Did you know that Latinos go to the movies way more than any other ethnic group? About 25 percent of movie tickets are bought by our hard-earned dollars. And what is it that you guys are watching? Well, according to Hollywood Reporter, “Going to the movies is culturally a family affair, so it follows that family movies, including animated ones, are well-frequented…Hispanics also flock to horror films, or any story with a mystical, demonic or Catholic tinge…” We’re not sure whether to trust Hollywood Reporter or not, but if all you watched this past year were animated and horror Hollywood blockbusters then you missed out on a lot.
In 2012, Latino films played at all the big film festivals — Sundance, Cannes, Berlinale, Tribeca — and won awards at all of them. Estas películas usually go under the radar since you don’t see their trailers on TV (unless they have a gringo big name star… ahem, Casa de mi Padre) but these indies tienen de todo. They are fun, inspiring, hilarious, campy, stirring, thrilling, sensitive, bold, thoughtful, and portray Latinos in an authentic way, far from Hollywood stereotypes. Since we know it’s sometimes hard to make it out to the art house, here is our list of the Top 10 Latino Films of 2012 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 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: Pablo Larraín
Country: Chile, France, USA
Pablo Larraín has made two films about Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, Tony Manero and Post-Mortem. His most recent film, NO, completes what Larraín has called an “unintentional trilogy” on the Chilean dictatorship. Set in 1988, it recounts the amazing story of a national referendum that everyone thought was destined to fail but ultimately removed Pinochet from power. Leading up to the historic vote each side was allowed 15 minutes of late-night TV airtime every day for a month straight. Gael García Bernal stars as Rene Saavedra, a young, rebellious skateboard-riding advertising executive who went from selling soap and soda to heading up the campaign to vote NO on keeping Pinochet in power for eight more years. Almost everyone running the NO campaign thought Saavedra was nuts. He essentially made commercials and filled them with cheery, happy people, mimes, dancers, doctors, musicians, and children—all singing what became the NO campaign’s catchy jingle, “Chile, la alegría ya viene” (Chile, happiness is coming). He felt the campaign needed to be positive and optimistic—the others thought he was ignoring the horrors that many Chileans experienced at the hands of Pinochet. I guarantee you have never seen a film about dictatorship that is this uplifting and entertaining. It’s expected to play in U.S. theaters in February of 2013.
Mosquita y Mari
Director: Aurora Guerrero
Aurora Guerrero set out to make a film that people like her could relate to. She wanted to tell a story that reflected her own identity as a queer woman of color. The result is Mosquita y Mari, a sensitive, bold and thoughtful portrait of two teenage Chicanas whose budding friendship begins to slowly become something beyond just friends. In the film Mari is a rebellious bad girl who’s failing math. Straight-A student Yolanda–who Mari nicknames Mosquita because she looks like, “a pinche mosquita”–offers to tutor her. They hang out, ride bikes, swap music, and do homework. As they spend more and more time together their friendship subtly transforms–evoking that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling that a only a first crush can. It’s a beautifully told ‘almost love’ story set to the music of local ska bands, the melancholy vocals of Carla Morrison, and other genre-remixing Latino artists.
Joven y Alocada (Young & Wild)
Director: Marialy Rivas
Before the days of Facebook and Twitter, filmmaker Marialy Rivas stumbled upon a blog that she fell in love with. The posts were written by an anonymous blogger who went by the screen name Joven y Alocada (Young & Wild). Amidst the raunchy stories of explicit sexual encounters were tender moments where the young blogger was coming to terms with her strict evangelical upbringing. Marialy sent messages to the blogger, they met in person, and eventually worked together to write dialogues for a film based on her life as a teenager growing up in Chile. Together they created Daniela, the main character of the film, a 17 year-old who falls in love with both a guy and a girl. She juggles the relationships, trying to avoid one from finding out about the other. Daniela documents all her sexual exploits in a blog that develops a huge following. The film, Joven y Alocada (Young & Wild)—taking its name from the real-life blog—is playful, frenetic, and exuberant, mimicking teenaged Daniela’s explosive sexual urges. A barrage of images, graphics, on-screen text, pictures, cartoons, and clips of porn movies put you inside Daniela’s blog, immersed in her virtual world of instant messages, blog comments, emails, and anonymous encounters. It’s a coming-of-age story that deals with female sexuality in a frank way that’s rarely seen in film. It’s like a female indie version of American Pie, but with a heart.
7 Cajas (7 Boxes)
Directors: Juan Carlos Maneglia, Tana Schémbori
It’s rare to hear about a film from Paraguay but this unconventional crime thriller has thrust the small country into the spotlight. It takes the typical Hollywood shoot-‘em-up action dramas and adds a gritty, indie flavor to the genre. It received huge buzz when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival and broke box office records when it played in Paraguayan theaters this past summer. Co-directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori, 7 Cajas (7 Boxes) has been compared to the film Slumdog Millionaire with it’s dizzying, quick edits and ominous electronic score. Teenaged Victor (Celso Franco) works as a delivery boy at an outdoor market in Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. It is a labyrinth of endless stalls and vendors selling everything you could ever imagine: produce, meat, cell phones, TVs, pirated DVDs, clothes—seriously, everything. Victor spends his days dreaming of owning a fancy cell phone and fantasizing about being a movie star. He is offered $100 to deliver seven boxes, no one is really sure what they contain. Suddenly, he is dodging police, thieves, and rival gangs. It’s exciting and at times heart-pounding, you never know what will happen next. The film takes twists and turns, constantly surprising you. It also has sweet, tender moments punctuated with humor and dark violence.
Director: Gustavo Guardado
Gus Guardado is a high school video production teacher who always dreamed of making a film. He wrote a script, set in his hometown of Concord, California and loosely based on his own life. It took a couple of years to put together enough money to shoot his indie rom-com but he was determined to make it happen. Thanks to Guardado, Love, Concord is the first film ever set in the San Francisco suburb. It’s a teenage love story much like the classic eighties movies that John Hughes is famous for. And just like in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink it’s an honest, authentic portrayal of teenagers. In the film, Gerry (Jorge Diaz) is in his Junior year of high school. He’s a class clown willing to do anything for a laugh but totally clueless when it comes to the ladies. He plays basketball, old school video games, and asks everyone for advice on how to win over girls. Finally, he decides to just be himself and it works. He charms Melinda (Angelina Leon), a cute nerdy girl who isn’t afraid to fire back her own sarcastic remarks when Gerry pokes fun at her. It’s a funny, cute, witty teen romance where the characters just happen to be Latino and refreshingly, none of them are gangbangers, drug dealers, or end up pregnant. It might just be the Latino Say Anything.
Juan de los Muertos (Juan of the Dead)
Director: Alejandro Brugués
Country: Cuba, Spain
As Havana becomes flooded with zombies, the Cuban government declares that the living dead are just dissidents paid by the U.S. to stir things up. Juan, a part-time thief and full-time slacker steps in and starts a zombie-killing service. It’s hilarious, it’s campy, and it’s Cuba’s first zombie film. But it’s not just a zombie movie, it’s so much more. Yes, there are severed bodies and gallons upon gallons of splattered blood but the film is able to take the genre much further. Alejandro Brugués not only injects humor into the film but also makes sharp social commentary about Cuban society. When the film premiered in Cuba at the Havana Film Festival the lines snaked around the block. At other festivals the demand was so high extra screenings had to be added and it won numerous awards. This past summer it played theatrically in select cities and is now available streaming and on DVD.
Director: Bernardo Ruiz
Country: Mexico, USA
Fighting the drug war has come at a huge cost for Mexico, mostly in lives lost. It is estimated that nearly 60,000 people have died as a result of the clamp down on drug cartels that started under former President Felipe Calderon back in 2006. A number of the drug war related murders include journalists who dared to investigate and report on the cartels. The film Reportero follows Sergio Haro, a veteran photojournalist for Zeta, a Tijuana-based weekly newspaper. Even in the face of constant death threats Zeta’s publishers refuse to censor themselves and routinely publish the names and photos of narco traffickers and corrupt politicians. In the film, Haro goes about his day, telling stories about the perils of journalism in Mexico as he drives to take pictures of grisly crime scenes. He recounts how two of Zeta’s staff reporters were gunned down by hired hitmen. The pain and anger of all the Zeta reporters is palpable when it is revealed that the gunmen were never brought to justice. The documentary film takes an in-depth look at another side of the drug war, one often overlooked by mainstream U.S. media. It’s a powerful portrayal of a man committed to social justice and exposing the truth, no matter the cost. The film will premiere on PBS January 7, 2013 and will be available online January 8, 2013 – February 6, 2013.
El Médico: The Cubatón Story
Director: Daniel Fridell
Country: Cuba, Sweden
Raynier Casamayor Griñán is a twenty something year-old doctor who lives high up in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Santiago de Cuba. Known as ‘El Médico’ he serves his community, treating patients at the town clinic and making home visits. But he longs to be a musician, a rapper, a reggaetonero. He’s been making music for years and is one of the pioneers of Cuban reggaetón, known as Cubatón. Enter two Swedes—Michel Miglis, a music producer determined to make the young doctor an international star and Daniel Fridell, a film director who documented the ups and downs of El Médico’s fledgling music career. Fridell captured everything in his documentary film: Michel pressuring El Médico to use sexy ladies in bikinis for his music videos, El Médico’s mother’s disapproving glances, and the euphoria of topping the charts with “Chupa Chupa,” El Médico’s first international single. The result is El Médico: The Cubatón Story, a rollercoaster ride of a film, that takes you on a journey with an artist determined to succeed in spite of various obstacles, set to the thumping bass of the hottest Cubatón.
Directors: Laura Brownson & Beth Levison
Lemon Andersen is Norwegian, Puerto Rican, and American. He has spent time in the projects in Brooklyn and in jail at Riker’s island. But, first and foremost, he is a writer, a poet, a performer—an artist. In the documentary film Lemon, we get a peek into the personal life of Lemon Andersen during a time when he undoubtedly felt vulnerable. After the high of winning a Tony Award for Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway he was experiencing a lull in his career and was having a hard time paying the bills. The film chronicles the struggle of trying to push himself further as an artist by writing a play that deals with his painful childhood while at the same time trying to provide for his family. The past and the present have a lot in common—not enough money. In one of the film’s hilarious moments Lemon and his family are celebrating his daughter’s birthday. He is trying hard to give his children the life that he didn’t have. There is food, a pink cake, laughter, and lots of presents. But, one of the presents still has the anti-theft device on it. Lemon bursts out laughing and runs to show his friends. It seems as if he can never really escape his past. The film is now available on DVD and streaming.
Searching for Sugar Man
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Country: Sweden, United Kingdom
In the early ‘70s, in Detroit, a Mexican-American folk singer recorded two critically-acclaimed records. His music was haunting, uplifting and melancholy. Sixto Rodriguez, dubbed the Chicano Bob Dylan, was an enigma, often performing with his back turned to the crowd and hiding behind dark glasses. Though lauded by the music industry his albums bombed, barely selling any copies and he was quickly dropped by his record label. In the U.S. he faded into obscurity; rumors began to swirl that he committed suicide. Meanwhile, some bootleg copies of his albums made it to South Africa. The youth who were protesting apartheid found refuge in his music and bought hundreds of thousands of copies. In Searching for Sugar Man, two of his biggest fans go in search of Rodriguez, who remained clueless of his own rock stardom in South Africa. Part music documentary and part thrilling mystery, the film is a gripping journey that will leave you inspired, elated, and in awe of Rodriguez’s songwriting talent that went unnoticed for all these years. It played in theaters this past summer and will be available on DVD in late January of 2013. The success of the film even led to an appearance on the David Letterman show and a U.S. tour.