2016 Film Essays

Chilean Cinema 2015: We Are What We Are by Jaime Grijalba


Who cares about Chilean Cinema? I surely do. I mean, I’ve been trying to make a name of myself around these parts for having the definitive approach and opinion on every audiovisual work that comes out of my home country. I’ve spoken before about the complex moment in which we live right now: the world loves us, and people are seeing more Chilean movies than ever, but the quality and the ways in which they are being distributed are far from ideal.

To put this to the test, and as a way of showing you the actual state and the diversity of films that are being made in Chile, I decided to rank all of the Chilean films that were released theatrically last year in my country. There were 48 releases that ranged from wide, multiplex releases to one-screen, one-week wonders. I made it my duty to watch everything, but I still managed to miss one film (one out of 48 isn’t bad though).

From advocacy documentaries to broad comedies, from masterful directors doing their best authorial work to new filmmakers that are making the most exciting movies of the year, from films that shouldn’t exist to movies that denounce the corrupt state of concepts like Chilewood — you don’t need to know the films, nor the names, you can just jump right on this rollercoaster, it’s a wild ride:

47. The Stranger (2014, Guillermo Amoedo)

This English-spoken horror/thriller is an endeavor produced under the overseeing eye of Chilewood. Filmed in Chile (not that you’d notice), with Chilean actors speaking English (yeah, you can notice that), it’s not only the worst “Chilean” film released in 2015, it’s the worst film released this year, period.

46. Huemul, la sombra de una especie (Huemul, the Shadow of a Species) (2014, Diego Canut)

This is an ill-advised nature documentary that found its way to theaters about the deer-like Huemul (the national animal of Chile), which is under the threat of extinction. In this case, giving a voice and personality to such a rare animal was offensive.

45. The 33 (2015, Patricia Riggen)

Based on a real story that happened in Chile (filmed in part here and with some Chilean actors), this is the worst case of whitewashing in recent years, as well as being the film that contains Juliette Binoche’s worst performance ever, and that’s a sin.

44. Fuerzas Especiales 2 (Special Forces 2) (2015, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza)

The first of three films released this year directed by maybe the only known genre filmmaker from Chile. This weak sequel of one of last year’s weakest films is not as bad as the first one, but it’s still almost laughably boring, without being funny.

43. Knock Knock (2015, Eli Roth)

I wrote an entire article on this film for Vague Visages not long ago. Read it HERE. It explains quite a bit.

42. Respirar helado (Cold Breath) (2014, Carolina García Bloj)

An extremely boring and sleep-inducing documentary about southern Chilean people that use boats and bridges to go from one place to the other. This doesn’t have any depth, or access, or beauty, or anything to make it worth watching.

41. Perla (2015, Sergio M. Castilla)

We have movies about talking animals too! And they’re bad too! This film tries hard to achieve some depth when it puts the director in the plot, as if to make sense to the fact that we’re watching a movie about a talking dog. It doesn’t work.

40. En la gama de los grises (In the Grayscale) (2015, Claudio Marcone)

A “gay movie” —  not very common here — but maybe we need movies that don’t actually hate gay people. This drama about a married man that comes out of the closet gets hateful and offensive when it decides to punish the protagonist for his behavior.

39. Héroes (Heroes) (2015, Esteban Vidal)

This film reunites the comics of the television and theatre from the past 30 years to come up with a ludicrous plot and less-than juicy roles. A couple of laugh-out-loud moments don’t make up for a film that just needed about two more months in the editing bay.

38. Vacaciones en familia (Family Vacations) (2014, Ricardo Carrasco)

Based on a famous Chilean play, a family tells everyone that they’re travelling to Brazil but they remain in their house, because they can’t afford the travel. It turns out the film’s too long, derivative and has some really weird tonal shifts towards the last third.

37. Mar (Sea) (2014, Dominga Sotomayor Castillo)

Barely over an hour long, this movie is mostly a setback after the wonderful surprise that was Sotomayor’s first film, From Thursday Till Sunday. Improvised and thus without much aim, weirdly acted though beautifully framed. This is a major disappointment coming from this young director.

36. El nombre (The Name) (2015, Cristóbal Valderrama)

An interesting approach: 10,000 still photos are the only way that this movie has of telling its story, so it’s a shame that the script is the weakest link in a film that just gets repetitive and a tad bit classist towards its characters and situations.

35. La madre del Cordero (The Mother of the Lamb) (2014, Rosario Espinosa, Enrique Farías)

A well-shot drama about a woman coming to terms with her own sexuality while she takes care of her dying mother. The problem is that the story only becomes interesting around the 45-minute mark and the rest is just filler. A short film would’ve worked better.

34. Allende en su laberinto (Allende in his Labyrinth) (2014, Miguel Litton)

Directed by one of the most important names in the history of Chilean cinema, this effort to tell the last hours  of Salvador Allende is weak for its shoddy special effects and acting. The intentions are good though.

33. No soy Lorena (I’m Not Lorena) (2014, Isidora Marras)

Interesting in concept: a young woman is being confused for another that has a huge debt, and we slowly start to come into a state of mind of constant confusion and agitation. It all breaks down when the film wants to “solve” the mystery of what had happened.

32. La mujer de barro (The Mud Woman) (2015, Sergio Castro San Martín)

A really strong performance from Catalina Saavedra (2009’s The Maid) doesn’t salvage this production that never wants to be more than a film about work issues in the countryside. It never truly floats above a general condemnation without any real solution contributed for the viewer to reflect on.

31. Palabras cruzadas: los amigos de Matta-Clark (Crossed Words: the friends of Matta-Clark) (2014, Matías Cardone)

A documentary about the visual artist Matta-Clark that turns into a somewhat standard talking head which never elevates beyond the fact that it shows some never-before-seen footage and pictures.

30. María Elena (2014, Rodrigo Lepe)

A short documentary about the last inhabited settlement for saltpeter miners. The movie is about the people, which makes it somewhat interesting, especially when they remember the spectacles they had. Funded by a mining company.

29. Lusers, los amigos no se eligen (Losers, you can’t choose friends) (2015, Ticoy Rodríguez)

A Chilean-Argentinian-Peruvian co-production about three guys (one from each country) who find themselves travelling to Brazil for different reasons while the 2014 Soccer World Cup is going on. It’s silly and somewhat shoddy, but the film has some real heartfelt and laugh-out-loud moments that make it somewhat tolerable.

28. Redeemer (2014, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza)

The second of three films directed by the most well known genre director of Chile, and this is a standard action/martial arts film with some good choreography and cinematography, surrounded and packaged in a barebones weak storyline. Still, it’s better than more ambitious fiction films.

27. Y teniendo yo más alma, Héctor Noguera y La vida es sueño (And I having more soul, Héctor Noguera and ‘Life is a Dream’) (2015, María de la Luz Hurtado, Luis Cifuentes)

A TV documentary that found its way to a couple of theaters about the life of Héctor Noguera — a classic Chilean actor — but only told through his relation to Calderon de la Barca’s “Life is a Dream”, a play that he read and performed (in different roles) all his life.

26. Darío en toma (Darío Taken) (2014, José María González)

Darío Salas is an emblematic high school in Chile, which was taken by its students for most of the year in protest for a better education. The documentary is a chronicle of what happened inside, sprinkled with interviews and some clever editing. It’s a good document of what happened then and there.

25. Chicago Boys (2015, Carola Fuentes, Rafael Valdeavellano)

A talking head documentary with incredible access to archival footage of the Chicago Boys, a group of Chilean economical think tanks who established the liberal economical system that exists to this day. In the end, it lacks a more powerful condemnation of this fearful troupe.

24. Genoveva (2014, Paola Castillo)

The director of this film looks for an ancestor, an indigene mapuche woman named Genoveva that nobody seems to know anything about. Her search leads her to find out about the less-than-positive attitudes of his grandfather while also searching for her identity. Strong but lacks universal appeal.

23. La tierra y la sombra (The Land and the Shadow) (2015, César Augusto Acevedo)

Winner of the Caméra d’Or in Cannes last year, this Colombian film (in a co-production with Chile, among many others) aims for a social statement that turns sour due to the lack of a sensation of true slow cinema. It’s more of a statement about misery.

22. Raúl (2014, Matías Venables)

An old hairdresser finds himself unable to tell what he has done in his entire life before cutting hair. He starts to venture beyond his comfort zone, finding strange people, knowing them, hearing stories, repeating them, and creating a myth out of his non-life. It ends in a bittersweet tone, much like the viewer ends up.

21. Surire (2015, Iván Osnovikoff, Bettina Perrut)

A breath-taking visual documentary that takes place in the salt lake of Surire and a small house nearby, where a very old indigene couple lives with a grandson that comes and goes. A feat in terms of sound design, but it lacks a pull to justify its 90-minute length.

20. Invierno (Winter) (2015, Alberto Fuguet)

Officially, this is the longest movie that has ever been made in Chile. At almost five hours, it’s mostly an exercise in the superfluous, as well as a mute work about how the death of a writer affects his friends. Even at its length, it works most of the time.

19. Nasty Baby (2015, Sebastián Silva)

Filmed in New York and produced by a Chilean company, Silva made the jump to an English language production from the ground up. Ridiculous, outrageous and weirdly disjointed but still fascinating to watch, this movie derails in its last 20 minutes, but it’s still a fascinating experiment.

18. Escapes de gas (Gas Escapes) (2014, Bruno Salas)

Using color footage from the construction of the UNCTAD III (a building used for a worldwide convention made in Chile while Salvador Allende was the President), this production manages to be a nostalgic, colorful and still damning documentary about a time that went by too quickly.

17. Aquí estoy, aquí no (Here I Am, Here I’m Not) (2012, Elisa Elias)

A weird riff on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a journalist investigates the life of the female singer of an 80s Chilean rock band. The film follows the structure almost beat by beat, but in the end, it’s mostly a movie about the rock and underground culture of the time.

16. Habeas Corpus (2015, Claudia Barril, Sebastián Moreno)

A standard documentary with talking heads featuring people that took part in what was known as the “Vicaría de la Solidaridad”, a church-sponsored endeavor that registered detained people who later didn’t show up during the military dictatorship. Beyond its ordinary structure, it’s powerful.

15. El crítico (The Critic) (2013, Hernán Guerschuny)

Filmed in Argentina with an Argentinian director and actors, this film counts as Chilean because it’s co-produced by Chilean capitals. It’s a story about a film critic who finds love in the corniest way and resonated with me beyond its dumb exterior and forgiveness towards rom coms.

14. Santiago Violenta (Violent Santiago) (2014, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza)

The last of the films released this year directed by Espinoza, this one turns out to be the best film he’s ever done. Three friends want to make a movie, but they get involved in the real Chilean criminal world. Wonderful and funny.

13. El Bosque de Karadima (The Forest of Karadima) (2015, Matías Lira)

It could fool anyone with its “grabbed from the headlines” plot (a story of a priest’s  constant sexual abuse), but this is an unassuming film about power and the idea behind the impossibility to say “no” to a respected figure.

12. Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond my Grandfather Allende) (2015, Marcia Tambutti Allende)

Directed by the granddaughter of the Chilean president Salvador Allende, this first-person documentary is about the legacy and the “idea” of the man in both historical and familiar ways. It’s revealing and emotionally turning when it gets closer to the forbidden stories and the secret lovers of the beloved figure.

11. La Memoria del agua (The Memory of Water) (2015, Matías Bize)

A married couple breaks down after their son drowns in their swimming pool. The film follows mother and father and how they try to cope with the loss. The production has one of the most beautiful snow scenes that I’ve seen, and it affected me in ways that I still can’t understand.

10. De vida y de muerte, Testimonios de la Operación Cóndor (Of Life and Death, Testimonials of the Condor Operation) (2015, Pedro Chisel)

You can feel the work done to make this documentary given how the editing of Cháskel tells us the story and makes us feel the journey. Through countries and testimonials, the film ends focusing on the experience of a woman that lived through hell, only to produce a story that will make you feel the heinous force that was the Condor Operation in Latin America during the 70s and 80s.

9. El Club (The Club) (2015, Pablo Larraín)

The film we chose to represent us at the Oscars (it ultimately didn’t make it). A group of priests hide their identity in a house near a beach. All of them committed crimes and are hiding with the help of the Church. A suicide opens up an investigation: is it worth covering up crimes after years of suffering? Powerful beyond my reservations.

8. La voz en off (Voice Over) (2014, Cristián Jiménez)

A film about the futility of repetition and the un-avoidance of it. A family breaks apart as the father tries to live a new life out of his house, and the mother tries to start a career in voice over work. Ridiculous, funny and exasperating.

7. Crónica de un comité (Chronicle of a Committee) (2014, José Luis Sepúlveda, Carolina Adriazola)

The directing duo has been making the most interesting films in Chile, and this documentary is no exception, as they follow the committee that tries to find answers behind the death of children in the hands of a policeman. It approaches the subject through a “democratic” way, giving each participant a camera with which they can record themselves or what happens when the directors can’t be there to film. The best moments come from the “unofficial” cameras, where the contradiction of the committee lies.

6. Desastres Naturales (Natural Disasters) (2014, Bernardo Quesney)

A riot. A retired teacher comes back to the school where she worked and holds an entire classroom ransom just so she gets her work back (and to know what went behind her forced retirement). The students are both for and against this revolution, but they hide more than what they tell. A highly political and intelligent film but still funny.

5. La Once (Tea Time) (2014, Maite Alberdi)

This is only the second documentary to ever be nominated for Best Latin American Film at the Goyas — the Spanish Oscars. It follows a group of old women that meet to have tea once a month ever since they left school. They share stories, love letters and nostalgia, which turns this documentary into a portrait of a generation that’s more than meets the eye.

4. Naomi Campbel (2013, Camila José Donoso, Nicolás Videla)

It’s been called a fiction-documentary hybrid, but this movie is much more than that simple definition. It follows a trans woman named Yermén who tries to get a sex change operation through a television casting for a reality show, and it is there that she meets a Colombian immigrant woman that wants to become a Naomi Campbell impersonator. A film about mixed identities, the hardships of being what you want to be and being content with what you are.

3. Tiempos Malos (Bad Times) (2008, Cristián Sánchez)

The Chilean Goodfellas finally released after seven years of wait. An almost three-hour long film about a teenager and the discovery of whom his father really was — part of a criminal gang that tries to take over the prostitution business in Chile. With an almost technical expertise of the criminal language used in certain areas of the capital, you have what is maybe the most expansive document of a voice that is never truly acknowledged.

2. La maison Nucingen (The Nucingen House) (2008, Raúl Ruiz)

In 2007, Ruiz was back in Chile making films, and he made one with some French money, shot around the south of the country. The result is this Balzac adaptation that is maybe the closest the best Chilean director ever came to creating straight-up gore: a film about vampires, ghosts and zombies that feels like that they’re having the most elevated conversation. It got a small release, so it counts, and it’s among the late director’s best films. A surprise.

1. El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button) (2015, Patricio Guzmán)

One of the most beautiful documentaries of the year, Guzmán manages to politically and aesthetically connect the idea of the sea in Chile and how the water seems to have a memory of its own. By connecting the Kaweshkar — the indigene people in the most southern part of the world who lived for and around the sea — and people that were thrown to the sea during the dictatorship, this one manages to be deeply affecting. A master working in movies that are clearly his own, Guzmán is still putting out the best films of his career.

Jaime Grijalba (@jaimegrijalba) is from Chile and has been writing about film, literature, videogames and culture for the past six years. He’s also preparing his first feature-length film, since he’s a filmmaker too (or wants to be at least).


Categories: 2016 Film Essays, Film Essays, Uncategorized

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