Need a reminder that the region is producing some of the most exciting cinema around the globe? Look no further than the slew of awards Latin American filmmakers earned in some of the world’s most renowned festivals: Amat Escalante picked up the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for La región salvaje; Vicky Hernandez and Manolo Cruz’s La ciénaga entre el mar y la tierra triumphed at Sundance winning an Audience and a Special Jury award; and Argentine actors Alan Sabbagh (El rey del Once) and Oscar Martínez (El ciudadano ilustre) got singled out for their performances at Tribeca and Venice respectively.
Looking beyond fiction films, you could even say that the more interesting projects coming out of Latin America are the documentaries that are putting social and political issues at their center. From Tatiana Huezo‘s award-winning Tempestad (on women’s disappearances in Mexico) and Salomé Lamas’ Eldorado XXI (on the violence on a Peruvian gold mine) to Ryan Suffern’s Finding Oscar (about the Dos Erres massacre in Guatemala) and Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel’s Sundance winner When Two Worlds Collide (on Peru’s indigenous groups’ fight to save the Amazon rainforest), documentarians have shown us deeply empathetic stories about the ills affecting our cultures. They’re as eye-opening and as masterful as any fiction film you may have caught this past year.
But perhaps the biggest story coming out of Latin America this past decade, and which 2016 ratified, is the explosion of what Vinodh Venkatesh has dubbed “New Maricón Cinema.” Whether tracing a tender love story in the rural border with Uruguay (Esteros), sketching out the life of a young genderqueer teen (Mãe Só Há Uma), imagining a homoerotic dystopian Brazil (A seita), or chronicling the lives of a same-sex couple in Buenos Aires (Rara), films from south of the border showed the power of telling LGBT stories.
U.S. Latino directors weren’t far behind. From the poignant same-sex passion of Adelina Anthony’s Bruising for Besos and the vogueing competitions in New York City chronicled in Kiki to the powerful advocacy championed by Southwest of Salem and the touching portrait of a Puerto Rican actor-playwright’s battle with AIDS in Cecilia Aldarondo’s Memories of a Penitent Heart, U.S. cinema is finally making way for stories to and about gay Latinos. Heck, even Looking: The Movie anchored its plot on a gay Cuban-American getting married!
While you should be looking forward to Pablo Larraín’s upcoming pair of anti-biopics, Jackie and Neruda, and you no doubt already headed to the theater and helped make Fede Álvarez’s Don’t Breathe one of the most successful horror flicks of the year, we didn’t want you to miss out on the great number of movies coming out of Latin America or made by homegrown Latinos that hit U.S. screens this past year. Find below our list of the top 16 Latino films of 2016 that you probably didn’t see, but totally should. — Manuel Betancourt
Editor’s Note: 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 and tried to be as inclusive as possible in terms of genre, region, and themes.
Bellas de Noche
Bellas de Noche is available to stream on Netflix.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mexico’s burlesque culture was at its disco-era heyday. The clubs were filled with beautiful women who razzled and dazzled. Decades later, Beauties of the Night introduces us to five of those former showgirls who recount their lives in the spotlight and give us a glimpse of what they’re up to nowadays. Shot over eight years, María José Cuevas’s documentary is a thrilling look at these exotic dancers who continue to search for the love and adoration they got on stage all those years ago.
La región salvaje
In this eerie film, Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante has crafted two halves of a hypnotic whole. One half is a family drama about Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and her ultra macho husband Angel (Jesús Meza), whose outward homophobia is actually masking the affair he’s having with his wife’s brother (Eden Villavicencio). The other is a body horror flick centered on a mysterious woman whom Alejandra meets and who will allow her to access the inner strength she didn’t know she had. Set in Guanajuato, its fog-ridden imagery adds to the sense of danger and fear that lurks under this seemingly straightforward narrative that just gets wilder and, yes, more untamed as it unfolds.
Viva is available to stream on Netflix.
Jesus has spent most of his young adult life styling wigs at a drag club in Havana, longing for a purpose other than the pennies he scrapes together in the shadows of his surroundings. When Jesus is offered the chance to perform amongst the other queens, the cruel winds of fate bring his estranged, abusive father back into his life after 15 years. What unfolds is a bittersweet story of pain, regret, and reconciliation. As the two men’s lives violently collide, they are forced to grapple with their conflicting views.
Un monstruo de mil cabezas
Un monstruo de mil cabezas is available on DVD and to stream on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and Google Play.
True to its tagline — “A wounded animal doesn’t cry, it bites” — Rodrigo Plá’s film is a sleek thriller that shows the lengths to which a wife will go to get her husband fair treatment within a health care system that favors only profit gains. Armed with a gun, Sonia (Jana Raluy) takes matters into her own hands, digging herself into an ever-growing dark hole from which she soon realizes, she cannot escape.
El Club is available on DVD/Blu-ray and to stream on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and Google Play.
Director Pablo Larraín’s previous films examined life in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, and here he takes aim at another oppressive force: the Catholic Church. The Club has four members, all priests, who live together in a Church-sponsored home to “purge” themselves of their sins, which include child molestation and kidnapping. With a retired nun to look after them, the men seem willing to live out their days in contrite seclusion. But their penitence is interrupted with the arrival of a crisis counselor, Father Garcia. The Club took home the Jury Grand Prix at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, and was selected to represent Chile for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars, but did not receive a nomination.
This 1984 film was restored and released theatrically in 2016. Los Sures is now available on DVD and as a digital download via iTunes.
Few films document New York history from a Latino perspective as honestly and intimately as Diego Echeverria’s Los Sures did back in 1984. By following local residents in their daily struggles for basic necessities, Echeverria delivers an authentic portrait of what it was like to be Puerto Rican in Williamsburg, Brooklyn prior to gentrification.
When Two Worlds Collide
When Two Worlds Collide is available to stream on Netflix.
In this tense and immersive tour de force, audiences are taken directly into the line of fire between powerful, opposing Peruvian leaders who will stop at nothing to keep their respective goals intact. On the one side is President Alan Garcia, who, eager to enter the world stage, begins aggressively extracting oil, minerals and gas from untouched Indigenous Amazonian land. He is quickly met with fierce opposition from Indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, whose impassioned speeches against Garcia’s destructive actions prove a powerful rallying cry to throngs of his supporters. When Garcia continues to ignore their pleas, a tense war of words erupts into deadly violence.
Memories of a Penitent Heart
Memories of a Penitent Heart will air on PBS in 2017.
Like many gay men in the 1980s, Miguel moved from Puerto Rico to New York City; he found a career in theater and a rewarding relationship. Yet, on his deathbed he grappled to reconcile his homosexuality with his Catholic upbringing. Now, decades after his death, his niece Cecilia locates Miguel’s estranged lover to understand the truth, and in the process opens up long-dormant family secrets.
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
Southwest of Salem is playing in New York at The Metrograph from December 16-22, 2016.
Deborah S. Esquenazi is here telling the story of Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez—four Latina lesbians who in 1994 were tried and convicted of a heinous assault on two young girls in a court case that was infused with homophobic prejudice and the Satanic Panic sweeping the nation at that time. Southwest of Salem is a fascinating true crime story that puts the trial of the San Antonio Four in context of their ongoing search for exoneration.
The New York City ballroom scene, iconically captured on screen in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 film Paris is Burning, gets a much needed update in Sara Jordenö ebullient documentary. The film focuses on the “kiki” scene, the youth-led and socially conscious subculture of the ball scene (where LGBT* individuals walk the runway and vogue in fabulous dance battles) and really highlights the African-American and Latino youth that are blending their creativity with a welcome dose of activism.
Finding Oscar will be released theatrically in Spring 2017.
In 1982, an elite Guatemalan government squad massacred over 200 residents of the rural village of Dos Erres. The number merely added to the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives, or were disappeared during the country’s 36-year-long civil war. As it turns out, two young boys survived the massacre. More improbably, their story and survival was the only key to finding out precisely what happened back in 1982. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall, Finding Oscar traces the story of finding one of the boys and the quest for justice that followed.
Clara (a luminous Sonia Braga) is the last resident of the Aquarius, an classic art deco building built in Recife’s upper-class Boa Viagem Avenue. Despite being offered a good deal for her apartment by developers, this spry 65-year old is not ready to part from the place she’s made her home and where she raised her children. The construction company, which is intent on building a New Aquarius, begins implementing increasingly aggressive methods to get the former music critic to sell. But all this drama creates for Clara is a renewed sense of vigor that pushes her to think back to her life lived and to embrace her her present-day vitality.
Jeffrey has all the makings of a heartwarming tale: its protagonist is a twelve year old boy trying to get by in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He works as a windshield washer and, in his spare time, recruits his older brother to help him record the reguetón songs he composes about his own life. To get to know Jeffrey as we do (following him in the heat-filled traffic on the streets, in the modest living quarters he shares with his family, and in the quiet spot up a tree where he decompresses) is to see the beauty of documentary filmmaking at its best. At times, Yanillys Perez’s feature project almost feels like a narrative film: that’s how carefully constructed it is and how engaging her rapport is with the young powerhouse of a performer.
As its title suggests, Austro-Argentine writer-director Lukas Valenta Rinner’s deadpan comedy hinges on the notion of “decency.” Belén (Iride Mockert) has started working as a maid at an upper-class residential complex, one captured by Valenta Rinner’s camera. Next door, though, as Belén soon learns, there’s a nudist colony. The young woman is intrigued, precisely because its freewheeling spirit stands in contrast with the antiseptic world she’s recently entered. Once she ventures in, A Decent Woman becomes a wry satirical look at class warfare, one which becomes increasingly discomfiting—you just know it can’t end well and the suspense Valenta Rinner builds is what makes the film such a mesmerizing accomplishment.
Sin filtro is available to stream on Netflix.
This raucous Chilean comedy follows Pía (Paz Bascuñán), a woman who, after visiting a Chinese doctor to settle a pain in her chest, finds herself unable to filter her thoughts. Everything she would usually bottle up—her frustrations with her partner, with her boss, with strangers on the street—suddenly flows out of her. This being a comedy in the vein of Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar, Pía soon finds out that while this newfound honesty is liberating, it also comes at a price.
Willie Velasquez: Your Vote is Your Voice
Your Vote is Your Voice is available to stream on pbs.org for free.
“For decades Latinos in America had no political power.” That’s the line with which Hector Galán opens his documentary on Willie Velasquez, one of the greatest advocates for US Latino voter registration of the 20th century. Tracing his rise from a butcher’s son born in the 1940s to an admired political activist in the civil rights era, the PBS-produced Willie Velasquez – Your Vote is Your Voice is a history lesson on the Latino electorate in the twentieth century.