By Colleen Claes

The 2000s were a particularly good period for Spanish-language films. Why would that be? Because we were seduced via screen by Gael García Bernal and/or Penelope Cruz? Because the films got better, or because audiences came around to finally noticing them? Whatever the case, the truth is that the past decade was a time to shine for films from Spanish-speaking countries.

Below are five films in this category that I believe made the most impact on audiences throughout The Aughts. Whether you speak Spanish or are cool with reading the subtitles (as it is cool to do so in order to discover the world of foreign cinema), these are the ones to check off on your list of “To See,” or “To Watch Again and Buy on DVD”:

Amores perros

(2000, Mexico)

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu kicked off the millennium with the first of his “hyperlink” trilogy (preceding 21 Grams, Babel). In the film, three separate stories come together with one car crash providing the link. Dogs are a recurring theme to this movie, as well as destructive, abusive human relationships. To say that Amores perros is difficult to watch is an understatement – especially considering the dog fighting and animal cruelty. But Iñárritu’s way of making the audience uncomfortable also provides an opportunity for observing human destruction and redemption; and for this reason, Amores perros made quite an impression.

Y tu mamá también

(2001, Mexico) This Mexican film by the brilliant Alfonso Cuarón turned the “road trip” movie on its head by exploring issues of sexuality between two teenage boys (Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna) and a married woman (Maribel Verdú) in her twenties. What appears to be a light-hearted story about sexual awakening becomes something much deeper when we find that the woman, Luisa, is hiding a dark secret. By using the country’s landscape as the physical background for the story, Cuarón also poignantly underlines the socioeconomic conditions of rural Mexico as these three travelers drive on past. In the end, all of these hardships are beautifully heartfelt, life-changing, and impossible to escape in Y tu mamá también.

Mar adentro

(2004, Spain) Directed by Alejandro Amenábar, this film is what made seasoned Spanish actor Javier Bardem really stand out. Bardem seems to be drawn towards films that explore the many meanings and complications behind death (like his most recent, Biutiful), and The Sea Inside is one that dug into the issue bravely with a story based on the real life of Ramón Sampedro. Bardem portrays a quadriplegic man fighting to end his life through euthanasia. His determined, 29-year-long fight and the ways in which this affects his family members and loved ones is altogether true to life, painful, and moving to watch.

María llena eres de gracia

(2004, Colombia/USA) A Colombian and American production directed by Joshua Marston, Maria Full of Grace is a gritty film about the equally (if not more so) gritty and dangerous world of drug smuggling. Maria (played subtly and effectively by Catalina Sandino Moreno) is not as soft as she seems, especially when she comes across an offer that could seemingly help her out of her desperate, jobless situation. Newly pregnant and the main source of income for her family, she is willing to swallow huge pellets of cocaine and board a flight to New York. The film unfolds naturally and realistically as Maria enters the drug world as a mule, making it that much more disturbing. Her desperation for the opportunity of a better life is heartbreaking and frightening, but it’s a story that will leave an imprint on your mind for years to come.

Volver

(2006, Spain) Oh, Almodóvar. Oh, Penelope. Anytime you put the two together, divine things occur. (And indeed, the two have collaborated several times in the past.) Known for his fascinating and powerful representations of female characters, Almodóvar strikes yet again with this movie about generations of women in Madrid, Spain. Themes of death and sexual abuse are presented in a profoundly emotional way, and yet the women are strong characters exhibiting many comedic elements as well, setting this movie apart from anything you’ve ever seen. Penelope Cruz is at the center of this almost entirely female cast, and she is absolutely stunning – physically and performance-wise. Volver is a beautiful and colorful film about mothers and daughters, but it’s a masterpiece that anyone can appreciate.

What are your favorites?

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