Pain and Glory (2019)
Written & Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Pedro Almodovar is no strange to autofiction in his cinema, that doesn’t mean he’s always factually honest with us. Almodovar is very much an impressionist, more interested in the emotions and underlying psychology of events in our lives. Pain and Glory is the most obviously autobiographical, Antonio Banderas playing a version of the aging director. This is a meditation on the physical changes that come with time, how our bodies are both vessels of pleasure and suffering during our lives. The structure is that of interconnected short stories, vignettes centered around the protagonist that allow him to reflect and reconnect with people from his past.
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Written by Alejandro Landes & Alexis Dos Santos
Directed by Alejandro Landes
Above the clouds, on a Colombian mountaintop, a small group of teenage commandos kills time while protecting their hostage, an American doctor. We are immediately thrust into a mythic, alien landscape in the opening frames of Monos. The music adds to the slow, foreboding atmosphere, hinting at the Lord of the Flies-esque finale that will inevitably come. This immediate move to set the mood is a brilliant choice and quickly brings us into this mysterious, strange world.
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Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)
Written & Directed by Issa Lopez
It’s hard not to be struck with the influence Guillermo Del Toro has had on this film and a handful of contemporary Mexican cinema. Tigers Are Not Afraid is full to the brim with knowing nods to The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. While Del Toro often uses the past as a setting to examine his ideas of innocence and darkness, writer-director Issa Lopez chooses the contemporary cartel crisis as the stage for her story. My biggest problem when we compare these works is that Tigers Are Not Afraid has issues with pacing that cut through what should be white-knuckle tension. This is a story about children in peril, men chasing after them with the intent to kill, and there are a lot of moments where this feeling is not conveyed on screen.
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A Fantastic Woman (2017)
Written by Sebastián Lelio & Gonzalo Maza
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Grief is universal, an emotion while experienced as a result of certain life events; it has a profound resonance in our lives. You never feel grief is moderation; it cascades over you like waves leading you to feel as though grief may take you under. Being trans is not an experience we will all have; in fact, it’s estimated about 0.6% of the population is transgender. Trans people feel grief just like anyone else; they love and feel loss no different than any human being. A Fantastic Woman puts its protagonist in a universally-experienced situation, never ignoring what role her gender plays in the story, as a means to connect her to the very people in the film that seeks to undermine her grieving process.
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Los Espookys Season 1 (HBO)
Written by Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega, & Julio Torres
Directed by Fernando Frias
There is nothing else like Los Espookys on television. From the opening of the first episode, a fast-paced series of scenes that introduces us to Renaldo at his sister’s quinceanera which he decorated in an all horror/goth theme to moment we see Andres’ shock of tightly cropped blue hair appear on screen we know that our protagonists will be odd, to say the least. The most normal of the Los Espookys crew is Ursula who is technically genius, yet she’s saddled with her little sister Tati, who is competing with Andres to become the most esoteric character to appear on television since Agent Cooper. This is a fully realized and specific world, like ours but slightly askew.
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Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (2015)
Written & Directed by Alberto Vázquez & Pedro Rivero
On an island in a seemingly endless sea, where a factory in the industrial zone exploded, leaving this place a decaying hell, lives Birdboy. Birdboy is a teenager possessed by a demonic force that makes its home in the lighthouse just off the shoreline. Despite his dark nature and dependency on meds to keep this demon at bay, Birdboy is loved by Dinky, a mouse girl from a troubled family. Dinky is a runaway who, with her friends Sandra the rabbit and Little Fox, have pooled their money to try and buy a boat so they can finally escape this place. This animated Spanish-language picture is very dark and most definitely a mature adult-oriented film dealing in themes of mental illness, addiction, and abuse.
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Written & Directed by Lucrecia Martel
Don Diego de Zama was sent by the Spanish crown to a remote colony in South America to serve as a functionary under the governor. When we meet Zama, he is standing on the shore, staring off into the ocean anticipating a vessel to carry him back to his family, a ship that will never arrive. This is the living nightmare that Zama exists in, a place where the governors come and go but where he is trapped. He suffers the temptations of the flesh, has belongings stripped from him, and has to reside in a haunted shack. Finally, Zama volunteers to be part of a doomed expedition to capture the infamous Vicuña Porto.
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Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Written & Directed by Ciro Guerra
The story feels familiar, well-tread territory. A visitor from the Western world ventures into the dark jungles seeking knowledge, a cure, a remedy, wealth, and fortune. A strange and mystic native guides them through this exotic land, and it either ends in triumph or tragedy, the Westerner at the forefront of the story. Filmmaker Ciro Guerra takes this framework and subverts it, turns this into the account of the native with the Westerner becoming a background supporting figure. Guerra tells of two visitors to the same native Amazonian shaman, thirty years apart, but both men are seeking the same curative plant. Through these dual points in time, the audience can witness the decay of native cultures, ravaged by the effects of interlopers on their land.
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Written & Directed by Jayro Bustamante
It’s a deceptively told and shot tale, much like the camera pushing through the coffee plants, quietly and slowly, revealing secrets about our protagonist. Ixcanul is the story of Maria, a young woman, who is a Kaqchikel Mayan living the volcanic soil hills of Guatemala. She has been promised to Ignacio, the coffee plantation foreman for whom her father works. She secretly meets with Pepe, one of the workers, closer to her age and eventually gives up her virginity to him. Pepe half-heartedly promises to bring Maria along with him when he begins the daunting trek to cross the United States border. Of course, he slips away in the night, leaving Maria with a growing burden that will derail her parents’ plans for her.
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Written & Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Cleo is a maid in 1970s Mexico City, working at a home in the Colonia Roma neighborhood for a doctor and his family. The patriarch of the family leaves for a work trip to Quebec which is quickly revealed to be an excuse to leave his family. Cleo works to serve the family while living a private life beyond their gaze. She finds out she is pregnant after a series of dates with her new boyfriend, Fermin. He shows little interest in staying to gather her child and Cleo is left to reveal her condition to her employer. In the background, cultural and political strife in Mexico are unfolding, and from time to time these conflicts cross over into Cleo and her employers’ lives. Otherwise, Roma unfolds as an unassuming slice of life picture.
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