To celebrate an awesomely impressive first decade of filmmaking in the 21st century Cinema Tropical, that clever hub of all things cine Latino, undertook a huge survey project and asked key New Yorkers involved in the Latin American film world to come up with a list of the hundred best Latin American films of early 2000s (a.k.a. the aughts). Always on the lookout for savvy ways to keep you in the know, we have adapted the list cherry picking the top 50, offering our own commentary and hooking you up with previews. No matter what mood, country, or topic you’re jonesing for, we give you the low down on the very finest, lo mejor de lo mejor, that cine Latinoamericano has to offer from the aughts. Let the “best of” begin!
Like a Tennessee Williams play set in Argentina’s countryside, La ciénaga focuses on grand ladies in decline, swampy settings, family bonds and binds that forever pull, and alcohol, lots of alcohol. Family matriarch Mecha is so stewed in her own alcoholic juices that she rarely makes it out of bed, an especially impressive feat given that she’s in charge of four rowdy children and a useless husband all sharing a country house for the summer. Her cousin Tali lives nearby, also the mother of four children. Although her drinking is more intermittent and her husband slightly more useful, she doesn’t seem any more focused than Mecha and spends her days, when not at Mecha’s, randomly fixing up the house or thinking of things to get for the kids. Jose, the oldest of Mecha’s children, is knowingly handsome and sleeping with much older Mercedes and also possibly the young maid and seems to make sexually tinged moves amongst the younger girls too. It’s all very confusing, convoluted, and possibly incestuous, but in the chaos, clutter, and alcoholic haze underscored by the camera’s at times blurred imagery, it’s very hard to make out clear causes and effects or intentional rights and wrongs. Like real life, La ciénaga is messy, unclear, filled with despair and danger, and for very brief moments heart-achingly beautiful.
The closest I’ve ever been to being trampled is in a Cuban mob fighting to get in to see this film. (OK maybe the closest I’ve been except for some embarrassing mosh pit incidents, but really, who’s keeping track?) And you know what, it was well worth the crush. The original badass film of the New México scene (and no, not New Mexico as in Breaking Bad: notice the accent, people!), Amores perros inaugurated a new millennium with the guts and grit of a new style of filmmaking, and Iñárritu has not ceased to be a badass ever since. In one of his first big screen appearances Gael Garcia Bernal plays Octavio desperately on the run from an armed thug but still giving his all to make sure he gets to the vet in time to save his injured dog. And so this unexpected take on a chase scene kicks off the film’s intricate three-part story structure. It hinges on a car wreck that impacts the characters in each story line, and in turn each story line involves dogs — be they mangled, maimed, rough and ready. Love’s a bitch, there’s no doubt. Amores perros finds the poetry in, not despite, the harsh reality of that statement.
Mexico is the setting for Reygada’s 2007 film, but chances are slim you’d guess that just by watching it. The language spoken 99% of the time is low German (what, you didn’t know about high and low German?) and it is only when a tow truck driver shows up near the end of the film that you finally hear a bit of Spanish spoken. “Mi nombre es Juan,” explains Johan, a member of a Mennonite community that makes its home in Northern Mexico and has its own closed community of blonde haired, blue-eyed inhabitants. Living simply and austerely, Johan and his wife Esther seem fine enough in their simple life of hard farm work and lots of hustle around the house full of lots of kids. And in that respect their lives seem no different from the lives of many rural Mexican families in Mexico. But the Mennonites adhere to a strict set of moral and community rules, and Johan has broken them in a major way. He’s fallen for Marianne, a woman at the local café with a face like a Picasso portrait. Johan’s morals and passion are fighting a quiet war inside him and he’s told his wife the truth about what’s going on feeling terrible about the torment that he’s causing her. With Reygada’s signature long takes that drink in the gorgeous countryside and let the quiet of the environment be and the undercurrent of devotion, passion and torment that pulses throughout, the film has the feel of Wim Wenders Paris, Texas. Like that title, which plays with locations, dreams and expectations, you’ve probably never seen a better Mexican, German film.
Cidade de deus
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.
Ônibus 174 (Bus 174) takes as its focus a suspenseful, action-packed real life drama, that’s true but it’s smart use and editing of footage of the actual event in combination with interviews after the fact are what sets this doc up for brilliance in this examination of the event and so much more. The film follows the hijacking of Bus 174, if you can call it that, in which young Sandro de Nascimiento tried to rob the passengers of the bus but ended up taking them all hostage. Despite his rambling demands the cops made no moves to take him out when they could have, fumble all around and totally misread and misunderstood him as a person or perp. The doc looks at the violence that de Nascimiento had lived his whole life around and shows a much more complicated picture of bad guys and good than shown on the T.V. news and reflects the harsh realities of life on the wrong side of Rio.
Y tu mamá también
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.
Señor Jacobo is a man of few words, a joyless owner of a sock factory who is definitely in the camp of those who live to work not work to live. His faithful assistant, the middle-aged Marta, helps run the factory and keeps even his minimal living needs in order but when Sr. Jacobo’s brother plans to visit Jacobo asks Marta to help put his life not only in order but on display. Good sport Marta gamely agrees to play the part of his wife so Jacobo pretends he actually has a personal life for the sake of impressing his married brother. They play their parts extremely well, Marta the perfect Susie homemaker and Jacobo the average bored, bitter husband. But it isn’t until the two agree to travel on invitation from Jacobo’s brother to a faded resort the brothers visited as children that we learn some easy and some hard truths about life, responsibility, joy, and the legacy of Jewish immigrants in Uruguay and beyond.
La mujer sin cabeza
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.
La niña santa
In a hotel in the conservative town of Salta in Northern Argentina a conference of ear, nose & throat doctors is being held. I know, I know, you’re thinking it sounds like the making for a laugh riot, right? Not really, I know you are actually all smart little galletas know by now that Lucrecia Martel’s films are complex, messy, haunting numbers that unfold in close quarters and this one is no different. Tweeny Amalia is in a typical teenage Catholic girl struggle: trying to make sense of her faith when the true calling seems to be from more of the flesh than spirit order. Amalia’s mother works for the hotel where Dr. Janus is staying for the conference and both mother and daughter are a bit caught up in his spell though that’s a strong word for the not so likeable guy. Trying to figure out what devotion looks like, what God wants, what a true calling can be, and how her own sexuality is changing everything she thought she knew in the earthly realm La niña santa doesn’t present a neat storyline or clear answers to anything. Martel’s signature tightly-cropped shots show that often mind and body don’t connect.
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.
Take the classic three card monte scam, multiply it by three, and bam you’ve got the makings of Nueve reinas (Nine Queens) Bielinsky’s fast-paced, highly entertaining feature that follows the world of scam artists. Young Juan is working a lowball scam on the cashier at the local convenience store but rather than walking off with his modest payoff he sticks around to try it on the very next cashier just coming in for her shift. By that time the first cashier has figured out that she’s been fleeced and at her insistence the manager nabs Juan to turn him over to the cops. That’s when fellow shopper Marcos steps in flashing his gun to assure the store staff that he’s a cop and will take the thief into custody. But it turns out that Marcos is really a senior scam artist in need of a new assistant and has been watching young Juan’s movidas chuecas. And that as they say is the beginning of a bee-yooo-ti-ful friendship, or at least conship, in this film whose quick editing, rapid fire dialogue, and clever script keeps it going full tilt until they pull off the biggest trick of all, the nueve reinas scam, involving an extremely rare set of vintage stamps highly valued by collectors. Grifting never looked so good.
Flipping chorizos at the grill is no one’s ideal way of making a living (except for maybe hipster foodie types high on “locally sourced, I butchered it myself” hype) but it’s what Freddie does to earn a buck in Buenos Aires. Yup, the film is about Argentina not Bolivia and Bolivia really doesn’t count for much in Argentina even if it is where Freddie hails from. The choripan café’s owner can’t even keep nationalities straight thinking Freddie is Peruano and not seeming to think that countries outside of Argentina even count as being Latin American. Life as an immigrant there is tough stuff especially when you’re undocumented like Freddie and the film demonstrates a world that’s tough, tedious and dull with a black-and-white shooting mode that flattens almost everything out to middle grays. The scene at the choripan café shows the animosity of many of its Argentino regulars towards immigrants especially territorial as their own country is going through a harsh economic crisis stuck in the xenophobic thinking that foreigners are stealing their jobs. But what makes Freddie run? Watch the doc Cocalero as a companion piece to this and find out how the good ole U.S.-led war on drugs screwed things up for Bolivianos like Freddie.
Family maid and nanny Raquel has been working with the same family for years taking caring of their ginormous house and grounds and also helping to raise their kids. Like most families over time both kids and parents experience growing pains—mostly over minor dramas involving surging teenage hormones and power struggles for independence. But for Raquel, who both is and isn’t the authority figure in these kids’ lives, this period is particularly difficult especially when it comes to dealing with feisty teenage Camila who tries to get her own way and reminds Raquel of her place as the one who is supposed to take orders not give them. The family’s mother, exasperated with any kind of domestic drama, sees Raquel’s exhaustion and insists that another maid be hired to help Raquel with her large workload. But Raquel is super territorial and in a series of hilarious scenes finds near-demonic ways to literally and figuratively shut out potential new help as a series of maids begin their jobs and promptly quit under Raquel’s sadistic schtick. But one maid, Lucy, is different and sees through Raquel’s defense tactics. Figuring Raquel has lived most of her adult life without a family or any kind of personal life outside of her employers Lucy warms to rather than runs away from Raquel and begins to show Raquel what happiness just might feel like. The film, with a sometime handheld camera style that mimics Raquel’s nervous OCD tendencies, manages to be dark, hilarious, frustrating, and poignant—shying away from any criticism of the class structures that underlie such situations but even so it’s a real winner.
Madame Satâ, a.k.a. João Francisco dos Santos, was a legendary drag queen who took her inspiration from Josephine Baker but rocked 1930s Brazil in her own unique way as a fierce cabaret firebrand who set the stage on fire. Lead actor Lázaro Ramos’ intense performance captures the legendary energy of the performer. The film shows dos Santos’ complicated personal life, filled with human relationships on all sides of the gender, moral, and age spectrum, as he hustles to supplement his stage career, tries to keep his unorthodox family together, and fights repressive forces of all kinds. With wild set designs and costumes, intense key lighting, and a fast-clipped pace of editing, the film is all sweaty sparkle, glitter and grit, and every other delicious conundrum you can imagine. Very few directors can do a decent period piece that doesn’t look contrived, but Aïnouz smartly takes the artifice and runs with it. He nails it and makes you want to jump right in.
If your fetish is octogenarian sex you won’t have to wait until you’re in your eighties for fulfillment! Enter Japón. (Hey, isn’t there a sexier alternate title than plain old Japón a title which has nothing to do with the film anyway?) Ok, so it’s not really fair to hype the sex in Japón like it’s either plentiful or pleasing. Simply put, this is not about sex but about death like so many Mexican things are. A man travels to a remote canyon town in Mexico catching a lift for the long road down with a man out on a hunting trip. The hunter asks him why he’s going to Godforsaken Ayacazintla if he has no family there. The man says, “To kill myself” and the hunter nods his head and answers simply, “Understood.” Only in Mexico, folks… (For extra credit go read Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude for a little refresher on the topic of all things dark and Mexican.) But as the man ponders his suicide lust surprisingly starts to stir inside him and even though the only woman for miles around is the very old viejita he is staying with he wants to figure out if his last remaining desire can tell him something about life or death. Long takes panning across an arid Mexican landscape reflect a man who is wrung out of hope and life but still searching. Reygada’s impressive first feature caused quite a stir and he hasn’t stopped stirring things up since.
Fitz Roy, Argentina, is a pass-through town, one most people only notice or stop in on their way to somewhere else. This feeling of wanting—something, somewhere else—affects many of the town’s inhabitants but three in particular: Don Justo, Roberto and María. Although the three have nothing in common other than a link to the town they also share the same desire to get to San Julián. Elderly Don Justo is going in search of his dog, Mala Cara, a canine Don Justo believes knows right from wrong who ran away when he saw the old man commit a major moral no no. Maria, a young mother, wants to win her luck on a game show whose name she and the townspeople aren’t even sure of as most of them lack the electricity to even run a television. And salesman Roberto, a supreme believer in the power of improvisation and creativity in selling as in life, thinks he has found a clever way to win over a woman he visits regularly on his sales route. A gorgeous look at the landscape of Patagonia through the eyes of many fellow travelers, Historias mínimas (Intimate Stories) shows that just when we think we know our stories the road takes another turn.
The Argentinian countryside is as much a character as the main protagonist of La libertad: Misael Savedra, an actual woodsman. At times director Alonso’s camera makes you feel like the kind of doofus who just went “D’oh!” not knowing that real life woodsmen exist outside of fairy tales and fantasy films. With a low-angle camera, its P.O.V. crouched observing Misael in the distance the ambient sound of birds and wind rustling loud you think at any moment a narrator is going to jump in and say, “Let’s stay low and quiet while we try and get closer to this incredible specimen.” Is it messed up to fetishize hard, rural labor? Try living that life yourself for a short while and you’ll know the answer. So the question posed here is how a doc can both show the intense beauty and sense of connectedness to the land of Misael’s hard, unrelenting work while making us question what “libertad” is. You may wonder whether our easier, but infinitely more disconnected, lives are any closer to freedom or is, despite it’s difficulty, Israel’s? If you are patient you’ll be in a trance state pondering this while watching long takes of life in the Argentinian countryside. Embrace it in a Sunday night chill mode.
La teta asustada
Instead of it being the magical source of all life in it’s crazy beauty the human body is the source of all sorrow in La teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow). You should know by now that sorrow unsurprisingly appears often in Latin American Cinema. But this film does hold surprises. For instance, who knew a potato could be an effective form of contraception? (Though granted, it more or less works in the same way that a chastity belt does.) Taking small bits of humor where it can to offset the terrors of Peru’s civil wars and the scars that they have left La teta asustada creates a fresh take on the magical realist genre and ever so gently shreds it apart. Young Fausta has to find a way to pay for her mother’s funeral and takes a job as a maid to an older pianist to raise funds. Her own talent is discovered and encouraged her talented hands creating music of joy until they, you guessed it, eventually churn out more sorrow. Still, it’s exciting to see director Claudia Llosa, Mario Vargas Llosa’s niece, come into her own in this unique film.
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.
Filmed on the Mar de Plata coastline, XXY shows an unpredictably wild but gorgeous seaside where Alex’s father works to protect and rescue sea turtles endangered by the area’s fishing industry. Kraken seems to feel his primary role is protector especially when it comes to his child Alex, a secretive and aggressive wild child who provokes Álvaro another young teen who has come to visit along with his family but both kids, each feeling themselves misfits, end up developing an intense connection. Eventually we learn that Alex, an intersex child, is beginning to go through puberty and is grappling with her (so far she’s been raised as a girl) sexuality. Fed up with hormone pills and forcing her complex body into a strictly female form. Alex, or at least her mother, is looking into whether Alex will undergo gender reassignment surgery. Then they discover that the head of the family staying with them is a renowned plastic surgeon specializing in sex changes. Fluid camera work filled with shots of window frames, mirrors, and reflections emphasizes the story’s doubling, narrowness of view, and constant thinking about fixed ideas and viewpoints of themselves, of others, and of how others might perceive them.
Santiago is a character who lives not in the past but with it, tons and tons of it in his enormous collection of notes and histories of the aristocratic grand families of the world. According to him over 6,00 years of history and 30 years in the making. An odd way to spend your free time, you might think. Especially if you have worked all your life as a butler waiting hand and foot on the rich. But as they say, truth is stranger than fiction and this is Santiago’s story as told by João Moreira Salles whose family employed Santiago and who Salles started filming in 1992. Salles sat on the footage for 13 years and finally prompted by Santiago’s death he began to piece together this fascinating doc. Compelling in its character’s kookiness and OCD tendencies but traits that are also respected and seen as kind of a beautiful madness all filmed in super-luscious black and white tones that lend an elegant feel to it all. Santiago must have been the perfect butler if you judge by his perfectly aligned stacks and stacks of typewritten materials tied with ribbons and alpha arranged amidst his decrepit but baroquely decorated flat. A cool meta reflection on past, present, memory, history and you guessed it, the whole documentary process itself.
Jogo de cena
Placing a kind of “help wanted” ad in a Brazilian newspaper is an unusual premise for a documentary but Coutinho is the master of curious, quirky inquiries. The ad asks people to “audition” for a documentary which in a way is not unlike the process a filmmaker goes through in auditioning ideas in his or her head for a doc. But the results in the flesh here are alternately painful, hilarious, surprising, unbelievable and challenging as the women who respond to the ad recount their personal tales. And though they are supposedly all factual, they are still tales, stories we tell ourselves, and here others. A little drama ramped up here, a twist inserted there, who knows what a “true” story is and where the tale begins. Underscoring this is Coutinho’s filming of the women on a stage and his inclusion of well-known actresses in Brazil to reenact some of the women’s stories along with a discussion of acting’s tricks of the trade, er, craft.
Filmed in a densely textured black-and-white in Mexico’s mountains, El violín follows the story of a group of Mexican rebels. The otherwise quiet villagers grew tired of the government’s abuse and tyranny and begin to secretly plot a rebellion and amass the means by which to do it. Don Plutarco is the very elderly musician who plays the violin for centavos along with his son earning a meager extra bit of money while they also exchange secrets about the uprising. When their village is captured by the army while they are away the duo plots for ways to regain their arms and ammo still hidden in the village. Only Don Plutarco, with his violin, finds a way to charm the Colonel into letting him back and despite his age and infirmity Plutarco does what he can to help the cause. With its black-and-white style that shows the dense countryside can hold many secrets and truths and with a smartly crafted sound design that lets music and silence speak volumes El violín definitely deserves to be heard and seen.
As is the case with Eimbcke’s earlier film, Temporada de patos, the director shows he is the master of showcasing disaffected young people in all of their slouchy, mumble-mouthed glory in minimalist scene after scene. The major plot here (i.e. don’t invest too much in plot devices early on) is seemingly the quest to find a car part to replace the one that teeange Juan has smashed up in a wreck with a telephone pole. As they say, it’s all about the journey. As Juan encounters a mechanic/wannabe Shaolin disciple, the auto parts clerk who yearns to go to a punk concert pawns her baby off on Juan and an elderly dog-owner does the same with his hyperactive dog Sica. Speaking of Sica, you can make a game of picking out the fleeting but well-realized homages to Jim Jarmusch, Jacques Tati, and yes, Vittorio de Sica, in Eimbcke’s gorgeously filmed examination of youth and loss.
Truth is stranger than fiction the old saying goes but filmmaker Carri understands that there are no true divides between fact and fiction; we craft our realities and history through storytelling every day. Digging into the disturbing past and her parents’ disappearance during Argentina’s Dirty War Carri blurs the lines between fiction and documentary filmmaking to unearth some form of truth. Utilizing an actress to play the part of Carri as director this hybrid film shows the documentary process itself while mixing dramatic elements into it. It’s unique visual style, a mix of stark documentary and experimental film techniques, gives Los rubios a multilayered texture and shows us that it’s not so easy to separate genres, styles, fact, and fiction. Were Carri’s parents morenos or rubios, sell-outs or rebels to the core, victims or victimizers? It’s all a matter of perspective in this challenging film that refuses to rest on easy truths.
El baño del Papa
A small town in Uruguay is buzzing with the news that the Pope is coming through their town to give a speech. No, it’s not religious fervor feeding their frenzy but good old commerce as the impoverished townspeople are hoping to hawk all manner of goods to the masses expected to descend on the town for the Pope’s visit. Beto, an aging petty smuggler whose knees can no longer handle the journey he makes on a bicycle to-and-from the Uruguay/Brazil border, especially needs a big score and he thinks he has a more guaranteed money-maker than selling chorizos and trinkets to the crowds. Thinking if he builds it, they will come, he makes fast work of constructing a pay-per-use toilet that the crowds will surely need. The only slow-downs in his plan are the inevitable troubles that befall those trying to make dreams come true while living on the margins. Great acting by a diverse cast and a wicked gallows humor make for a film that’s way more than a potty-mouthed one-liner.
“Make yourselves at home,” the inhabitants of an enormous building in Copacabana, the Master, seem to say over and over again. In interview after interview the wild, entangled lives of the people who live there unfold and like a complex system of bees in their hives or ants in their colonies their goals, work and lives, sometimes pretty darned lurid, entangle but unlike worker bee-type insects, human emotions also drive them to all kinds of unscripted foolishness. But are the tales these sometimes crazy characters tell true or are they like it’s said of Fellini, born liars who live to exaggerate for the sake of drama? For when Coutinho gives them the challenge of acting out some scenes and not just recounting their own stories they go at it whole hog. Another inquiry into sex, lies and videotape along with some possible (make that a lot of possible) truths make up this additional entry in master documentarian Coutinho’s big, fat, juicy filmography.
O céo de suely
The highway sign at the beginning of this film reads, “Here begins Iguatu.” The highway sign at the end of the film reads “Here begins the longing for Iguatu.” In between the two, Hermila’s quest unfolds. Her gorgeous, radiant face beaming everywhere she goes, her body beckoning plenty of guys’ attention as she heads back to her home town for good. But young Hermila has a baby in tow. Her baby daddy is due to come meet them soon and she’s not looking for any male attention but instead enjoys herself together with her aunt and her aunt’s would-be girlfriend, who happens to be a prostitute. When it turns out that Hermila’s long awaited boyfriend has run off she begins to think that selling her most in-demand commodity, her body, is a better way to earn a living than washing cars. Desperate to earn enough to pay for a bus ticket as far away from Iguatu as possible to start over, Hermila devises a scheme to run a raffle in which the prize will be “a night in Paradise” with Suely, Hermila’s adopted street name. A beautifully filmed parable about home — the loves, the longings, the running back and forth — and the challenges of figuring out who, what, how and when you will find yourself in the skin you’re in.
Días de santiago
Young war vet Santiago has returned to Lima after a three-year tour of duty during Peru’s war with Ecuador but his head is still back in the black-and-white mores of military life, or so it seems. High-contrast black-and-white scenes are intercut with alternatingly warm and cool-paletted color footage. Mirroring Santiago’s starkly contrasted interior and exterior thoughts and experiences the film’s aesthetic offers a visually dynamic experience of the young man’s confusing re-encounter with civilian life. Lima pulses with energy but also with moral ambiguity for Santiago and his wish to keep living a life full of dangerous but unambiguous rescues, clear missions, and strategic ops is impossible as a civ. His dysfunctional family, the conflicted women who surround him, and his meager army pension don’t make it any easier. But the film’s strength is in crafting on screen the confusion in Santiago’s head and in the world around him–the impossibility of black-and-white clarity—by utilizing strong shooting styles and editing, smart sound design and nuanced acting.
Temporada de patos
When their high strung mother goes out for the day leaving Flama and his buddy Moko with some pesos for pizza and Cokes in their high-rise housing complex it has all the makings of the perfect Sunday for a couple of tweens. Settling down in front of the Xbox with sodas and a big bowl of chips the day could not be more perfect that is until the electricity goes out. By the time their next door neighbor Rita comes over to bake a cake (and accidentally makes it with marijuana) this Mexican coming of age tale shows itself to be a tender and quirky take on the genre.
Cinema, aspirinas e urubus
It’s 1942 and two very different characters run into each other in the midst of running away: Johan, a German running from the war in Europe and the German draft and Ranulpho, running away from the poverty and drought of his life in the Brazilian outback. Despite their differences they decide to travel together, hawking aspirin and setting up films at spots along the way to earn a living. Filmed in an at times shadowy but warm glow the whole thing radiates a love for cinema itself (oh come on, a little self love is good now and then, right?) and captures a nostalgic glow without being too saccharine. It also illuminates an interesting nugget of World War II’s effects in Latin America, when millions of Germans fleeing the war emigrated to Brazil.
Los guantes mágicos
In the days before the “magic” of Uber made taxi driving possible for everyone Alejandro takes up informal taxi driving in his beat-up old Renault 12 with equally “magical” (not!) results. Everything is connected, everything is rotten as Alejandro’s philosophically minded eye doctor tells him at the beginning of the film. Sure enough, Alejandro ends up needing glasses to fix his “rotting” vision, walking out with some ugly, wire-framed specs. It seems he’s slowly getting sucked into the middle age vortex of decrepitude and to top it off he’s just broken up with his girlfriend. His ex is also suffering from her own vision problems: she tells a friend during a very unhappy happy hour that her eyes suddenly well up with tears all the time but when her friend tries to suggest she’s depressed she insists it’s nothing more than a case of watery eyes. And so everyone’s vision—perspective—is out of whack in this film. Relationships and locations change but nothing really seems to shift the characters perspectives; lots of dimly lit scenes in bars & discos underscore how the characters try to blur their daily realities even more. The only shift Alejandro seems to care about is the battered stick shift of his old Renault. But a business opportunity involving some “magic” one-size-fits-all gloves might kick things into a new gear…
If you’re in the mood for light-hearted retro fare that features Saturday Night Fever mania there’s a film out there for you but it’s not this one. Seeing as the grim period in which Tony Manero is set is Pinochet-era Chile this ain’t no disco, to use the fine words of David Byrne. But for aspiring John Travolta/Tony Manero impersonator Peralta the imaginary disco set of Saturday Night Fever seems to be all he lives for in his grim urban life of hustling, crime and the threat of Pinochet’s goons. Peralta focuses intently on recreating the tailoring details of Manero’s infamous white suit, Travolta’s hip swiveling and arm-rolling moves, and the jet black of the character’s shiny pompadour rather than weighing the violence and the crimes, large and small, he regularly commits to make his obsession possible. With the exception of the bright fluorescent lights that illuminate the makeshift dance floor the film is grey-toned and gritty, its main character unredeemable, its threat of Pinochet clamp-downs casting a pall over it all. Choose it for a night when your psychological immune system can handle it or you may end up with Saturday Night Flu.
Nadie te oye: perfume de violetas
Yessica and Mariam are besties; two tweens who in their bad-girl goodness are the types to sneak matches but only to melt eyeliner pencils for better smudgeability. Their surroundings however, the tough city streets of D.F., are not nearly as innocent. Both girls come from broken families striving to stay afloat with Mariam kept on a tight leash by her single mom who struggles to keep them in a better neighborhood away from the seedier side of Mexico City and Yessica who lives on the wrong side of the tracks and has to put up with a creepy stepdad and an even creepier stepbrother. Excited as they are about being on the cusp of grown-up life their budding sexuality is seen by others not only as a cause for shame but also as a target for violence. With searingly intense performances by the young actresses, a pulsing soundtrack with MexiPunk bands such as Intestino Grueso, and a high-keyed cinematography that makes Mexico City pop, Sistach’s fine feature is unforgettable: Oye lo bien!
Like a fairy tale (not the Disney sticky sweet kind but like the Brothers Grimm) where a path of magical things unfolds for its characters but also unfailing leads toward a really wacked out, disturbing ending Machuca’s story unfolds in Allende-era Chile. If you have even the slightest grasp of Latin American history, you know what happens next is not good. But for now, the promise of Allende’s inclusive, socialist government has made the impossible possible: a friendship between two young boys from vastly different circumstances happens because Pedro Machuca, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, has won a scholarship to upper middle-class Gonzalo’s private school. Harassed in the private school by day Machuca and Gonzalo bond. Machuca shows sheltered Gonzalo what life’s like on the other side of the tracks in Santiago. Machuca also shares his friendship with tough girl Silvana and the three make a tight circle doing things any kids their age would do and forming tight bonds across class and race lines. But as we sadly know the coup to come and Pinochet will not let this everyday magic last much longer…
Zapa, a rookie recruit, enters the police academy already under shady circumstances. He’s secretly 32, over the maximum age of 28 to enter the academy but that’s the least of it. He’s also an expert locksmith who, you guessed it, has been involved in a safecracking swindle. Zapa finds that the rules of morality are just as easily bent inside the police force as out and quickly gets promoted when the precinct boss learns of his handy way with a lock. And so it goes, the crooked get more crooked, transgressions big and small happen all around him—beatings, extortion, juicy affairs—but except for the latter Zapa barely cracks a frown or a smile. It’s all routine, a harsh reality which the high-contrast camerawork does nothing to soften. If you can’t beat “the man.” join him, El bonaerense seems to suggest. And don’t expect redemption to come riding in on a white horse at the end.
Argentina’s economic crisis has impacted nearly everyone even Buenos Aires’ most sheltered residents who reside in its swank Palermo district. Live-in maid Dora feels the impact through her constantly deferred paycheck even if this goes largely unacknowledged (nor apologized for) by her long-term employer Señora Beba. With the help of “un whiskey” which frequently turns into tres o cuatro, Sra. Beba is able to stave off her growing worries about how to pay for her high-maintenance lifestyle and continue with her wealthy façade during her weekly bridge games with the girls. Meanwhile, Dora is conflicted about whether to leave Sra. Beba and try her luck at assembling a new life along with a modest home of her own in the nearby countryside. The interior scenes of high-rise luxury grow increasingly dark and claustrophobic as Beba shuts down literally and metaphorically, bills unpaid and downsizing inevitable. Meanwhile the countryside scenes are expansive but full of crossroads and jumbles as the crisis offers little hope for a wide open freedom.
El abrazo partido
Actor Daniel Hendler gives neuroticism a fresh update (and charms his way through it in a way Woody Allen never could) as Ariel, a young Argentino on a nutty quest for identity and a sense of belonging that his absent father never gave him. Ariel’s Jewish family emigrated from Eastern Europe, Poland to be specific, and Ariel is suddenly trying to gain Polish citizenship to given himself an identity as a “European.” In a hilarious scene with a Polish administrator, he cites his “urgent” reasons to seek Polish citizenship as Roman Polanski, Lech Walesa, and Pope John Paul II, getting nailed on his nonexistent Polish pronunciation every time. Ariel is also questioning his own history and paternity trying to piece together the story of his father who left the family for Israel to fight in the 1973 war. Set amidst merchants in a Buenos Aires mall who deal in goofy gear that people don’t need, the search for meaning is one that takes place among the meaningless, the absurdity in everyday and the ties that bind sometimes hides a much deeper resonance.
La sagrada familia
Set at college student Marcelo’s parents flat over the long Easter weekend that ends Semana Santa La sagrada familia shows the duality of the partying that so often makes up the Catholic world’s spring break and the somberness that Good Friday implies. Over the break Marcelo brings a group of friends home, along with his hard partying girlfriend Sofia who is not afraid to shake up the domestic scene—sweeping their conventions and their professed faith aside. A handheld camera style, zooming and swooping in for close-ups to capture the intense personal interdynamics shows the improvised dramas popping up throughout. Sex and drugs in all kinds of combos abound and this improvised drama certainly doesn’t hold back on any fronts. Lelio’s film explores what he calls “family as a sacred trap” and is a trippy addition for anyone’s Easter basket.
En el hoyo
If you’ve ever been to D.F., as the locals call Mexico City (Distrito Federal), you know that it is a driving city just as much as L.A., sprawling and with a crazy beltway, el Periférico, that loops around it. This doc was made just as construction for the elevated deck of the Periférico was being built, causing enormous traffic backups and regular frustrations for many Chilangos. But Juan Carlos Rulfo has a knack for finding poetry where most only see chaos and hear racket. En el hoyo focuses on the controlled chaos of the deck’s construction and on the workers who have taken on the enormous job. Utilizing cool time-lapse photography and a roving lens and mic Rulfo creates a visual and auditory symphony taking jackhammers and cranes, workers words and songs, big machines and hand tools to belt out something totally original. Letting these workers, whose hard labor and lives usually get ignored, share their stories in their own voice makes this film way more than a drive-by.
This slick looker of a doc has much more than surface sheen, focusing on Óscar, a taxista who confronts billboard ads constantly during his route and has found a way to talk back to the nonstop commercial ads that yap out their products.Taking to the streets with his taxi, Bansky-style, he uses his arsenal of weapons: collage elements, wheat paste, buckets and aerosol cans of paint—to transform banal ads and elevate them into impressive works of art. Set during Argentina’s economic crisis the film also reflects the hard realities of life during scarce times and that of Óscar, who has to hustle for passengers 12 hours a day in the midst of his guerilla activities. Blown away by the fact that people find a way to fight with each other all the time but don’t fight against the effects of advertising, Óscar, with his activism and creativity, dynamically shows that there is more than one way to pack a punch.
A road movie born of intensity Los muertos takes you on a disturbing journey through the eyes of Vargas, a convicted murderer, who after doing 20 years behind bars has finally been released and is embarking on a long journey to see his daughter. His road is a watery one, by way of the river and like Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s classic tale that inspired it, this film also explores the heart of darkness. Lots of long, slow takes during his journey create a gorgeous and meditative feel through the beautiful Argentinian selva, its peacefulness contrasting with the brutality of many of the other scenes—animals being slaughtered, violent sexual encounters—but all of them force us to face the fact that past deeds are never truly dead. You can run but you can’t hide, most of all from yourself. Los muertos doesn’t shy away from intensity but also doesn’t force feed any morality: we all have to live with our own truths and sometimes that’s the worst sentence of all.
24 Hour Party People they are not but 24 hours in the lives of the ten Habaneros who are the focus of this doc will show you people rich in complexity, full of passion and sometimes hard, realistic choices living life in Cuba, something we as Estado Unidenses still in a ridiculous embargo with the country all too rarely get to see. The ten people Pérez follows almost all lead dual lives, lives of duty and lives of passion and the two sometimes, though rarely, coincide. More often we see a long day’s labor followed by moments of joy at night: a hospital worker who does laundry all day but shines at night as a drag diva; a railroad worker who toils in his day job but makes his saxophone sing at night; and the parent and grandparent who take care of a mentally handicapped boy—toil and joy wrapped into one complex and long labor of love. This fly-on-the-wall style documentary filled with long takes that slowly unfold doesn’t need much in the way narration to weave its tale. It’s a symphonic suite of life in La Habana, a life like no other.
A reporter for a lurid, hype-filled Primer Impacto-style news program based in Miami, Manolo Bonilla is always on the hunt for a good, juicy story to fill his audience’s never ending appetite for gore. Travelling with a news crew to cover a series of child murders in Ecuador, Manolo befriends Vinicio when he saves him from an angry mob after Vinicio has accidentally run over a young boy, killing him. Visiting Vinicio in jail, Manolo listens to Vinicio’s claims that has inside info on the child murder case and itching for a good lead, offers to get Vinicio released in exchange for his info. Motives, ethics, justice, punishment, and the insatiable hunger for violent stories all get jumbled up in this stylized thriller starring John Leguizamo and Damián Alcázar which looks sleek but offers so much more.
Taking a look at the 1979–80 strikes in São Paulo, doc director Coutinho interviews the metalworkers of its ABC region, a huge metal mining area. The leader of the metalworkers union was Lula, Brazil’s beloved future president (who was elected in 2002). Out of this small movement he became the head of the influential Workers Party of Brazil. But rather than focus on what became big politics, big personality, and lots of bluster Coutinho humanizes a movement by interviewing a colorful cast of characters, real people with real quirks, who were the real (metal) workers of it. A documentary that breaks out of the formal structures and allows people to record and document their histories by other means it is filled with life, struggle and strife as the people tell it like it is.
A big score is the focus of Piñeyro’s sexy thriller set in a stylish, Mad Men-era 1960s in which lookers Cuervo, Angel, and Nene plot to pull off a major heist along with the help of a constellation of crooked characters. When the heist goes wayward and several cops are shot the trio makes a getaway for Uruguay and the tight crew, all energy and excitement when planning their caper but now at loose ends, starts to lose their bearings. Standard crime thriller territory, you might think, but for the fact that Angel and Nene are gay lovers known as the ‘twins” and Cuervo brings his own sexual intensity along with his hottie girlfriend Vivi, and BTW all of this is based on a true story. So like most true stories, trouble enters the picture—Nene and Angel’s relationship starts to fall apart from the strain of multiple angles—Nene’s difficulty in confronting his own sexuality, and Angel’s possible schizophrenia—and oh yeah, in case we forget the police are still after them all and are finally closing in. Sexy, stylish, complex and thrilling Plata quemada is no waste of your hard-earned plata.
Tropa de elite
Set in in the hard life favelas on the edge of Rio de Janeiro Tropa de elite is a bold, blockbuster-style story of drug traffickers who virtually run the favelas and the Special Op police that are supposed to combat them. Captain Nascimento wants out of the violence, equally corrupt on both sides, but has to train a replacement so that he can move on to a more peaceful existence. Two new recruits, Neto and Matias, might together fit the bill if they can keep their integrity and desire for justice intact and use experience to blunt their immaturity in a fast, hard, and violent setting that doesn’t make for second chances. The film is director José Padilha’s (of Bus 174 fame) at bat in narrative but is based on a true story written by the captain who lived it. Watch it when you’re in the mood for big guns, big choppersand big action, Brazilian style.
A kind of proto bromance film, 25 Watts follows three guy friends from a Montevideo neighborhood where, to be honest, not a whole hell of a lot goes on. It’s deadpan humor and lo-fi style matches its three main personalities: Javi who drives a promotional car around for living with ads blaring from its speaker, Seba whose big score is getting a hold of a porn video, and Leche who is majorly crushing on his Italian tutor. Shot in black-and-white, non sequitur Jim Jarmusch style, the calling card of disaffected youth pix internationally, it seems, the film nonetheless offers a rare, refreshing view from Uruguay that shows the viewpoint from a younger perspective. Boredom never looked so good.
The doc Cocalero follows then-presidential candidate Evo Morales as he launched his first campaign to govern Bolivia. You might think this film is out-of-date since Morales has long since won the campaign and been at the helm of Bolivia. But even if hindsight is twenty-twenty this film is as fresh and rich in suspense as ever, as it is still hard to believe that after being denied for so long that an indigenous, left-leaning candidate could ever win big in office. With its cinema verite aesthetic we see Morales’ humble, nice-guy style while underscoring the effects the War on Drugs and U.S. intervention have had on Bolivia especially in destroying and limiting the coca crops by which so much of its population survives. The film also manages to underscore the major role that women play in crafting autonomy for themselves and for the country plus how well they ran grassroots campaigns to get people used to not having a voice to speak with their vote.
Director Carri uses her signature mixing of genres entwining the graphic and photographic in La rabia’s story that plays out against Argentina’s pampas. Farmer Pinchon is having an affair with Ale, the wife of his fellow farmer, Poldo—an affair filled with intensity and tinged with violence. They of course keep the affair secret from Poldo but are not so careful at keeping it a secret from Ale & Pinchon’s daughter a mute little girl whose power and internal fury they underestimate. A dark tale that expands wide to the big scale of tragedy but listens and looks carefully to young expression, whatever form it takes. Artful and arty in a mix of gorgeous cinematography and graphic animation, it’s a looker with a razor sharp edge.