2013: Latin American Cinema in Review



2013 was an outstanding year for Mexican cinema. Not only one, but two local films, broke all-time records at the box office; a Mexican filmmaker won the prize for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival (the second consecutive win for the country); national cinema garnered over 70 prizes in international film festivals; and Mexican talent confirmed its star role in Hollywood.

In May of 2013, filmmaker Amat Escalante was awarded the prize for Best Director at Cannes for his third feature film Heli, repeating Carlos Reygadas’ feat the previous year. The powerful film, a portrait of a working class family whose lives are altered by a tragic encounter with narcos and its consequences, was awarded by the jury headed by Steven Spielberg. Escalante's film also went to win the top prizes at other international film festivals including Havana, Lima and Montreal.

In March, a sleeper film broke all records at the local box office. The comedy Nosotros los Nobles / We the Nobles, the directorial debut by Gaz Alazraki, became the top grossing Mexican film of all time, earning $26 million. Yet the record was short-lived, as few months later, another comedy Instructions Not Included / No se aceptan devoluciones directed by and starring comedian Eugenio Derbez surpassed that milestone. Between both films plus some other additional homegrown releases, 2013 was an unprecedented year for the Mexican box office.

Mexico also saw over 70 prizes at numerous international film festivals. Spanish-born Diego Quemada Diez’s debut feature, La jaula de oro / The Golden Dream, was the most awarded Mexican film of the year, wining prizes at Cannes, Thessaloniki, Chicago, Havana, Mar del Plata and Morelia, among other film festivals. Other notable honors included the prize for Best Director for Fernando Eimbcke (Club Sándwich) at the San Sebastian Film Festival and the Youth Jury Best Picture award for Claudia Sainte-Luce's Los insólitos peces gato / The Amazing Catfish.

In Hollywood, Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón (working with his longtime fellow countryman cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his son Jonás) and Guillermo del Toro solidified their status as leading directors. Cuarón’s Gravity became one of the most celebrated films of the year, while del Toro’s sci-fi blockbuster Pacific Rim was an international hit.



2013 was the year of Gloria. Sebastián Lelio's fourth feature film became an international hit and was one of the region's favorite film of the year confirming the accomplishment of recent Chilean cinema. The wonderful character study with a great performance by actress Paulina García is an uplifting tale of a divorcee looking for love in the wrong places.

The film premiered to great critical and audience acclaim at the 63rd edition of the Berlinale where García won the Silver Bear Award for Best Actress. The film successfully traveled the film festival circuit including Telluride, Toronto, Locarno, and New York, and had a popular theatrical run in Chile.

Unfortunately and despite of being a top contender, the film failed to be shortlisted in the Academy Awards Foreign Language Film category. Yet the film will open in a few days in U.S. theaters released by Roadside Attractions, and Gloria will very likely conquer American audiences with her irresistible charm.



This past year Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez made headlines as he broke all-time box office records both in Mexico and the United States with his directorial debut Instructions Not Included / No se aceptan devoluciones. The film became the top grossing Spanish-language ever in the U.S. with $44.7 million surpassing previous record-holder Pan's Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro, it was also the top grossing foreign-language film of the year in the country, and the highest grossing indie film of 2013 in the U.S.

South of the border, the film became the highest grossing Mexican film of all-time earning a whopping $46.10 million at the local box office and attracting over 14 million spectators. Derbez was able to create a product that worked on both sides of the border and he exorcised once and for all the spell of the Latino audience at the U.S. box office, instantly making him a key player in the entertainment industry.



After seven years of his previous film, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón premiered his most recent -and most ambitious project to date, the science-fiction thriller film Gravity. Since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the film received extraordinary reviews: "An overwhelming physical experience" (David Denby, The New Yorker), "one of the most stunning visual treats of the year and one of the most unforgettable thrill rides in recent memory" (Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times), "[it] rewrites the rules of cinema as we have known them" (A.O. Scott, The New York Times).

Cuarón’s seventh feature film was featured in many best of the year lists, including Time Magazine which named the film as the best of 2013 (film critic Richard Corliss described Cuarón as a movie visionary of the highest order). The film offers such vivid and realistic special effects that –in one of the year’s silliest faux pas, a reporter asked the director how was the experience of shooting in outer space (to which Cuarón responded: "I did get very dizzy in the training").

One of the biggest achievements of the film –aside from its masterful technical accomplishments, was the combination of international critical acclaim and blockbuster box office success (the film has grossed $255.6 million domestically and $407.8 million internationally): "that rarest of breeds: the intellectual blockbuster” called it Chicago Reader's Ben Sachs.

Gravity is a top contender for this year's Academy Awards. One can only hope Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki not only gets nominated for his work on the film, but that he wins his well-deserved Oscar after having been nominated in five previous occasions.

Latinos Conquer U.S. Box Office

In total, three Hollywood movies directed by Latin American filmmakers debuted at the number one spot in the U.S. box office: Mama by Argentinean director Andrés Muschietti and produced by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, Evil Dead by Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez, and Cuarón’s Gravity.

Mama made $28.4 million in its opening weekend (January 18), and grossed $71.62 million. Evil Dead, the fourth installment of the horror films franchise, made $25.77 million in its opening weekend (April 5), totaling $54.23 million. At $55.8 million, Gravity set a new record as the highest opening weekend record for the month of October and it was also the highest start ever for starts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Mexican director del Toro had a decent box office performance with his sci-fi blockbuster film Pacific Rim, and with the positive successful international sales of the film, the franchise of the movie was guaranteed. All these films, plus the records broken by Derbez in the American box office, confirmed the bankability of the Latin American directors in the U.S.



After a 20 year hiatus Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) returned to filmmaking with his film La danza de la realidad / The Dance of Reality which had its world premiere at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight section last May.

Based on his autobiography novel of the same name, in The Dance of Reality Jodorowsky returns to his childhood town of Tocopilla in Chile. Peter Bradshaw writing for the British newspaper The Guardian called the film "an arresting spectacle (...) a triumphant return, which mixes autobiography, politics, torture and fantasy to exuberant, moving effect."

In addition to the world premiere of his newest film, Directors' Fortnight will also showcased the documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune by Franck Pavich, which chronicles the failed attempt by the Chilean director to shoot Herbert's novel.

Are U.S. Latino Film Festivals an Endangered Species?

In last year’s review we included an entry asking about the viability of Latino Film Festivals in the U.S. as the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) cancelled its 16th edition and other Latino festivals suffered major drawbacks.

Yet this year we pose the same question, as the big and sad news of 2013 was the disappearance of the New York International Latino Film Festival (NYILFF). After 13 editions, the organizers of the festival decided to pull the plug. Founded in 2000 by Calixto Chinchilla, who remained its co-director along with Elizabeth Gardner, the festival had become one of the most important events for Latino filmmakers in the United States.

At the same time that Latino film festivals are facing difficulties to operate, we’re seeing the emergence of specific national cinema festivals. In New York City alone, there’s a Peruvian, a Ecuadorian, and a Brazilian film festival, plus 2013 saw the creation of a Colombian and two Venezuelan film festivals. In Los Angeles, in addition to the Hollywood Brazilian, Argentina New Cinema, and Hola Mexico film festivals, the Guadalajara Film Festival has created FICG in LA, and Ambulante, the traveling documentary film festival created by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, has announced plans to create a version of the festival in California in the fall of 2014.

The landscape for film festivals is not that promising, as Robert Koehler points out in a recently indieWIRE article, four out of ten festivals in the U.S. fail to make it past their first year.

Best of the Rest

Other 2013 highlights include the World Cinema Directing Award for Chilean director Sebastián Silva at the Sundance Film Festival for his film Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus starring American actors Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffmann.

Venezuelan film Pelo malo / Bad Hair by Mariana Rondón won the Golden Shell for Best Film at the 61st edition of the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. Rondón's third feature film made history as the first Venezuelan film to ever win the Spanish festival, and it was the sixth Latin American film to win the Golden Shell prize.

Peru saw the record-breaking comedy ¡Asu Mare! by Ricardo Maldonado. Written and starring comedian Carlos Alcántara aka "Cachín", the film is an adaptation of Alcántara's stand-up comedy show by the same name. Since its premiered on April 11, the film broke several all-time local records including the biggest opening day ever (with over 150,000 spectators in 255 screens), the fastest film ever to sell one million tickets in the shortest amount of time, and the all-time grossing Peruvian film ever with $11.8 million at the box office.

The Valdivia Film Festival in Chile celebrated its 20th anniversary with a special poll of the best Latin American films of the two past decades in which Uruguayan film Whisky by Pablo Stoll and the late Juan Pablo Rebella topped the list.

Other notable theatrical releases in the U.S. included Matías Piñeiro’s Viola and Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, both which were selected in some best of the year lists.