Spain has produced some truly unique and ground-breaking films over the years. From the exuberance of Pedro Almodóvar, to the lush sensuality of Fernando Trueba, to the reflective melancholy of Alejandro Amenábar, it is easy to see why movie fans might consider the classics impossible to beat. The blockbusters and award-winners of 2009 to 2014, however, demonstrate that the country’s movie industry is still innovating all the time. Here are 10 unmissable recent Spanish films.
Alberto Rodríguez’s Andalusian thriller Marshland was the critical hit of 2014, becoming one of only two films ever to be nominated for 10 Goya Awards (Spain’s most prestigious cinematic accolade) and receiving 30 award nominations overall across a whole range of categories. Set in the 1980s, when Spain was in the throes of recovering from Franco’s dictatorship, it offers a tense and grim portrayal of life in a Southern rural town beset by drug smuggling and terrifying disappearances. Two detectives from Madrid–portrayed by Raúl Arévalo and Javier Gutiérrez– are called in to investigate the possible murders of two local women, and in the process they uncover some shocking and thought-provoking truths.
The first-ever Basque-language nomination for the Goya Award for Best Film, Loreak (Flowers) is a historical event as well as a fascinating drama. With quiet, eerie assurance, it tells the story of three women –played by Nagore Aranburu, Itziar Ituno and Itziar Aizpuru– whose lives are mysteriously connected by the anonymous bunches of flowers one of them begins to receive from an admirer. Directors Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga, and cinematographer Javi Aguirre Erauso, take in themes of love, loss and remembrance through thoughtful photography where flowers provide almost the only color, highlighting the many roles they can fulfil in our lives. Pascal Gaigne’s haunting, much-praised score adds to the reflective atmosphere.
Spain’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards may have narrowly missed a nomination there, but it took a large chunk of deserved wins at several other ceremonies. Directed by David Trueba (the younger brother of the legendary Fernando Trueba), Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed follows the comedic yet inspiring adventures of three lonely characters as they traverse 1960s Andalusia in search of their idol, John Lennon, who is in the region making the movie How I Won the War. Their road trip is all the more fascinating considering it is based on a true anecdote from music history. The three fans are played by award-winners Javier Cámara, Natalia de Molina and Francesc Colomer.
Although Even the Rain is set in Bolivia and features Mexican Gael García Bernal in the lead role, it is predominantly a Spanish-made film, with the much-feted Icíar Bollaín taking directing responsibilities. Cleverly intertwining historical fact and gripping, convincing fiction, it depicts the experiences of a Mexican film crew as they arrive in one of Latin America’s most deprived areas to make a movie about Christopher Columbus, and end up much more deeply involved in local issues than they expected. The juxtaposition of the plight of the local people, whose hometown is threatened by a ruthless water company, with the reminders of the region’s violent past in the film-within-a-film, offers a complex and intriguing portrait of a troubled country.
A completely different but highly entertaining film is Spanish Affair, the blockbuster that broke all records in 2014. While the Spanish box office is often dominated by dubbed US and UK imports, this home-grown comedy burst to the top of the charts in its first week of release and went on to become the highest-grossing Spanish film ever. Directed by Emilio Martínez-Lázaro and starring Dani Rovira and Clara Lago, it boldly plays on once-controversial stereotypes to produce a cheerful fish-out-of-water tale. Rovira’s character is an Andalusian who scorns the Basque country, imagining its inhabitants to be surly and unpatriotic. His opinions are challenged, however, when he falls in love with a Basque woman and follows her to her native region.
It is widely agreed among film fans that the daring and unparalleled Pedro Almodóvar has rivalled his early hits in the last six years, making three critically acclaimed blockbusters covering diverse genres. While the disturbing plastic-surgery themed horror The Skin I Live In (2011) has perhaps received the most attention, Broken Embraces is also a fascinatingly complex film. It jangles the nerves less than its successor, focusing more on romance and mystery than on imagery designed to shock, but it still remains in the mind long after watching. Clever structuring and a myriad of iconic movie references combine to tell the tale of a blind screenwriter tormented by a passionate, secret-filled past. Penelope Cruz and Lluís Homar star.
2014 was an exciting year for thriller fans, as alongside hits such as Marshland, a new work from Goya-winning writer-director Daniel Monzón came out. El Niño is a sleek and nuanced examination of the criminal underworld of the Strait of Gibraltar, following two young boys as they become entrapped in a network of drug traffickers, while two police officers close in on the dangerous activities taking place. Monzón often forgoes dramatic special effects to focus the viewer’s attention on the bleakness of a situation very much based in fact. This social complexity, combined with performances from legendary Spanish actors such as Luis Tosar, creates a gripping viewing experience.
One of the top Catalan films of recent times is Traces of Sandalwood, worthy winner of the Montréal Film Festival Audience Award 2014. Unusually, it was made by a virtually all-female crew, led by director María Ripoll, and it has been hailed as an illustration of the huge amount of relatively under-promoted female cinematic talent in Spain. Nandita Das and Aina Clotet play two very different sisters from India, who are cruelly separated as young children when their family fall into poverty. The elder sister goes on to become a successful Bollywood star and uses her fame to initiate a search for her sibling. Her journey takes her as far as Barcelona and provokes a memorably emotional clash of cultures.
Blackthorn may be in English, but it represents some of the best Spanish filmmaking talent under the direction of Mateo Gil, who wrote the screenplays of the world-famous Alejandro Amenábar’s finest works before stepping behind the camera himself. This multiaward-winning Western, starring Sam Shepard and Eduardo Noriega, imagines a follow-up to the events of the 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. After his dramatic defeat by the Bolivian police that led viewers of that film to assume he was dead, Butch is revealed to be in hiding under the name of James Blackthorn. The lure of his native USA and a fateful encounter with a robber, however, kick-start a thrilling final adventure against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Andes.
Oscar-winner Fernando Trueba is one of Spain’s most admired directors and his recent efforts have been as delightful and mesmerising as ever. Chico & Rita marked a departure from his usual style in that it is animated, and it certainly demonstrates how animation should not be overlooked as an adult genre. It is a romantic tale of an aspiring singer Rita (voiced by Limara Meneses) and a pianist Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña), who form a duo in Cuba, are forced to separate and seek each other out years later. Viewers are enchanted by Javier Mariscal’s magical, colorful visuals, Bebo Valdés’ catchy soundtrack and the heart-warmingly satisfying plotline created by Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón. Unsurprisingly, it received an Oscar nomination.