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With the Oscars around the corner we’ve got movies on our mind, and there’s more than enough inspiration to be found in the bumper crop of exceptional cinema to have come out of Latin America in recent years. In fact, whittling down our top 5 Latin American films was easier said than done (and we cheated a bit) – take a look to see if you agree with our selection.

1. The Secret in their Eyes

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This sophisticated crime thriller starring the ever-excellent Ricardo Darín won last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, a sign of the new assuredness and finesse seen in recent Latin cinema. The story hangs around an old case that has haunted retired federal justice agent Benjamín Espósito for a quarter of a century. Seeking closure, Espósito begins a novel based on the case, but in returning to dark memories he soon finds himself more consumed than ever by the frustration of a crime unpunished and the agony of a lost love. Mesmerising performances and an unpredictable plot trajectory will keep you gripped to the very end.

If this film is your cup of tea, see more of Ricard Darín in Nine Queens (2000). Another outstanding Argentinean film to try is The Official Story (1985), which also won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

2. Amores Perros

Day of the Dead

A literal and figurative collision forms the crux of this acclaimed Mexican film and its three narrative strands. Each of the interlocking stories deals with regret, loss and the savagery of love, through a shared theme of dogs (the ‘perros’ of the title) that alludes to the animal at the heart of human nature. This is film-making at its most ferocious from Alejandro Iñárritu (Babel, Biutiful), and he is in good company: a number of the most innovative directors to have emerged in recent years are fellow Mexicans. Amongst them are Alfonso Cuarón, whose film Y tu mamá también (2001) we also highly recommend, and Guillermo del Toro. Don’t miss Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), directed by del Toro, or – if you don’t mind sleeping with the lights on for a month – his genuinely terrifying horror film The Orphanage (2007).

3. Machuca

Santiago

Santiago, 1973: following the election of Latin America’s first socialist president, two young boys from dramatically different sides of the tracks are brought together in a new climate of integration. As the connection between them builds, so too does a volatile political undercurrent, with cataclysmic forces the boys can barely begin to grasp poised to rupture the fabric of the country along its increasingly unstable fault lines. The bloody coup-d’état that results will test both their friendship and Chile itself.

This is a thoughtful perspective on a brutally transfiguring moment in Chile’s history. The 2004 film also became a milestone in Chilean cinema and a focal point for a country still dealing with the scars of the Pinochet era.

4. City of God

Rio de Janeiro

A powerfully compelling film that became an instant hit with viewers and critics alike on its release in 2002, City of God tells the story of a place and the people who kill each other to control it. The eponymous Cidade de Deus is a shanty town in the shadow of Rio de Janeiro, where desperation leads generation to follow generation into crime. The fast-paced style leaves you caught up in the explosive urgency – and quintessentially Brazilian spirit – that gives this film such momentum.

If you’ve seen and loved this film, try Central Station (1998) and Favela Rising (2005). The latter, an inspirational documentary, provides a life-affirming complement to City of God; both are astonishingly good.

5. Maria Full of Grace

Cartegena

Maria Full of Grace charts a tense journey between Colombia and the United States from the perspective of a pregnant drug mule – a role which earned Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno an Oscar nomination. Where the film excels is in treading the fine line between drawing sympathy for Maria, a small-town girl stifled by her lack of prospects, and resorting to black and white morality. The subtle, nuanced performance of the lead actress and a well-developed script mean this hard-edged story is always delivered with compassion, honesty and humanity.

If you like this film, try Sin Nombre (2009), another gritty portrayal of a woman’s struggle to escape poverty by any means necessary.

6. Honourbale Mentions

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Like an Oscar winner rambling their way through a melodramatic acceptance speech, we didn’t quite know when to stop. We couldn’t resist a few honourable mentions for films that are set in Latin America but which aren’t technically Latin-made: our favourites include The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Papillon (1973), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Happy Together (1997)… We could, as ever, go on.

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