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30 Essential Latin American Films You Need To Watch

25 March 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Hector Gonzalez

latin american films

When you say “foreign film” or “world cinema”, most people (at least some of the people who live in the United States) immediately think of a French or Italian film, or maybe a Japanese animation. Seldom do people think of Latin America. And it could be argued that this is because the output of films in Latin America has always been lower than the output of Europe and some parts of Asia. And while this might be true, that doesn’t make Latin American films any less valuable, and what hasn’t been delivered in quantity, has certainly been delivered in quality.

Following is a list of films that are among the best Latin American movies ever made. You might notice a running theme in most films: social issues. Modern Latin American cinema was really born after Italian neorealism, before that was the Mexican Golden Age (several films from then are included in the list). And from then on most of the films focus on portraying reality and making social criticism.

Gabriel García Marquez, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech titled “The Solitude of Latin America”, said that the knot of this solitude was that since Europeans arrived, the reality of Latin America had been fantastical, with larger-than-life characters and legends. Perhaps that’s why, even in the most realist and powerful statements in their films, there’s always a tint of a somewhat fantastical or at least implausible element, ranging from a Faun in a labyrinth to a forgotten valley, going through beach filled with a herd of escaped pigs.

Not nearly everything is pretty in these films though, the eternal violence and hardship present in the zone are reflected in them, but everything here is beautiful, in its own way.


30. The Rose Seller (Colombia: La vendedora de rosas)

La vendedora de rosas

The film tells the story of a young girl in an impoverished zone of Medellín, Monica, who makes her living selling flowers to couples, and the relationship she forms with a 10-year old runaway Andrea.The film is partly based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. It was nominated for the Palm D’or in the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.


29. Man Facing Southeast (Argentina: Hombre mirando al sudeste)

Hombre mirando al sudeste

It was originally released in Argentina in 1986, to little financial success but gained a cult following. When K-PAX was released, more than a few noticed the similarities in the story of a man in a psychiatric ward who slowly starts convincing his caretaker he might be from another planet. The film has been described as “The Man Who Fell To Earth” meets “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.


28. No (Chile)


The most recent film on the list, it tells the story of an ad man working in Chile who contributes to a camapaign in the historic plebiscite that took the ruthless dictator Augusto Pinochet off the seat of power in the country. It stars Gael García Bernal. It received widespread critical acclaim, won the Art Cinema Award at Cannes and was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.


27. The Castle of Purity (México: El castillo de la pureza)

El castillo de la pureza

A case of a film who returned to everyone’s memory after a more recent stab at similar story, El castillo de la pureza has always been known in México as one of the best regarded films of Arturo Ripstein, one of the great Mexican directors. It is the story of a sexually-repressed man who keeps his family isolated from the world to keep them from “the evil nature” of human beings, and how his kids enter adolescence. Dogtooth treaded similar ground but in a more extreme measure.


26. Silent Light (México: Luz silenciosa)

Silent Light

Directed by the Mexican arthouse maverick Carlos Reygades, Luz Silenciosa is the slow and reflective journey of a married man who falls in love with another woman in a Mennonite community, and it is told with beautiful, evoking images, and passionate acting. It won the Jury Prize in the Cannes Film Festival and was featured in several top ten lists in 2007.


25. Central Station (Brazil: Central do Brasil)

Central Station

Walter Salles’ affair with Hollywood might not have been the best (Dark Waters and On the Road), but most of the films he’s made in Brazil have been superb. An example of one of those is Central do Brasil, the golden-globe winning heart-warming story of the friendship of a young boy and a middle-aged retired schoolteacher. The leading actress, Fernanda Montenegro, was nominated for an Oscar along with the film that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.


24. The Maid (Chile: La Nana)

La Nana

The Maid tells the story of of a woman who has worked as a maid for the same family for 23 years. When she gets sick, her employers bring in maid after maid to help her, but she drives them away, afraid she might end up losing her job. The Maid was one of the best regarded films of 2009, recognized by the National Board of Review, by the Golden Globes and Roger Ebert, who called it an “unpredictable, naturalistic gem.”


23. Son of the Bride (Argnetina: Hijo de la novia)

Hijo de la novia

Son of the Bride is about a divorced restaurant owner with a young daughter and a bad relationship with his parents and once-friends, is suddenly reawakened after a visit from an old friend and a heart attack. It was nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.


22. Entranced Earth (Brazil: Terra Em Transe )

Terra Em Transe

One of the early modern Brazilian films, Entranced Earth is social cinema at its finest. A journalist opposes two corrupt politicians in the fictional Latin American country Eldorado, while the masses sit blindly. It won the FIPRESCI prize in Cannes and made a mark in Brazilian cinema history.


21. The Dark Side of the Heart (Argentina: El lado oscuro del corazón)

El ladooscurodelcorazón

A tribute to Latin American poetry, The Dark Side of the Heart is the story of a young bohemian poet in Buenos Aires. His daily life is filled with the works of Mario Benedetti, Juan Gelman, and OliverioGirondo, and his sometimes surreal and always interesting antics and affairs make for an amazing experience.


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  • Luis Arturo González

    Great list! nice to see “Los olvidados” in the first place and “Macario” in this list

  • Diego Guadalupe Palafox

    Amores perros

  • Lisa Swart

    7 Cajas (seven boxes) Paraguay

  • Melville Baz

    It’s a pity that Crónica de una fuga (Argentina) and Tropa de Elite (Brazil) didn’t make the cut

    • Camilo Ordoñez

      And The Official Story and Sur also from Argentina

    • Jose Alberto Hermosillo

      I agree, Cronica de una Fuga, Tropa de Elite.

  • Douglas Rodrigues

    Los Olvidados is in my TOP 5 and won’t be easy to get out of there. One of the few films that reached the status of “perfect”, along Citizen Kane and Rashomon, by Kurosawa. “Out of time” movie.

  • Guillermo

    Pan´s labyrinth and Viridiana are european films. Even more, Viridiana´s director was spanish, so it has nothing to do with Mexico, nor Latin America.

    • NixieKnox

      Thank you! Exactly what I was thinking.

    • André

      viridiana is a mexican film (cast, crew, studio, etc), spanish director. Pan´s labyrinth is spanish/mexican film (most spanish), mexican director. EVERYTHING to do with mexico.

      • Guillermo

        Don´t know your knowings about Buñuel´s biography or Spain´s history, but after he left Mexico he went back to spain to film a unique movie during the dictatorship, that became a huge success until the Vatican sent a terrible communication complaining about it and then they tried to destroy every copy. Of course, some of then had been sent out of Spain, (it won in Cannes) so the film survived. Mexico, country where Buñuel made some of his best, wasn´t involved specifically in this movie.
        About Pan´s labyrinth, the capital involved was strictly spanish, as much as devil´s backbone. The director is mexican, but the movie is spanish, as much as the mexican Buñuel´s movies aren´t spanish movies. You can check it, that for is the Internet.

        • José

          Not really.

          The money came from México -produced by Alatriste, Pinal’s husband. The producer gave Bueñuel the chance to film in Spain, and decide to associate with the spanish company Films 59.

          You can check it, that for is the Internet.

          • Guillermo

            Yeah, I suppose Silvia Pinal was what you meant when talking about full cast and crew. (Of course I´m not going to come in the legend about she being on the film because of her husband claim). First, I purpose you to read about the UNINCI and how they were able to produce a film like that one under Franco´s dictatorship (and others in the same way from Berlanga and other authors, some of them wining in Cannes, not just Viridiana). It´s an unknown and interesting story. You can track Viridiana´s style in the other films of that company. Plus, we´re talking about a non-capitalist economy, despite the foreign budget contributions, not the nowadays idea of a co-production. Spain was the country to response for the film in Cannes, no Mexico. Or maybe China should claim the nacionality of every Hollywood blockbuster right now? Anyway, too many responses for me today. Thank you for the argue. It´s just a wrong article, written for a too young writer. Nothing more.

          • José


            Nacionalidad: Española-mexicana

            Nothing more.

        • Leon Horka

          Pan’s Labyrinth: Not only the director is Mexican (del Toro), also the cinematographer (Guillermo Navarro), the writer (del Toro), 2 of the 5 studios involved (Esperanto Filmoj, Tequila Gang), 3 of the 5 producers involved (del Toro, Cuarón, Berta Navarro), the production designer (Eugenio Caballero). Pan’s Labyrinth was Mexico’s entry for the Oscar (and not Spain’s), because people in the Academy thought that Mexicans predominate in the Top categories, the INTELLECTUAL categories.

      • benito camela

        Los mismo El Laberinto Del Fauno!

    • Jose Alberto Hermosillo

      Yes, Guillermo is part right, Viridiana, officially, is from Spain regardless that the producer Gustavo Alatriste, actress Silvia Pinal and the director Luis Buñuel (he took the Mexican citizenship and died Mexican) are Mexicans. Pan’s Labyrinth is official Mexican, otherwise it cannot represent Mexico at the Oscars.

    • skunkybeaumont

      Pan’s Labyrinth is set in Spain. That should quell all arguments about language and crew nationality. The disputes are valid, but the fact that the story literally takes place in Spain trumps all.

    • jesussandoval

      Ni Viridiana ni Los Olvidados son peliculas europeas, solo el director. Estas estan ambientadas en Mexico asi como su produccion. El Laberinto es al reves…

  • Leon Horka

    Portrait of Maria also won the Palme d’Or, Viridiana is NOT the only Mexican film to won that award. Plus Viridiana was considered Mexican in Cannes, because the director’s nationality at the time of the film’s release.

  • rayemon

    watched silent light and nine queens. both are good

  • Pablo Sanchez

    Great entry, greetings from Costa Rica

  • Tapti Roy

    La Hora de los Hornos, Memorias del Saqueo, the jackal of Nahueltoro, The Blood of Condor etc etc … inadequate this list is …

  • Alejandro Caballero Salas

    The Place Without Limits is based in a novel of “JOSE” Donoso, not Juan Donoso. Please, respect the authors

  • Daniel Sanchez

    My only criticism to this list is the lack of coherence with the films’ basic information. The author should’ve included the director’s name and release year of every movie. It helps understand the significance and importance of a movie when we can put in in its historical and cultural context.

  • Felipe Rodríguez Martínez

    This list was going very good, until the moment that I get to the last part and realized that “Memories of underdevelopment” (Cuba) is not here, neither “El Chacal de Nahueltoro” (Chile).

    Those 2 titles are essential to understand what really the new latin-american cinema is… And they are also one of the most original, beautiful and interesting movies ever made on Latin-America…

    Nice try, anyways… Is good to see interest on the Cinema of the south.

  • Alex Escalona

    “El secreto de sus ojos” but not “La Historia Oficial”??? I can’t trust this list . Also, the list is heavily Cono Sur and Mexico, with one or two others from elsewhere. So I’ll add two from Venezuela: Tres Noches and El Pez que Fuma ( I’m sure I can come up with others from other countries if I give it some more thought, but the list is lacking more spread internationally across Latin America.

  • Joe Barcovich

    Were is 7 cajas? A paraguayan movie with a lot of winning awards

  • Alexandre Colucci

    Where’s “O pagador de promessas”??????

    • Jose Alberto Hermosillo

      I agree!

  • FlyteBro

    Carandiru is at least as good, if not better than City of God!

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  • Angel Pane

    Look up for paraguayan film “7 Cajas” (7 Boxes). by Tana Schembori and Juan Carlos Manegia. – Bollywood met Coen brothers.

  • Guest

    Alcino y el Cóndor (Nicaragua), Cronica de una Fuga (Argentina), Tropa de Elite (Brazil), O Pagador de Promessas (Brazil),
    Cronos (Mexico), La Cienega (Argentina), Distinto Amanecer (Mexico), Victimas del Pecado (Mexico), La teta
    Asustada, Perro come Perro.

  • edisdead

    I love this list so much, great list. If i could add a recommendation, it would be Maria Full of Grace from Colombia and the US.

  • Nicolee

    Pan’s Labyrinth is Spanish. If you’re putting Spanish films too, why is The Skin I Live In not in this list?

    • LH

      Pan’s Labyrinth: Not only the director is Mexican (del Toro), also the cinematographer (Guillermo Navarro), the writer (del Toro), 2 of the 5 studios involved (Esperanto Filmoj, Tequila Gang), 3 of the 5 producers involved (del Toro, Cuarón, Berta Navarro), the production designer (Eugenio Caballero). Pan’s Labyrinth was Mexico’s entry for the Oscar (and not Spain’s), because people in the Academy thought that Mexicans predominate in the Top categories, the INTELLECTUAL categories. So, Pan’s is Mexican/Spanish.

  • jesussandoval

    It´s hard to find in the U.S. Media, such a good review of Latin American cinema. Glad to see this.

  • Marco

    Other lists on this website are awesome but this one includes not only one but TWO pieces of dreck by the pompous pseudo poetic Eliseo Subiela. In Latin America we make fun of the pretentiousness and corniness of the crap he puts out. Memorias del Subdesarrollo and La Hora de los Hornos should have made the cut instead, or, for that matter, La Muralla Verde since there are no movies from my country :)

  • Jorge Olaya

    Good list, I will add some Leopoldo Torre Nilson, Leonardo Favio, Luis Alcoriza, Miguel Littin, Raul Ruiz, Nelson Pereira Dos Santos, Anselmo Duarte, Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, Humberto Solas. But you made a fair selection.

  • Carolina V

    “Martín (Hache)” (Argentina) must be here too!!!

  • Kevin Stewart

    I am proud to have seen a few on this list. But thankfully the lists gives me others to be on the look-out for.

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  • João Vitor Casimiro

    There’s a brazilian movie called “Cidade de Deus”. It’s a pretty good one, and it was nominated for 4 Academy Awards.

  • Pedro Freitas

    In my opinion: “Pan´s labyrinth” is a Spanish Movie…
    But Guillermo del Toro is a Mexican guy…

  • Sarah Monroe

    I love the orphanage. Although it may not be included in the best of all times lists, it’s one of the best in my book!

  • Natalia Cariaga

    So many errors on these reviews. For example, the lead on Fresa y Chocolate is not homosexual and doesn’t fall in love of the homosexual character, they become true friends, that’s why is important, and The place without limits… the writer’s name is José Donoso, not Juan.. I know that because I’m chilean and he’s one of Chile’s most important writers. Chilean cinema of the sixties is amazing, so much more LATIN than No and The Maid. Also, Perú, Bolivia, Uruguay… great cinema there, specially Bolivia (I mean, Sanjinés… man!). I could say more but I’m too lazy.
    I’m sorry but I think the author of this list is too young, and doesn’t really know latin american cinema with property, or he just took it from a foreing site. Actually this look like an american perspective of what latin cinema is.
    This list should get erase. Sorry.