Wednesday, March 31, 2010


On March 24, 2010, a select number of film critics and professionals met in New York (at the house of Judy Man, blogger - La Grande Enchilada) to record the first-ever TropiCast podcast. The group chose the Best Latin American Films of the Decade list as a topic. As you may know, the list was an initiative of DiazFilm and Cinema Tropical and it was picked up by numerous media outlets in the U.S. and abroad in late 2009. The topic sparked a terrific discussion - a must for anyone interested in current trends in Latin American cinema and in its burgeoning auteurs.

You can listen to the podcast here (in participant Rodrigo Brandão's blog, Latin Frame):

Photo: Lucrecia Martel (director - "La Ciénaga," which occupies the #1 spot on the list)

Here's a short video that captures part of the conversation...

Monday, March 22, 2010


The San Diego Latino Film Festival came to a close on Sunday after 11 crazy days of compulsive movie-going. I managed to watch 20 films in that span of time. That's what happens to me at festivals, I tend to go on a binge. A healthy binge, good for the mind and soul, but a binge nonetheless. Some films were like nice hors d'oeuvres - light and fluffy - others were disappointing dishes that left me half-full, while a select few were fully satisfying - a complete meal.

One of those complete meals was "Mi Vida con Carlos" ("My Life with Carlos") which rightfully won the Best Documentary Award. More on that exquisite film later. The Best Feature Film Award went to "Cuestión de Principios" ("A Matter of Principle"), from Argentina. I had high hopes for that film since I am an unabashed fan of Argentine romantic-comedies (plus, it features Norma Aleandro and Federico Luppi in the lead roles). I'm sorry to say that it was one of the films that left me half-full (more like half-empty, actually), and for the life of me I can't understand why the jury chose it over more deserving films like "Norteado" ("Northless") or "Los viajes del viento" ("The Wind Journeys").

The Audience Choice Awards went to "El Estudiante" ("The Student"), from Mexico, in the feature film category, and to "Sons of Cuba" in the documentary category.

The San Diego Latino Film Festival is a populist event. To satisfy its largely Mexican audience, the festival includes a large selection of Mexican films, some of which are mass-appeal pictures featuring telenovela stars. These films co-exist with more serious fare. Basically, there's something for everyone. I tend to gravitate to the more artsy stuff (why go to a film festival to consume the same crap you're fed at the multiplex?) so it was disappointing to learn, for example, that the fest screens documentaries only once, as opposed to narrative features which screen an average of 3 times. Still, the festival did include many noteworthy Latin American films I had been eager to see - among them some real gems.

The best film in the entire festival was previously unknown to me. "Mi vida con Carlos" is an elegantly crafted, heartbreaking, personal documentary about a man (director Germán Berger) who decides to confront the painful memories associated with his father's death. Carlos Berger was a resistance fighter who was tortured and murdered by Pinochet during the years of the military dictatorship. His death tore his family apart and they never truly spoke about what happened until they were brought together by Germán for this film. I'm not ashamed to say that I cried several times, partly because of the compelling subject matter and partly due to the sheer beauty of the filmmaking. Shot by Miguel Littin (who may or may not be the same Littin who directed "Dawson, Isla 10") on 35mm, the film is made up of perfectly composed vignettes profiling Carlos' two brothers, his wife (Germán's mother) and Germán himself. Through these vignettes we learn just how deeply everyone was affected by Carlos' death - and the fact that their lives were altered in drastically different ways. Despite the controlled filmmaking style, the director never manipulates the audience to make a point. Instead, he relies on truth and real, heartfelt emotion, which makes this film one of the most authentic and honest pieces of cinema I've ever seen.

Remarkably, the San Diego Latino Film Festival screening was the film's U.S. premiere, a fact that the organizers failed to advertise (the screening was 1/3 full). The producer also confessed that the Tribeca Film Festival had passed on the film, which is a travesty, in my humble opinion. Hopefully, the win in San Diego will help the film land in other domestic festivals since it really deserves to be seen.

The other big find of the fest (at least for me since this film has been making the festival rounds for some time) was "Beauty of the Fight," another doc. This rich, visually detailed portrait of two poor, forgotten barrios of Panama really got to me. John Urbano, a still photographer by trade, fell in love with the people of these two barrios and decided that he would document them as a way of preserving history. A melancholic tone permeates the film and you really get to see the place through his eyes (and learn to love the people as much as he does). I loved that Urbano told the story from his point of view, and did not pretend to be an insider. Even though he was using a video camera, he composed his shots like still images so the film plays like a fascinating picture book. It was definitely original and thought-provoking.

Other notable films from the fest include:

"Birdwatchers" - Powerful narrative film about the Guaraní Indians in Brazil. When some of their young commit suicide, the elders decide to move their tribe to their ancestral land which now happens to be occupied by wealthy farmers. Amazingly well acted by actual Guaranís.

"Los Viajes del Viento"/"The Wind Journeys"
- Breathtaking "road film" about an accordion player who believes his instrument is cursed and travels the country in order to return it to his owner. A bit slow (especially at the end) but stunning to look at.

- An unassuming little film that creeps up on you in a big way. It concerns a young man who is intent on crossing the border but keeps failing. In Tijuana, he befriends two women needy for companionship who make him think twice about his desire to cross. The film features minimal dialogue and the audience is asked to figure out the characters' back story and motivation, which I enjoyed doing.

"Entre Nos"
- Delicate, character-driven film about an immigrant mother who finds herself homeless in New York with two young children. An incredible tour-de-force by Paola Mendoza, who wrote, directed, and played her mother in this true story of her own family. Oh yeah, and this is her first film.

"Stages" - Documentary about inner-city youth and elderly Puerto Rican women who come together to create a play about their lives in New York's Lower East Side. The film was directed by a collective of 12 people yet it's surprisingly cohesive and effective.

A few duds:

"Io, Don Giovanni" - Everyone recommended this Carlos Saura period piece about opera lyricist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who helped Mozart write some of his best compositions. But I found it terribly stale and uninspired. The film was entirely filmed on soundstages and includes long opera sequences. Saura stages the film like a theater piece and no matter how many lighting tricks he uses, it ends up feeling way too theatrical. If I wanted to see an opera I would have gone to the theater, not the cinema.

"La Mission" - Derivative and stereotypical. Benjamin Bratt gives a fine performance but the script limits the range of his character for the sake of tragedic, moralistic ending.

"Cuestión de Principios"/"A Matter of Principle"
- Unoriginal and often unfunny lesson in ethics from former comic-book illustrator Fontanarrosa. Federico Luppi and Norma Aleandro are wasted in lifeless roles.

In other news, the film festival gave special tributes to director Leon Ichaso ("El Cantante") and actor Benjamin Bratt. I edited the reels that the festival played in their honor. Here they are for your viewing pleasure...


LEON ICHASO TRIBUTE REEL SDLFF 2010 from Mario Diaz on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


The Hollywood Reporter is, uh, reporting that the life story of civil-rights activist César Chavez has been optioned by the screenwriting team of Keir Pearson ("Hotel Rwanda") and Larry Meli (no credits listed on imdb). The pair has the backing of Gael García Bernal's Cananá Films and is unclear whether Gael will have a starring role in the as-yet-unwritten film.

I don't know what to make of this. Is it too much to ask for García Bernal and his team to hire Latino writers? Surely there are some good Latino writers out there. Maybe Pearson and Meli were in advanced negotiations and the only way to ensure that the film is made with at least some level of authenticity was for Cananá to come in at the last minute and offer backing. Who knows?

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Pearson is also writing a biopic about legendary Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente. Perhaps García Bernal got a hold of an early draft and deemed the writing good enough (i.e. true to Latino culture) to support the Chavez project. Again, who knows?

Since it seems like a done deal, I'll stop second-guessing the writers' ability for now. Pearson did get an Academy nomination for writing "Hotel Rwanda" so what do I know? For now, I'll busy myself with a less political query - who will play Chavez?

Here's my wish list. What are yours?

1. Octavio Gómez Berríos ("Choking Man")
2. Harold Torres ("Norteado"/"Northless")
3. Jacob Vargas ("Jarhead"/"Traffic")

Not that it matters since it will probably be someone bankable like Benicio del Toro. Maybe he's destined to play all of the Latin American icons of our time... Who knows?

Monday, March 8, 2010


In honor of Kathryn Bigalow's historic win on Oscar night, here's a reel of her work I edited last year for the Gotham Independent Film Awards, where she received a special tribute. "The Hurt Locker" is a fine film and I couldn't be happier for her. I had the pleasure of meeting her and she struck me as a highly intelligent, refined yet humble person. Hers was the first reel I edited last year and she accepted my first cut - no revisions. That automatically made me love her immensely.

One interesting tidbit: For three years in a row, the Gothams have presented Tributes to people who have go on to win Oscars. Coincidentally, I've been with the show three years but as much as I'd like to take credit for these stars' Oscar success the credit should go to Michelle Byrd, the Executive Director of the IFP (who sadly left the organization last year) who has an uncanny gift for predicting Academy Award winners. They are:

2008 - Javier Bardem (Best Supporting Actor - "No Country For Old Men")
2009 - Penélope Cruz (Best Supporting Actress - "Vicky Cristina Barcelona")
2010 - Kathryn Bigelow (Best Director, Best Picture - "The Hurt Locker")



Monday, March 1, 2010


Things have definitely picked up (re: Latin American cinema) since my last post and now I'm playing catch-up. Sundance, Rotterdam, and Berlin came and went, the Oscar nominations were announced, and a few good Latino Film Fests are gearing up to start soon, including the San Diego Latino Film Festival, where this year I'll be a juror for the documentary competition and moderating some of the post-screening Q&A's. So here are a few of my thoughts about the many goings-on.

At Sundance, Latin American films won big. The winners include:

Bolivia's Distrito Sur/Southern District (Directing and Screenwriting awards - Dramatic World Cinema category)
Peru's Contracorriente/Undertow (Audience Award - Dramatic World Cinema category)
Brazil's Waste Land (Audience Award - Documentary World Cinema category)
Argentina's El hombre de al lado/The Man Next Door (Cinematography Award - Dramatic World Cinema category)

Of those, I have only seen "Contracorriente," which is essentially a gay version of "Ghost" set in a conservative coastal town. Thankfully, there's no Whoopi Goldberg character providing comic relief and the theme of intolerance is nicely explored. The film didn't blow me away but I would definitely recommend it for its beautiful photography and competent script. It's great that it received the audience award at Sundance despite its subject matter, disproving the notion that gay-themed films only appeal to a small section of moviegoers. And I also love the fact that the film manages to turn a Hollywood-worthy, supernatural premise (a la "Ghost") and turn it into a film with great substance. Once again, Latin American cinema outdoes Hollywood.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this year Amat Escalante, the maverick Mexican director, was the recipient of the prestigious Sundance/NHK Award, given to outstanding filmmakers from Europe, Latin America, the U.S. and Japan. The prize also provides finishing funds for their upcoming projects. Amat is currently working on his third feature, "Heli."

When the Oscar nominations were announced in late January only two Latin American films made it into the list of five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film: Peru's "La teta asustada" ("The Milk of Sorrow"), and Argentina's "El secreto de sus ojos" ("The secret of their eyes"). I suppose we should be grateful since there were 65 countries vying for a spot, but still "Los viajes del viento" ("The Wind Journeys") and "Zona Sur" were equally deserving. But my major gripe is with the nominating committees of the individual countries. I still can't get over the fact that Chile didn't nominate "La nana" ("The Maid") and that Argentina opted for the by-the-numbers thriller "El secreto de sus ojos" rather than the daring "La mujer sin cabeza" ("The Headless Woman"). These last two films are on my top-ten list of 2009.

The Rotterdam Film Festival is increasingly becoming a hot-bed for Latin American cinema. I know of several Latino Film Festival programmers who now attend Rotterdam (in addition to more well-known stops like Havana and San Sebastian) every year in search of good titles. This year, Rotterdam didn't disappoint in terms of exciting Latin American fare. THE VPRO Tiger Award (top prize) was split between three winners:

Paz Fabrega's "Agua fría de mar"
("Cold Water of the Sea"), a Costa Rica, France, Spain, Netherlands, and Mexico co-production.
Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio's “Alamar” (“To the Sea”), from Mexico
Anocha Suwichakornpong's “Jao nok krajok” (“Mundane History”), from Thailand

I just got a screener for "Alamar" so I'll be posting a review soon. The film has garnered a number of awards (including San Sebastian) and rumor has it that it has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Film Movement.

On to the Berlinale... Latin American films won the top prize ("Tropa de Elite" in 2008 and "La teta asustada" in 2009) but I'm sorry to say that the streak came to an end this year when the top prize (the Golden Bear) was awarded to Semih Kaplanoglu's "Bal," from Turkey. Nevertheless, there were some Latin American winners in the sidebar categories. Oscar Ruíz Navia's "Los vuelcos del cangrejo" ("Crab Trap"), from Colombia, took home the Film Critics' Prize and Lucy Walker's Brazilian documentary "Waste Land" won the Audience Award in the Panorama section.

Also, one of the highlights of this year's reportedly lukewarm festival was the premiere of the film "Revolución" ("Revolution"), a collection of short films celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Mexican revolution. An ambitious undertaking, the producers managed to wrangle some of the best Mexican filmmakers working today, including Fernando Embcke ("Lake Tahoe"), Carlos Reygadas ("Silent Light"), Rodrigo García ("Things You Can Tell By Just Looking at Her"), Patricia Riggen ("Under the Same Moon"), and Gael García Bernal ("Déficit"). Indiewire recently published a great article about the film.

Finally, the lineups for the Guadalajara Film Festival, the Chicago Latino Film Festival and the San Diego Film Festival have been announced. Click on the hyperlink for each one to see the complete list of films, descriptions, schedule, etc.

I'm well-acquainted with the San Diego lineup, so if you're in the area and you're having trouble deciding what to watch here are some recommendations: "Birdwatchers" (Brazil), "Cinco días sin Nora" (Mexico), "Gigante" (Urugüay), "La Mission" (U.S.), "Música en Espera" (Argentina), "Norteado" (Mexico), "El Regalo de la Pachamama" (Bolivia), "Los viajes del viento" (Colombia). I'm not going to talk about the documentaries because I'm a juror and I can't very well publicize my picks before the awards are announced.

Thanks for reading and I'll leave you with this promo I made for the San Diego Latino Film Festival. It will play before every screening...

SDLFF 2010 PROMO from Mario J Diaz on Vimeo.