Ten Films You Had To See In 2014 (Plus Three You Really Didn’t)

By 23 December, 2014

Was 2014 as good a year for South American cinema as it seemed, or was it just that I watched more films than ever before? The Buenos Aires Film Festival was a personal highlight, and an event which underlined the current strength of regional filmmaking, but even my regular jaunts to the local cinema were imbued with the joys of directorial flair, convincing performances, and visual tones that captured the full geographical, cultural and social diversity of this remarkable part of the world.

As everyone else does it, it seems only right that we bring you ten films that you had to see this year or, if you didn’t, should be at the top of your list for 2015. However, let me stress that this is not a ‘Top Ten of 2014’ list. The problem with a top ten film list is that it implies you’ve seen everything on offer which I haven’t. But each of those mentioned below intrigued me in one way or another, while the overall selection offers a diverse sample of what South American cinema was about in 2014.

Several other films could just as easily have been included, and the truth is that this probably doesn’t cover my absolute ten favourite films. For example, Wild Tales has featured extensively in S&C and as such I felt other films merited attention. I also wanted to spread the list around the continent and most countries are represented here (sorry Bolivia and Uruguay! I’ll make up for it next year, I promise). So, with an honourable mention for all those that I haven’t included, and which could easily have made the cut on any other day, here are ten of the best South American films of 2014, plus three turkeys. Feel free to tell us your own choices below.

Sounds and Colours Ten Films You Had to See in 2014

Dust on the Tongue (Tierra en la Lengua, Rubén Mendoza, Colombia)

In rural Colombia, in a region under the control of armed rebels, an elderly man encourages his two grandchildren to kill him. Ravaged by the fatigue of old age, a remorseful conscience, and the memory of his dead wife, the man offers them the surrounding lands to the horizon, but only if they shoot him according to his specifications. A psychological struggle plays out between the two generations, the tension magnified by the omnipresent threat of a conflict that could swallow them at any moment. The isolation of the setting is mirrored by that of the old man, who is repulsed by the self-centred superficiality of his kin and resolves to determine his own end. Rubén Mendoza’s violent and eerie film is enveloped in a sense of dread, built around a superb performance from Jairo Salcedo that evokes both empathy and fear.

The Liberator (Libertador, Alberto Arvelo, Venezuela/Spain)

The most swashbuckling film to come out of anywhere in 2014 was this epic retelling of the Simón Bolívar legend and the South American wars of independence. Somehow condensing thirty years of continental struggle into a two-hour film was never going to be easy, yet Alberto Arvelo was given a level of financial backing rarely found in regional cinema, with the film’s budget a cool $50million. Arvelo made good use of the cash, and with a huge cast, led by Venezuelan star Édgar Ramírez as Bolívar, immense battle scenes, and sweeping panoramic shots that captured the beauty of the continent from Caribbean coastlines to Andean peaks, it’s not hard to see how The Liberator garnered Venezuela’s first ever Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, my man-crush for the dashing Ramírez, which sprouted from his performance as Carlos the Jackal in the Carlos TV mini-series, went into full bloom here, as did my newfound infatuation with Bolívar’s lover and confidant, the revolutionary leader Manuela Sáenz. I defy anyone not to feel a lump in their throat as they embrace for the final time. Sniff.

7 Boxes (7 Cajas, Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schémbori, Paraguay)

Victor, a young barrow boy who earns his daily bread shepherding goods around the city’s sprawling market district, is given seven boxes by local hoodlums to deliver them to the specific time and place. Unsure of the boxes’ contents, but fully aware of the gangsters’ ability to chop him up into fish bait, Victor undertakes the mission, all for the $100 that will allow him to buy a mobile phone. Unfortunately, several unsavoury market-crawlers catch wind of the valuable cargo and determine to relieve Victor of his load. But are the contents of the boxes everything they seem? Essentially a chase thriller with wheelbarrows, this was a surprise success at the Latin American box office and a big boost for Paraguayan filmmaking, which has often tended to drift under the radar. It may nod a little too eagerly towards late-90s/early-00s youth-pleasing tech soundtracks like Go, The Beach and, particularly, Run Lola Run, but as a lively action-thriller, 7 Boxes was two bunches for a pound.

Natural Sciences(Ciencias Naturales, Matías Lucchesi, Argentina)

Yet another Latin American film centred on a young protagonist who questions and rejects the environment around her, Natural Sciences hinged on the magnificent facial expressions of its lead actor, 11-year old Paula Hertzog. Lila lives with her neglectful mum in rural Cordoba, where kids go to school on horseback come rain or shine. Determined to track down the father she’s never known, Lila, receiving zero encouragement, takes matters into her own hands. As Lila is evidently a danger to herself, a caring teacher decides to accompany the girl on her quest. A lovingly-crafted relationship bonds the two females, as Lila is introduced to life’s cruel realities yet finds solace where she may not have expected. In a year of Latin American cinema that was notable for the number of young actors in leading roles, Hertzog’s performance in the debut feature from Matías Lucchesi was arguably the most impressive.

Casa Grande (Felipe Barbosa, Brazil)

Watching this film at the London Film Festival, my initial thoughts went along the lines of “Oh, wonderful, another story about an emotionally troubled rich kid.” But I quickly found myself riveted by this Brazilian tale of a semi-dysfunctional, high society family struggling to pay the bills and maintain their privileged lifestyle. Casa Grande analyses both the social and personal impact of Brazil’s inequality chasm. Jean, played by the excellent Thales Cavalcanti, is the teenage son who feels alienated from the fracturing upper-class world around him. As educational quotas to integrate students from poorer backgrounds into the school system come into effect, Jean meets Luiza, a girl from a less-exclusive school and whose darker skin tone is as much a factor in the social hierarchy as her family’s economic position. A discerning critique of the modern nation, Barbosa’s autobiographical story featured strong performances all round and was one of many films this year which used youth as a means of addressing the socio-political changes to have taken place in recent times.

Bad Hair(Pelo Malo, Mariana Rondón, Venezuela)

In the housing projects of Caracas, Junior is a nine-year old with kinky hair who wants to straighten it like his favourite pop star. Much to the annoyance of his mother, Marta, unimpressed by this superficial obsession, the boy takes matters into his own hands in order to conform to a concept of attractiveness that is predetermined by the visual media. The kid’s attempts to win the affections of the hardworking Marta are rebuffed, as she resolves to raise her brood as she sees fit. The film’s title comes from the discriminatory term given to those with afro-textured hair in the Americas. Mariana Rondón’s study of race, gender and class deservedly won Best Film at the San Sebastían Film Festival 2013.

Silence in Dreamland (Silencio en la Tierra de los Sueños, Tito Molina, Ecuador)

More like a shifting portrait of age and loneliness than a conventional cinematic drama, Silence in Dreamland drifted through the subconscious and the stilted reality of an elderly woman drifting through life in the wake of her husband’s death. She is accompanied in the repetitive journey of daily life by a faithful dog. It is in routine that she attempts to find the reason for her ongoing existence. Tito Molina’s first solo feature makes exquisite use of space and light, imparting his film with an aestheticism that is equal parts art and cinema, created on a wide canvas that immerses his character in total solitude. It is slow and observational, the kind of introspective style that directors often attempt, yet which few manage to pull off with the eloquence Molina achieves.

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)

The title is taken from a mythological land and there is something surreal about Lisandro Alonso’s spectral odyssey. The genocide that European settlers and explorers inflicted upon the indigenous population of southern Argentina forms the backdrop to this drawn-out treatise on madness and obsession starring Viggo Mortensen. He plays Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish engineer who, with his daughter, joins the conquest campaign across Patagonia. When the girl elopes with a young soldier, Dinesen heads off into the wilderness in pursuit, growing delirious and tormented by the proximity of the Indians his party has determined to wipe out. Sparse dialogue and mounted-camera shots foment the repressive nature of the barren and windswept landscape in which Dinesen loses touch with reality. The ending is odd, which some may find annoying, and Jauja may rile anyone who doesn’t appreciate a three-minute shot where a thirty-second one will do, but this was one of the most originally-conceived historical films of 2014, bearing more in common with Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England than with more conventional narratives.

The Quispe Girls (Las Niñas Quispe, Sebastián Sepúlveda, Chile)

Chilean cinema has mined the Pinochet dictatorship perhaps more than any other subject in recent times, often to powerful effect, and this was another film, taken from real events, which covered the ground of military rule while looking at things from a new angle. It is 1974, the year after the military regime was installed in Chile, and three indigenous Qulla sisters live as shepherds amid the vast emptiness of the Atacama Desert. The Quispes are concerned at news that the military is expanding north, where they think it will impact on their livelihoods and force down the value of their livestock. Like many Chilean directors, Sepúlveda makes the most of the country’s stunning geography, and his drama is given emotional weight by the performances of its three lead actors, Digna Quispe, niece to the real-life sisters, Francisca Gavilán, who was so brilliant as folk singer Violeta Parra in Violeta Went to Heaven, and Catalina Saavedra, who gave perhaps the best Chilean film performance of recent times as the title role in The Maid.

The Mute (El Mudo, Diego Vega & Daniel Vega, Peru)

The Vega brothers made a strong claim to being South America’s answer to the Coens with this Lima-set tragicomedy starring Fernando Bacilio, deserved winner of the Best Actor prize at the Buenos Aires Film Festival in April. Bacilio achieved the impossible-sounding task of making the audience care for his character, Judge Constantino Zegarra, a bureaucratic prick of a civil servant who takes pleasure in informing distressed clients of the state’s inability to assist them in their time of need. Walking to his car one day, he is shot in the throat by an unseen assailant, leaving him unable to speak and with a furious determination to uncover his would-be assassin. Bacilio conveys his character’s emotions through a superb display of physical theatre, wearing a downbeat and dogged frown that only cracks when his daughter makes it known she won’t be following in her father’s professional footsteps. It is just one beautifully-realised moment of melodrama in the Vegas’ funny, sad and very human second film.

And three disappointments…

The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho, Daniel Ribeiro, Brazil)

As far as socially-conscious drama goes, this ticked all the right boxes: an LGBT-themed drama about a blind kid who simply wants to live a normal life. It’s the kind of narrative to make liberally-minded filmgoers quiver in anticipation. How, then, to express that I couldn’t stand it without sounding like I’m pushing for a career as a Ukip councillor? There were the annoying jokes and banter between the trio of friends, and an overall tone that was tedious, smug and way too sugary. Worst of all was the film’s representation of the three protagonists’ classmates. Are we really meant to believe that teenagers are such dicks that an entire room of them would willingly collude in duping a blind kid to kiss a dog? That nobody would do anything other than snigger and film it on their mobiles? Imagine, say, Japanese people or Brummies being represented in such a negative light. There’d be an outcry. If this was the best film to come out of Brazil in 2014, as suggested by its selection as the country’s Oscars contender, then I’m a baboon.

El Ardor (Pablo Fendrick, Argentina)

Now The Burning wasn’t just bad, it was laugh-out loud terrible, a sad state of affairs accentuated by the presence of two of Latin America’s biggest film stars, Gael García Bernal and Alice Braga. How on earth did they get roped into this? Not that they were free of blame in this Argentine western set amid the sweltering jungle of the Paraná, in which a mysterious wildling and the daughter of a peasant murdered for his land set out to avenge his death. To quote myself, writing recently in S&C, ‘the topless and tattooed García Bernal gimps around the jungle with all the menace of Mowgli on his way to a full moon party, while Braga purses her lips and frowns throughout, like she’s playing Kiera Knightley faced with a particularly tricky crossword clue’. They go up against villains who make Imperial Stormtroopers look like Jason Bourne in terms of sheer ineptitude. The cinema around me filled with awkward giggles, never more so than in a finale built around the most implausible shootout in history.

The Return (El Regreso, Patricia Ortega, Venezuela)

Not only was this the worst South American film I saw this year, it was the worst film I have seen in my life. Which is a pity as young Daniela González, who plays the lead role, is actually pretty talented. But she is let down by a script written on a leftover scrap of toilet roll and especially by Ortega’s direction, which flaps about like a pigeon with one of its wings nailed to the ground. It jumps from the paramilitary gang-rape, massacre and dismemberment of an entire indigenous community (using a chainsaw that makes a noise but is quite clearly not turned on) to a story about a little girl and her mischievous puppy. The themes that Ortega addresses – violence, displacement, homelessness and so on – are undoubtedly ripe for cinematic analysis, but are so clumsily addressed as to make any critical elements irrelevant. You feel there is an important message waiting to emerge from under the mess, and the focus on the Wayúu people of Venezuela and Colombia is long overdue, but there can be no escaping the truth: this is a film of epically bad proportions, with acting as wooden as it is hopelessly directed. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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