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The 15 Best Latin American Films of The 21st Century

26 August 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Sven Methling

The secret in their eyes

20th century Latin American Cinema established a movie language of its own with important classic movies like The Forgotten Ones (Los Olvidados, 1950), Memories from Underdevelopment (Memorias del Subdesarrollo, 1968), The Snail Strategy (La estrategia del Caracol, 1985), The Official Story (La Historia Oficial, 1985) and Oriana (1985).

They all come together as different landmarks for the new wave of soon to appear Latin directors. In 1998, at the end of the century, a beautiful drama called Central Station (Estación Central, 1998) appears to somewhat resume all of the work that had been done. Rich characters, complex political contexts, urban and natural landscapes as overwhelming scenarios and social imparity are the true main ingredients of Latin Cinema.

Since the year 2000 we’ve been blown away by a new wave of directors, some of them are now Hollywood’s prime figures like Gonzalez Iñarritu and Cuarón. After 15 years Latin American Cinema deserves a revision of the most achieved films of the region. The list is presented chronologically to understand the evolution of the filmography rather than trying to define the best places.

 

1. Love’s a Bitch (Amores Perros) (2000, Alejandro González Iñarritu)

Amores Perros

This is the directorial debut of the mastermind behind 2014’s award-winner Birdman. The film sets the birth of Gonzalez Iñarritu’s storytelling style, groundbreaking at the time it premiered. Different stories with different characters where intertwined plots come together almost chaotically by the most hazardous relations. This brand mark will be used again in movies like 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006).

In this film, a car accident is the turning point for this portrait of Mexico D.F.’s urban settling character collage. From the richest to the poorest they are all arranged and set side to side to deal with tragedy and critical situations of life. The movie deals with themes common to the lowest and most decadent reality of Latin culture: poverty, illegality and secrecy are the common denominators in this saga about human misery.

 

2. Nine Queens (Nueves Reinas) (2000, Fabian Bielinsky)

Nine Queens

Two burglars stumbled upon one another in the middle of each other’s scam. From then on a relationship starts to blossom by sharing secrets and confidences. With a ticking clock upon their shoulders, an opportunity to finally hit a big blow comes along their way.

The grasping chemistry between the two characters played by Ricardo Darín and Gaston Pauls are the main ingredient of the movie, the constant struggle for the best crook is a beautifully plot device in the movie, engaging the audience with a mixture between action and comedy.

The film also explores the true identity and values behind both of the hustlers, the role-playing required for this way of living and the ethic codes assumed as the stakes get higher for each protagonist.

 

3. And Your Mother Too (Y tu mama también) (2001, Alfonso Cuaron)

Y tu Mama Tambien

This breakthrough performance for Mexico’s most important pair of actors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal is a Latin American cinema classic. It is a beautifully developed comedy about Julio and Tenoch, two boys fighting amicably for the attention of Luisa, an exuberant and mature woman summarizes in a revision of coming of age film.

Settled as a character driven road movie along some of Mexico’s most beautiful and desolated landscapes, comedy turns into drama, and finally stays that way. The eternal joy of youth, which seems endless at the moment ends up in breaking point, brotherhood is set aside for the personal ambition for love and attention, unmasking the true nature and intentions of the protagonists. The biggest accomplishment of the movie is that it portrays the complexity of friendship as an universal theme.

 

4. City of God (Cidade de Deus) (2002, Fernando Meirelles)

City of God

This transcendental Oscar-nominated movie is a crude depiction of the evolution of a favela (Brazilian slums) and their inhabitants from its birth in the 1960’s to its consolidation in the late 1980’s.

Two opposite characters lead the action orientated plot into a fight between doing things the right way and taking the criminal path. Buscapé (Rocket) is a naïve and frightened young man trying to make a good and honest living on his own. He always stumbles upon his old time acquaintance Dadinho who has become one of the most dangerous drug-dealing gangsters of Rio de Janeiro.

This cinematic masterpiece penetrates on how social conditions shape the destiny of the urban dwellers along their everyday lives.

 

5. Whisky (2004, Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll)

Whisky

An old family feud between brothers arguing about their life achievements makes Jacobo (one of the brothers) do everything he can to prove to his sibling a fake picture of his life. As Americans say “cheese” prior to a family portrait, in Latin America the secret word is “whisky”. This is the narrative code of the movie, the comedy and the drama behind the false appearances of frozen in time characters.

Themes as solitude and the ambiguous expectations of life are common in the movie. The cold and rigid characters are emphasized by the simplicity of the screenplay and cinematography. Shame, embarrassment and ignominy play as consequences of self-distrusted protagonists overwhelmed by the coming of age.

 

6. Machuca (2004, Andres Wood)

Machuca

The story behind new friendship between two kids from extreme opposite social classes, Gonzalo and Pedro, is the central plot of this true-event-based film about a socio-educational experiment from Salvador Allende’s presidential period in the 1970’s Chilean government. Private school director Father McEnroe is the paternal figure and serves as a guide for the unusual and controversial program that integrates students from lower economical classes with the everyday students, from wealthy families.

The movie presents a paradigmatic contradiction between the natural friendship born from the child’s natural encounter and common particularities with the critical and unstable political context, filled with big social clashes and confrontation between common citizens. This plot serves as a critical stand in terms of the role of political positions and how they divide societies, whilst the human condition of new-born friendship represents the true nature of individuals.

 

7.  The House of Sand (Casa de areia) (2005, Andrucha Waddington)

HOUSE OF SAND, (aka CASA DE AREIA), Fernanda Montenegro, Luiz Melodia, 2005, (c) Sony Pictures Classics

The House of Sand is a precious metaphoric resource used by the director to explain the levity of the passing of time. Installed in a secluded area on northern part of Brazil, three generations of women (mother, daughter and niece) fail to depart from their isolation while facing the difficulty of their maddening destiny. Despite their frustration, life goes on; family members grow and others leave for better life. Symbolically it is an analogy about the power of time against the impotence of human faith.

One of the movie’s accomplishments resides on the beautiful photography that stands out with the quietness and peacefulness of the landscape while at the same time depicting the desolation and inclemency of the people living in these areas. Almost like a visual poem, sand and water play a fundamental role in the story and serve as plain canvas for the characters’ reflections on life itself.

 

 

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  • Rafael Castilho Monteiro

    im from brazil and brazilian cinema is all about misery exploitation. the movies from argentina are way, way superior in every aspect imaginable.

    • Jasmin Jandric

      Care to recommend a few then?

    • marcel

      Yes. Recommend please

      • Gonzalo Salvador

        Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes) (2014, Damián Szifron)

        The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) (2009, Juan José Campanella)

        EL Clan (2015, Gerargo Taratuto)

        Hombre mirando al sudeste (1986, Eliseo Subiela)

        • marcel

          Watched the first 2 a while ago and were great. Will watch the other two. Thanks!

          • Hernan Paz

            Hombre mirando al sudeste is great. The movie was stolen by Hollywood with K-Pax, but the genuine article is way better. From the same director, Eliseo Subiela, I also recommend “El lado oscuro del corazón”, a metaphysical movie about love and death that quotes some of the best South-American poets (Benedetti, Girondo, Gelman)

    • Luisa Ordoñez

      Hey! In Colombia happens The same thing. I recomend you this colombian fake documentary film “agarrando pueblo” (The vampires of poverty). I think you could like it if you think Many filmmakers take advantage of poverty but are not sincerely interested in the people they are representing. I hope you like it.

  • Marcella Pasquarelli

    I am from Brazil and I would say there is a very good movie missing on this list, it’s called “Estômago” (Stomach). It’s not so well known even among brazilians, but I definitely recommend it!

    • John Carvalho

      I’m with you, “Estômago” is absolutely amazing. It’s a shame it’s not very well known.

    • Juan

      Estômago it’s brilliant

    • JV

      Ooh, I’ve not heard of that one. Thanks for the recommendation, guys.

  • Pedro De Caux Lasneaux

    About great brazilian movies you have forgotten Elite Squad and its sequel. Is a reallly really good deception of the brazilian police violence and the corruption of instituitions. Is really a two-part masterpiece and among us, brazilians, the greatest box office hit of all time, with great social critic and discussions about the origins of crime and urban violence.

  • Ariel Castillo

    Seven boxes, a great paraguayan film.

    • Yssteria

      Yes! So great.

  • From the director of Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas) I would like to recommend the film El Aura, one of argentinians best pictures, also starring Ricardo Darin
    The director Fabián Bielinsky passed a few years ago and will be forever missed, a really talented person

  • Alfonso Alarcón

    What about:
    The Headless Woman (2008, Argentina) Dir. Lucrecia Martel,
    Post Tenebras Lux (2012, Mex), Silent Light (2007,Mex) Dir. Carlos Reygadas
    Tony Manero (2008, Argentina) Dir. Pablo Larrain,
    Sangre (2005, Mex) Dir. Amat Escalante

    • Nicolás Van De Wyngard

      Pablo Larrain is Chilean.

      • Alfonso Alarcón

        Whoops, thank you. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself knowing I got the country of origin wrong.

  • Janko

    Where can I find La distancia mas larga to watch?

  • Gio Chan

    I think that Quemada Diez is overrated, golden cage is predictable and if someone have to say it, Carlos Reygadas is one of the greatest Directors of lately modern cinema. I don´t know if you´re have listened about Estómago (Stomach) a incredible original Brazilian movie that I think is underrated, Colombia is on the spotlight, and you should see El abrazo de la serpiente from Ciro Guerra, and The earth and the shadow from Acevedo, that worth your time.

  • marcel

    This is a great list. I’ll add
    Last Stop 174
    2 Coelhos
    La Isla Minima
    Balada Triste de Trompeta
    La Banda Picasso
    Pajaros de Papel
    Amigos (2011)
    Ochos Apellidos Vascos
    The Man of the Year

    • Ahmed Shahm

      “La Isla Minima” is a Spanish film not Latin American film

      • marcel

        I appreciate your concern. Do not watch those spanish films I recommended. They are NOT Latin American so do not watch!

        • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

          If that’s the case, why not recommend Australian films then? Or Norwegian? Or Japanese?

          You’re pretty rude, man. You should be apologising for the way you treat other people’s comments.

    • Cinesifilis

      Most of the titles on your list are from Spain, not from Latin America.

      • marcel

        Oh, I’m sorry! Do I get 5 points deducted for this? Didn’t know this is fucking Pop Quiz. How about you talk when you have something to say otherwise you’re just barking frustration.

        • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

          Ouch. Man, calm down. Everyone’s a friend here.

          What Cinesifilis is trying to say is that this post is called “The 15 Best Latin American Films of The 21st Century”, therefore, all discussions are expected to be about Latin American films.

  • Wait? Nothing by Lucrecia Martel or Carlos Reygadas?

  • Ahmed Shahm

    Here’s some other great films from Latin America that not included in the list :

    Last Stop 174 (2008) Brazil
    Sin Nombre (2009) Mexico
    Sidewalls (2011) Argentine
    Voces Inocentes (2004) Mexico
    The Middle Of the World (2003) Brazil
    The Year My Parents Went On Vacation (2006) Brazil
    The Man Who Copied (2003) Brazil

    • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

      Great titles. And even though SIN NOMBRE is now one of my favourite films, it should be noted that it isn’t a Mexican film. It’s from the US.

  • Matheus Valloti

    I also recommend from this century:

    O Lobo Atrás da Porta (A Wolf at the Door) (2014)
    2 Coelhos (2012)
    Tropa de Elite 1 e 2 (Elite Squad 1 and 2) (2007/2010)
    O Homem que Copiava (2003)
    Lisbela e o Prisioneiro (Lisbela and the Prisoner) (2003)
    Un Cuento Chino (A Chinese Tale) (2011)
    El Hijo de la novia (2001)

  • Benjamín Felices Lizarbe

    “La ciudad y los perros” and “No se lo digas a nadie” are also amazing movies that are not on this list 🙂

  • Felipe Hernandez Echeverry

    You should check the embrace of the serpent, its the new movie from ciro guerra, I’m not sure if its on the internet yet, but its really amazing

  • Maximo Cunillera

    well……get some more and not in order thanks for your list!

    1. Fresa y chocolate
    2. El hijo de la Novia
    3. La dictadura perfecta
    4. el lado oscuro del corazón
    5. elite squad
    6. pixote
    7. sangre
    8.estomago
    9. cronos
    10. La ley de Herodes

    • Saul Gomez Serrano

      Most of this films are not from the 21st century

  • Victoria S. Ripoll

    La teta asustada (Perú. 2009) , from Claudia Llosa
    XXY (Argentina, 2007) Lucía Puenzo
    La ciénaga (Argentina, 2001) Lucrecia Martel.

    • Elias

      La teta asustada es de lo peor que he visto. Ni los peruanos la recomiendan….
      La teta asustada is one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Even peruvian people don’t recommend it.

    • Stephus

      De acuerdo con xxy 🙂

  • Luisa Ordoñez

    Tere’s also a very important (and new) colombian film that really diserves to be on the list, It’s “La tierra y la sombra” (Land and shade), directed by Cesar Asevedo. Poetry is the only word I find to describe it.

  • Luisa Ordoñez

    Ps: I also recomend The works of Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo, particicularly “Agarrando Pueblo” (The vampires of poverty)

  • Camilo

    Brazil’s Carandiru, Argentina’s El Aura, Colombia’s Satanás

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  • Vincenzo Politi

    Wild Tales is awesome! And The Secret in Their Eyes is a truly beautiful movie.

  • Carlos Rz

    Gael Garcia Bernal is the absolute king of this list, including the special mentions. I would also add “Cero y van cuatro”, an amazing dark comedy about Mexico.

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  • Fabio Picarelli

    In my opinion the best movie is “To the Left of the Father” (Lavoura Arcaica) a brazilian movie from 2001. Another one forgotten is Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures (Cinema, Aspirinas e Urubus) another brazilian movie from 2005.

  • Ana

    I also recommend Brazil’s A História da Eternidade (The History of Eternity) (2014). It’s such a beautiful movie! 🙂

  • Hernan Paz

    Fabian Bielinsky’s second and last film, “El aura”, is actually quite better than Nine Queens (or at least more profound). I will also add “Kamchatka”, from director Marcelo Piñeyro to the list.

  • Silv Sil

    I think you should add Central Station, a 1998, stunning, moving brazilian movie. It won the Golden Bear at Berlinale and Fernanda Montenegro was nominated for Best Actress for the Academy. Really worthy watching. Make sure you do it.

  • Giacomo Melgarejo

    What about Days of Santiago (Días de Santiago)?

  • Samuel Segura

    Pan’s Labyrinth MUST be in this list. Maybe the story is set in Spain, but the movie is Mexican. Other two missing: The mexican movie ·El Violín” and the brazillian movie “Carandiru”.

  • eSeBestial

    Good selection, I’d add:
    Quien mató a la Llamita Blanca.
    Lisbela e o Prisioneiro.
    Bolivar soy yo.

  • disqus_ZBQRMSlaIq

    Notable que falte:
    Matando Cabos (México 2004)

  • JV

    I’d have to add quite a few (and maybe subtract some others). Certainly ‘Carandiru’ and ‘Nostalgia for the Light’. Two umissable films. I’d like to see Lucrecia Martel represented, probably by ‘La Nina Santa’. I thought Walter Salles ‘Central do Brasil’ was exemplary and very moving.

  • lourdes

    Amores Perros at 1? PLEASE. Iñarritu SUCKS.

  • sol

    La ciénaga!

  • Stephus

    And your mother too is not that good, there are better movies. I’d give a mention to we are what we are, the Mexican version

  • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

    Güeros (2015) – Mexico

  • Cássia Sousa

    Estômago is one of the best contemporary brazilian movies.

  • ggala69

    For me, it is “Mundo Alas”

  • Azul Garcia

    I’d definitely add “The Motorcycle Diaries”, “Sidewalls” and “Even the Rain” to the list.