Film

From Sex Workers to Basquiat: 17 Must-See Latin American Movies at Toronto Film Festival

Lead Photo: 'Alanis' still courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
'Alanis' still courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
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The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the biggest around. This year alone Michael Haneke, Alexander Payne, George Clooney, and Angelina Jolie will be screening their films in the Canadian city. Committed as the fest is to championing world-class cinema, moviegoers can expect a great showing from projects from all around the world, including several from Latin America.

With films from Sebastian Lelio, Lucrecia Martel, Guillermo del Toro, and international offerings featuring Gael García Bernal, Ricardo Darín, and Paulina Garcia, TIFF 2017 promises to be, as usual, a great kickoff to a busy festival season where you’ll find Oscar players and films that’ll litter critics’ end of year Top 10 lists. We’ve combed through the full program and found the Latin American films (and one directed by a US Latino, an American doc on Basquiat, and French flick starring Gael) you can’t miss at the 2017 edition of the famed festival. From another Escobar flick to a monstrous fairy tale, find them all below.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 7-17, 2017.

1

The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro

In 1963, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor at a US government laboratory. One night, a strange, amphibious creature (Guillermo del Toro regular Doug Jones) is wrangled into the facility. Elisa is more fascinated than frightened. What scares her more is the threat posed by the federal agent in charge (Michael Shannon). Cruel and self-serving, he seems convinced the surest way to handle the mysterious creature is to kill it. With the help of her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and a sympathetic scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elisa hatches a plan to save the creature’s life, at the risk of her own. Strange marvels abound in The Shape of Water. Marshalling these remarkable performances together with stunning production design, fluid camerawork, and Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous score, del Toro delivers unforgettable film poetry.

United States
Fantasy, Romance
Vanessa Taylor, Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale
2017
123

2

La cordillera

Santiago Mitre

Returning to the political realm after his briskly-paced 2011 debut The Student, Santiago Mitre’s timely third feature, The Summit, explores behind-the-scenes facets of political power and the solitary aspects of the presidential office. Hernán Blanco (an impeccably nuanced performance by Ricardo Darín) faces his first presidential challenge at a South American summit aimed at creating an oil-trade pact for the region. Matters are complicated by backstage family issues that threaten to erode Blanco’s everyman veneer.

France, Spain, Argentina
Drama
Santiago Mitre, Mariano Llinás
Eduardo Castro, Didar Domehri, Agustina Llambi-Campbell, Simón de Santiago, Fernando Bovaira, Fernando Brom, Leticia Cristi, Matías Mosteirín, Hugo Sigman, Axel Kuschevatzky
2017
114

3

Las hijas de Abril

Michel Franco

A chilling examination of maternal instincts taken to extremes, the latest from Mexican writer-director Michel Franco (After Lucía) stars Spanish actress Emma Suárez as a woman whose fierce passion and cunning seem drawn equally from Greek tragedy and film noir. Seventeen years old and seven months pregnant, Valeria (Ana Valeria Becerril) appears beatific and content, living with her sister, Clara (Joanna Larequi), in a Puerto Vallarta bungalow and making plans for the future with her boyfriend, Mateo (Enrique Arrizon). Valeria had no plans to inform her estranged mother of her pregnancy, but after a call from Clara, April (Suárez) swoops in to offer abundant support. April is charming, youthful, energetic, and resourceful: an ideal grandmother. Once Valeria’s child is born, however, April’s take-charge attitude assumes terrifying hues.

Mexico
Drama
Michel Franco
Moisés Zonana, Lorenzo Vigas, Michel Franco
2017
103

4

Cocote

Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias

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.

Qatar, Dominican Republic, Germany, Argentina
Drama
Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias
Fernando Santos Diaz, Lukas Rinner, Christoph Friedel
2017
106

5

Loving Pablo

Fernando León de Aranoa

The life of the notorious and enigmatic Pablo Escobar has been a popular subject for authors, filmmakers, and showrunners (most recently with the Netflix series Narcos). In Spanish filmmaker Fernando León de Aranoa’s Loving Pablo, based on the book by Escobar’s long-time lover Virginia Vallejo, we see the rise and fall of the drug lord from the viewpoint of someone who was involved with him intimately. Her perspective qualifies the romantic image of Escobar so common in other depictions and makes the revelation of his brutality all the more jarring. When popular journalist and TV presenter Virginia (Penélope Cruz) first meets Pablo (Javier Bardem), she’s enchanted by his charisma, charity work, and the lavish gifts she receives. She doesn’t bother to question where the money comes from or at what cost it is earned. Over time, her infatuation is replaced by a terrifying awareness. When Pablo declares war against the Colombian government, initiating a period of unprecedented violence, Virginia’s career is ruined and she begins to receive death threats. Her only hope is to collaborate with the Americans in dogged pursuit of Escobar.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSDaVVqAm4o

Bulgaria, Spain
Drama
Fernando León de Aranoa
Miguel Menendez De Zubillaga, Dean Nichols, Javier Bardem, Kalina Kottas
2016
123

6

Una mujer fantástica

Sebastían Lelio

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.

Chile
Drama
Gonzalo Maza, Sebastián Lelio
Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza, Pablo Larraín, Juan de Dios Larraín
2017
103

7

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Sara Driver

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artistic flame burned intensely before his death at age 27 in 1988. His recognition has only increased since then. He was memorialized in Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat and recently set the auction record for an American artist with his Untitled graffiti painting of a skull. Filmmaker Sara Driver brings a fresh perspective to the life of this mercurial figure during his formative years, when he was a homeless teenager in New York City. His story is told through the memories of people who knew him personally, including rapper Fab 5 Freddy, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, and graffiti artist Lee Quiñones.  Through his friends’ interviews and archival footage, the young Basquiat comes across as magnetic and ambitious. His friend Felice Rosser puts his career in perspective: “In a world where Black people are not celebrated, he did it; he blew the roof off that sucker.”

United States
Documentary
Rachel Dengiz, Sara Driver
2017
78

8

Alanis

Anahí Berneri

Argentina’s contradictory prostitution laws — which declare prostitution legal but running a brothel illegal — force many women to the street, placing them in precarious situations. Anahí Berneri’s latest feature, Alanis, portrays three days in the life of a young mother and sex worker who suffers the hypocrisy of the laws that are supposed to protect her. Alanis (Sofía Gala Castaglione) lives with her son Dante (Dante Della Paolera) and an older co-worker in a comfortable apartment where she gets help with her baby while attending to clients. When two inspectors posing as clients break into their apartment, arresting Alanis’ friend, Alanis finds herself on the street, destitute, without even a diaper for Dante. She seeks help from an aunt who offers her and Dante shelter despite disapproving of Alanis’ line of work. But finding clients in the neighborhood is dangerous, as the streets belong to very territorial Dominican workers.

Argentina
Drama
Anahí Berneri, Javier Van De Couter
Laura Huberman, Anahí Berneri, Diego Dubcovsky
2017
82

9

Motorrad

Vicente Amorim

Original and daring, Motorrad, Vicente Amorim’s seventh feature, tells a unique and bold story with a thriller twist. Hugo (Guilherme Prates) is determined to fit in with his older brother’s dirt-bike gang. Sneaking into a junkyard to find a much-needed motorcycle part, Hugo is apprehended by a mysterious and beautiful woman. He catches up with his brother’s posse on a joyride in an isolated region of Brazil but their adventure is cut short by an ancient wall blocking their path. Rather than let the wall stop them, they open a passage and ride on through, running into the woman from the junkyard. The group readily agrees to follow her on a remote trail. But things take an ominous turn when they inexplicably cannot find the trail back, and discover they are being hunted by a machete-wielding bike gang intent on killing them all. If this sounds wild and weird, it’s supposed to be: it’s a metaphor for the ghosts within us all that we must learn to tame.

Brazil
Thriller, Horror
LG Bayão
LG Tubaldini Jr, André Skaf
2017
92

10

Una especie de familia

Diego Lerman

Legal adoption can be a long, laborious, and exhausting process. Its frustrations and disappointments often push eager would-be parents to find other arrangements. Diego Lerman’s latest feature, A Sort of Family, follows one determined woman as she navigates the complex world of child adoption in Argentina’s Misiones province. Malena (Bárbara Lennie), a doctor, is overjoyed when she learns that the woman whose child she intends to adopt is due to give birth soon. But after she travels from Buenos Aires to be present for the occasion, it becomes clear that the process will not be a smooth one — the biological mother’s family suddenly demands an extra $10,000. Urged by both the doctor at the clinic and a lawyer, Malena enlists the help of her estranged husband Mariano (Claudio Tolcachir), who has been hesitant to adopt a child under the couple’s current circumstances. Through their experiences, Lerman exposes a legally and morally ambiguous system sustained by the complicity of medical and legal professionals. Set in the rural, disadvantaged communities of Argentina’s north, Lerman’s film uses thriller overtones to construct a suspenseful social drama.

Poland, France, Brazil, Argentina
Drama
Diego Lerman, María Meira
Nicolás Avruj, Diego Lerman
2017
95

11

Sob Pressão

Andrucha Waddington, Mini Kerti

A year after losing his wife on his own operating table, brilliant but broken surgeon Evandro (Júlio Andrade) is still not whole. Haunted and emotionally stunted, he’s become addicted to oxycodone. Nonetheless, his passion for his job hasn’t faded and he spends his days determined to save each of the favela inhabitants who come through the doors of his guerilla hospital. The stakes are high and resources are low, forcing Evandro and his team to invent creative solutions. They never know when they will have to cut a garden hose into suction tubes or bag a cellphone in a glove and place it inside a patient’s stomach for light during surgery. When the kind-hearted Carolina (Marjorie Estiano) joins the team, Evandro is forced to confront his demons and decide whether he is ready save his own life as well. A throwback to situational dramas of the ’90s, the series gets the most from its setting — telling issue-driven stories about socio-economic crises through a wide range of ailments. Backed by stunning performances from its leads, the show teems with culture, class, and raw energy.

Brazil
Drama
Marcio Alemão, Antonio Prata, Jorge Furtado, Lucas Paraizo
Andrucha Waddington, Gustavo Baldoni, Ana Gabriela, Maria Amélia Teixeira, Renata Brandão
1984
60

12

Disobedience

Sebastían Lelio

Loosely based on British author Naomi Alderman’s novel and co-scripted with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Sebastián Lelio’s first film set outside of his native Chile stars Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as two passionate women caught on either side of the line that divides the devout from the secular. Happily single and living a rich life as a photographer in New York, Ronit (Weisz) is very much the black sheep of her London-based Orthodox Jewish family. When her revered rabbi father dies, Ronit returns home to pay her respects and liquidate her inheritance. But surprises await, chief among them the news that Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) — the heir apparent to Ronit’s father and very much the son he never had — has married Ronit’s childhood friend Esti (McAdams). While Dovid prepares to take over the hallowed place at the synagogue, Ronit and Esti become reacquainted. An old flame is reignited — one that could torch everything this family most cherishes.

United Kingdom
Drama
Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Sebastián Lelio
Ed Guiney, Rachel Weisz, Frida Torresblanco
2017
114

13

Cocaine Prison

Violeta Ayala

Hernan and his sister Deisy are Bolivian teenagers going to high school in Cochabamba with dreams of starting a band. Driven by the desire to buy a drum kit, Hernan agrees to illegally carry two kilograms of cocaine across the border to Argentina. After he’s caught by border police, he’s sent to San Sebastian prison, a scarcely staffed open-air facility where the prisoners make most of the rules. Filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw taught English classes inside San Sebastian and gained remarkable access by putting cameras into the hands of prisoners. We follow Hernan on the inside and Deisy on the outside as they struggle to find a way to shorten his sentence. Los Burritos (Cocaine Prison) gives a unique perspective on the foot soldiers of the drug trade who suffer the punishment while the bosses operate freely. Over the four years of filming, the prison facility – built for 80 – had its population rapidly expand to 700. While the details are unique to Bolivia, the dysfunction of criminal justice has parallels worldwide.

Australia, Bolivia, France
Documentary
Daniel Fallshaw, Violeta Ayala
Daniel Fallshaw, Violeta Ayala, Redelia Shaw
2017
78

14

Zama

Lucrecia Martel

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.

Netherlands, Portugal, France, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, United States
Drama
Lucrecia Martel
Vania Catani, Santiago Gallelli, Benjamin Domenech
2017
115

15

The Current War

Alfonso Gómez-Rejón

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon makes an impressive leap in scale here from his much-admired independent film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) knew he was a genius — and he made sure everyone else knew it, too. In 1879, he and his team conducted the first successful light bulb tests, declaring an end to night as people knew it. But the broad distribution of electricity posed a daunting challenge. Edison was convinced that direct current was the superior system, but entrepreneur George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), Edison’s less flamboyant competitor, had a different idea.We now know Westinghouse and Edison as household names, and their work as central to modern life, but the thrill of this film comes from watching them as men — brilliant minds and exceptional inventors, perhaps, but driven as much as anyone by pride, revenge, guile and maybe money, too. Both sought to bring electricity to the world. Only one of them could win the war to be first.

United States
Biography, Drama
Michael Mitnick
Harvey Weinstein, Basil Iwaynk, Timur Bekmambetov
2017
107

16

Si tu voyais son coeur

Joan Chemla

An assured feature debut that begins in gritty realism then shifts to include bold, expressionist strokes, If You Saw His Heart marks the arrival of an important new voice in European cinema. Director Joan Chemla relies on her instinct for mood and atmosphere, as well as the talents of her high-powered cast — Gael García Bernal and Marine Vacth — to fashion a troubling and heartbreaking film about lonely people finding each other in a troubled world. Though it’s not immediately evident during his participation in the riotous wedding celebration that opens the film, Daniel (García Bernal) is a man reeling from grief. He is haunted by the death of his closest friend in an accident for which he feels partly responsible — and for which he has been cast out of his insular traveller community. Living in a rundown rooming house and always behind on rent, Daniel gets by through scams and minor burglaries. His building is populated by colorful misfits and losers, all living on the edge like him. But one day a ray of hope enters Daniel’s life in the form of an equally damaged and fragile young woman, Francine (Vacth). As the ice melts between the two of them, Daniel and Francine begin to believe that there may well be something good to live for.

France
Drama
Joan Chemla, Santiago Amigorena
Pierre Guyard
2017
86

17

Sergio & Serguéi

Ernesto Daranas Serrano

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992 had profound repercussions for the state of Cuba — the USSR had been the small island nation’s main economic supporter. It had more personal ramifications for Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who was forced to stay in orbit an extra four months while his country went through a bewildering transformation. Intertwining fictionalized personal experiences with historical facts, Cuban filmmaker Ernesto Daranas Serrano’s comedic third feature is a thoughtful, poignant reflection on big events and their effects on ordinary lives. Avid amateur radio operator Sergio (Tomás Cao) is barely able to provide for his mother and young daughter on his meager university professor’s salary. One evening, as he is testing a new radio, he stumbles upon a channel that communicates directly with the Mir space station. Aboard the station, lonely astronaut Sergei (Serguéi in Spanish, played by Héctor Noas) orbits the earth all alone because the funding to bring him back home has run out. These two men, marginalized in their respective ways and mocked by history, develop a friendship that will have profound consequences.

Cuba, Spain
Comedy
Ernesto Daranas Serrano, Marta Daranas Serrano
Joel Ortega, Jaume Roures, Ramón Samada
2017
93