Over the past few decades, cinema from the Spanish-speaking world has made its way to the forefront of the contemporary film scene. This development has allowed new cinematic voices to establish a now-rich tradition of filmmaking coming out of Spain and Latin America — five of the past ten recipients of the Academy Award for Best Director have been from Mexico.
Here are five films that have found new and fascinating ways to examine the histories and contemporary issues of the Spanish-speaking world.
‘All About My Mother’ / ‘Todo sobre mi madre’ (Pedro Almodóvar)
The magnum opus of Spain’s greatest filmmaker, “All About My Mother” excels on both an aesthetic level — featuring Almodóvar’s signature pop art color palette — and a narrative one. The film follows a single mother grieving her recently killed son as she journeys to find her son’s other parent, a transgender woman named Lola. Almodóvar’s films embrace a provocative nature that allows them to address sensitive subjects such as AIDS and transgender identity head-on — well before they were considered acceptable to be broached in day-to-day conversation.
‘Roma’ (Alfonso Cuarón)
The semi-autobiographical film from director Alfonso Cuarón — most popular for his science-fiction and fantasy films “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Children of Men” and “Gravity” — is one of the most profound aesthetic accomplishments of 21st-century cinema. Named after the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, the film follows the life of a live-in Indigenous housekeeper working for a wealthy family. Directed, shot, written and co-edited by Cuarón, the film is a triumph of emotional storytelling. Matching breathtaking cinematography with atmospheric sound mixing, “Roma” crafts a beautiful mosaic of both joy-filled and melancholic moments — a portrait of the varying ways of life in 1970s Mexico.
‘A Fantastic Woman’ / ‘Una mujer fantástica’ (Sebastián Lelio)
The only Chilean film to win an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, “A Fantastic Woman” follows a transgender woman whose life begins to crash after her boyfriend suddenly dies. The movie is a tender, emotional journey that creates a complex psychological portrait of a person cast to the outskirts of society. Led by a breakthrough performance from Daniela Vega, the sad yet beautiful film poignantly addresses varying forms of societal prejudices in contemporary Chile in a way that fully hooks audiences into this protagonist’s story.
‘La Llorona’ (Jayro Bustamante)
“La Llorona” is a film that combines a fictionalized account of Guatemala’s troubled history in the 20th century with local folk stories. What results is one of the best horror movies in recent years, which not only has great scares and atmospheric terror but also a narrative that contains actual substance. The film deals with themes of collective trauma and historical memory in gorgeously shot frames. Not to be confused with the abysmal American “The Curse of La Llorona” which came out in the same year, “La Llorona” is a must-watch for anyone ready for a fright.
‘Alcarràs’ (Carla Simón)
The winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, “Alcarràs” is the sophomore film from rising Spanish directorial star Carla Simón. The film follows a family of peach farmers in the titular Catalonian town as they struggle to hold onto their livelihoods. A new heir to the estate their land is on intends to sell the property and replace the farmland with solar panels. With a cast entirely consisting of amateurs, the film is able to fully sell its slice-of-life narrative that carefully examines the threat of industrialization and gentrification for everyday working-class families in contemporary Spain.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California studying Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.