In the worlds of Latin American and stateside Latino cinema, 2015 brought a boatload of high-profile awards and further cemented Latin America’s dominance in some of the globe’s most revered festivals. In the old U.S.-of-A, the ongoing debate about Latino representation in front of and behind the cameras finally reached critical mass in the midst of a breakout year for Latino directors.

Things kicked off in late January when a Tejano director by the name of Alfonso Gómez-Rejón brought his second feature to Sundance and left everyone with their jaws on the floor. Telling the story of a socially awkward teen who reluctantly befriends a terminally ill classmate, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl made history by selling for the highest figure ever seen at the Sundance Film Festival before going on to win the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. Based on a novel by Jesse Andrews, the stylish teen dramedy was noted for its light touch and emotional punch, and announced Gómez-Rejón as a director looking to tell stories that go well beyond the Latino niche market.

sundance-2015-me-and-earl-awards

But the arrival of Gómez-Rejón as a cinematic force doesn’t mean it’s all candy canes and rainbows for Latino filmmakers, and luckily John Leguizamo was on hand to lay down some real talk at a Hollywood Reporter press junket for the film Experimenter. Asked about the unbearable whiteness of this year’s Oscar nominations, Leguizamo’s colleagues visibly froze up while Johnny Legs rose to the occasion and spoke to the importance of doing it yourself for people of color in the limiting world of “Hollywouldn’t.”

Then the Oscars finally came, and Mexico killed it – specifically Alejandro González Iñárritu and his cinematic life partner Emmanuel “El Chivo” Lubezki, who won a handful of awards for Birdman, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (for Iñárritu along with his Argentine and Nuyorican writing partners), and Best Cinematography. The ambitious film about a washed up Hollywood actor trying to earn back his artistic cred was without a doubt one of the most original features to come out of Hollywood in a generation, and it positioned the Amores Perros director at the top of the tinseltown big leagues.

oscars so white penn iñarritu

But before we could all get too comfortable with the idea of a Mexican at the top of the Hollywood game, Iñárritu’s old pal and collaborator Sean Penn decided to get cute when he announced Birdman‘s win for Best Picture. “Who gave this guy his green card?” was Penn’s off-the-cuff, locker room-worthy interjection before revealing that the Mexico City native had taken home top honors. Amidst the fallout for his tasteless comment, both Penn and Iñárritu circled the wagons and insisted that it was an innocent joke between friends, but we all know it was proof yet again that Latinos can’t reach the top without someone reminding us where we belong.

Meanwhile, across the pond at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, more Latin American filmmakers were taking top prizes, though on a very different stage. Rotterdam’s prestigious Tiger Award is intended to recognize the work of first- and second-time filmmakers, and of this year’s three winners, two were Latin American. From Peru, Juan Daniel F. Molero took home the honor for his digital head trip Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes), while Cuban Carlos Quintela picked up both a Tiger Award and the Lions Film Award for La obra del siglo. The black-and-white feature follows in the tradition of post-revolutionary Cuban cinema with its political allegory of failed utopias told through the experience of three generations living under the same roof.

La Obra del Siglo

Rotterdam was just the beginning for Latin America’s triumphant year on the European festival circuit. Next up was Berlin, and with four major awards for Latin American films, Chile was by far the fest’s big winner. First, New York-based chileno Sebastián Silva picked up a Teddy Award for his latest Nasty Baby, then aging documentary master Patricio Guzmán picked up a Silver Bear for Best Script for his poetic essay-doc The Pearl Button, and finally Pablo Larraín picked up a Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear for his fourth feature, El Club. But the real surprise out of the festival’s 65th edition was a debut feature out of Guatemala entitled Ixcanul (Volcano), by director Jayro Bustamante. Filmed entirely in the Mayan language of Kaqchikel, Ixcanul tells the story of a young girl torn between a respectable community member she’s been promised to and a lowly coffee picker with whom she’s fallen madly in love. Coming from a country with a near non-existent film industry, the feature has blown away audiences for its mature style and rich visuals.

In May, perennial Cannes powerhouse Mexico was represented by Michel Franco, who took home a Best Screenplay award from the official competition for his English-language debut Chronic. Out of Colombia, César Augusto Acevedo’s Land and Shade picked a Caméra d’Or for best first feature, while Ciro Guerra won the Art Cinema Award in the Director’s Fortnight parallel competition for Embrace of the Serpent. Filmed in Colombia’s sparsely populated Amazonian departments, Embrace is based on the real-life experience of American and German scientists who witnessed the devastating effects of colonization on indigenous cultures and on the rainforest’s delicate ecosystem.

Nilbio_Torres_es_Karamakate_Joven_Andres_Cordoba El abrazo de la serpiente 11

Back stateside, Latino filmmakers continued getting some overdue love from the indie film world, whose quarterly bible Filmmaker Magazine rightfully featured Alfonso Gómez-Rejón on its front cover. AGR’s appearance was particularly significant given that he was the first Latino to be given the honor in nearly a decade, and only the fourth Latino to ever appear on the cover. Things got even better a couple of months later when Filmmaker featured a record four Latinos on its coveted annual 25 New Faces of Indie Film list, including Boricuas Reynaldo Marcus Green and Cecilia Aldarondo, Guadalajara native Juan Pablo González, and Brazilian-American Jamie Gonçalves.

Back on the European circuit, the big three closed out with the 72nd edition of the late-coming Venice Film Festival with a Golden Lion for the debut feature Desde allá by Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas. Based on a story by González Iñárritu’s former collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, Desde allá dramatizes the complex relationship between a respectable middle-aged man and the younger guy he hires for sexual favors.

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Finally, just last week, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association put a bow on this year’s Latino film odyssey by singling out The Revenant, González Iñárritu’s yet-to-be-released follow up to Birdman, for two big time Golden Globe nominations (Best Director and Best Motion Picture), while Larraín’s El Club was selected out of this year’s deep roster of Latin American premieres for a Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language nom.

At this stage of the game, the predominance of Latin American cinema in European festivals is almost to be expected, though there were certainly a few nice surprises from first-time filmmakers and otherwise underrepresented countries in the region. However, it was the increasing visibility of stateside Latino filmmakers, and the more emboldened way in which Latino artists have called out the industry’s bias, that might make 2015 a turning point of sorts. In the end, though, only time will tell if this is the beginning of a more Latino-friendly U.S. media landscape, or just a particularly noisy year.

the_revenant_3 inarritu

Either way, the bottom line is that we’ve seen some pretty darned good films, and we rounded up some of the most knowledgable film programmers and critics we could get our hands on to get an expert view on which were the cream of the crop. Here’s what they had to say about their top five Latino films of 2015.

Christine Davila, Ambulante USA

Director of Ambulante USA and Programming Associate at the Sundance Film Festival

I don’t believe it’s fair to pit an American indie with a foreign film, and we don’t have enough “Latino-driven” stories narrated by the very same Latinos represented. I don’t have the numbers, but trust me, there is a tiny percentage of American Latino filmmakers out there. I give props to those who have struggled, like every other filmmaker, to develop and produce the work. However, they choose to identify and reflect their heritage, this group has relentlessly honed their craft in order to bring their unique signature of cinematography, perspective, and genre to the form in order to stand out, and I believe each recognizes their bi-culturality as a unique part of what makes them a storyteller.

  1. No más bebés (Renee Tajima-Peña, USA)
  2. H. (Daniel Garcia, Rania Attieh, USA)
  3. Endgame (Carmen Marron, USA)
  4. Kingdom of Shadows (Bernardo Ruiz, USA/Mexico)
  5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gómez-Rejón, USA)

Kiko Martinez, Film Critic

Contributing Remezcla writer, member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and Houston Film Critics Society, and Director of Communications at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, which programs CineFestival en San Antonio annually.

As a contributing film critic and writer based in San Antonio, Texas, it’s always interesting to see what Latino films come across my radar each year, whether they are major theatrical releases or small indie films that only play at festivals. However I discover these movies, I am always grateful when there are a handful that stand out from the crowd and remind me why stories like the ones listed below will always matter, especially when they are able to hit on such an emotional and sometimes visceral level.

  1. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, USA)
  2. Que horas ela volta? / The Second Mother (Anna Muylaert, Brazil)
  3. No más bebés (Renee Tajima-Peña, USA)
  4. Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, Mexico/USA)
  5. McFarland, USA (Niki Caro, USA)

Diana Vargas, Havana Film Festival in New York

Artistic Director at the Havana Film Festival in New York

Latin American / Latino cinema is having an extraordinary moment with fresh stories that reflect countries and cultures at a unique social and artistic moment. Latin American cinema is leaving behind that label of “coming-of-age” cinema. It has matured to the point that the films and filmmakers are not exotic species in the world cinema landscape. That’s why this list of five Latino films was very difficult to make:

  1. El Club (Pablo Larraín, Chile)
  2. Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala)
  3. La tierra y la sombra (Cesar Acevedo, Colombia)
  4. Refugiado (Diego Lerman, Argentina)
  5. Dauna. Lo que lleva el río (Mario Crespo, Venezuela)

Nahun Calleros, Filmoteca de la UNAM

Head of Stock Footage Collection at the Film Archive of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

In Latin American Cinema, the search is a constant – the search for truth, identity, dreams…

  1. El Club (Pablo Larraín, Chile)
  2. La casa más grande del mundo (Ana V. Bojorquez, Lucía Carreras, Guatemala)
  3. Hilda (Andrés Clariond, Mexico)
  4. El clan (Pablo Trapero, Argentina)
  5. Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios, Mexico)

Moisés Esparza, San Diego Latino Film Festival

Programming Manager for the San Diego Latino Film Festival and the Digital Gym Cinema

There was a deluge of quality Latino cinema this year so it’s quite challenging to narrow the field down to five. My choices rose to the top because of their staunch, pointed, and almost anarchic confrontation of exhausted cinematic conventions. Unique and revolutionary, the films below are essential and unmissable.

  1. Navajazo (Ricardo Silva, Mexico)
  2. La princesa de Francia (Matías Piñeiro, Argentina)
  3. El abrazo de la serpiente (Ciro Guerra, Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina)
  4. En la estancia (Carlos Armella, Mexico)
  5. Eva no duerme (Pablo Agüero, Argentina/France/Spain)

Nina Rodríguez, Guanajuato International Film Festival

Director of Programming at the Guanajuato International Film Festival

Always exciting to realize what a luxury problem it is to come up with a list of only five titles from what I thought was a fantastic year of Latin American productions, so I tried to pick a diversity of films listed in alphabetical order below. Except one, all are debut or second features which have played and won at top international festivals and stand proof to the incredible wealth of outstanding creative talent in the region. Visually stunning so called small stories that reflect on topics of social urgency and I very much hope will all continue to reach audiences beyond the festival circuit in 2016.

  1. Boi Neon / Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro, Brazil)
  2. El movimiento (Benjamin Naishtat, Argentina)
  3. La obra del siglo / The Project of the Century (Carlos Machado Quintela, Cuba/Argentina/Switzerland/Germany)
  4. Llévate mis amores / All of Me (Arturo Gonzalez Villaseñor, Mexico)
  5. Te prometo anarquía (Julio Hernández Cordón, Mexico)

Amalia Cordoba, New York University

Associate Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU

It’s an exciting year for Latin American Indigenous Film! I have three picks this year, two of them feature narratives with strong Indigenous leads and contenders for major awards in more mainstream circuits, and a poetic documentary from Chile, from the master director Patricio Guzmán.

  1. Dauna. Lo que lleva el río (Mario Crespo, Venezuela)
  2. Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala)
  3. The Pearl Button / El botón de nácar (Patricio Guzmán, Chile)

Marcela Goglio, Museum of the Moving Image

Guest Curator of the O Brasil film series at the Museum of the Moving Image and Programmer at the Festival Internacional de Cine de Suchitoto.

These are films I saw this year that I loved. I think they challenge our ideas of what kinds of stories can be told with film and how these can be told. They are also all stories that are intrinsically, unequivocally Latin American.

  1. Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala)
  2. La obra del siglo / The Project of the Century (Carlos Machado Quintela, Cuba/Argentina/Switzerland/Germany)
  3. La once / Tea Time (Maite Alberdi, Chile)
  4. Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End (Luis Ospina, Colombia)
  5. Boi Neon / Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro, Brazil)

Carlos A. Gutiérrez, Cinema Tropical

Carlos A. Gutiérrez is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Cinema Tropical, celebrating 15 years of actively promoting Latin American cinema.

2015 was another amazing year for Latin American cinema. This year in particular, we witnessed the consolidation of Central American cinema, as films from Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica garnered important awards internationally (be on the lookout for Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul, Paz Fábrega’s Viaje, and Abner Benaim’s Invasión, among others). Even though more films from Latin American are getting released in the U.S., many others – and particularly documentaries – are still having a hard time getting into American film festivals or securing some kind of distribution in this country, so I urge readers to be adventurous and dip into Latin American cinema, as there are a lot of underrated gems out there.

My favorite Latin American films of 2015 (same as always, there are some other films that premiered at festivals this year, but are headed to theaters in the U.S. next year, so I’ll save them for next year’s list), in strict alphabetical order:

  1. Gente de bien (Franco Lolli, Colombia)
  2. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)
  3. The Pearl Button / El botón de nácar (Patricio Guzmán, Chile)
  4. Two Shots Fired / Dos disparos (Martín Rejtman, Argentina)
  5. White Out, Black In / Branco Sai, Petro Fica (Adirley Queirós, Brazil)

And my three favorite U.S. Latino films of the year, also in alphabetical order:

  1. H. (Daniel Garcia and Rania Atthie, USA/Argentina)
  2. Kingdom of Shadows (Bernardo Ruiz, USA/Mexico)
  3. Mala Mala (Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, Puerto Rico/USA)

Misha MacLaird, Guanajuato International Film Festival

Programming Consultant at the Guanajuato International Film Festival

I’m not a big fan of lists, so these are more like shout-outs to a few films from Latin America that stuck in my head this year. Documentary production was strong, and with a particularly broad range of styles. For example, Sunday Ball is a visually mesmerizing piece subtly located in a charged political context. On the other end of the spectrum is Juanicas, a remarkably courageous portrait of self and family that starts out unassuming and ends in an emotional punch in the face. Kings of Nowhere mixes notable photography, thoroughly enjoyable storytellers, and a refreshing take on surviving both environmental and social violence in Mexico. In the realm of fiction (or quasi-fiction), The Project of the Century and She Comes Back on Thursday were affectionate portraits of the banality and the humor in daily family life. Both secured spots in this group with their memorable music tracks, but The Project of the Century gets an extra-special mention for its homage to Sara Gómez and for the performance of Mario Balmaseda. In order of appearance…

  1. Sunday Ball / Campo de Jogo (Eryk Rocha, Brazil)
  2. Juanicas (Karina García Casanova, Canada/Mexico)
  3. Kings of Nowhere / Los reyes del pueblo que no existe (Betzabé García, Mexico)
  4. The Project of the Century / La obra del siglo (Carlos Machado Quintela, Cuba/Argentina/Germany/Switzerland)
  5. She Comes Back on Thursday / Ela Volta na Quinta (André Novais Oliveira, Brazil)

Juan Caceres, Urbanworld Film Festival

Film Programmer at the Urbanworld Film Festival

Although making lists is hella fun, it’s harder than you may think. How do you narrow it down to just five after seeing so many gems throughout the year? So, I went with my heart. I came across some of these films as a programmer and some just as a fan of cinema. I think they represent the beauty that is Latino film. We are lucky to have this culture of ours. These films take us on a journey through immigration, hip-hop, coming of age to the plight of our indigenous community. I heart these films and so many more.

  1. Pocha: Manifest Destiny (Michael Dwyer, USA)
  2. Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives (Bobbito Garcia, USA)
  3. Primero de Enero (Erika Bagnarello, Dominican Republic)
  4. Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala)
  5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gómez-Rejón, USA)

Marlene Dermer, Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival

Co-Founder of LALIFF, Latino Public Broadcasting, film programmer, writer, producer

Following are a list of only some of my top Latin films by Latin filmmakers this year. Every year, it becomes harder and harder to choose only five titles, as our filmmakers only continue to prove that Latin cinema is not a genre or just for Latinos, but part of world cinema garnishing awards internationally. I have intentionally left Alejandro González Iñárritu out of this list for his latest film, which I know will win an Academy Award. My list is a combination of filmmakers who I have been following since their first films, which I presented at our festival, and new discoveries.

  1. El Club (Pablo Larraín, Chile)
  2. El clan (Pablo Trapero, Argentina)
  3. El abrazo de la serpiente (Ciro Guerra, Colombia)
  4. Desde allá (Lorenzo Digas, Venezuela)
  5. Boi Neon / Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro, Brazil)

Dilcia Barrera, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Associate Curator of Film at LACMA and Programmer of Short Films at Sundance Film Festival

  1. Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios, México)
  2. El sol como un gran animal (short) (Christina Felisgrau & Ronnie Rivera, US)
  3. Nasty Baby (Sebastian Silva, Chile)
  4. Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala)
  5. El Club (Pablo Larraín, Chile)

On my must-watch list: Landfill Harmonic, The Second Mother, El Clan

Lucho Ramirez, San Francisco Latino Film Festival

Director of the San Francisco Latino Film Festival

The great thing about doing a short list of the best films for the year is that it makes me think – what was memorable? What was good? What would I watch again? Here’s my list.

  1. The Boss, Anatomy of A Crime / El Patrón, Anatomia de un Crimen (Sebastián Schindel, Argentina)
  2. 3 Beauties / 3 Bellezas (Carlos Caridad-Montero, Venezuela)
  3. Farewell / A Despedida (Marcelo Galvão, Brazil)
  4. Fermin, Glories of Tango / Fermin, Glorias del Tango (Oliver Kolker and Hernan Findling, Argentina)
  5. American DREAMers (Saray Deiseil and Jenniffer Castillo, USA)