When a year begins with the thundering success of a movie like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma at the Oscars, it’s fair to fear that the rest of the year won’t measure up. And while it’s true that the Academy Award-winning black-and-white feature from one of Mexico’s most renowned auteurs may not be matched when it comes to the 2020 Oscars, there’s no denying that US Latino and Latin American cinema had yet another banner year in 2019. No sooner had Cuarón’s Netflix release barreled into the Oscar race when Sundance unveiled a number of projects that, close to 11 months later, continue to electrify audiences and critics alike. From a Colombian Lord of the Flies that tackled guerrilla fighters to an ode to Mexican punk in the ’80s (co-starring Roma‘s Marina de Tavira) and a powerful chronicle of contemporary Brazilian politics, Sundance set the tone for what’s been a stellar year.
One need only look at the list of winners from the most well-known festivals from around the world: Brazil took home the Un Certain Regard Award (Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão) and the Jury Prize (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau) at Cannes while Argentina was cited at Berlin with the Teddy Award for Santiago Loza’s Brief Story from the Green Planet. But it was at Sundance where one of the buzziest and timeliest projects that dominated the film festival circuit first emerged: Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators walked away with both the Audience Award and the NEXT Innovator Award, cementing this docu-fiction set at a detention center that a group of young undocumented activists infiltrate in order to reveal its shadowy practices.
And while such high-stakes political motivations are more often found in independent films, big-budget tentpole flicks this year couldn’t escape them, especially as old franchises aimed to find new ways of reaching modern audiences by including Latinx characters and storylines. That was definitely the case both for the latest Terminator sequel (Dark Fate, featuring Austin-born Gabriel Luna as the first Latino Terminator) and the newest Rambo (Last Blood, which sent the famed war vet to the border). Neither lit the box office on fire but at least the former — much like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and the big-screen live-action adaptation of Dora the Explorer — let fearless Latinas be front and center.
Which is all to say, whether you were catching movies at the multiplex, at your local film festival or on that most famous of streaming services, you were bound to see some of the most exciting work coming out of Latin America and being produced by U.S. Latinos. And so, in the spirit of “Best Of” lists that clutter your feeds at this time of year, find our selection of movies you should have caught or should seek out (as some are still making their way to theaters). Check out the full list below, which includes, where they’re available and information on where to catch these cinema gems. – Manuel Betancourt
Editor’s Note: The process behind selecting these films was complicated and akin to a hotly contested election in Latin America including backroom 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 world and may have won some awards. We chose to include movies directed by US-born Latinos, Latin Americans, and by non-Latinos but on Latino subjects.
Amores modernos will be released in Mexico in March 2020.
In Mexico City, the surprising death of Armida, a matriarch of a middle-class family, provokes a series of revelations that will confront the members of a family accustomed to living in isolation from one another. Described as a choral film with a sprawling ensemble that includes Ilse Salas (Las niñas bien), Luis Alberti (Eisenstein in Guanajuato), Leonardo Ortizgris (Museo) and Andrés Almeida (Tenemos la carne) among others, Matía Meyer’s project looks to examine what it means to “love” someone at a time when such an emotion feels like a fleeting luxury or a heartbreaking reality.
Without warning, Claudio Rojas is detained by ICE officials outside his Florida home. He is transferred to the Broward Transitional Center, a detention facility used as a holding space for imminent deportations. Terrified of never seeing him again, Claudio’s family contacts the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), a group of activist Dreamers known for stopping deportations. Believing that no one is free as long as one is in detention, NIYA enlists Marco Saavedra to self-deport in hopes of gaining access to the detention center and impeding Claudio’s expulsion. Once inside, Saavedra discovers a complex for-profit institution housing hundreds of multinational immigrants, all imprisoned without trial. Based on true events, The Infiltrators is both a suspenseful account of a high-stakes mission and an emotionally charged portrait of visionary youth fighting for their community.
Midnight Family is currently playing select theaters.
With striking vérité camerawork, Midnight Family drops us directly into the frenetic nighttime emergency ecosystem of Mexico City. In the midst of high-speed ambulance rides, we meet the Ochoas, a ragtag family of private paramedics, who try desperately every day to be the first responders to critically injured patients. In a city where the government operates only 45 emergency ambulances for a population of over nine million, the family acts as a crucial—but unregistered—underground lifeline. But the job is riddled with police bribes and cutthroat competition. And even though the Ochoa family has a reputation for being trustworthy, they must reckon with the sudden escalation in bribes that could force them to wade into the ethically questionable practice of making money off of patients in dire straits.
Monos will be available on Blu-ray on December 10, 2019.
Belonging to a rebel group called “the Organization,” a ragtag band of child soldiers, brandishing guns and war names like Rambo, Wolf, Lady, and Bigfoot, occupies a derelict ruin atop a remote mountain where they train themselves, watch over a “conscripted” milk cow, and hold hostage a kidnapped American engineer, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). But after an attack forces them to abandon their base, playtime is over for the motley young crew. The visionary third feature of Alejandro Landes (Cocalero, Porfirio), Monos captivates us with its striking baroque aesthetic, otherworldly setting, and ingenious reframing of the war film—one that uses adolescence to insinuate a youthful but elusive dream of peace. With enthralling performances from Nicholson and a talented young ensemble led by Moises Arias, Landes constructs a stylized, deceptively surreal space that teeters between tedium and hedonism, made more unsettling by its disquieting soundscape and Mica Levi’s brilliant score.
Esto no es Berlín
This is Not Berlin is available to stream on iTunes.
As Mexico anticipates the 1986 World Cup, 17-year-old Carlos is less interested in soccer and more interested in listening to his record collection and admiring Rita, the older sister of his best friend, Gera. Carlos and Gera’s suburban, juvenile monotony is interrupted when Rita’s goth band introduces them to an underground nightclub, the Azteca. The teens are instantly seduced by the Azteca’s regulars and their exhilarating world of performance art, sexual fluidity, and prescription drugs. Carlos and Gera’s friendship is tested as the two explore new identities and face the consequences of adult decisions. Infused with a post-punk soundtrack and brimming with enchanting performances from a promising young cast, Esto no es Berlín delivers an energetic portrait of a clandestine sanctuary propelled by youth fleeing the societal repression of their time.
The Edge of Democracy
Edge of Democracy is available to stream on Netflix.
Once a nation crippled by a military dictatorship, Brazil found its democratic footing in 1985 and then, in 2002, elected a hugely popular political disrupter: steel-worker-turned-activist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Under his watch, 20 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty, and his country rose to international prominence. In 2010, Lula passed the presidential baton to his prodigy, a fierce female guerrilla named Dilma Rousseff. But beneath their sunny legacy, rumblings of populist rage and institutional corruption seeped into the mainstream – much of it abetted by a partisan judge who fed news outlets sensational, deeply flawed corruption reports that targeted Lula, Dilma and anyone else who refused to scratch the backs of powerful politicians and special interest groups. With remarkably intimate access, The Edge of Democracy follows Brazil’s embattled leaders as they grapple with a scandal born out of their country’s fascist past and inflamed by a furious and ideologically divided nation.
Nick, better known as “Damage” in the streets of Miami, is the young leader of an infamous graffiti crew that leaves its mark wherever it goes. As they grow larger in fame and number, problems start arising — Nick’s personal life goes on a downward spiral; the illegal nature of his passion is bound to get him in trouble with the authorities, and, on top of that, he has to learn to fend off the local rival crew. A local production shot in Miami’s neighborhoods of Wynwood, Little Havana and Little Haiti, Vandal takes the very thrilling world of graffiti art and explores the struggle of street artists to keep their art alive as well as the social backlash that goes hand in hand with pursuing their biggest passion. Cuban-American director Jose Daniel Freixas, a graffiti artist in his own right since the age of 10, puts his first hand experience in the world of graffiti to good use by highlighting Miami’s gritty streets as well as its multicultural heritage to show a city full of color, life and passion.
A vida invisível de Eurídice Gusmão
Invisible Life opens theatrically on December 20, 2019, and later will stream on Amazon.
From prolific Brazilian auteur Karim Aïnouz and set in midcentury Rio de Janeiro, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão is a sprawling melodrama about feminine resilience. Based on Martha Batalha’s beloved novel, Aïnouz’s most accessible work retains the unfettered sensuality and sumptuous splendor that render all his films so uniquely captivating. The year is 1950. Classical piano prodigy Eurídice (Carol Duarte) dreams of studying at the Vienna Conservatory. Her sister Guida (Julia Stockler), however, is the first of the siblings to make it to Europe, albeit fleetingly. After having eloped with a Greek sailor, Guida soon returns to Rio de Janeiro pregnant and alone, unbeknown to Eurídice. Kept apart by a terrible lie, years pass as the two sisters forge their respective paths through their city’s teeming bustle, each believing the other to be half a world away. Complementing the seductively saturated hues of the cinematography by Hélène Louvart, the film’s soundtrack features a soulful score from Benedikt Schiefer coupled with a poignant voice-over duet consisting of the sisters’ misaddressed missives. Culminating in an affecting cameo from Oscar nominee Fernanda Montenegro, Aïnouz’s stirring epic of winding paths, that fail to intersect, balances cruel irony — the black sheep finds herself truly seen, while the ostensibly good daughter becomes invisible — with carnal abandon and tenacious love.
Read Remezcla’s review.
Tigers are not afraid is available to stream on Shudder.
Hailed by Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro as one of the best Mexican films in recent years, Issa Lopez’s dark fantasy is a heartfelt genre film that surpasses all expectations. Its protagonist, 10-year-old Estrella, has three wishes. The first one is for her missing mother to return. Her wish is granted, but her mother is dead and her ghost follows her everywhere. Terrified, Estrella tries to escape by joining a gang of orphan children, but she quickly discovers that in the real world, ghosts are never truly left behind, and that only the bravest survive the brutality and violence that surround her.
De Lo Mío
Sibling bonds are both rekindled and tested in the achingly alive feature debut from Diana Peralta. Rita (Sasha Merci) and Carolina (Darlene Demorizi), two high-spirited sisters raised in New York, travel to the Dominican Republic to reunite with their estranged brother Dante (Héctor Aníbal) and to clean out their grandparents’ old home before it is sold and knocked down. As they rifle through the remnants of their family’s legacy, shared joys, pains, and traumas resurface that they must confront once and for all. Sensitively attuned to the intricacies of sibling relationships — from the playful teasing to the way a favorite childhood song can trigger an impromptu dance party — De lo mío is a richly human look at cherishing the past while learning to let go.
Ema will play US theaters in summer 2020.
Set in the scenic seaport city of Valparaíso, the latest from Pablo Larraín reunites the visionary Chilean auteur with Mexican superstar Gael García Bernal (No, Neruda) for an incendiary drama about art, desire, and family. Ema (Mariana di Girolamo) is a talented young dancer whose roots lie in the carnal reggaeton grooves she and her friends perform to in the city streets, but she’s forged a career as part of a more cerebral modern-dance ensemble helmed by her husband, choreographer Gastón (García Bernal). As the film opens, the couple is reeling from a terrible crisis: their adopted 12-year-old son Polo has set fire to their home, severely burning the face of Ema’s sister in the process. With her child taken from her and her marriage crumbling, Ema sets out on a strange, secretive, and risky quest to reset her life.
Read Remezcla’s review.
Jorge is a cantankerous widower living a lonely life in the Mexican desert. One day he receives a call from his estranged daughter, an undocumented immigrant in the US, who is in desperate need of his help. Faced with the possibility of losing her three children to the NY foster care system, she decides to send them to live with Jorge while she fights for her American dream, and a road to citizenship. Paper Boats reminds us of the unconditional bond of family, and how the innocence of children can touch the most hardened of hearts.
Knock Down the House
Knock Down the House is available to stream on Netflix.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young, bold Puerto Rican bartender from the Bronx, works double shifts to save her family’s home from foreclosure. Struggling with her own financial problems, she knows many of her neighbors are also hard-pressed to make a living. In order to bring representation to one of the most marginalized constituencies in America, Alexandria runs for office. This film follows four women — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin — who join a movement of insurgent candidates to topple incumbents in an electric primary race for Congress. At a moment of historic volatility in American politics, these four women — all political outsiders — unite to do what many consider impossible. Their efforts result in a legendary upset.
The story of La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), concerns a Medea-like figure who drowns her children after being abandoned by her husband. She’s thereafter condemned to wander the earth, bringing misfortune to all who cross her path. A perennial myth in Latin American culture, La Llorona has appeared in countless works of music, literature, and cinema — but she’s never been re-imagined with the level of trenchancy found in the latest work from writer-director Jayro Bustamante. Transplanting the ancient tale to a contemporary Guatemala still struggling to find justice for the victims of its Civil War, La Llorona is a horror story whose deepest chills are generated by real-life atrocities. Once a fearsome commanding officer, General Enrique Monteverde is now an elderly man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Decades after the Civil War, Monteverde is belatedly brought to trial and found guilty of genocide, but his conviction is swiftly overturned on judicial technicalities. Accompanied by his wife and daughter — as well as their faithful housekeeper and her mysterious new subordinate — Monteverde is brought home. While demonstrators clamor daily for retribution outside the walls of his property, Monteverde begins to hear and see strange things transpiring within his home during the wee hours.
Acusada is available to stream HBO Go.
Barely 20 years old, Dolores Dreier (Lali Espósito), has spent the last two years hiding from the outside world under the ever-watchful eyes of her parents. Dolores suddenly finds herself as the only suspect in her best friend’s murder; she’s the last person to see her alive before her brutal death. Under intrusive media scrutiny, and facing accusations from the general public and the speculation of friends and family, Dolores is feeling hollowed out and drained from the experience. At first reading like a criminal procedural, Gonzalo Tobal’s accomplished second feature Acusada (The Accused) develops into a reflection on the way our society processes true-life crime stories.