This December marks not only the end of 2019 but also of the 2010s as a decade. Such a momentous occasion serves as a perfect excuse to look back and assess what only the second decade of the twenty-first century has offered. Which is to say: expect plenty of “Best of the Decade” lists in the weeks to come. One such list near and dear to our heart is Cinema Tropical’s “Best Latin American Films of the Decade.” The ranking is based on a poll of 97 international film festival and cinematheque programmers from the Americas and Europe conducted by the New York-based nonprofit organization, the leading presenter of Latin American cinema in the United States.
In total, 234 movies were mentioned in the poll, which were then culled to reveal the selection below. Encompassing titles from nine different countries (with Mexico boasting the most entries with six) and featuring double mentions for five different filmmakers (Ciro Guerra, Tatiana Huezo, Kleber Mendonça Filho, Pablo Larraín, and Sebastián Lelio – arguably a shortlist that captures just how potent and diverse Latin American cinema has become), the list is billed as a Top 25 but it actually includes 27 entries. Turns out getting close to 100 people to decide on such matters necessarily ends up yielding ties. Which is all the better for us as we get to see an even broader picture of the regional cinema being celebrated by it.
“This list is a clear proof that, for another decade, Latin America continued to be one of the main epicenters of international cinema. Latin America has played a key role in the advancement of global cinema, offering new and exciting narratives despite the fact that the cinema of the region remains largely overlooked,” says Carlos Gutiérrez, co-founder and executive director of Cinema Tropical.
Cinema Tropical put together a list of the top 68 films of the decade. To check out the full list, visit them here.
Dominican filmmaker Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias presents a layered, abstract portrait of his home island in his latest film, Cocote. Using a crime as a starting point, de los Santos Arias explores the lurking violence, corruption, class conflicts, and many opposing cultures and world views co-existing in contemporary Dominican Republic while evoking the avant-garde sensibility of Glauber Rocha. Evangelical Christian Alberto works as a gardener on a wealthy estate in Santo Domingo. When his father is murdered, he returns to the countryside of his childhood for the funeral. There, Alberto clashes with his sister, whose very different beliefs — those practiced by the lower classes on the island, a holdover from pre-colonial times — triggers a tense homecoming. Compounding Alberto’s anxieties, his family expects him to avenge his father’s death.
Comprised of six short segments, this dark humored anthology film from Damián Szifron features some of Argentina’s most recognizable faces. Its ensemble includes Ricardo Darín, Oscar Martínez, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Érica Rivas, Rita Cortese, Julieta Zylberberg, and Darío Grandinetti. Shuttling between a plane ride where everyone on board realizes they all know the same guy (who may or may not hate them all) to a noir-ish diner scene where a waitress comes face to face with the man who destroyed her family and later still to a wedding day farce that slowly becomes unhinged, Relatos salvajes captures narratives that show how thin the line is between civilization and barbarism, with many of its characters finding in violence the only way to deal with the world around them.
Brothers Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) and Fede aka Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) are desperately seeking famed singer Epigmenio Cruz in this road movie/coming-of-age tale hybrid. The 1999 UNAM strike provides historical context and some drama, but this is mostly a story of a “lost generation”: Sombra and his friends consider joining the protests for lack of anything else to do, and Tomás clings to a cassette tape and his past. When they hit the road to track down the aforementioned music legend, hilarity and edification ensue. A seminal work of twenty-first century Mexican cinema, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ debut feature bristles with an electricity of the very youth it’s portraying, managing to create a colorful portrait even as its cinematography is in black and white.
A character study that earned its leading lady, Chilean actress Paulina García the Best Actress award at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, Gloria is Sebastián Lelio at his humanist best. The film is set in Santiago and centered on Gloria, a free-spirited older woman who is embracing her life as a single woman. Leaving her decade-old divorce behind her, she ends up going to singles nights where she meets Rodolfo. The two begin a whirlwind affair complicated by Rodolfo’s close relationship with his grown-up daughters: where she’s untethered, he’s strapped down. But ultimately, Lelio’s dizzying and dazzling film is about what it means to find yourself by yourself, no matter your age.
Boi neon follows Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), a handsome cowboy who dreams of becoming a fashion designer and spends his free time dreaming up ever more fabulous outfits to create. But don’t let that simple description fool you. Gabriel Mascaro’s character study, shot with a watchful eye that borrows its visual grammar from nonfiction filmmaking (aided by his work with nonprofessional actors), is a road trip film set in the northeast Brazilian countryside. But it is also an explosion of gender, class, and sexuality, flamboyantly portraying its lustful characters with quiet (and borderline queer) compassion and culminating with one of the most indelible sex scenes put on screen in recent memory.
No Intenso Agora
In 1966, whilst on a cultural tour of China, João Moreira Salles’ mother captured on film her impressions of the country and its people. Forty years later, her son discovered her material. He comments on the images taken by his enthusiastic mother by quoting the impressions of Italian author Alberto Moravia, who also travelled through China and was able to closely observe Maoist policies. His mother’s journey during the first year of the Cultural Revolution also provides a starting point for João Moreira Salles’ exploration of other societies in the midst of upheaval. Making use of archive images, he dissects and analyses the Brazilian coup of 1964 and the end of the Prague Spring in August 1968. He also returns – repeatedly – to the Parisian riots in May which found a ‘star’ revolutionary and mediator between Paris and Berlin in the shape of Daniel Cohn-Bendit. An essayistic and at the same time personal exploration of the parallel stories of revolution in Prague, France and Brazil – and their failure. By juxtaposing amateur footage and archive material the film traces connections between the sources of these images and their political contexts.
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.
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.
El auge del humano
Structured as three different sections (shot in Argentina, Mozambique, and the Philippines,) Teddy Williams’ experimental film quite literally tracks our current global culture. From the story of a bored young man in Buenos Aires who loses his job at a supermarket, Williams’ film then travels across the globe to follow a group of African teenagers in Maputo who are seen engaging in cybersex for money, and then to an electronics factory in Bohol after tracking a young woman eager to charge her phone in the middle of the jungle. With a fluid camera and an immediacy that speaks to a current discussions on leisure and labor, El auge del humano captures the isolation that comes from being and feeling disconnected.
Todo comenzó por el fin
As electric and eclectic as the Cali Group itself, Luis Ospina’s self-portrait documentary is also a document of the 70s and 80s artistic collective that revolutionized art, cinema, and literature during Colombia’s most dangerous decades. Making the film more urgent? The fact that Ospina was diagnosed with cancer mid-way through, which, as he acknowledges, means the contents of the film — whether he lived or died — needed to be reshaped to make that personal journey aptly collide with the history he was tracing. This portrait of “Caliwood” is as irreverent and thoughtful as Ospina himself, serving as a chronicle of both an artistic manifesto and a national mood that forever changed Colombian cinema.
Gael García Bernal plays René, an in-demand advertising man working in Chile in the late 1980s. At first refusing to be involved he ends up spearheading the “No” campaign in the 1988 plebiscite that let the Chilean people decide whether or not dictator Augusto Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years. Rather than treating this as a political assignment, René ends up looking to advertising and marketing, realizing he just needs to sell “No” as the more attractive alternative even as others see his light touch as flippant in light of how historic the vote would be to the country at large.
Una mujer fantástica
Marina (Daniela Vega), the transgender heroine of A Fantastic Woman, is beautiful, enigmatic, and plunged into a precarious situation after her boyfriend dies unexpectedly in her company. Fifty-seven-year-old divorcé Orlando (Francisco Reyes) wakes in the middle of the night, suffers an aneurism, and falls down some stairs, sustaining injuries that will come to haunt Marina after she takes him to the hospital and attempts to slip away before authorities and family members begin prying. Marina knows she’s regarded with suspicion for her youth, class, and, above all, gender status. She expects to gain little from Orlando’s demise, but the viciousness of Orlando’s son, the cold-heartedness of Orlando’s ex-wife, and the intrusiveness of a detective from the Sexual Offenses Investigation Unit force Marina to not only clear her name, but also to demand the very thing no one seems willing to give her: respect.
Pájaros de verano
Set in Colombia in the 1970s, right when the demand for marijuana is set to explode, Ciro Guerra’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent ditches the black and white aesthetic of his previous film for the colorful world of the Guajira desert. Yet again, though, he’s set his sights (alongside co-director and producer Cristina Gallego) on a story about the way Colombian history intersects with its indigenous population. Birds of Passage follows an Wayuu indigenous family who takes a leading role in the budding new drug trade, and discovers the perks of wealth and power, but with a violent and tragic downside.
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.
El lugar más pequeño
Highlighting the resilience of the human spirit, El Salvador-born filmmaker, Tatiana Huezo, explores the aftermath of the devastating civil war in the Central American country through the experiences of five families that returned to their village, Cinquera, over a decade after its destruction. Huezo’s documentary chronicles their journey and traces a harrowing history they’re only now able to articulate. Their testimonies are simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. Despite the tragedy, the survivors choose to rebuild and move forward, while never forgetting those who died in the conflict. Memory is their most powerful weapon for a peaceful future and El lugar más pequeño is proof positive of the way storytelling can be both a way to look back and to move forward.
O som ao redor
Kleber Mendonça Filho’ feature debut, O Som ao Redor delves into the lives of a group of prosperous middle-class families residing on a quiet street in Recife, close to a low-income neighborhood. The private security firm hired to police the street becomes the catalyst for an exploration of the neighbors’ discontents and anxieties—their feelings exacerbated by the palpable unease of a society that remains unreconciled to its troubled past and present inequities. Meticulously constructed, with unexpected compositions and arresting cuts, this ensemble film is compulsive viewing; you’re never quite sure where things are headed as it builds imperceptibly toward its stunning payoff. With his unmistakable formal gifts and acute eye and ear for the push and pull of modern life, Kleber Mendonça Filho cemented himself a major filmmaker.
Andre (Murilo Caliari) is a young boy who lives in an industrial neighborhood in Ouro Preto, Brazil, near an old aluminum factory. One day he finds a notebook from one of the factory workers. That discovery leads him (and the audience) on an unlikely journey as he learns more and more about the worker’s life. Sparsely told, João Dumans, Affonso Uchoa’s Arábia functions as a Marxist look at the industrial workforce in Brazil, as it eventually settles on telling us a series of stories about said aluminum factory worker called Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa) as he roams and cavorts his way through the world. Showcasing both barren industrial wastelands, urban landscapes and natural wonders, the film is an emotional and intellectual road trip that’s as dazzling and entrancing in equal measure.
La vida útil
Jorge (Jorge Jellinek) still lives with his parents at the age of 45. He has been the film programmer and technical support at the cinémathèque for 25 years. He also has a news show at a Montevideo radio station where he conducts interviews and talks about movies with filmmakers. Jorge’s life is consumed by movies. Because attendance is down, the cinémathèque struggles to make a profit and shuts down, leaving Jorge unemployed. With no other skill, for the first time he is forced to change his way of life in order to adapt to the new world he faces. Federico Veiroj’s black and white character study is a touching reminder of the power cinema can have to help us lead and create a life for ourselves.
Focused on the violence and impunity that afflicts Mexico, the film is driven by the voices of two women, Miriam and Adela. As we listen to their stories, director Tatiana Huezo offers us beautiful images of the cross-country journey that Miriam took after being released from a cartel-run prison, where she’d been held for her alleged involvement in human trafficking. After no evidence of her participation in trafficking was found, Miriam was eventually let go, becoming instead a public scapegoat for an increasingly common problem in Mexico. Interwoven with the harrowing tale of Miriam’s stay in this torturous environment is the story of Adela, a circus clown, who’s been searching for her abducted daughter who went missing over 10 years ago. Evocative of Terrence Malick, but infused with a staunchly politicized message, Tempestad is both lyrical and political.
Lisandro Alonso is of one of the most original and daring filmmakers currently working in Latin America. His films are characterized by long takes, slow development, minimal script, little dialogue and almost no musical score. In the line of Carlos Reygadas Silent Light and Albert Serra’s Quixotic/Honor Cavalleria, and with echoes of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring — Jauja is a journey, as in many of his movies, for both the viewer and the main character who embark on an external and internal quest to achieve meaning. Shot in the Patagonia, the film is composed of meticulously framed shots that capture a breathtaking landscape. The format of the image is very unusual, completely square. The result is magical and sublime.
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.
Post Tenebras Lux
After this semi-autobiographical film got booed by critics at its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, Carlos Reygadas triumphed and snagged the Best Director prize. Featuring Alexis Zabé’s arresting cinematography and set across Mexico, Spain, Belgium and the UK, it is a boldly realized series of story arcs, each representing a distinct aspect of Reygadas’ own experiences living in those countries. Whether it is a child playing in the surf or the boys psyching up for a game of rugby, there is an undeniably poetic essence to how these images are presented: rarely has personal storytelling been so subjectively handled.
Nostalgia de la luz
Patricio Guzmán has made a career out of introspective filmmaking projects that serve as both national histories and personal memoirs. Nostalgia for the Light is no different. The dazzling documentary looks back at the country’s storied post-Pinochet history through an interrogation about the Atacama desert and Chile’s seemingly inhospitable landscapes, the very kind that have made it central to astronomic discoveries. The documentary is about two different searches conducted in the Atacama desert: one by astronomers looking for answers about the history of the cosmos, and one by women looking for the remains of loved ones killed by Pinochet’s regime. An impressionistic portrait that features both personal reminiscences as well as informed talking heads discussing archeology and astronomy—not to mention witness accounts of those searching for disappeared family members—Nostalgia for the Light is a powerful reminder of the way histories both personal and national are forever intertwined.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a live-in maid and nanny for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City’s Roma district. When the family patriarch departs for an unusually protracted business trip, his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is left at home. Inhabiting a role somewhere between family member and employee, Cleo helps Sofia and the kids through a period of difficulty, just as she is dumped by her self-absorbed boyfriend when he discovers she is pregnant. As both women face the possibility of single motherhood, it’s obvious that their disparate levels of social status will differently impact their possible futures. Roma subtly explores these ethnic and class divisions with a potent sense of emotional intimacy and historical acuteness.
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.
La Flor is the ultimate film fleuve: a decade of production, four actors, three continents, six chapters, 14 hours. A remarkable and mad-capped feat of — and statement about — narrative, Mariano Llinás’ film is a singular achievement in Latin American cinema and one of the year’s most compulsively watchable and exuberantly epic films. A film of interlocking and disparate episodes (with helpful instructions provided onscreen by the filmmaker), La Flor is propelled by the charisma and dexterous talent of its four leads — Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes — who reinvent themselves in each of the film’s chapters, each wonderously realized and taking up a completely different genre and style. They variously play scientists in a mock B-movie about cursed mummies, inhabit the world of pop music in a telenovela-esque melodrama, embody actors playing Canadian Mounties in one of the film’s many meta-diversions, jet set as spies in an international espionage thriller, and more.
This long-awaited adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 classic of Latin American modernism transports us to a remote corner of 18th-century South America, where a servant of the Spanish crown slowly loses his grip on reality. Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel, the Argentine auteur behind The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman, Zama is that rarest of creative feats: a perfect coupling of literary source material and cinematic sensibility. Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) leads a suspended existence as a sort of upper-tier government clerk in what is now Paraguay. He has not seen his wife and children in years. His relationships with his fellow Europeans are strained due to competition and confusion, while his interactions with the settlement’s Black and Indigenous servants are addled by desire and hostility. Zama’s entire sense of purpose is tied up in the promise that he will soon be delivered to his rightful position in faraway Buenos Aires, but the waiting seems endless. As time passes, Zama’s paranoia and capacity for violence burgeons — while his circumstances become only more precarious.