From Pablo Larraín winning the Grand Jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival, to Colombian productions taking home a historic five wins at Cannes, 2015 continued the incredible years-long streak of Latin American cinema conquering the world’s most illustrious film festivals. While Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil always rise to the top, this year, Central America made a surprise appearance. Filmed almost entirely in Kaqchikel, a Mayan language, Ixcanul brought Guatemalan Jayro Bustamante accolades that no director from his country had ever reached. Starring non-professional actors, the highlands-set visually stunning drama received a Silver Bear at the Berlinale, as well as major prizes at the Cartagena and Guadalajara Film Festivals.
Costa Rican director Paz Fábrega broke the glass ceiling with the gorgeous, black-and-white romance Viaje during its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. The unconventional love story became the first Central American movie to ever screen at the famed New York fest and turned Fábrega into the first female filmmaker to complete a second feature in Costa Rica.
Yet while our southern neighbors continued to streamroll the competition across the globe, U.S. Latino directors fared less favorably in the recent past, rarely making it to Cannes, Berlin, or other highly-regarded showcases and festivals. Thankfully, the Sundance Film Festival shook things up this year, with U.S.-born Latinos like Alfonso Gomez-Rejón and Kyle Patrick Álvarez triumphing at the fest’s awards night and striking lucrative distribution deals.
Even though Gomez-Rejón’s quirky comedy Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl and Álvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment made it to theaters, most of these movies don’t make it to screens in the U.S. When they do, it’s at a fest that only hardcore cinephiles may know about. Since it’s hard to keep up with all the films coming out of Latin America or made by homegrown Latinos and you can’t go to as many festivals as you’d like, we’re here to help. Here is our list of the top 15 Latino films of 2015 that you probably didn’t see, but totally should.
The process behind selecting these films was complicated, akin to a hotly contested 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. We chose to include films directed by American-born Latinos, Latin Americans, and by non-Latinos, but on Latino subjects.
A young boy of humble origins begins a process of self-reflection after learning that he qualifies as a genius. His greatest concern? What to be when he grows up. Albert Einstein? Jim Morrison? Alan Turing? Along the way, he must deal with his not-so-genius family’s inability to understand his exceptional gifts.
In this romantic drama, free-spirited Luciana and Pedro meet at a party. They don’t believe in traditional relationships or commitments, but they immediately give in to their intense chemistry; the only thing they abstain from is learning each other’s names and backgrounds. The film’s black-and-white format sits in stark contrast to the varying shades of their passion. When the pair takes a spontaneous trip to the to the gorgeous Rincón de la Vieja National Park together, we watch them go through a process of self-discovery as their relationship develops and frays.
Que horas ela volta?
Regina Casé is impressive in the role of a live-in maid, Val, who works for a wealthy family in São Paulo. The arrival of Val’s daughter, whom she has not seen for years, creates a revolution in the household. She calls the boss Bárbara, instead of Dona Bárbara, while both the husband and son fall in love with her. “You’re born knowing what you can and cannot do,” Val reprimands her daughter. She confronts her by putting into question her servitude. The film raises class issues and examines generational gaps. Director Anna Muylaert, who has worked as a film critic and reporter, drafted a thoughtful script and put care into directing the actors, with a big payoff. Que horas ela volta? (The Second Mother) was Brazil’s submission for the 88th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Throughout the 1980s, the so-called Puccio Clan, a family of twisted, upper crust porteños, adopted the tactics of Argentina’s Dirty War and made a well-organized family business out of kidnapping and extortion, only to mercilessly finish off their victims after completing the transaction. The mastermind behind this depraved family activity was an unassuming public accountant and small businessman named Arquímedes Puccio, along with his son, a professional rugby player named Alejandro. Their victims? Family friends and soccer acquaintances. Yeesh. The film is directed by Pablo Trapero, one of Argentina’s most internationally lauded directors, and features box office sensation and beloved comedian Guillermo Francella in the role of Arquímedes. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller, with plenty of dimly lit spaces, stacks of money, guns, menacing glares, and slamming trunks.
Te prometo anarquía
This is a tale of twisted adolescence, free love, and reprehensible crime that takes place on the streets of Mexico City. The feature follows a middle-class teen skateboard fanatic who carries on an illicit affair with the son of his family’s maid, who simultaneously carries on an affair with a young woman named Adri. In the tense shadow of this uncomfortable love triangle, the two spend their days skating, making love, doing drugs, and selling their blood on the black market, until the promise of easy cash finds them caught up in a shady scheme that goes way deeper than they could have ever expected.
O menino e o mundo
This modern-day fable follows the adventures of a young boy who leaves his small village after the death of his father only to find himself immersed in a chaotic and often confusing modern world filled with strange creatures, fantastic machines and giant, impersonal monuments to human progress. Filled with idiosyncratic plays on perspective and employing a variety of techniques — including collages pasted alongside the thick, waxy lines of Crayola crayons — O menino e o mundo feels like stepping into the imagination of a child set to a joyous samba soundtrack. The film was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the 2016 Academy Awards.
Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives
In the 1990s, Robert “Bobbito” García and Adrian “Stretch” Bartos emerged as two of the most influential hip-hop DJs in American radio with their quirky, offbeat nightly radio hour, The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, on Columbia University’s WKCR. From 1990 to 1998, the two friends gave savvy listeners their first taste of unsigned acts like Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan and Big Pun. Directed by Bobbito himself, Stretch and Bobbito delves into the deep friendship that drove the show, as well as the unlikely cult following they developed along the way.
¡Qué viva la música!
Based on Colombian cult writer Andrés Caicedo’s only completed novel, ¡Qué viva la música!’s fragmented, drug-infused story follows an adolescent scion of Cali’s upper classes who embarks on a hedonistic descent from her insulated ivory tower existence into the sweaty, salsa-dancing barrios. Much like the novel, the feature film adaptation features murder, suicide, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but more importantly, salsa. As Caicedo’s heroine affirms her existence in the face of upper class ennui, the soundtrack to her descent becomes a veritable back catalog of Fania Records classics.
Filmed almost entirely in the Kaqchikel dialect spoken in Guatemala’s coffee-growing highlands, Ixcanul dramatizes the story of María, a young Mayan woman who is promised to the coffee plantation foreman, despite her desire for a lowly coffee cutter named Pepe. Dreaming of absconding with Pepe to a romanticized vision of the United States, María eventually has the encounter with modernity she so yearned for, but not for the reasons she had hoped. In addition to the impressive naturalistic performances from the film’s non-professional cast, Ixcanul’s visuals are extremely powerful, with radiant bronze skin tones, textured interiors, and the requisite breathtaking landscapes.
This is the story of adolescent Ulises, whose sincere love for his girlfriend Sofía is complicated when his father forces him to join the family business. As Ulises reluctantly enters the sordid world of human trafficking and forced prostitution alongside his older brother, he is compelled to exploit his deep bond with Sofía in order to make her his first victim. Director David Pablos brings an unmistakably personal vision to his material along with years of extensive research that imbues the film with a level of chilling verisimilitude. This is only enhanced by the film’s naturalistically-lit, almost documentary-like aesthetic.
El abrazo de la serpiente
There’s no reason to think things will end well for the natives of the pristine Amazon in this Colombian drama from Ciro Guerra (La Sombra del Caminante). The movie comprises two stories of two journeys along one river, in search of a healing plant, and centers on an age-old theme: nothing gold can stay. Colonialism finds its way into even the most remote places on this planet, and leaves catastrophe in its wake. The film was even shot in black and white, leaving no room for shades of gray, moral or otherwise. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards.
We Like It Like That
Latin boogaloo music in 1960s New York City takes center stage in this documentary from director Mathew Ramirez Warren. With musicians like Joe Bataan, Johnny Colon, and Pete Rodriguez taking the lead, Warren covers everything that was happening in the era through interviews, archival footage, and images of live performances. Journey through this musical revolution and learn about the performers whose rhythms got everyone on the dance floor and defined a new generation of music on the East Coast.
La obra del siglo
As relations thaw between Cuba and the U.S., Quintela’s striking film suggests that, from a Washington perspective, certain elements of Soviet influence will be harder to eradicate than others. That legacy is evident in the abandoned concrete hulk of the Ciudad Nuclear reactor, first conceived in the 1960s, but whose construction was terminated following the breakup of the Soviet Union. This relic forms a looming backdrop to the daily existence of local communities living in its shadow. Quintela focuses his film on one such family, who across three generations have observed the life cycle of a project that represents the fluctuating aspirations and challenges of post-revolution Cuba.
East Side Sushi
The cutthroat world of the sushi kitchen is an unforgiving cauldron where failure is not an option. Struggling single mom Juana has the mettle to mix with the toughest, but faces discrimination over her gender and background. Will she be given the opportunity to prove her worth? It’s a well-worn narrative path that gets a new lease of life thanks to the performances of Diana Torres and Yutaka Takeuchi in the Daniel and Mr. Miyagi roles. Equal parts social commentary and guilty food porn secret, this against-the-odds tale of determination and courage gobbled up awards like they were salmon futomaki on the festival circuit. There’s only one thing you’ll be having for dinner once the credits roll.
Allende mi abuelo Allende
In this documentary, Marcia Tambutti Allende uses the medium to confront her family’s life-long silence around her abue’s legacy both as a politician and family man. Tambutti’s feature sticks more to the personal rather than delving into El Chicho’s social and political legacy. Formally, Allende is structured around a series of interventions, interviews, and archival materials that Tambutti uses to explore the nature of her family’s prolonged silence, and how it relates to the traumatic loss of their patriarch. The director reconstructs a personal history of a man who for many is a little more than an idealistic political icon, or an image of resistance in a country still recovering from decades of brutal dictatorship.