Top 10 Spanish language films

Looking to give some world cinema a try? Nick Horton picks out 10 Spanish language movies to put on your to-watch list...

Within the last 20 years, one of the most influential and incendiary World Cinemas must surely be Latin and Spanish Cinema. They evoke images of passion, colour, and a visual veracity all of their own.

While separated by continents, the two cinemas are interlinked by a shared language, history and culture, while collaborations such as between Chilean director Alejandro Amenabár and Spanish stars Eduardo Noriega and Penelope Cruz have cemented this bond.

The cinemas share a sense of the grittiness of the so called ‘Third Cinema’, but both service this truth with a beauty and melodrama which seems to be as much a part of their day to day life as it is their art. And not to be forgotten is the superlative horror which has emerged from both sides of the Pacific, which while sharing all of the traits of its more realistic siblings, adds a layer of Catholic complexity which, again, is interwoven into the fabric of Spanish and Latin life.

The below list is just a taste of what Spanish language cinema has to offer, and ranges from the justifiably well known to films that have inspired others, and those that stand out as pure examples of their craft. While focusing on the more recent, Almodovar-inspired wave of filmmakers, it would be a disservice to ignore the decades of local film tradition from the many countries which contribute to this most vital of world cinemas.

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The list also, unfortunately, ignores the embarrassment of riches that is Brazilian cinema. After all, it’s a whole other language in that country…!

10. The Orphanage/El Orfanato Director: Juan Antonio Bayona

A contender for best horror film of the last decade, The Orphanage is also one of two films on this list that feature Guillermo del Toro and ghostly children. It tells the story of an old orphanage, and a child’s mysterious invisible friend. However, this horror offers a realistic examination of a parent’s grief behind the scares, and it is this psychological torment which lasts long after the ending credits. When the pieces fall into place about the truth of Simón’s disappearance, it is a hard heart, indeed, which doesn’t cry out in anguish.

The Orphanage marries the best of horror and melodrama into one fulfilling package, and the careful direction and splendidly atmospheric use of the central location mark Bayona as a new Spanish talent, albeit shepherded by one of Mexico’s established ones. And on a final note, creepy children in masks? Guaranteed to frighten anyone.

9. Like Water For Chocolate/Como Agua Para Chocolate Director: Alsonso Arau

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Based on the 1989 novel of the same name, Like Water For Chocolate takes on several themes central to Latin culture, such as family duty, revolution, passionate love, and binds it with the twin Latin staples of seasonal cooking and Magical Realism. It is the story of Tita, who, when forced to look after her sick mother rather than be with her true love Pedro, infuses dishes with her emotions, and unwittingly shares them with all who taste her food.

So often a literary and artistic device, magical realism is finally set loose to weave a sensuous tale about a family’s life, while all the while freedom remains both the internal and external goal – freedom for Tita and Pedro to love, and freedom for Mexico, as the film is set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution. At once a masterful adaptation of a justifiably lauded novel, and a visual and thematic delight all of its own, Like Water For Chocolate is essential to understanding the psychology of a people.

8. Vacas Director: Julio Medem

While a sweeping generational story of Basque family rivalries set against the intricacies of regional Spanish history wouldn’t be many people’s first choice for entertainment, Vacas is more than deserving of its place here. Medem’s debut feature is a sumptuous and compelling examination of an overlooked period which lies at the heart of Spain’s modern dichotomy.

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While on the surface it is a classic family relationship narrative, with all that entails, it is also an exploration of Basque nationality. There is a sense of genuine familiarity with the families, and a real sense of understanding and compassion for their struggle. Featuring evocative imagery and both epic panoramas and intimate details, Vacas is not the most easygoing film for viewers unfamiliar with Basque history and culture, but one that envelopes the senses, informs and rewards.

7. Timecrimes/Los Cronocrímenes Director: Nacho Vigalondo

Proof that Spanish cinema can do genre features just as well as, if not better than anyone else, Vigalondo’s debut feature is a tightly plotted time travel misadventure which marks him as a talent to watch, and actually, as much of these things can, makes logical sense.

Infusing a sense of impending dread and terror into the mundane life of Hector, Timecrimes is part sci-fi, part horror, and with a dash of redemptive love thrown in as well.

Added to this is a whole host of striking images, including those of a mysterious bandaged man, and a tightly plotted script which rattles along, posing as many questions as it answers, but ultimately satisfying the viewer.

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6. Open Your Eyes/Abre Los Ojos Director: Alejandro Amenabár

If you have ever had the misfortune to see Vanilla Sky instead of this, please don’t be put off. Despite the latter film at times being an almost shot-for-shot remake, it lacks all of Abre Los Ojos’ sophistication and style. Originating the Tom Cruise role, Eduardo Noriega completely sells the part of a man whose apparently perfect life becomes a baffling nightmare, but whose crippling sadness may just hold the key to unlocking everything. Penelope Cruz also puts in a far more subtle and appealing performance in this earlier attempt at the same role, once again confirming this as a superior work.

However, it is the ending that truly sets this film apart from its progeny. While one is the result of a glitch in the machine, the other is the result of a man’s twisted subconscious, clearly highlighting the culture difference. With comparisons to Hitchcock abounding, Abres Los Ojos strengthened Amenabár’s reputation to such an extent that Hollywood inevitably came calling, and the director became yet another of the Spanish/Latin influx to L.A.

5. All About My Mother/Todo Sobre Mi Madre Director: Pedro Almodovar

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Almodovar has rightly been named the auteur of a free Spain, and directing since the early 80shis catalogue of films requires a list all of their own. All About My Mother is arguably the highest point in his long career, and his influence ranges from new wave Spanish cinema to the influx of Latin directors into Hollywood.

Featuring many of his classic themes, All About My Mother follows the journey of Manuela, who, after the loss of her son, undertakes a journey to find his father and develops various rich relationships along the way. With a storyline not out of place in a soap opera, Almodovar’s famed referencing of classic Sirkian melodrama balances his sensational story with huge sympathy and sincerity towards his female characters. Dedicated ‘to all the actresses who have played actresses’ Almodovar’s All About My Mother is a wonderful celebration of a mother’s strength and dedication.

4. The Devil’s Backbone/El Espinazo Del Diablo Director: Guillermo del Toro

It’s not the obvious del Toro choice, but it is this earlier effort by one of the film world’s brightest stars that sets out his personal manifesto, so exquisitely brought to fruition in Pan’s Labyrinth. Spanish war setting? Check. Creepy goings on with children? Check. Beautifully evocative fantasy imagery? Check, and check again. Working on the premise that more is more, this tale of a ghostly boy haunting a remote boarding school during the Spanish Civil War acts as both a political examination of Spain’s inner turmoil and an everyday story of school struggle.

Characters such as Jamie the school bully and Jacinto the janitor are multilayered and compelling, while Carlos and Dr Caesares offer us two heroic leads which guide us through the story, which is part horror, part drama and part coming of age tale. As the war closes in on the children, del Toro masterfully shows us it is not just the phantasmagorical that we should be scared of.

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3. Love’s A Bitch/Amores Perros Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Three interwoven tales of love are the catalyst for this exploration of life in an urban environment, and how passion in all its forms can have disastrous consequences for all involved, yet ultimately redeem. Perhaps the film that most people associate with Latin cinema’s recent international acclaim, it is a sometimes complex work with very basic emotions – a bit like life then. Octavio is poor and in love with his brothers wife. Daniel longs to leave his family and marriage for something more superficial, and finally, El Chivo tries to bridge his alienation from a love long abandoned.

Each piece of a separate story lead us to a deeper understanding of the others, despite their limited overlap, and recurring motifs such as the dogs representing each of the characters adds a deeper layer to the narrative. Much like the central crash of the film, it is impossible to leave Amores Perros without feeling dazed and shaken by it.

2. The Holy Girl/La Nina Santa Director: Lucrecia Martel

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With Martel leading a recent renaissance in Argentinean filmmaking, it would be remiss to exclude her in a list of this type. Especially as her mentor Pedro Almodovar rates her as one of his favourite directors. This, her sophomore effort, is a twist on the Lolita tale, with a young girl, Amalia, believing that God has sent her a sign in the form of middle-aged Dr Janos, who co-incidentally has a weakness for younger girls.

The film is consumed with religious fervour, expectation and burgeoning passions. Told in a somewhat disorientating fashion consisting of movement and close-ups, the film nevertheless gets under the skin of a local community, serving up truths but never judgements, characters but not caricatures, and ultimately challenging the viewer to interpret events as they unfold. 

1. And Your Mother Too/Y Tu Mamá También Director: Alfonso Cuaron

For me, Y Tu Mamá También is simply the Spanish language film of recent years. It ignited Spanish Language cinema for a whole new audience, and at the same time launched Latin superstars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. A riotous collision of youth, colour, culture, and history, the film takes in the genres of road-trip, coming-of-age and love story, excelling at each yet also attaining more than the sum of its parts.

It is the tale of two friends seeking that last high together before life moves on, and taking one woman with them who is also seeking the same thing, after a fashion.

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Along the way, we are given a tour and insight into Mexican culture, which encompasses not just the poverty and grittiness so often shown, but also the joys and beauty inherent too. It is to its credit that one complements the other so effectively, and despite its somewhat downbeat coda, remains a truly life affirming work.