The cinematic experience of 2020 was just downright strange. The pandemic upended many normal things in the industry—from theatrical release dates and production schedules to film festivals and awards ceremonies. So, it wouldn’t be a surprise if film purists were ready to put this year behind them.
If that were an option, however, we wouldn’t be able to tell you about some of the best Latino & Latin American films we had the pleasure of watching during this extremely unusual year. Of the 10 selected films, which span across several genres, four of them are powerful documentaries that capture raw emotions of undocumented immigrants, aspiring legislators, an iconic TV mystic and a legendary Argentinean-Brazilian filmmaker. The latter was chosen by Brazil to represent it in the upcoming race for Best International Film at the Academy Awards.
From there, we look at an impressive six feature narratives, four of which have also been chosen by their countries of origin for a potential Oscar nomination. The Dominican drama takes audiences inside the walls of a mental institution during the reign of a violent dictator. In Guatemala’s supernatural-like drama, which is in Spanish and the indigenous language of Kaqchikel, a horror legend is reimagined as a historic thriller. Peru delivers a drama on child trafficking that is in Spanish and the Indigenous language of Quechua as well as a stop-motion animation that is part fairytale and frenzy. Lastly, Mexico rounds out the Oscar hopefuls with a story centered on the Cholombiano subculture and a production about the romance between a same-sex couple.
Here’s to hoping our own 2020 fever dream is almost over. Our top 10, in no particular order:
La Llorona (Guatemala)
Jayro Bustamante’s cinematic version of the legendary title character in La Llorona isn’t the same one that viewers have had to suffer through in past horror adaptations. Instead of using tired genre tricks, the Guatemalan filmmaker has pumped new life into the mythology by supporting it with the real-life atrocities of the Indigenous Mayan genocide in the early ‘80s. The supernatural political thriller, which was chosen by Guatemala to represent the country in the Oscar race for Best International Film, instills fear that lingers like a strange shadow on a wall. —Kiko Martinez
Song Without a Name (Peru)
Director Melina León stuns with her first feature—an unassumingly empowering portrait of a character that transforms her harrowing pain into relentless resolve. Searching for her stolen newborn child in turbulent 1980s Peru, Georgina (Pamela Mendoza), an Indigenous Quechua woman, enlists the help of a journalist to uncover an atrocious criminal network preying on marginalized communities. Black-and-white cinematography by Inti Briones, which uses precise framing to highlight the David vs. Goliath type of fight this mother faces, makes for one of the most striking releases of the year. —Carlos Aguilar
I’m No Longer Here/Ya No Estoy Aquí (Mexico/U.S.)
Fernando Frias’ I’m No Longer Here explores cultural identity and survival through the flight of its main character from his stomping grounds on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico to New York’s Jackson Heights. Told through a series of flashbacks and present-day scenes, Ulises’ world is one that is crumbling away. He is unable to feel a connection with anyone in New York while a storm of narco-violence kills off his hometown’s Cholombiano subculture, which brought him popularity at parties and respect on the streets of Monterrey. Mexico’s best foreign film nominee in the upcoming Oscars delivers an impacting look at a young man’s loss of home and self. —Mario A. Cortez
A State of Madness/Mis 500 Locos (Dominican Republic)
Leticia Tonos’ third film focuses on the work of Dominican psychiatrist Antonio Zaglul. This gorgeous film tells the tale of Zaglul with a focus on his work with poor mental patients when he’s hired to be the director of Nigüa Psychiatric Hospital after a group of patients escape. The film begins at the start of his tenure at the desolated asylum; Zagul was appointed by the dictatorship of President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo to silence the negative press. He ignores the politics and focuses on the medical and living conditions of his patients. A strong performance by Luis José Germán as Dr. Zaglul, and a clear focus on mental health, is what makes this film so compelling. It’s no wonder why it’s the Dominican Republic’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. —Kathia Woods
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (Puerto Rico/U.S.)o
In a year full of bad omens and even worse Mercury retrogrades, Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado was a much-needed dose of magic. Codirected by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, this documentary tracks the life of actor, dancer, and astrology guru Walter Mercado by compiling interviews, archive footage, and testimony from Mercado himself. We are treated to the first television appearances of the self-dubbed “Prophet of the New Age” in the ‘70s, as familiar and full of light as ever, while also getting to know Mercado in his still-mystical everyday life. A fun, charming tribute to Mercado’s supernatural star power. —Mario A. Cortez
I Carry You With Me (Mexico/U.S.)
Told with deft care for authenticity, Heidi Ewing’s epic hybrid romance based on true events enchants and devastates in equal measures. Escaping homophobia and economic adversity, Ivan (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), a couple from Puebla, migrate to New York City. As time passes and some of their professional goals materialize despite their undocumented status, a longing for a distant homeland afflicts them. Documentary segments with real-life men intensify the story’s heartbreak. Armando Espitia, one of Mexico’s most promising young talents, carries the piece with a layered performance as Ivan in the fiction. —Carlos Aguilar
The Wolf House (Chile)
Stop motion animation is the medium that directors Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León chose to realize their mind-blowing and bizarre fairytale. Inspired by a real German cult known as the Colony in the Chilean countryside, this terrifying work is meant to appear as if the group itself created it to warn young people from trying to escape. The figures and spaces are painted or crafted from a variety of materials that constantly transform in front of our eyes. As we follow Maria (voiced by Amalia Kassai), a young member of the group that ran away, the nightmarish vision deals with the horrors of psychological manipulation. —Carlos Aguilar
Babenco: Tell Me When I Die (Brazil)
Babenco: Tell Me When I Die is a homage to Hector Babenco, an Argentinean-Brazilian filmmaker best known for his work on Pixote and Kiss of the Spider Woman. He also became the first Latin American director to be nominated for best director in 1985. This documentary is a series of self-reflecting interviews in which Babenco discusses his life as well as career. Along with the interviews are special snippets from his earlier life. His widow, Barbara Paz, directed the film, giving it an unpolished sense of authenticity and granting a new generation the opportunity to learn about his work as well the man behind the lens. —Kathia Woods
Boys State (U.S.)
The boys in Boys State drive the documentary into places where viewers can feel hopeful about the fact that partisanship truly is something that is learned rather than inherent in all politicians. Every generation can lead the U.S. down a new path if they can find the courage to do so. This is especially true for young men like Steven Garcia, one of the subjects who participate in crafting legislation and campaigning in the film. He completes Boys State, a summer leadership program for aspiring legislators, as an inspiring example of what a principled individual can accomplish when they steer clear of political drama. At a time where the U.S. Congress can barely agree to send its citizens a measly $600 during a global pandemic, this is the generation capable of making progressive changes, avoid petty bickering across the aisle and move the country forward in a significant way.—Kiko Martinez
Undocumented Unafraid (Mexico/U.S.)
First-hand accounts from migrants traveling north from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border bestow credence and soul to “Undocumented Unafraid.” Cross-border director Arturo Pulido’s documentary condenses five years of fieldwork into its 90-minute runtime, during which we see travel footage, candid interviews with migrants, and protests in Los Angeles against the Trump administration’s racist immigration policies. The documentary’s most powerful moments include testimony from an unaccompanied minor searching for his father and the infamous November 2018 CBP tear gas attacks on migrants in Tijuana, Mexico. A humanizing tribute to unbreakable spirits. —Mario A. Cortez