Oh man, this was a really tricky one. It’s been a tough job whittling down so many hugely talented Latin American film directors into a list of just 10 names. First, I’m not the biggest fan of ranking people. There, I said it. And then there’s the fact that this list involves countries which are alike and dissimilar in many ways. Yet there’s no denying that all share a history marked by aesthetic experimentation, social denunciation, the struggle to win over the public’s hearts at the box office – with foreign blockbusters monopolizing the majority of theaters – and the search for their own voice.
In spite of everything, Latin American directors have had a huge hand in shaping 21st century cinema to date. At the previous 8 Oscar ceremonies, Latin American filmmakers have scooped the Academy Award for Best Director on 5 occasions (some have even won it twice). Okay, the Oscars certainly aren’t the be-all-and-end-all for compelling cinema – I mean who remembers the winner from two years ago? I don’t. Even so, it certainly shows that filmmakers from this part of the world are a very talented bunch.
Table of Contents
- Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)
- Alejandro González-Iñárritu (Mexico)
- Alfonso Cuarón (Mexico)
- Paula Hernández (Argentina)
- Guillermo del Toro (Mexico)
- Pablo Larraín (Chile)
- Sebastián Lelio (Chile)
- Kleber Mendonça Filho (Brazil)
- Claudia Llosa (Peru)
- Damian Szifron (Argentina)
In no particular order, here are 10 Latin American directors that captured my imagination over the past two decades:
Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)
Rules are there to be broken. While a little hackneyed, this is an accurate description of Lucrecia Martel’s work from her very beginnings as a filmmaker. Her approach to cinema defies classical norms of dramatic structure while keeping the viewer enthralled and dazzled.
Her 2001 debut feature, La ciénaga, portrays the life of a self-pitying bourgeois family contending with inertia and heavy drinking in the Argentine high plains. The film received universal acclaim from critics, receiving awards at the Berlinale and the Havana Film Festival. This was followed by The Holy Girl (2004), The Headless Woman (2008), and Zama (2017), the latter of which is based on a novel by Antonio Di Benedetto and represents her most epic shoot to date. All three films create a disturbing, even sometimes overwhelming atmosphere that leaves the viewer gripped. As a director, Martel constantly questions reality, but never falls down traps of predictability.
Alejandro González-Iñárritu (Mexico)
At the dawn of the new millennium, a new movie came along that would change everything – and not just for Mexican or Latin American cinema.‘Negro’ González-Iñárritu’s Amores perros proved to be an international hit that turned heads at major studios. For this movie, the Mexican director established a formidable partnership with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, and subsequently worked with the cinematographer Emmanuel lubezki.
These fragmented tales are united by fatality, where social differences put the destinies of their protagonists into question; González-Iñárritu’s drive to intertwine stories would be replicated in his following titles 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006).
With a reputation for being an obsessive perfectionist, he has continued to direct top international stars in ever more ambitious productions. These include Birdman (2014), which earned him his first Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture, and The Revenant (2015), filmed in extreme conditions on location, which gave him his second Oscar the following year.
The rest is history.
Alfonso Cuarón (Mexico)
You can’t talk about Latin American cinema without mentioning Alfonso Cuarón, another directing great who has been decorated with a couple of Oscars.
One year after Amores Perros, a film starring two young Mexican actors – Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna – and Spanish actress Maribel Verdú would define a generation. And Your Mother Too (2001) depicts a road trip along the Mexican highways in search of a fictional paradise. Cuarón co-wrote this coming-of-age film with his son, Carlos, winner of the best screenplay prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Following that, Alfonso directed critically-acclaimed pictures such as the third installment of the Harry Potter series and the post-apocalyptic epic Children of Men (2006), where he continued to display his impeccable camera control skills. In Gravity (2013), Cuarón would take sequence shot composition to another level and receive his first Oscar.
2018 saw the worldwide Netflix premiere of Rome, a black-and-white film that portrays his childhood through Cleo, a domestic worker. Again, Cuarón would sweep the award ceremonies with this intimate piece, and pick up his second Academy Award.
Paula Hernández (Argentina)
Paula Hernández’s professional career began in 1992 with a short film called Rojo. Yet it wasn’t until the release of The Sleepwalkers (2019) that Hernández received long-overdue attention from critics and viewers alike. The Argentine Oscar nominee’s work deeply resonated with audiences on the wave of the feminist revolution – the time was now ripe for speaking out and challenging the impunity that had protected abusers for so many years. In Hernández’s words, the inspiration behind The Sleepwalkers was “her own motherhood”, thinking about the world of the family “from its most complex side, from the folds of horror“. It’s a singular thriller, complimented by outstanding performances from Érica Rivas and Ornella D´Elía in the mother and daughter roles. During a visit to their family’s summer house, both are confronted with labyrinths of the past and the dangers of the present. This is the work of an essential filmmaker from our time.
Guillermo del Toro (Mexico)
I know, it’s another Mexican… But you simply cannot ignore Guillermo del Toro when talking about Latin American directors.
Creator of sinister but captivating monsters and universes, del Toro brought back the terrors from our childhood in The Devil’s Backbone (2001), reaffirmed our belief in fantasy when faced with the horrors of war in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and depicted the unconventional love between marginalized and violated beings in The Shape of Water (2017). And that’s right, you guessed it: In the case of the latter, he was awarded the Oscar for Best Director.
Del Toro’s ability to narrate tragedies from fantasy, combined with fantastic makeup work and extraordinary special effects, makes him one of the most relevant filmmakers of this era. As well as producing a long list of films, the Mexican director has boosted the careers of other horror and fantasy directors such as Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage, 2007) and Andrés Muschietti (Mother, 2013).
Pablo Larraín (Chile)
In a word: No. That’s the title of Pablo Larraín’s 2012 historical drama that documents the propaganda surrounding the 1988 plebiscite in Chile. The opposition to Pinochet’s dictatorial regime had to call for a “No” vote from the mass media, evading the denunciation of systematic violations of rights human rights and crimes against humanity to focus on the future, on a promise of better times, on a catchy, optimistic jingle that repeated: “Chile, joy is coming.”
Adopting vintage cinematography reminiscent of the golden days of VHS, Larraín created an exceptional film displaying his best qualities as a filmmaker. Critics marveled at his extraordinary camera work and approach to long shots, while the immersive soundtrack interspersed with prodigious use of silences and intimate shots uncover the contradictions within his characters.
His next movies The Club (2015), Neruda (2016), Jackie (2016) and Ema (2019) consolidated his reputation as a top filmmaker with a worldwide influence beyond Latin America.
Sebastián Lelio (Chile)
Contemporary Chilean cinema has many great treasures. Two of them are directed by Sebastián Lelio: Gloria (2013) and A Fantastic Woman (2017).
Women are central figures in both films. Gloria follows the life of a 60-year-old divorcee who sets out to rediscover the enjoyment of life. A Fantastic Woman portrays a transsexual girl who must face up to the hate she’s receiving from her recently deceased boyfriend’s family in a society that does not guarantee her any rights.
Lelio masterfully captures these intimate stories with universal resonance, where performances from the cast stand out in particular thanks to his direction. While there are memorable scenes inherited from magical realism, this in no way upsets the documentary-like realism. Prejudices and complexities of Chilean society are laid bare without veering towards cliché. His output to date meets all the conditions of great works of art.
Kleber Mendonça Filho (Brazil)
You only have to think filmmakers like Walter Salles and his multi-award-winning film Central Station (1998) to realize Brazil needs its own top 10. But I thought I’d include a different Brazilian director who has made quite the impact in recent times: Kleber Mendonça Filho.
In his first feature film O Som ao Redor (Neighboring Sounds, 2012), Mendonça demonstrated the virtues of his style: an approach to the most intimate spaces of Recife’s middle-class families and the links with domestic and security workers, links eroded by social and racial inequalities.
The thriller Aquarius (2016) sees the return of the great Sônia Braga to Brazilian cinema, where the “monster” is the real estate industry. His most recent film, Bacurau (2019), takes terror to another level; it’s set in a post-apocalyptic story where people not only have to face up to apathy from the state, but also a group of North American psychopaths who “hunt” humans for sport.
With slow camera movements and hypnotic zooms, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s style is reminiscent of the golden age of cinema from the 1970s. There is a lot in common with the approaches taken by Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet in displaying the best virtues of the camera to depict a great story that uncovers the decadence of an entire society.
Claudia Llosa (Peru)
The Milk of Sorrow was one of those movies that everyone was talking about in 2009. Her scenes of violence and her portrait of motherhood, framed within the worst period of terrorism in Peru, stirred something inside many viewers – perhaps it was the need to see more stories from a female perspective.
I’m not just saying this because Claudia Llosa is the film’s director and scriptwriter (in an industry where greater gender equality is still needed), but because our region is troubled by violence and war, and the figures at the center of these stories tend to be men.
Her first feature film, Madeinusa (2006), Llosa had managed to capture the attention of the world, with a style that transcends – and transgresses – genres and conventions.
Damian Szifron (Argentina)
Argentina has given us many great filmmakers such as Juan José Campanella (The Secret in Their Eyes) and Luis Puenzo (The Official Story). Thinking back over the past two decades, Damián Szifron could certainly be classified as one of the big players in Latin American cinema.
Perhaps best known for creating and directing the cult series Los simuladores (2002-2004), Szifron has established himself as one of the best points of references in contemporary Argentine cinema. Whether it’s black comedy, social realism, or some grotesco criollo, his films provide, like the distinctive bitter pleasure of mate tea, an intriguing insight into Argentine culture.
Titles such as On Probation (2005) and Wild Tales (2014) are steadfast classics of Latin American cinema, with a style that varies between tense pauses and frenetic walks, perpetually witty dialogue, and the constant feeling of being near a bomb that’s about to explode. Argentina, defined.
This is by no means a definitive list that’s set in stone, but rather an introduction to some of the best-known names and films from contemporary Latin American cinema.
I hope you enjoyed reading the entry. What did you think? Who would you include on your list? Feel free to let me know!