11 Latin Movies You Probably Didn’t See Last Year and Should

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It’s been a tough year for Hollywood. Box office sales are down 4% compared to last year. But it’s hard to feel bad for an industry that sold close to $10 billion worth of movie tickets. Even when it’s a good year for theater sales, it’s always a struggle for independent and foreign films  to attract an audience. In comparison to a big studio movie that can make hundreds of millions of dollars the top ten grossing foreign films of the year made less than $30 million collectively. But, we here at Remezcla know that our readers have much more refined tastes than mainstream America and aren’t watching Hollywood blockbusters

Just kidding! Wasn’t Fast Five awesome? (Colombiana not so much.)

Since we know it’s sometimes hard to make it out to art house, here is our list of the Top Eleven Latino Films of 2011 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. ¡Viva la democracia!

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

The director of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel was back in the theater this year with one of the top grossing foreign language films of the year. Biutiful is the story of a father who is trying to protect his two children from his out of control wife but knows that he will die soon. He does what he can to survive, emotionally and physically. If any of you saw the film in a theater, it is hard to deny the power of Javier Bardem’s performance in the lead role, especially when everyone around you is sobbing uncontrollably. Besides inciting public crying Bardem also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and countless other awards: Golden Globes, Ariel (Mexico), Goya (Spain), and BAFTA (Britain).

Director: Pamela Yates

This documentary has traveled the globe from Amman to Auckland, Paris to Havana, São Paulo to Vancouver, New York to Moscow, Geneva to Lima, playing in over 50 film festivals. The filmmakers started their world tour in Utah at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. More than just a human rights documentary, it’s a film about the power of film. It’s a sequel of sorts to Yates’ seminal film from 1983 When the Mountains Tremble. The raw depiction of the Guatemalan civil war went on to win several awards and catapulted Rigoberta Menchú to world-wide fame. More than 25 years later, Yates returns to Guatemala and meets with Menchú and other activists who are still seeking justice for massacres and disappearances committed during the civil war. In the most compelling part of the film, Yates’ own footage and outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble are used as evidence against Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s former army general, in an international genocide case.

Nostalgia por la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light)
Director: Patricio Guzmán

Patricio Guzmán is most famous for his overtly political documentaries like The Battle of Chile and The Pinochet Case. Despite taking a more subtle approach with Nostalgia por la Luz, this film is just as powerful as his others. In an almost metaphysical experience Guzmán wanders through the vast Atacama Desert in Chile–home to some of the world’s largest telescopes along with the remains of those ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship. Only a master filmmaker could take these two seemingly unrelated ideas and weave them together into a stirring portrait of families who are still searching for their missing loved ones and of a country still looking for answers. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won Best Feature at the IDA Documentary Awards.

Miss Bala
Director: Gerardo Naranjo

Loosely inspired by real events Miss Bala tells the story of Laura, a young woman who aspires to compete in the Miss Baja beauty pageant. Instead she finds herself amidst narcos as an unwilling participant in Mexico’s drug war. She dodges bullets and unwanted sexual advances while trying to shield her family from danger in this allegorical thriller. Laura’s physical beauty becomes tarnished by the violent acts she is forced to participate in–much like Mexico itself. In a striking scene Laura is arrested but quickly released after a press conference about the beauty queen’s capture. Following a screening at the New York Film Festival the director explained that he wanted the audience to feel just as confused as the Mexican public does when the police let criminals go, “the audience–and Mexicans–never know why things happen as they do.” Using long takes and very few cuts Naranjo created a film that earned significant buzz following it’s premiere at Cannes Film Festival. It went on to play festivals in Toronto and Los Angeles and was selected as Mexico’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Los colores de la montaña (Colors of the Mountain)
Director: Carlos César Arbeláez

It’s not unusual for Colombian films to touch upon the ongoing armed conflict that’s plagued the country for over forty years. But this film does so from a completely different point of view. A movie for adults but from a kid’s point of view is Carlos César Arbeláez’s first foray into directing feature films. The war is just a backdrop for a story that is at times heartwarming, funny, and gripping. While their parents worry about their safety in the face of landmines and guerrilla recruitment, a group of young boys goes in search of a lost soccer ball. They are more concerned with recovering their main source of entertainment, the ball, than heeding their parent’s warnings. The young cast was made up of non-professional actors who give realistic and heart-pounding performances. ‘Pocaluz’, the neighborhood albino who wears thick glasses, provides comic relief in the most tense of situations. You can’t help but laugh every time he squints his eyes and repeats “me voy a morir.” The film had a limited release in U.S. theaters, played various international film festivals, and was chosen as Colombia’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Tambien la lluvia (Even the Rain)
Director: Icíar Bollaín

It’s hard to believe this film only made half a million dollars in the U.S. It really is one of the best films of the year. Besides the fact that the not bad-looking Gael Garcia Bernal (sigh) plays the perfect self-doubting but arrogant film director; the story, the characters, the scenery are all astonishingly pitch perfect. In this film about a film, a Mexican director and Spanish producer and actors head to Bolivia to shoot a movie about colonial times. They happen to be shooting during the Bolivian water wars. A true-to-life period of Bolivian politics in which activists fought against the privatization of water by foreign multinationals in 2000. The film flawlessly dances between the past and the present making poignant criticisms and highlighting similitudes. It’s funny, it’s thrilling, it’s political, and it’s entertaining. Not an easy feat. Not surprisingly, it received several international awards, including an Ariel Award for Best Ibero-American Film and three Goya Awards. Additionally, the film was selected as Spain’s entry for the 2011 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Gun Hill Road
Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green

Any director would be proud to be one of the select few to premiere their project at the Sundance Film Festival but for a first-time director to screen their film during the annual indie celebration is a massive achievement. Director Rashaad Ernesto Green put together a cast of seasoned professionals (Esai Morales, Judy Reyes) and newcomers to tell the story of a transgendered teenager growing up in the Bronx. For the past three years, while his father has spent time locked up, Michael has been gradually transforming into Vanessa. When his father, Enrique, is released he returns to a son who prefers to be a daughter. Enraged and frustrated by his wife’s acceptance of the situation Enrique thinks that he can bully Vanessa into being more of a ‘man’. Harmony Santana, who had never acted professionally before, shines on screen in a moving, sincere and raw performance in the role of Michael/Vanessa. Santana, herself a transgendered teenager, was discovered by Green while she was working an HIV awareness booth at the Queens gay pride parade. For her performance she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards.

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Two years have passed since Almodóvar released his noir tribute of a film, Broken Embraces. His latest, The Skin I Live In is as exciting, passionate and ribald as his previous efforts; a predictable film from a predictable man. The word is not used in a pejorative sense, since we expect a man like Mr Consistency to release smash after smash and leave us with a quivering sigh. We predict greatness from a man so in command that he can show us throats slit, a horrific experiment and a father’s revenge turned to outright love in such a way that the minutes pass like seconds. We expect more, but only because we love what little he has shown us. Banderas is Dr Ledgard, a modern day mad scientist hiding behind the veneer of control and suaveness. He does what he does out of sheer impulse masquerading as a higher service to society. It’s a modern day Eyes Without a Face, with a dash of Frankenstein but with way more fucking.

El Infierno
Director: Luis Estrada

The film starts with a young man, full of vigor, who leaves his family behind for El Norte. Years later, he returns to a land he barely recognizes. While it does have a Rip Van Winkle quality to it, the film is unflinching with its depictions of brutality and cost. The country is pushed to the breaking point by thugs and other thugs posing as police and politicians. Schools are funded, priests bless pistols and towns are left in shambles over drugs and money. The real issue at play is not so much the immorality of criminals but the almost logical progression of violence and dysfunction in a land where the government has continuously failed to uphold its end of the bargain. But the flip side of the coin is that the criminals and populace can only blame the government for so long before a deep look into the mirror and hence, abyss is needed. Director Luis Estrada has taken the crime genre and manages to make it into more than just guns and money. It is a reflection, a cinematic representation of the zeitgeist going on down south. Last year, the government took offense at film posters with the words, “nothing to celebrate about”. Estrada makes a good point.

Saving Private Perez
Director: Beto Gómez

The premise for this film is beyond ridiculous; drug traffickers head to Iraq to rescue a U.S soldier who is also the brother of the head of a cartel. But the film achieves its goals of showing that any premise is workable and that no one is as tacky as a Mexican drug lord. In the first 15 minutes, we are treated to cartoonish signs of wealth and garish clothes. That alone would make for a good in a bad way movie, but the director isn’t content with showing just that and the actors are transplanted into an even shittier conflict in Iraq. Thankfully, no one involved ever takes their roles too seriously and the film is surprisingly funny. From their nod to the Seven Samurai to their run-ins with insurgents, Saving Private Perez is always out of the bounds of reality yet never terrible. In fact, this runs the opposite of El Infierno; while the former uses comedy to show the hell Mexico is undergoing, Saving Private Perez uses comedy as an end in itself and does away with any pretense towards a message or meaning.

Director: Aaron Burns

We’ll be honest – we were going to do a Top 10, but we switched to 11 because we couldn’t leave this one off. Blacktino has such an original voice that we couldn’t leave it off the list. The film’s tagline says it all: “Sad, fat, black, latino, nerd. It doesn’t get any worse than that.”

What was your favorite?