Dec 28, 2009

The Ten Best Latin American Films of the Decade

Cinema Tropical has compiled a list of the Top Ten Latin American Films of the Decade (2000-2009), based on a survey of distinguished critics, scholars and film professionals based in the New York City area. I was invited and honored to be one of them.

This first-ever survey of its kind was culled from 35 prominent local voices in film whose work has been devoted to the promotion and dissemination of Latin American cinema in New York and the United States. In all, 124 films representing 14 Latin American countries were nominated for the distinction of being Best of the Decade, demonstrating the great quality and diversity of films from the region.

Click here to see the winners and detail information about each people's choices:

My choices

First of all, I want to thank Cinema Tropical for this opportunity, and for all the contributions they have made, not only to the Latin American film industry, but also to the local film community in New York. It was very difficult to choose only ten among so many great films from what is perhaps the most prolific and blooming decade of Latin American film production and international distribution.

One of the first rules I applied was to resist bias or excessive pride, so less than half of the films on the list are Argentine.

The second rule was to promote low to medium budget productions —an accurate representation of the Latin American film industry. Still, there are a few exceptions I found impossible to avoid.

My third and last rule was to not betray my taste. I think the role of the critic is to highlight the best elements of a film, to ask questions beyond personal ideology, and to not lose sight of our role as audience members. Because after all, cinema is an artistic exercise of communication where the audience has the last word.

We could argue about these choices for hours, days, years; that’s precisely the Latin American essence of contention, rebelliousness and challenge.

The list:

1. Amores Perros (Love’s A Bitch) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, México, 2000)

It made me love filmmaking with animal passion! It marked a “before and after” that revolutionized the Latin American film industry, claiming a space among the best Hollywood films. After Pulp Fiction there is probably no other film that so craftfully treats parallel stories. But this one has a local cultural flavor interwoven under the skin. I didn’t doubt for a second to put this film on the top of the list.

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

This is the only Brazilian film I have in my list, and I still wonder why I don't have a José Padilha's film in my list. Some people argue that it’s a pity that Brazilian cinema is worldwide known for a “violent” film, having such a long list of great sensitive films like Central Station, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, Two Sons of Francisco or Suely in the Sky. But let’s just say that Cidade de Deus has not a single element in the story out of place, not a single frame without perfect cinematography, performance or sound. It shakes you so strong and touches you so delicately at the same time, that you won’t completely understand why you are seeing it again, and again.

3. La Ciénaga (The Swamp) (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2001)

Argentine society has historically been based on patriarchical values. That’s not a surprise in Latin America; most of its countries are too. Choosing a woman as the creator of the best Argentine film of this decade is... challenging —especially if it’s not about Buenos Aires. But not as challenging as this film: on the surface it’s slow, boring and static. Beneath the surface, it’s exactly the opposite. Well, it’s a swamp after all!

4. Historias Mínimas (Intimate Stories) (Carlos Sorín, Argentina, 2002)

They are intimate, minimal, simple stories. They are nowhere, nobodies. But Carlos Sorín is not. He has been my favorite Argentine filmmaker for many years. When I was a kid he captivated me with La Película del Rey (A King and His Movie). When I was a teenager he made me doubt my own existence with La Era del Ñandú, defying the limit between documentary and fiction. And after a thirteen-year hiatus he came back to make everyone fall in love with this film written by Pablo Solarz, now for many the best Argentine screenwriter.

5. El Violín (The Violin) (Francisco Quevedo Vargas, México, 2005)

Let’s put it this way: when I finished watching this films I said to myself “this is the kind of film I want to make”. Do I need to say more? It’s the most awarded Mexican film in history, it had a very low budget, it’s a powerful story from beginning to end, it’s extremely political and it screams for social justice with great amateur performances and exquisite cinematography. It’s Latin America in its purest state.

6. Japón (Carlos Reygadas, México, 2002)

Reygadas, a master in sublime cinema, keeps on improving his own films and exploring with non-actors and stunning cinematography the worlds of imagery, life and death. Japón, his first film, is a little gem inspired by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. From its unusual sex scenes to its symbolism, it’s a film that will leave you thinking, wishing this filmmaker releases a new one soon.

7. El Hijo de la Novia (Son of the Bride) (Juan José Campanella, Argentina, 2001)

I had a heated discussion with myself about choosing between Campanella’s Luna de Avellaneda and this one. Both are hilarious, sensitive, and positive. Both masterfully depict the middle class from Buenos Aires. But I think El Hijo de la Novia goes a little further: it brings the unconditional love we can have for the queen of our homes: our mother, our wife. And nobody could ever feel untouched about it —especially with such an impressive cast (Norma Aleandro, Ricardo Darín, Héctor Alterio).

8. Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) (Fabián Bielinsky, Argentina, 2000)

This is the last Argentine film on this list. It was the toughest decision, leaving behind one of my favorite films like Rodrigo Moreno’s El Custodio, Pablo Trapero’s El Bonaerense, or Israel Caetano’s Bolivia. I finally decided to choose Nueve Reinas for a few reasons: first of all, like the rest of Bielinsky’s stories, it works like a Swiss clock. Second, it’s not just a great action film; nobody depicted the crooks and pickpockets of Buenos Aires like him. And third, it’s simply an homage to one of the best filmmakers of the decade who unfortunately died too soon.

9. Whisky (Whisky) (Juan Pablo Rebella & Pablo Stoll, Uruguay, 2004)

Speaking of losing a great young filmmaker, everyone was shocked in the Latin American film industry upon reading the news of Rebella’s suicide, a week after Bielinsky’s death. This Uruguayan duo of filmmakers put Uruguay on the map of film festivals and awards, inspiring another Uruguayan duo, César Charlone and Enrique Fernández with their magnificent first film El Baño del Papa (The Pope’s Toilet). Whisky is a satire and portrayal of Uruguayan society, also involving the delicate theme of distanced family relationships.

10. Machuca (Machuca) (Andrés Wood, Chile, 2004)

What? There is a “new Chilean cinema” besides Raúl Ruiz, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Patricio Guzmán? This poignant film definitely surprised me. It’s beautifully shot, solidly performed, and its pace lets us get inside the characters’ minds. This last choice in the top ten left behind many great films from countries already on the list, and also from others like Cuba, Colombia and Perú. But I couldn’t help putting at least one film that recreates the dark era of Latin American dictatorships, especially from the point of view of a child, and especially about Chile, with such a divided society clashing because of class and ideology. Wood does it so well that it’s hard to believe it was filmed five years ago.

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