Like many film critics and film buffs, I eagerly awaited the results of the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. Sight & Sound is the monthly film magazine of the British Film Institute and one of my favorite film publications for its consistent coverage of world cinema, particularly Latin American cinema. Every 10 years, its editors invite hundreds of film critics, academics, distributors, curators, writers, and film programmers to choose those 10 films they consider pivotal to the history and development of film as an art form.
In a way, it’s a list that sets a canon for many to follow for the next 10 years. Polls like this one are conversation starters, especially when some of your favorites don’t make it.
More than 1,600 members of the international film community participated in the poll, more than half the number of those who participated 10 years ago when Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was declared the best film of all time, knocking perennial favorite Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1939) from the throne. The winner of this year’s poll came out of left field, speaking to the diversity of views, nationalities, races, gender, and points of view of the participants: Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the precursor to the slow cinema movement that has dominated a significant part of world cinema in the past two decades or so. It also marks the first time a woman filmmaker occupies the number one spot since the first poll was announced in 1952.
I was also truly happy to see a good number of films by women and people of color make the list: Maya Deren’s experimental Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016).
But imagine my disappointment when I saw that only one Spanish-language film—Spanish director Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)—made the list. Nothing from Latin America or Portugal. No Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Glauber Rocha, Carlos Diegues, Lucrecia Martel, María Luisa Bemberg, Patricio Guzmán, Maniel de Oliveira, Felipe Cazals or Raúl Ruiz. Not even a member of the Del Toro-Cuarón-Iñárritu trifecta. No Almodóvar, no Carlos Saura. Hell, not even Mexican-period Buñuel, not to mention anything from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.
The absence of these films from the poll points to a much larger issue, one that I see over and over again when monitoring film festival coverage throughout the year: I can count with the fingers on both hands the number of English-language film critics who cover and write about Latin American cinema from these festivals, and I would still have several fingers left. Most critics only cover the films in competition and rarely cover a festival’s parallel programs, where one is bound to discover new trends and voices.
And when it comes to a massive festival like Toronto’s, fuggedaboutit. All of them want to be the first in their group to catch those major films that may or may not be part of the awards conversation by the end of the year.
Am I being unfair? No. These films depend on festival word-of-mouth, especially from the critics, to secure distribution. Their only hope is that some festival programmer or sales agent paid attention to the entire festival catalog. And if these films secure some sort of distribution deal, chances are they will still be ignored by most critics once they are released, especially those who are far more interested in securing shares, likes, and retweets, or whatever will replace Twitter when and if it implodes.
As I was writing this article, Sight & Sound released its list of the 50 Best Films of 2022 voted by the magazine’s 93 contributors from around the world. Only one Brazilian-Portuguese co-production made the list: Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta’s dystopic Dry Ground Burning, a film that has yet to be released in the United States.
And no, folks, Apitchapong Weerasethakul’s Memoria does not count as a Latin American film. But take a look at the individual top 10 lists and you will find that at least some Iberoamerican films were embraced by a small minority of the magazine’s contributors—the exception to the rule. Of course, two Iberoamerican critics, María Delgado and Mar Diestro-Dópido, came out to bat by including a significant number of films from Latin America and Spain on their lists.
I think film critic and programmer Pedro Adrián Zuluaga is onto something when, in an article for the digital publication The Edge, he argues that the “almost total erasure of Spanish- and Portuguese-language films may also be a sign that Ibero-America and the Caribbean no longer count in the inclusion policies decided by the Anglo-European centers or that they no longer matter in the way they did in previous decades.” At a time when more Latin American migrants are flooding our southern border, escaping from ecological disasters, the dire economy of their home countries, as well as their authoritarian governments, critics should be paying more attention to the films coming out of Las Américas.
I do take solace in the fact that the Sundance Film Festival (January 19-29, 2023) selected five films from Latin America and Spain to compete in its World Cinema Dramatic and World Cinema Documentary competitions: David Zonana’s Heroic (Mexico), Glorinar Marrero Sánchez’s La pecera (Puerto Rico), Patricia Ortega’s Mamacruz (Spain/Venezuela), Christopher Murray’s Sorcerer (Chile), and Maite Alberdi’s The Eternal Memory. There’s also the world premiere at the festival of Cassandro starring Gael García Bernal as the “Liberace of Mexican wrestling” and the border drama Radical starring Eugenio Derbez. Film critics now have no excuse.
In his article, Zuluaga, among other calls to action, invites his fellow Latin American programmers, historians, and critics to write more books about film history. I would expand that call to my fellow Latino film critics based in the United States: Let’s keep reviewing the films coming from our continent and pushing our non-Spanish-speaking colleagues to pay more attention to this cinema (especially when it comes to the end-of-year awards that many critics organizations hand off).
Which is why this year, instead of the generic “favorite films of the year” list, I am writing about the best Latin American films of the year released either theatrically or via streaming—a list I hope I can expand someday to include films from such French-speaking countries as Haiti. Some of these movies have left indelible images in my mind. Others made me optimistic about the future not only of Latin American cinema but of world cinema. Four of my selections—Argentina, 1985, Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, Utama, and The Box—were chosen by their respective countries as their official selection for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film.
Where appropriate I have linked each film to either the original review and to where it can be streamed:
ARGENTINA, 1985 (released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles in September before it went directly to streaming via Amazon Prime): Santiago Mitre nimbly blends elements of the docudrama, the political thriller, and the courtroom drama to tell the story of the civil trial against military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla and his cohorts for the disappearance of dozens of thousands of Argentinians. The always reliable Ricardo Darín stars as lead prosecutor Julio Strassera, who is assigned the difficult task of bringing these men to trial. He only has five months to gather all the evidence he needs and with the help of young attorney Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), whose family has deep ties to the country’s militia, and theater director Carlos Somigliana (Claudio Da Passano), he recruits a small group of young men and women to help him go over the thousands of pages of testimonies as well as interview the survivors and the relatives of the disappeared and convince them to testify.
From the very first frame, Mitre captures the paranoia and fear that permeated Argentina at the time, even Strassera himself who keeps looking over his shoulder expecting the worst. Mitre knows how to ratchet up the tension, how to make us expect the worst and then undermine those expectations. There is also plenty of black humor.
But, most importantly, Mitre is fascinated by Strassera’s relationship with his family and how this trial affects them. As his resourceful, loyal, supportive, and no-nonsense son Javier, Santiago Armas Estevarena is a revelation. And the quiet power with which Darín reads Strassera’s actual indictment on the last day of the trial, the way he knows which words to underline and how to draw out Strassera’s own indignity, makes for one of 2022’s top cinematic moments for me.
As we see the world embrace authoritarian rule over democracy, Argentina, 1985 offers a stark reminder of what is at stake. It is also the kind of movie we need most these days: one where decent individuals stand up regardless of the risks and do the right thing.
BARDO: FALSE CHRONICLE OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS: In his best film since Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu (sorry, tocayo, you are still González Iñárritu to me) turns his vision inward to explore his role as an artist, as a privileged migrant, as a man torn between two countries, two ways of life.
Some critics accused the film of being self-indulgent when the longer version premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Phooey to them. Damien Chazelle’s recently released hate letter to cinema, Babylon, is far more self-indulgent than Bardo, and yet it scored far higher on Rotten Tomatoes. (Babylon is also grotesque and, alongside Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, one of the most unpleasant experiences at the cinema this year.)
As I wrote in my review, Bardo is pure cinema, full of exquisite images and chock-full of ideas. It’s a movie with a clear point of view, where no one, not Iñárritu, not Mexican media, not even Mexican history and the history of U.S. interventionism in Latin America, goes unscathed.
UTAMA (to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 17): I wish I had seen Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s debut feature on the big screen instead of on my desktop, since the Bolivian Andes play such a crucial role. This is a film, after all, about how global warming impacts Indigenous communities throughout the world, endangering not only their livelihoods but their culture and way of life as they are forced to migrate to the big city.
The film focuses on an elderly Quechua couple, Virginio and Sisi, who make a living in the arid Bolivian Altiplano. The region has been struck by a year-long drought and the well at the nearby town has run out of water. The arrival of their grandson from the big city serves as a reminder that their days in the Altiplano are numbered for them and the remaining inhabitants.
Utama is, indeed, a lament for a land, a planet, that has nurtured us for so long.
DOS ESTACIONES: Named after the fictional artisanal tequila factory where most of the film takes place, documentary filmmaker Juan Pablo González’s drama feature debut centers on María García, the last in her family’s line of tequila makers, and the many challenges she faces as foreign companies begin to encroach on this lucrative industry. It is also a quiet love story, as María slowly falls for her new assistant Rafaela, and about sexual identity and living comfortably in one’s own skin (as is the case of salon owner and entrepreneur Tatín, played by Tatín Vera, an openly transgender woman).
A compelling hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, Dos Estaciones casts an empathetic eye not only on these characters but on the entire town of Atotonilco El Alto. González listens to his characters and to the landscape. He discreetly observes them and lets them and their story breathe. It may look and feel like a small film—it is not.
CLARA SOLA: I said it before, and I’ll say it again: A new cinematic wave, one led by women, is coming out of Costa Rica. And there’s no better example of this movement than Nathalie Álvarez Mésen’s magnificent and bewitching feature debut, the story of a 40-year-old woman whose intellectual, sexual, and even physical growth has been stunted by her overbearing, fanatically religious mother, who claims that Clara Sola has been visited and blessed by the Virgin herself.
Clara Sola may be superficially inspired by Stephen King’s Carrie, but that is too facile a comparison. Featuring a stunning debut performance from dancer turned actress Wendy Chinchilla Araya, who uses her entire body to create a complex, mysterious character, one at first driven by stillness and then by raw emotion, Clara Sola is a poetic, earthy, tactile portrait of repression, sexual awakening, and breaking free from authoritarian rule.
Pay attention to this New Wave, my fellow critics. You don’t know what you are missing!
MY IMAGINARY COUNTRY: Patricio Guzmán (The Battle of Chile, Nostalgia for the Light) takes to the streets of Santiago where a second revolution is brewing, one without any leaders or ideologies and born out of the frustration of a people tired of being ignored and abused by the powers that be. It gives Guzmán a strong sense of déjà vu and leaves him hopeful for his country’s future. What he discovers on those streets leaves him full of hope after what he went through under Pinochet and all those years in exile: a country rising up, a movement led by women, the writing of a new constitution.
You can’t help but feel for Guzmán as he bears witness with his camera to a day he thought would never come.
OFFICIAL COMPETITION: I already alluded to the horror shows that were Blonde and Babylon. Which is why I thank the Argentinian writing-directing team of Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat for delivering this far superior satire about filmmaking. The humor may be vicious, dark, almost Pythonesque, but there is real love here for the art form and some of its excesses, a love completely lacking in those two B-films (pun intended).
Penélope Cruz plays Lola Cuevas, a darling among film critics who’s been hired by a millionaire who just bought the rights to an acclaimed award-winning novel and believes that he can leave a far better legacy by turning it into a film. She casts two polar opposites as her leads: box-office sensation Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas, once again deliciously poking fun at his image) and Method actor Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez).
What’s really clever about Cohn’s and Duprat’s script is that most of the story takes place during the film’s rehearsals, not during the making of. Conflict is always at the core of any good story and, in this case, the conflict goes beyond that of art versus commerce. It’s about three distinct visions, three distinct egos. Cohn and Duprat elaborate a series of completely surreal, brutal, and excruciatingly funny scenarios—including one involving a crane and a huge rock hanging from above a bench on which Félix and Iván are forced to sit down—that dig deep into some of the most pretentious aspects of the art form.
MEDUSA: Bolsonaro may be gone, but his legacy still lives on in Brazil’s Congress…which is why the many dystopian films that came out of Brazil during his reign will never age, especially when they, like Argentina, 1985, serve as a warning to others.
Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Medusa presents us with a Brazil ruled by the religious Right, where a group of saintly women wearing white masks roams the streets at night, in pursuit of those who they see as sinners to kick their butts and record the attack on their smartphones for posting on social media. After an attack by one of these “sinners” leaves Mariana (Mariana Oliveira), the only dark-skinned member of the group, with an oozing scar, she takes it upon herself to find the whereabouts of a beautiful and popular actress who was horribly disfigured by a woman wearing a mask.
While Rocha da Silveira shows off her horror credentials by quoting both John Carpenter and Dario Argento, she also knows that true horror lies in what is said and done by others. Her portrait of a society willingly duped and alienated by demagogues who use religion as a tool to impose their will on others is far scarier than your run-of-the-mill horror film.
THE BOX: Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas visits northern Mexico to tell the story of a young boy, Hatzín (newcomer Hatzín Navarrete). who recovers the remains of his father, discovered in an anonymous mass grave, and who, on the way back to his grandmother, sees a man bearing a strong resemblance to the photo on his father’s ID. Stepping off the bus, he confronts the man who identifies himself as Mario Enderle (Hernán Mendoza). Hatzín won’t stop following him, and soon Mario allows him to tag along and even work alongside him in his illicit businesses.
Vigas and co-screenwriter Paola Markovitch are not interested in painting their characters in black and white. They deliver a dark coming-of-age story where Hatzín consciously crosses some lines he shouldn’t have crossed and, by the end, begins to feel the weight of his own actions.
As in Utama, the landscape is another character, a silent and brutal witness to the actions of man, a place where the taking of life and even the buying and selling of it is treated in a matter-of-fact business-like way.
THE PINK CLOUD: Another dystopian vision from Brazil, written and shot before the COVID-19 lockdowns, filmmaker Iuli Gerbase’s unintentionally prescient feature film debut begins with a mysterious pink cloud hovering over Brazil and killing anyone who comes in contact with it. Residents are ordered into isolation and remain indoors wherever they happened to be at the time of the cloud’s appearance.
Forced to live together without hardly knowing each other, Giovana and Yago try to make the best of a rather difficult situation with no apparent end in sight. Giovana wonders what will happen to homeless people, and both think the cloud will be gone by winter—sound familiar? Streaming services, how-to videos, and virtual chats are their only connection to the rest of the world. Time stands still for them just like it did for so many of us during lockdown.
By keeping the story so focused on this couple, Gerbase delivers an unnerving and disquieting view of the times we live in.
Featured image from ‘Argentina, 1985’ (Amazon Studios)