There was a time when even the most devoted American cinephile would struggle to name more than a few Latino directors beyond Pedro Almodovar and Luis Bunuel. Today, filmmakers like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Miguel Arteta, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez have become bankable names with movies that are embraced by broad audiences. But can “Gravity,” “Pacific Rim,” or “Sin City” be defined as Latino films?
There’s another group of Hispanic filmmakers who are really nailing their craft; they’re not yet household names in the U.S., but they’re reinvigorating genres, providing fresh perspectives, and reshaping the cinematic experience. (Even the term “Hispanic filmmaker” doesn’t feel entirely accurate, since it could refer to creators from any Spanish-speaking area — and the cinematic interests of those in Chile or Spain are no doubt different that those shared by Latino communities in the U.S.) Some are rich portrayals of cultural experience; others have simpler aims, like scaring the hell out of their audiences.
The one thing these filmmakers have in common? They are seriously killing it.
1. Pablo Larraín
The Chilean-born Pablo Larraín’s genre-busting 2008 film “Tony Manero” — about a sociopathic criminal obsessed with John Travolta’s “Saturday Night Fever” alter ego — was set in Santiago against the backdrop of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, as was 2010’s gruesome, critically lauded “Post Mortem.” Larraín revisited the subject of Pinochet with 2012’s “No,” which starred Gael García Bernal. Shooting on video and using Chilean television footage from the ‘80s, Larraín recreated the electrifying climate during the end of a political era, drawing critical raves and a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. It was announced early in 2014 that he’ll be directing a remake of “Scarface,” reimagining the infamous lead character as a Mexican immigrant — and his fresh and fearless filmmaking approach makes him the perfect fit for a project with that kind of volatility.
‘Tony Manero’ Trailer
2. Jaume Balagueró and 3. Paco Plaza
“[REC] 3: Genesis” on his own and Balagueró taking over on “[REC] 4: Apocalypse.” If that’s confusing, then stay focused on the facts: Balagueró and Plaza took horror-movie staples like found footage, demonic possession and zombies, and recreated them in the image of their own, genuinely unique, and creepy franchise — one that’s spawned a comic book as well as American remakes (“Quarantine” and “Quarantine 2: Terminal”).
‘[REC]3: Genesis’ Trailer
‘[REC]4: Apocalypse’ Trailer
Eugenio Derbez is beloved in his native Mexico as an actor and comedian (his wedding to another Mexican star, singer/actress Alessandra Rosaldo was broadcast live on Univision), but he caught Hollywood’s eye with 2013’s “Instructions Not Included,” which he wrote, directed and starred in. The comedy-drama, about a playboy-turned-single-dad, has grossed a record-breaking $85.5 million worldwide to date. It’s the most successful Spanish-language film of all time and it helped redefine the power of Latino filmmakers and filmgoers alike. Derbez recently signed CAA and is poised to continue on with his serious crossover success.
“Instruction Not Included” Trailer
5. J.A. Bayona
Released in 2007 (and boasting Guillermo del Toro as an executive producer), J.A. Bayona’s debut feature film “The Orphanage” was that rare horror movie that successfully blends thrills and chills with emotional depth. In that sense, Bayona was a natural choice to helm “The Impossible,” which told the agonizing story of one family’s experience in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami (and nabbed Naomi Watts a Best Actress Oscar nomination). Now Bayona has returned to straight-up horror with two installments of Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” and the upcoming sequel to “World War Z.” The latter is a great fit for Bayona, who can tell a harrowing tale and mix visual effects with visceral emotion.
“The Impossible” Trailer
Film and television are sorely lacking when it comes to female contributors; Latina filmmakers are particularly scarce. But that’s only one reason why Aurora Guerrero’s “Mosquita y Mari” was such a welcome addition to 2012’s Sundance lineup. Writer/director Guerrero’s feature debut — a coming-of-age story about two young women who explore the intense feelings they have for each other — weaves a portrait of friendship and intimacy while using the urban Los Angeles landscape to beautiful effect. The California-born Guerrero is currently working on her next film, which was chosen by the IFP as one of the projects for Independent Film Week.
“Mosquita y Mari” Trailer
7. Andrés Muschietti
Andrés Muschietti had two short films under his belt when he directed (and co-wrote, with his sister Barbara) 2013’s hit horror movie “Mama.” Praised for its atmospheric look and complex plot, and starring an almost unrecognizable Jessica Chastain as a tattooed brunette who goes up against the film’s eponymous, maternal-yet-monstrous being, the low-budget horror movie was a commercial success and paved the way for Muschietti to take over Universal’s “Mummy” remake. According to recent reports, Muschietti has also left “Mummy,” but already has another film in the works — possibly another big-budget horror movie for Universal.
On the flip side of the unabashed violence of “[REC]” or the broad comedy of “Instructions Not Included” are the measured works by Lisandro Alonso, whose most recent effort, “Juaja,” stars Viggo Mortensen as a man on a quest in 19th-century South America. Alonso may have detractors who object to his consistently slow pacing and minimalist-style narrative, but his ascent as a filmmaker is undeniable. “Juaja” was the 2014 FIPRESCI winner at Cannes and the Argentine will be working on his next movie as the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 2014 Filmmaker in Residence.
The 2002 Spanish-language film “The Swamp” earned rave reviews, won awards across the globe and was voted the decade’s best Latin American movie by a group of New York City critics. The success of the film — about the simmering tensions within an Argentine family during one sweltering summer — was even more notable because it was the debut feature of Argentina-born Lucrecia Martel. In her second movie, 2004’s “The Holy Girl,” Martel explored the story of a young girl’s sexual awakening, weaving together religious fervor and burgeoning sensuality. For her third film, Martel switched gears yet again, this time creating an enigmatic thriller in 2008’s “The Headless Woman.” Her versatility, attention to detail, and ambition as a filmmaker continues to grow and flourish as she begins her upcoming project, Zama, based on the book of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto and set in eighteenth-century South America.
“La Ciénega” Trailer
“The Headless Woman” Trailer
10. Nacho Vigalondo
“Open Windows” Trailer
11. Damián Szifrón
Damián Szifrón was already a success story in his native Argentina, with two successful television series (“Los Simuladores” and “Hermanos & Detectives”) and several films under his belt. But it was his explosive 2014 Spanish-language film “Wild Tales” — which he wrote and directed — that earned him international recognition, comparisons to “Pulp Fiction” and a chance to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes 20 years after Tarantino’s cultural phenom won the prize. Like “Pulp Fiction,” the (extremely) dark comedy “Wild Tales” features an ensemble cast and consists of a series of vignettes, but instead of being woven together via characters and story, they are bound by a theme of rage, violence, and revenge. The film (which boasts Pedro Almodovar as one of its producers) is already generating Oscar buzz as it gears up for its release in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics.