American moviegoers have always been known as a particularly subtitle-averse group. Indeed, with the biggest film industry in the world, U.S. audiences generally have little reason to venture beyond their Hollywood comfort zone in search of lesser-known foreign language gems, and let’s face it: a lot of people prefer not to spend an hour and a half reading in a dark room. Of course, this popular wisdom belies the fact that foreign language films in most overseas markets are actually often dubbed into the local language – a practice abandoned by American distributors decades ago – but the point still stands.
Recently, however, an article by Variety film critic Scott Foundas, suggested that the U.S.’s subtitle-phobia has officially come to an end, and indeed, he may be right. Recent blockbusters like Inglorious Basterds, Slumdog Millionaire, District 9, and Avatar all prominently featured subtitles to translate everything from French, German, and Hindi to an assortment of alien languages.
Thing is, none of these films are actually foreign. In fact, statistics show that foreign film viewership is down 61 percent over the last seven years in the United States. So while U.S. audiences may be increasingly more comfortable with the prospect of reading in a movie theater, the rapidly changing dynamics of film distribution have left little room for foreign releases alongside the glut of franchise blockbusters and low-budget American indies.
So as the moviegoing experience slowly adapts to a changed digital reality, it remains to be seen whether foreign films – subtitled or not – can still stake out their place in the American box office landscape. And after a 15-year ascent into the top echelons of international cinema, Latin American films will undoubtedly continue to be an important bellwether. In light of these developments, we decided to take a look back at some the U.S. box office’s highest grossing Spanish-language films of all time. For even the casual Latin American film nerd there will be very few surprises, though the numbers are extremely revealing.
Interesting to note is that the only two films on this list that were released over the last seven years (Instructions Not Included and Un gallo con muchos huevos), were marketed almost exclusively to Spanish-speaking American audiences. On the other hand, your more typical international art house fare (Pan’s Labyrinth, Volver) is already showing its age, in a reflection of declining interest from specialized distributors and American audiences alike.
So take your time, peruse, and make your own conclusions. Let’s just hope this list gets a lot longer over the next few years. Pro tip to distributors, stop thinking of movies from Latin America as foreign films. The United States has more Spanish speakers than Spain! That’s a lot of people who can watch movies en español and don’t need subtitles.
All box office numbers below were taken from the film’s domestic total gross as listed on Box Office Mojo.
No se aceptan devoluciones
In the United States this movie earned $44,467,206 at the box office.
Valentín is an Acapulco lothario whose life is thrown out of whack when an ex-fling named Julia leaves a child he allegedly fathered at his doorstep. With little more than an old photo to identify the baby girl’s American mother, Valentín hitchhikes toward the border hoping to return the child. When he is unsuccessful, Valentín becomes an unlikely father figure, lovingly supporting his daughter for six years through work as a stuntman. When Julia suddenly contacts Valentín out of the blue, demanding he return the child, his life is once again shaken up.
El laberinto del fauno
Firmly set in the harsh reality of Franco’s iron-clad dictatorship in Spain, El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) uses fantasy to take flight from the horrors of the real world and into the mystery of the fantastical one. Kickass Mexican director Guillermo del Toro uses the classic fairy tale format with a fresh spin to tell the story of a Spanish girl and the three wishes granted her when she meets the mythical Pan. Del Toro is a big believer in and master of the fantasy format, something hard to do well and believably, but his incredible visual style, uncanny CGI world, and gift for a particular style of storytelling knock this out of the park. Turning from the harshness of her life with her evil stepfather (an officer under Franco), 11-year-old Ofelia retreats into the labyrinth of Pan, which, despite its unusual and sometimes scary inhabitants and challenges at every turn, still seems to be a better maze to get lost in than the horrible one she must wake up in. Settle in for a mind-blowing, enchanted evening, but don’t bet on a fairy tale ending.
Como agua para chocolate
In the United States this movie earned $21,665,468 at the box office.
Based on the popular magical realist novel by Laura Esquivel, Como agua para chocolate (Like water for chocolate) is set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution and its immediate aftermath. Tita is the youngest daughter in a traditional Mexican family and is forbidden from marrying her true love, Pedro, so that she may care for her aging mother. With little choice, Pedro opts to marry Tita’s sister, Rosaura, instead, but over decades of revolution, sickness and family upheaval, their love remains unbroken.
Diarios de motocicleta
Ah, The Motorcycle Diaries – or to put it another way: “Hot Icon as Hot Icon on Hot Icon” (i.e. Gael García Bernal as Che Guevara on motorcycle La Poderosa). Taking El Che’s early days of exploration and revolutionary awakening as its subject matter, Salles’ version of the diaries is definitely as freewheeling and almost as inspiring as it is in Che’s own written version. Driving up what would become La Pan Am (the Pan American Highway) – the great route that connects Latin America from the tip of Southern Cone northward – with his buddy Alberto, the then-young student Ernesto transforms quietly but surely into El Che. Along the way, his vistas, experience, and conscience raised and his revolutionary fever awakened. Through Salles’ lens, the stunning beauty and harsh reality of South America are shown at their most intense as are friendship and the longing for social justice. Take it for its pure idealism and run, before politics go and mess everything up.
Y tu mamá también
In the United States this movie earned $13,839,658 at the box office.
Sounding for all the world like a teen rom com meets road movie, bromance at the beach, or other take-out/toss-out formulaic genre film, Y tu mamá también manages to be all of those things while being limited by none of them. Tenoch and Julio (played by then up-and-coming heartthrobs Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) are on the loose for the summer while their girlfriends are away, when they meet a gorgeous Spanish older woman. Though only 10 years older than the lads, she might as well be light years away with the worldly understanding that sets her apart from the guys. Does “worldly understanding” suggest in its cheesy wording sex? Well yeah, but the sex here is far more real, playful, and complicated in the best possible ways than in your average film of this ilk. Combining coming of age with a realization of the complexities and inequities of their country, Cuarón captures the dualities of Mexico in a gorgeous road movie that showcases a restless new generation of millennials ready to take it all on.
In the United States this movie earned $13,839,658 at the box office.
Filled to the brim with dark themes of death, sexual abuse, and murder, Volver is nevertheless a breezy and comical reflection on complicated family ties. Sisters Raimunda and Soledad are haunted by the nagging ghost of their recently deceased mother, when Raimunda’s daughter Paula stabs her supposed father to death to escape an attempted rape. As mother and daughter struggle to cover up the murder, a messy jumble of family secrets and lies is slowly revealed.
La misma luna
In the United States this movie earned $12,590,147 at the box office.
Carlitos is a nine-year-old boy living in the Mexican countryside with his grandmother and oppressive aunt and uncle. Four years prior, his mother Rosario left to seek work in the United States and sends money back regularly, but when Carlitos’ grandmother dies, his aunt and uncle hatch a plot to take custody of the child and keep his remittances. Carlitos decides to escape across the border in order to find his mother, and after being separated from his coyotes, he meets up with a kind stranger who helps him on his way.
Hable con ella
In the United States this movie earned $9,285,469 at the box office.
Marco is a journalist who falls madly in love with a bullfighter named Lydia after mourning a lost love. When Lydia falls into a deep coma after a bullfighting accident, Marco meets a nurse at a private clinic name Benigno, who also dedicates his life to the care of a comatose patient. Benigno motivates Marco to talk with Lydia and hope for a miracle, as past, present, and future blend together in this quixotic tale of transcendent love.
Un gallo con muchos huevos
As of October 12, 2015, Un gallo con muchos huevos earned $9,022,202 at the box office in the United States.
The third film in Mexico’s cherished series of animated Huevocartoons, Un gallo con muchos huevos follows a rooster named Toto who recently took over duties as the farm’s daily alarm clock, though he has bigger dreams of one day being a great fighting cock. When the farm’s owner is duped into betting the farm on a cockfight by a deceptive and unscrupulous rancher, Toto’s dreams may finally come true, but this time the fate of the entire farm is in his wings.
Todo sobre mi madre
In the United States this movie earned $8,272,296 at the box office.
After the traumatic death of her teenaged son Esteban, Manuela travels to Barcelona in search of the boy’s estranged trans father, who happens to be dying of AIDS. Once there, she falls in with an odd cast of characters, including a pregnant nun with HIV, a drug addict, and an eccentric actress. When the nun passes away during childbirth, Manuela adopts her son, also named Esteban, but she is rejected by the nun’s family for fear the child may carry AIDS.