. Even as she empowered a generation of immigrants to stand up for their rights, her relentless work ethic was constantly under attack. Peter Bratt’s provocative and energizing documentary challenges an incomplete history. Through beautifully woven archival footage and interviews from contemporaries and from Dolores herself, now an octogenarian, the film sets the record straight on one of the most effective and undervalued civil and labor rights leaders in modern U.S. history.
Tall, dark, and handsome, Julián steps off a bus, hands over his clothes, gets his long curly locks chopped off, and becomes fresh meat walking inside the Najayo Prison in the Dominican Republic. He locates his cellblock underneath the moist corner where the Woodpeckers perch. Woodpeckers—prisoners who romance ladies incarcerated at the women’s prison 150 meters across the way—spend their days in affectionate conversation with their lovers through sign language. When Julián encounters Yanelly, a gorgeous spitfire of a woman, he finds love in the last place he imagined. Now he must find a way, through cement, barbed wire, dozens of guards, and murderous exes to win Yanelly’s love, all the while keeping it secret.
Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a miracle worker—highly sensitive with her touch, and passionately dedicated to curing pain through holistic therapy. After treating the mother of a young woman Beatriz helped recover from chemotherapy, her car breaks down, so she is invited to stay for a dinner celebrating a lucrative business deal. An interloper inside this private enclave of the have-mores, Beatriz is politely acknowledged by the guests, with the exception of Doug, a mega brazen and successful business developer. Believing she knows him from somewhere, Beatriz becomes increasingly unsettled. Uninhibited, she questions whether Doug’s accomplishments have come at the expense of other people’s suffering—to the chagrin of the sycophantic hosts—pitting the guests into opposing forces. Beatriz at Dinner is riveting, yet with an apprehensive tone. Half chamber drama, half dark dramedy of errors, Puerto Rican director Miguel Arteta discerns his characters by showing their most telling reactions, such as the subliminal determination of Hayek’s face, while spinning an indelible wickedness onto this tale of a fateful encounter
The third film in a trilogy about Guatemala, this installment explores the sweeping historical significance of the war crimes trial of General Ríos Montt and the toppling of corrupt president Otto Pérez Molina. Pamela Yates gracefully engages the indigenous Mayan population who experienced genocide at the hands of a long-standing repressive government. Silenced family members and eyewitnesses come forward to share their individual stories with the desire that their underreported, horrific treatment receive the attention it deserves. Spoken in Spanish and native Mayan languages, 500 Years delicately weaves archival footage with new interviews and emotional courtroom scenes to shine light on a growing movement to fend off the systematic aggression toward an underrepresented people. Focusing on the recent events of a country that has suffered for generations at the hands of a ruling elite, the film hails the nation’s citizens banding together on a quest for justice – and emerging as a beacon of hope.
Nico is a famous actor in Argentina, but in New York, nobody takes notice. After giving up a successful career in his home country for a chance to make it in the Big Apple, he needs to juggle bartending, babysitting and odd jobs to keep himself afloat. Starting from square one is hard in the city of dreams. With each role Nico takes on, he puts on a new persona in order to fit in. He performs the ideal bartender, the up-and-coming actor, the friend, the father figure. But when old friends from Buenos Aires come to visit, he needs to juggle the image of his old life with the reality of the struggling actor in New York City. In a moving depiction of this vibrant city, director Julia Solomonoff’s touching feature presents a portrait of immigrant solitude. Nico faces the difficulty of finding not only a home, but himself amidst the indifferent metropolis. Nobody’s Watching questions how we adjust when we lose our audience.
Marina (Daniela Vega), the transgender heroine of A Fantastic Woman, is beautiful, enigmatic, and plunged into a precarious situation after her boyfriend dies unexpectedly in her company. Fifty-seven-year-old divorcé Orlando (Francisco Reyes) wakes in the middle of the night, suffers an aneurism, and falls down some stairs, sustaining injuries that will come to haunt Marina after she takes him to the hospital and attempts to slip away before authorities and family members begin prying. Marina knows she’s regarded with suspicion for her youth, class, and, above all, gender status. She expects to gain little from Orlando’s demise, but the viciousness of Orlando’s son, the cold-heartedness of Orlando’s ex-wife, and the intrusiveness of a detective from the Sexual Offenses Investigation Unit force Marina to not only clear her name, but also to demand the very thing no one seems willing to give her: respect.
'Alanis' still courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Argentina’s contradictory prostitution laws — which declare prostitution legal but running a brothel illegal — force many women to the street, placing them in precarious situations. Anahí Berneri’s latest feature, Alanis, portrays three days in the life of a young mother and sex worker who suffers the hypocrisy of the laws that are supposed to protect her. Alanis (Sofía Gala Castaglione) lives with her son Dante (Dante Della Paolera) and an older co-worker in a comfortable apartment where she gets help with her baby while attending to clients. When two inspectors posing as clients break into their apartment, arresting Alanis’ friend, Alanis finds herself on the street, destitute, without even a diaper for Dante. She seeks help from an aunt who offers her and Dante shelter despite disapproving of Alanis’ line of work. But finding clients in the neighborhood is dangerous, as the streets belong to very territorial Dominican workers.
This long-awaited adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 classic of Latin American modernism transports us to a remote corner of 18th-century South America, where a servant of the Spanish crown slowly loses his grip on reality. Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel, the Argentine auteur behind The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman, Zama is that rarest of creative feats: a perfect coupling of literary source material and cinematic sensibility. Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) leads a suspended existence as a sort of upper-tier government clerk in what is now Paraguay. He has not seen his wife and children in years. His relationships with his fellow Europeans are strained due to competition and confusion, while his interactions with the settlement’s Black and Indigenous servants are addled by desire and hostility. Zama’s entire sense of purpose is tied up in the promise that he will soon be delivered to his rightful position in faraway Buenos Aires, but the waiting seems endless. As time passes, Zama’s paranoia and capacity for violence burgeons — while his circumstances become only more precarious.
Emilia escapes from a hospital to travel through Baja California with her friend Violeta. She’s been getting treatment for a while and it’s clear this may well be her final chance to enjoy her life to the fullest—and truly, nothing is quite as life-affirming as the landscapes and vistas in this Baja road trip. On their way, the two free-spirited best friends stumble onto a man claiming to have come from another planet. As a powerful storm threatens to make landfall and cause utter destruction, this inscrutable young man (played by Club de Cuervos‘ Luis Gerardo Mendez) keeps saying he’s come to Earth in order to witness the end of humanity. Emilia and Violeta think he is crazy, or perhaps just disoriented, but something makes them slowly start to believe him. And soon, concepts of love (which he decries) and humanity start seeming to be more weighted the more this end of the world nonsense starts to feel more real.
A pizzeria may seem a modest venture, but for the three enterprising habaneros at the center of Cuban filmmaker Patricia Ramos’ winsome feature debut, success in the pizza business holds the promise of prosperity, purpose and, just maybe, love and happiness. A deliciously off-beat romantic comedy, On the Roof offers an impeccable balance of colloquial charm and universal appeal. Ramos and her excellent cast have crafted highly relatable characters with varying degrees of ambition, ingenuity and quirk. Some current Cuban films seek to correct sweeping social ailments; by contrast, Ramos and her collaborators understand that sometimes the world is changed one dream at a time
Tempestad will play in select US theaters in 2018.
Focused on the violence and impunity that afflicts Mexico, the film is driven by the voices of two women, Miriam and Adela. As we listen to their stories, director Tatiana Huezo offers us beautiful images of the cross-country journey that Miriam took after being released from a cartel-run prison, where she’d been held for her alleged involvement in human trafficking. After no evidence of her participation in trafficking was found, Miriam was eventually let go, becoming instead a public scapegoat for an increasingly common problem in Mexico. Interwoven with the harrowing tale of Miriam’s stay in this torturous environment is the story of Adela, a circus clown, who’s been searching for her abducted daughter who went missing over 10 years ago. Evocative of Terrence Malick, but infused with a staunchly politicized message, Tempestad is both lyrical and political.
Set in Medellin, this pulse-pounding thriller follows a young girl’s attempts to find the sicarios behind her father’s murder. When the local police proves unhelpful she takes matters into her own hands once she spots the guy on the motorcycle who’d shot her teacher/lawyer father. Intent on entering his world and getting a hold of a gun to enact the revenge she so lusts for. Drawing from director’s Laura Mora Ortega’s own life (like her protagonist, Mora Ortega’s father was killed and she eventually got to face the guy responsible), Matar a Jesus breathes new life into the kind of violence-ridden Medellin stories arthouse audiences are used to, pausing on the moral ambiguity of her characters’ actions instead.
Hernan and his sister Deisy are Bolivian teenagers going to high school in Cochabamba with dreams of starting a band. Driven by the desire to buy a drum kit, Hernan agrees to illegally carry two kilograms of cocaine across the border to Argentina. After he’s caught by border police, he’s sent to San Sebastian prison, a scarcely staffed open-air facility where the prisoners make most of the rules. Filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw taught English classes inside San Sebastian and gained remarkable access by putting cameras into the hands of prisoners. We follow Hernan on the inside and Deisy on the outside as they struggle to find a way to shorten his sentence. Los Burritos (Cocaine Prison) gives a unique perspective on the foot soldiers of the drug trade who suffer the punishment while the bosses operate freely. Over the four years of filming, the prison facility – built for 80 – had its population rapidly expand to 700. While the details are unique to Bolivia, the dysfunction of criminal justice has parallels worldwide.
Who would ever want to leave Gael García Bernal? That’s the main question the bi-national romantic comedy Me estás matando Susana tries to answer. Or rather, the question that Bernal’s character, Eligio, tries to answer when he wakes up one day and sees his girlfriend has vanished from their apartment. As soon as he finds out she’s left Mexico to go to Middlebrook University in Minnesota, he packs his bags to go after her. Finding her is only the first step as they’ll have to come to grips with why their relationship was so broken in the first place. Thankfully, there are plenty of laughs in this rom-com that belongs alongside your Notting Hills and your Bridget Jones’ Diarys.
It’s one thing to produce a personal documentary about yourself or a family member. Quite another to create a political documentary which attempts to put your country’s current unrest into context. Improbably, director Heloísa Passos has managed to make her latest, Construindo pontes, fit both bills. The candid doc is anchored by Passos’ conversations with her father with whom she vehemently disagrees on pretty much everything having to do with Brazilian politics, both current and past. As she puts it in voice-over, “He says lady, I say President. He says ‘revolution,’ I say dictatorship. He says it was impeachment, I say it was a coup.” Letting us be privy to their heated conversations all the while offering us stunning shots of the Brazilian countryside (in natural shots that can’t help but function as metaphors for their political butting of heads) Construindo pontes reminds us that the political is very much always personal, and vice versa.