The Greatest Films of the 21st Century Include 5 Movies by Latin American Directors, Says the BBC

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We are not even a sixth of the way through the 21st century but that wasn’t going to stop the BBC from assembling a greatest films of the century list. Polling 117 critics from 36 countries the final list reads like a who’s who of contemporary cinema. You have Christopher Nolan, the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and critical darling Apichatpong Weerasethakul, each amply represented with 3 films each. You have David Lynch topping the list with Mulholland Drive. You have your token Almodóvar hit with Talk to Her. You have a handful of Pixar flicks (WALL-E, Ratatouille, and Finding Nemo in case you’re wondering).

And then you have two of The Three Amigos represented which makes you wonder whether the two-time Best Director Oscar winner split his own votes. You think Cuarón and Del Toro have already phoned ‘El Negro’ to let him know they also think Babel should’ve been on the list?

We could quibble all day with the rankings and inclusions. Even just naming the directors that were left off the film could surely fill an entire other list (like, say, our own take on the Best Latin American Films of the 2000s). But that’s what lists are for: to be fought over. And, of course, to celebrate who did get cited. With that in mind, find below the five Latin American directors on the BBC list that repped the region in all its diversity.

El secreto de sus ojos

Juan José Campanella

The Oscar-winning film (which got its own American remake just last year) came in at #91.

A retired legal counselor sets down to write a novel centered on a case that still haunts him all these years later. He’s convinced that this will give him closure but all it does is open up old wounds and has him tumble into a darkened rabbit hole of a plot. This thriller starring Ricardo Darín is as gripping as it is smart, weaving in Argentinean politics into its boilerplate whodunnit plot, keeping you guessing all the way through the end.

Synopsis By: Manuel Betancourt
Juan José Campanella, Eduardo Sacheri
Juan José Campanella, Carolina Urbieta, Mariela Besuievsky

La mujer sin cabeza

Lucrecia Martel

Martel’s divisive film has grown in esteem since its Cannes debut and seems to have been vindicated now ranking at #89.

Thud, then thud again, and two strong jerks forward. This lasting impact from Vero’s running over something — or maybe someone — resonates throughout La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman) Lucrecia Martel’s psychological thriller that explores mind, memory and responsibility. Vero, an upper class dentist and member of a bourgeois family where everyone has connections, is out driving when, distracted by a phone call, she swerves suddenly and runs over something. Stunned and out of it, whether from the impact to her head or by the shock she continues driving but the camera shows some indistinct form lying in the road behind her. Later, Vero seems to have truly lost her mind, acting spacey and forgetful, and we don’t know whether it’s the accident that’s messing with her head or whether it’s the beginning of the dementia that runs in her family. The family decides to ignore her odd behavior and also her claims that she ran someone over. Later, when they discover a boy from a poor family of workers has been found dead near the side of the road the family tries to convince her that it’s all in her head. Tight, claustrophobic head shots in cars or mirrors often cropped at odd levels underscore the psychological disconnect between what may have happened and what surrounds her in a world of privilege that seems to be able to make whatever reality it wants materialize.

Synopsis By: Maria-Christina Villaseñor
Lucrecia Martel
Pedro Almodóvar, Agustín Almodóvar

Cidade de deus

Kátia Lund, Fernando Meirelles

It was only a matter of seeing where (not if) the Brazilian crossover hit of this century would place. Answer: #38.

Like the plucky little chicken that escapes death despite all odds in the film’s opening scene, so do a lot of the street kids depicted in Cidade de deus (City of God) get by on bravado and dumb luck in the tough favelas of Brazil. But mostly they die since their guns are not the make believe ones of child’s play but the real deal on the mean city streets of Cidade de deus, an incredibly rough favela on the edge of Rio. Rocket, a budding photographer whose way out lies in his camera rather than the gun, narrates the story of the gangs of children and youth he grows up with, armed to the teeth, who thieve and threaten their way through daily life to survive in a place that holds no other options. Ignored by the cops and social services their lives and livelihoods grow harder as petty pot dealing turns to major drug trafficking and the stakes get higher. With clever narration by Rocket that works in counterpoint to the violence onscreen, a soundtrack that makes shootouts seem like dance sequences, and virtuoso editing and cinematography that shows the Carnival-like craziness of these little kids larger-than-life lives of crime, Cidade de deus is a hyper-original epic of tragic proportions.

Synopsis By: Maria-Christina Villaseñor
Paulo Lins, Bráulio Mantovani
Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos

El laberinto del fauno

Guillermo del Toro

Del Toro’s fairy tale allegory comes in at #17.

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.

Synopsis By: Maria-Christina Villaseñor
Spain, Mexico
Fantasy, Drama
Guillermo del Toro

Children of Men

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cuarón’s dystopian masterpiece ranks the highest, just missing the Top 10 at #13.

Based on P.D. James novel of the same name, Children of Men is set in a not-so distant future where there is a global infertility epidemic: no one has been born in over 18 years. Cuarón and Lubezki’s masterful kinetic cinematography guides us through the radicalized United Kingdom which has a furiously successful anti-immigration stance and which our hero, Theo (Clive Owen) will have to navigate if he’s to help humanity’s one chance at salvation: a young pregnant girl called Kee.

Synopsis By: Manuel Betancourt
United Kingdom, United States