For many, this year in cinema will be forever marked by the release of Alfonso Cuarón‘s first Spanish-language film since 2001. But we wanted to make sure that whether you’ve already made plans to catch Roma on the big screen or were waiting to stream it once it hits Netflix ahead of its Oscar-bound awards run, you had plenty of other ideas of what films to catch up on from 2018.
We’ve been championing a lot of these for months. There’s that powerful adaptation of Justin Torres’ autobiographical novel that earned Raúl Castillo a well-earned Indie Spirit nomination. There’s yet another Gael García Bernal vehicle that reminded us why he’s one the best actors of his generation. And even a indigenous drug cartel flick that hoped to upend all those Narcos narratives you’ve grown accustomed to. They’re all singular achievements. Together, they stress just how rich the vast tapestry of what we call Latino and Latin American cinema looks like in 2018.
From feminist coming-of-age tales set in Colombia and New York to a pair of electric thrillers that put police brutality and criminal justice at the center of their stories, the list below encompasses as wide a net as you can dream up. You’ll find Sundance gems, Cannes favorites, and, as always, plenty of Oscar submissions in the Foreign Language Film category. So consider adding them all to your personal must-watch list; some are already available to stream!
Editor’s Note: The process behind selecting these films was complicated and akin to a hotly contested election in Latin America including back-room deals and occasional bribery. 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 US-born Latinos, Latin Americans, and by non-Latinos, but on Latino subjects.
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.
We The Animals
Us three, brothers, kings inseparable. Manny, Joel, and Jonah tear their way through childhood. Their parents (Sheila Vand and Raul Castillo) have a volatile love that makes and unmakes the family many times over, leaving the boys fending for themselves. As their parents rip at one another, Manny and Joel ultimately harden and grow into versions of their father. With the triumvirate fractured, Jonah—the youngest, the dreamer—becomes increasingly aware of his desperate need to escape. Driven to the edge, Jonah embraces an imagined world all his own. With a screenplay by Dan Kitrosser and Jeremiah Zagar based on the celebrated Justin Torres novel, We the Animals is a visceral coming-of-age story propelled by strikingly layered performances from its astounding cast, elements of magical realism, and unbelievable animated sequence
Available to stream on YouTube Premium.
Set in 1985, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ follow-up to Güeros stars Gael García Bernal as part of a group of criminals who break into the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City to extract 140 pre-Hispanic pieces from their showcases. While based on the real life heist that shocked the art world back in the 80s, Ruizpalacios has made it clear he’s taken some artistic license, going beyond mere changing the names of those involved to evoke something closer to what Terence Malick achieved with Badlands in terms of a film that’s both real and fictional at the same time.
Monsters and Men
One night, in front of a bodega in Brooklyn’s Bed–Stuy neighborhood, Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos) witnesses a white police officer wrongfully gun down a neighborhood street hustler, and Manny films the incident on his phone. Now he’s faced with a dilemma: release the video and bring unwanted exposure to himself and his family, or keep the video private and be complicit in the injustice? This is the feature film debut of African-American and Puerto Rican director Reinaldo Marcus Green.
Based on the true story of Carlos Eduardo Robledo Puch (aka “El ángel de la muerte”), Luis Ortega’s film tells the story of the most famous serial killer in Argentina’s history. El ángel kicks off the story when Carlitos (Lorenzo Ferro) meets Ramon at his new school. Wanting to impress his new friend, Carlitos will begin the path that’ll make him a thief and a murderer. With his baby face and his blond curls, the young killer became a celebrity when his exploits (which included over 40 thefts and 11 homicides) were exposed and he was captured.
Drawing from hundreds of hours of footage, filmmaker Rudy Valdez shows the aftermath of his sister Cindy’s incarceration for conspiracy charges related to crimes committed by her deceased ex-boyfriend—something known, in legal terms, as “the girlfriend problem.” Cindy’s 15-year mandatory sentence is hard on everyone, but for her husband and children, Cindy’s sudden banishment feels like a kind of death that becomes increasingly difficult to grapple with. Valdez’s method of coping with this tragedy is to film his sister’s family for her, both the everyday details and the milestones—moments Cindy herself can no longer share in. But in the midst of this nightmare, Valdez finds his voice as both a filmmaker and activist. He and his family begin to fight for Cindy’s release during the last months of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative. Whether their attempts will allow Cindy to break free of her draconian sentence becomes the aching question at the core of this riveting and deeply personal portrait of a family in crisis.
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.
Ruben Blades Is Not My Name
Considered by many as the first musician to bring salsa music to an international audience, Panamanian singer, songwriter, and actor Ruben Blades is highlighted in a documentary that spans his 50-year career and gives audiences an in-depth look at his musical and political aspirations. (Does he really want to run for president of Panama?). The doc attempts to help Blades decide what the term legacy actually means. Blades has won 17 Grammys, earned a law degree from Harvard University, and has starred in such films as the 1988 comedy drama The Milagro Beanfield War, 2000’s drama All the Pretty Horses, and 2016’s biopic Hands of Stone. He currently stars on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead.
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.
Cómprame un revólver
Julio Hernández Cordón’s Cómprame un revolver i set in an imagined not-so-distant future world where women are a disappearing species. That’s why its young protagonist, Huck (played by Matilde Hernandez, the director’s own daughter) wears a mask. If the armed guys who employ her dad to keep up a baseball field ever found out she’s a girl, she’d surely be taken away. That’s what happened to her older sister and her mother. Shot in dusty desert landscapes with an eye for an anarchic sense of whimsy (Mad Max meets Hook), this narco-dystopia is a fascinating riff on contemporary Mexican violence.
Adapted from a graphic novel memoir by Colombian-Ecuadorian cartoonist Paola Gaviria (aka Power Paola), the black and white, Spanish-language animated film features Paola (voiced by María Cecilia Sánchez), an exceptional and independent young girl who grew up between Ecuador and Colombia and is trying to find her place in the world. But growing up in a traditional Colombian family with an estranged priest as a father, a psychic as a mother and two older sisters, gives Paola a unique perspective on life, which shapes her personality. It is reported that this coming-of-age, adult-themed animation contains approximately 5,000 individual drawings created by Gaviria.
Lush and luxurious, California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys are known for their top-notch wine making. The unsung heroes of the industry are the vineyard workers and small producers, who lovingly oversee all aspects of the wine-making process, from vine to vintage. Unfolding over the course of one of the most dramatic harvests in history, Bernardo Ruiz’s film follows three people whose lives are rooted in wine making, immersing the audience in the challenging and unpredictable process.
Black Brazilian transgender singer Linn da Quebrada weaponizes the trans body and music for political protest. Linn and childhood friend Jup do Bairro use extravagantly costumed performances to dazzle audiences while opposing their country’s white heteronormative order. Figuring her embodied existence as resistance, Linn eschews the role of cis woman, instead choosing a fluid gender identity. Full of funny and intimate moments, the film advocates for personal choice against a society that imposes static gender identity.
Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) are a middle aged lesbian couple living in present day Asunción, Paraguay. Descendants of Paraguayan aristocracy, the women have enjoyed a silver spoon lifestyle together for thirty years. When the couple is abruptly hit by financial hardship, they scramble to find work and auction off their respective heirlooms—silver spoons included—to stay afloat. When Chiquita is imprisoned for her fraudulent side hustle, Chela begins working as a taxi driver, gradually building new relationships and autonomy for the first time in her life. Each caged—one by a gutted lovenest, the other by razor wire—an irremediable distance grows between the two women. Set in writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s hometown, The Heiresses embraces minimal dialogue, a twilight palette, and unconventional beauty to tell a melancholy yet satisfying story of new beginnings.
Shy, 18-year-old Camille (played by Colombian-American newcomer Rachelle Vinberg) seeks out an all-girl skateboard crew in NYC, a subculture of sexually fluid, cool city kids whose lives revolve around social media and skateboarding. Camille, adopted into their gang, is quickly faced with the complexity of female friendship, loyalty pressures, and singular personalities. So much so she’ll rebel against her mother (Orange is the New Black’s Elizabeth Rodriguez). A breakout darling of the Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack) perfectly captures the female zeitgeist in her richly textured and atmospheric second feature.