Monday, October 19, 2009


The 2009 Gotham Independent Film Awards nominations are out. Sebastian Silva's "The Maid" received a Best Feature nod as well as a Breakthrough Actor nod for Catalina Saavedra. Cruz Angeles was nominated in the Breakthrough Director category for "Don't Let Me Drown" and the cast of "Sugar" scored (pardon the pun) a nomination in the Best Ensemble Cast category.

I'm particularly overjoyed that the jury has recognized "The Maid," an unusual choice considering it is a foreign film for all intents and purposes (it qualifies here because Silva is a U.S. resident). As I've said many times before in this blog, "The Maid" is simply great and since it is a small film with limited marketing funds it needs all the recognition and visibility it can get.

Strange that Sebastian Silva didn't get nominated for Breakthrough Director. It may have something to do with the fact that there are different jury pools for various categories.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Sebastian Silva's masterful "La nana" ("The Maid") opens today at the Angelika in NY. I saw this film back in April in Argentina and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. There are two main reasons why this film is so hard to forget. The first one is Catalina Saavedra's fierce and fearless performance. An accomplished actress in Chile, she first rejected the role because she was tired of being typecast after having played so many maids in her career. She eventually came around and, perhaps to get even, created THE most complex and heartbreaking portrait of a maid in the history of cinema. I'm not exaggerating when I say that her bravura performance is akin to Robert DeNiro's Jake LaMotta, full of outward anger but concealing a deep self-hatred.

The second reason this film is memorable to me is because of the sense of discovery I felt while watching it. I knew I was watching a true artist, someone with complete control of the medium. The storytelling mastery Sebastian Silva displays in this, only his second film, is astonishing. He was able to construct a compelling narrative that is (1) a study of class structure and social injustice in Chile, (2) an intriguing character study of someone who is deeply unhappy and potentially driven to violence, and (3) a story of friendship and renewal. Despite all these elements, the film is never far from plausible, admirably maintaining a naturalistic style throughout. I see great things happening to Sebastian Silva, both in the short and long run.

I wish I could write a complete review but work is keeping me busy. I just wanted to let you know that "The Maid" is not to be missed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Cinema Tropical continues to bring quality Latin American cinema to the Big Apple. In addition to doing a bang-up job promoting "Crude" and "La nana" ("The Maid") - the latter opens, coincidentally, on October 16th at the Angelika - Carlos Gutierrez (co-founder of Cinema Tropical) has now put together a showcase of current Uruguayan films under the banner "Go Uruguay!" It unspools at BAM October 16-18 and it includes the NY premiere of Adrian Beniez's lauded "Gigante" ("Giant"), as well as many other titles worth checking out.

Uruguayan cinema seems to always be under the shadow cast by its more popular and prolific neighbor Argentina. Every time a Uruguayan film gets some attention it feels like a one-off, a curious novelty item from a country no one bothers to think about much. But the truth is that Uruguay has been steadily carving out a unique cinematic identity and making films that have become hugely influential.

What makes Go Uruguay! so interesting and timely is that is has been designed as both a showcase of new works and a retrospective of roughly the last ten years in Uruguayan cinema. So depending on your previous exposure to Uruguayan films, you can either experience these treasures for the first time or use the opportunity to watch them again with fresh eyes and evaluate their merit. Perhaps you will agree with me that Uruguayan cinema deserves more recognition than it usually gets.

Arguably the most important film of the showcase is also the oldest. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's "25 Watts" enjoyed international success when it was released in 2001, but over time it has become the Latin American equivalent of Richard Linklater's "Slacker." I'm no film historian but in my mind "25 Watts" is the precursor of films like "Temporada de Patos" ("Duck Season"), "Lake Tahoe," and "Gasolina." Since its release, Latin American directors have not only tried to emulate its minimalist style (made for pennies, BTW), they also became more experimental, defying the formality that characterized Latin American cinema at the time. Suddenly, new possibilities arose. You could now make an entire film about three guys sitting on a curb, shooting the shit on a Saturday. Or a meticulous character study about a quiet sock-factory owner who secretly pines for his sole employee. That's exactly what Rebella and Stoll did with their sophomore effort, "Whisky:"

"Whisky" is my favorite of the bunch. It's quiet and slow, but beautifully acted and directed with wonderful restraint and empathy for the main character (it's also in color, muted browns mostly). It inspired a slew of similar films like the recent "Parque Via" and "Gigante," which share the same dark humor. The directors built upon the promise of "25 Watts" and delivered a meditative gem that strikes a perfect balance between form and content. It's visually very controlled but also puts the main character front and center and makes you empathize with him in a deep way. Too bad that Juan Pablo Rebella passed away. I really believe these two would have had an amazing career together (Pablo Stoll is still making films - his latest "Hiroshima" was recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival).

A hit at Berlin and San Sebastian (where it received various awards), "Gigante," is a recent production that follows in the tradition of "Whisky's" minimalism. It tells the tale of a night-shift security guard at a large supermarket who falls for one of the female nighttime cleaners while watching her every move through his black and white surveillance monitor. He's a burly, "giant" of a man but the twist here is that he has the soul of a child. The movie ends at the moment where most romances begin and I have to say that I don't know if it's enough of a payoff. Still, there are wonderful moments throughout - especially a scene where the security guard ends up having a bite at a restaurant with a nerdy guy his love interest had a date with hours before. Another interesting characteristic is that the film is shot as though we're looking at this guy's life on a surveillance monitor - all long shots, from a distance, where behavior is the main focus and dialogue is almost unnecessary.

I've seen two more films on the list, "La perrera" ("The Dog Pound") and "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains." "La perrera" is another darkly comic film about a lazy college student who is forced by his father to build a small house in his property in an ettempt to teach him the value of hard work. In need of a bit of smart editing (I found it overlong), the film picks up in the second half when some of the odd residents of the coastal town begin to help him and turn the new house into a type of hang-out club. One even moves into the house with him.

I watched "Stranded" during a limited run at Film Forum exactly a year ago. I was already familiar with the story of the 1972 Uruguayan rugby team that resorted to cannibalism to stay alive in the Andes after its plane crashed there, but this documentary is so packed with interesting details (told by the survivors themselves) that I was completely absorbed and many things came as a surprise to me. Director Gonzalo Arijón only had a few actual pictures of the survivors during their ordeal, so he relies mostly on reenactments, but they're tastefully done and is able to sustain suspense throughout (much like "Man on Wire").

Rounding up the list are "El baño del Papa" ("The Pope's Toilet") and "Matar a todos" ("Kill Them All"). The only thing I know about "El baño del Papa" is that it was the film Uruguay nominated for the 2007 Foreign Language Film Academy Award. I never heard of "Matar a todos" before but it features Roxanna Blanco, the lead actress in "Alma mater," which would have fit perfectly in this sampling of fine yet unassuming assortment of art films from that country down in God-knows-where.

Here's the complete list of films:

Gigante - dir. Adrián Beniez, Friday 7pm
25 Watts - dir. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, Saturday 4:30pm
La perrera - dir. Manuel Nieto Zas, Saturday 6:50pm
El baño del Papa - dir. César Charlone and Enrique Fernández, Saturday 9:15pm
Stranded: I've Come From a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains - dir. Gonzalo Arijón, Sunday 4pm
Whisky - dir. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, Sunday 6:15pm
Matar a todos - dir. Esteban Schroeder, Sunday 9:15pm

Uruguayan producer/editor Fernando Epstein (who worked with Rebella and Stoll, and is a prolific producer of films both in Uruguay and Argentina) will be in attendance at some of the screenings to answer questions from the audience.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Latinos Triumph at the Woodstock FF

Cruz Angeles' "Don't Let Me Drown" took home the top prize for Narrative Feature at the 2009 edition of the Woodstock Film Festival. The tale of two Latino teens who fall in love in the aftermath of 9/11, "Drown" received positive reviews and word-of-mouth at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. Even though it didn't win any awards in Park City, the film went on to win the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in May. However, it remains without a distributor.

In addition to the top prize, "Drown" also received the James Lyons Award for Best Editing of a Feature Narrative at Woodstock. Andrew Hafitz is the film's editor.

In what was clearly a great festival for Latino filmmakers, Juan Carlos Rulfo received the Haskell Wexler Award for Best Cinematography for "Los que se quedan" (“Those Who Remain”), a film he also co-directed.

For a complete list of winners and more information about this year's Woodstock Film Festival, click here.

Oscar Submissions From Latin America (and Spain)

As promised, here's the list of films submitted by Latin American countries to the 2010 Academy Awards' Foreign Language Film category. Even though the deadline for submissions was October 1st, the Academy of Motion Pictures has yet to release a final list. Without the official list, it's still hard to ascertain whether Puerto Rico will participate this year, or opt out like it did last year. The complete absence of competitive films by Puerto Rico in the festival circuit this year leads me to believe that they will once again choose to stay out of the competition. So sad for my home country.

Turning our attention to the films on the list, I cannot get over the fact that Chile did not nominate "La nana" ("The Maid"). After winning the World Competition at Sundance and garnering honors at worldwide fests throughout the year, it was the obvious choice. But no, Chile chose "Dawson, Isla 10" ("Dawson, Island 10"), the true story of political dissents who were sent to a tiny island in the Atlantic and endured hellish conditions 35 ago. I haven't seen it, but it strikes me as Chile choosing convention over quality. "La nana" is one of the most original, beautifully directed and acted films I've seen this year and I just can't imagine "Dawson" can be as good. By the way, "La nana" opens in the U.S. on October 16th. I'll be publishing a review around that time. And without further ado, here's the list:

Argentina - EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS (THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES), directed by Juan José Campanella

Bolivia - ZONA SUR (SOUTHERN ZONE), directed by Juan Carlos Valdivia

Brazil - SALVE GERAL, directed by Sergio Rezende

Chile - DAWSON, ISLA 10 (DAWSON, ISLAND 10), directed by Miguel Littín

Colombia - LOS VIAJES DEL VIENTO (THE WIND JOURNEYS), directed by Ciro Guerra

Mexico - EL TRASPATIO (BACKYARD), directed by Sabina Berman

Peru - LA TETA ASUSTADA (THE MILK OF SORROW), directed by Claudia Llosa

Spain - EL BAILE DE LA VICTORIA (THE DANCER AND THE THIEF), directed by Fernando Trueba

Uruguay - MAL DIA PARA PESCAR (BAD DAY TO GO FISHING), directed by Alvaro Brechner

Venezuela - LIBERTADOR MORALES, EL JUSTICIERO, directed by Efterpi Charalambidis

The last Latin American (or Spanish) film nominated in the Foreign Film Category was "El Laberinto del Fauno" ("Pan's Labyrinth") in 2007. Mexico's entry did not take home the award that year. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that without "La nana" on the list, it will be hard for Latin America to get a nod this year. The film that has the best chance, in my opinion, is "La teta asustada." It's the kind of well-made, politically correct film the Academy likes to reward but it might prove to be too sober and low key for them - they often choose bigger, heartfelt dramas like last year's "Departures."

One curious parting note... Taiwan nominated a film with a Spanish title: "No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti" ("I Can't Live Without You"), directed by Leon Dai. It's a black and white film set entirely in Taiwan and concerns a man who struggles to raise his child as a single parent. None of the articles or reviews I read explained the origin of the title.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gigante" wins Horizonte Award at San Sebastian

Slightly belated news from the San Sebastian film festival. Adrian Biniez's "Gigante" ("Giant") took home the coveted Horizontes Award, which includes 35,000 euros. Israel Adrian Caetano's "Francia" received a special mention from the jury (and presumably, no money).

Earlier this year, "Gigante" won the Grand Jury Prize Silver Bear, Best First Feature Film and the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin Int’l Film Festival. At San Sebastian, it beat a pretty strong roster that included Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre," Alejandro Fernández Almendras' "Huacho," and Ciro Guerra's "Los Viajes del Viento." You can see the complete lineup here. And for more information on the winners of other categories, click here.

Next up for "Gigante" is the opening night slot at the Go Uruguay! film cycle at the BAMcinématek, October 16-18