Best Spanish Movies
As we outlined in our last article about the best way to learn Spanish, an incredibly useful method early on is to consume as much media in the language you want to learn as possible!
That’s why we’ve put together this detailed list of films you need to check out.
We have romance and horror. Intellectual and silly. Old and new.
You can put a film on to enjoy and let your brain slowly and quietly start picking out the sounds and associating them with the meanings.
Or even just picking out the sounds themselves - if you’re just starting off, you’ll probably find it can be hard to differentiate words, so these kinds of exercises can help alongside traditional language learning software.
For those of you who are already feeling pretty darn good at Spanish, this article can hopefully give you a whole host of recommendations for new films and series to explore to keep your Spanish tip top!
In this Idyoma article, we’re going to go through a host of Spanish language films and give you an intro into what they’re all about.
But first, as this is an article about cinema, we have to do a pseudo-intellectual secondary intro, so hold on tight or just skip past to the list!
Spanish movies from Spain give you an insight into the nation
The tradition of Spanish cinema is a powerful one which often operates on lower budgets than its American or British counterparts. There is a tendency to focus on realism, perceived notions of deviance, and wrestle with the modern character of Spain.
Given Spain’s history, this journey through discussions of identity can provide a rich basis on which interpersonal dramas and narratives can play out.
At one point, Spain was the most powerful country in the world, with the beautiful Sevilla (read here about the Andalusian accent) being the richest city through its trade and colonial importance.
In more recent times, the spectre of fascism loomed over Spain and unlike in other countries it was never countered with revolution or outright defeat. Fascism in Spain received resistance but largely fizzled out as a reverence for tradition, partly of fascisms own making, returned to dominance.
That tradition often finds itself in the Catholic church, a stable constant spanning the last 500 years.
As such, when we see films from directors such as Almodovar, we find an exploration of the soul of modern Spain in a post-Franco era where traditional Catholic notions of morality are being challenged by a newly liberal populace.
South and Central American cinema shows a different tradition
In this list, as we’re compiling together a collection aimed at Spanish learners, we’ve included a host of South and Central American material too as Spanish comes in many beautiful forms.
There is a continuity within some of these themes, with Catholic symbolism and reference points often appearing in work from the Americas. However, more central themes often focus around poverty, struggle, and the violence of the narcotics industries.
Great literary traditions which we might think of as originating in South America reappear in the films from the region, and even cross the ocean. The tradition of Magical Realism is brought by Del Toro from Mexico into Spain for Pan’s Labyrinth.
In some of the work of Almodovar, we already see these same themes appearing too. Volver, particularly, captures a sense of this genre. The cinematic conversation carries between the continents.
It would be wrong to suggest you could categorize all these films together in ways other than their shared spoken language, but the language is what we’re here for so we’ve done it anyway.
Hopefully, you’ll find you can flick through the list and locate a few ones to watch.
If you’re looking to fill your media consumption habits with Spanish-language material then this list should last you a very long time!
The best Spanish-language movies
Here’s our round-up of Spanish-language movies we think you shouldn’t miss!
All About My Mother
Talk to Her
Y Tu Mamá Tambíen
The Skin I Live In
The Spirit of the Beehive
The Sea Inside
Your Spanish movies guide from 1 to 12!
For each entry, we’ll give the title, year, trailer, outline, reception, IMDB score, Rotten Tomatoes score, and Metacritic score, and a link to a recommended review!
This should leave you well equipped to choose which films you want to check out to really capture your full Spanish language immersion from the comfort of your sofa.
Pan’s Labyrinth - 2006
I’ve not really put too much thought behind the numbering in this list other than my own personal preference. I hold my hands up to that. It was either to do it subjectively or take one of the aggregation metrics and order by that. But this isn’t their article, it’s mine. So screw that. Pan’s Labyrinth was one of the few selection-and-placing combos I simply wasn’t worried about.
This 2006 film from the masterful Guillermo del Toro is set in Spain during the Nazi dominance of World War II. Pre-Allied successes, a troop of soldiers are sent out into rural forested Spain to hunt down rebels and consolidate the Nazi advances.
[Ed: We've been contacted and asked to clarify that it was Franco's forces depicted in the film. The above paragraph refers to the environment the broader setting of the film was in. The film was set in 1944. Sorry for any confusion.]
The murderous leader of this Franco's division settles with his wife and her daughter in a new house for the duration of the mission. The film follows the step-daughter as the horror of the situation drives her into a mythical world.
Dark, emotional, and genuinely scary at points - allegedly making Stephen King squirm when del Toro showed him it - the film looks terrific on the screen. Amongst other rewards, this painful depiction of realism within a fantasy environment earned the film an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
In his interview with Screen Anarchy, he talks about how the film was borne out of his hatred for the role the Catholic church played in facilitating fascism within Spain, with the Pale Man monster representing the Catholic church.
Guillermo del Toro added a host of details into the film that would normally pass a viewer by. In the real world of the film, the mise-en-scene is fairly solid, straight, and ordered, whereas in the more mythical elements the world becomes more curved and wobbly; “fallopian”, as it was described in his interview with Mark Kermode. These hard lines and right angles represented the rule-bound soulless autocracy of the fascist ideology:
“The straight lines are an obsession with perfection and perfection is unattainable. Perfection is a conceit. Perfection actually lies in fully loving the defect. I think that's perfection.”
All About My Mother - 1999
The first of many Almodovar films in this collection, All About My Mother is my favorite of the bunch.
This 1999 film tackled complex topics of gender way before much of cinema had begun to take note. The film follows a mother who works as a nurse and experiences a sudden moment of loss.
Her grieving takes her away from Madrid in search of old parts of her life and she begins to see and experience the tragedies of others.
Almodovar has always shot films lovingly filmed with women, but my do they go through a rough time. This film at time seems to explore the different ways to be a woman and the different roles a woman can play. From nuns to prostitutes, glamorous actresses to drug addicts, from pregnant women to trans women, straight women to lesbians, the film treats each character with respect while shining a light on struggles they each have.
The story takes the viewer from place to place and feels like it drifts through a series of tragedies, constructing a narrative which doesn’t fit into a simple arc.
It looks beautiful on the screen and the film was rewarded heavily by the industry’s top panels, picking up Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs, while gathering other titles at these and sweeping up 6 at the Goya Awards.
Almodóvar dedicates his film:
"To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother".
Amores Perros - 2000
This Mexican film comes into our list through being Spanish-language rather than Spanish-based, and its inclusion is fully deserved.
The film takes an emotional journey through poverty and violent surroundings as it explores the darker sides of Mexico City. There are two key mechanisms in the film which seemingly draw everything together: a car crash and a dog.
Around these two points we’re told a story using a triptych technique where separate narratives begin to bind together and overflow into one another.
Highly emotionally charged and very powerful, Amores Perros is not a film you’ll forget in a hurry. Starring, amongst others, Gael García Bernal in one of his earliest breakthrough film roles, the film captures a sense of verisimilitude which we might not associate with the stylistic freedoms of Iñárritu’s more recent work.
The film cleaned up at the Ariel Awards, picked up Director of the Year from the London Film Critics Circle, and picked up the prestigious BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film.
Biutiful - 2010
I don’t want to overload you with Iñárritu, but we’re going 2 in a row with this one.
Biutiful was the first film Iñárritu had done in Spanish since Amores Perros and his third feature overall with Babel sitting in the middle.
Where his debut feature had him working with Gael García Bernal, this 2010 piece teamed him up with Javier Bardem, born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, who went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role in the film.
Bardem strikes a physical figure in the film. Having represented the junior Spanish national rugby team in his youth, Bardem carries a large frame and puts it to good use in the film. He holds a different kind of intimidating presence than in No Country For Old Men, for which he was Oscar-nominated a few years earlier, with more of a street-smart feel instead of the psychopathic stillness he radiates in the Coen Brothers’ epic.
Biutiful has a kind of Scrooge feeling narrative; like A Christmas Carol without the twee. Bardem’s character is a tough underworld exploiter who we sense has a softer more reasonable side. The moral ambiguity is kept alive to some extent throughout the film without him ever being truly good or evil, but he does go on a journey and it’s consistently enjoyable to watch.
I really like the film but have to spotlight Bardem’s performance as its crowning achievement. Bardem breathes a complexity into the character which keeps the film afloat.
And don’t just take my word for it!
Bardem won Best Actor awards at Cannes, Goya, and more, while picking up an Academy Award nomination too. If you like Bardem, it’s a must-see.
Talk to Her - 2002
Continuing our theme of repeating the work of standout directors, we return to Almodovar for his 2002 piece Habla con Ella.
The film has some very creepy undercurrents with spying and stalking continuously appearing throughout the film. There’s a conversation being had over the film about the ways in which masculinity and femininity interact, with the characters often surpassing what we would think of as acceptable lines.
Despite this, the film manages to keep a kind of comedy alive without making it too regular. The lighthearted elements seem to put the audience at ease when the tension gets too high.
The film has been criticized for almost appearing to present a justification of rape, or at least rapey actions. The ballet teacher, however, who provides what seems to be the director’s commentary throughout the film, helps to contextualize these concerns in a way which I think makes it better.
It is a provocative film and a fascinating film to watch. A series of personal stories become intertwined and taboos are broached. An archetypal Almodovar piece.
Amongst other awards, Talk to Her picked up the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. If you like Almodovar you’ll probably like this film.
Y Tu Mamá Tambíen - 2001
This 2001 film from now-acclaimed director Alfonso Cuarón takes us again outside of Spain for a Mexican adventure in what might be my favourite coming of age drama.
The story basically goes that two 17-year-old lads decide to go on a road trip and end up having a journey of discovery and passion with an older woman who accompanies them.
The two male leads started out as relative unknowns but today are both highly regarded across the industry. Gael García Bernal makes his second appearance in this list, while Diego Luna joins him. Luna is an actor you might be more familiar with from his role in the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story where he plays rebel rogue Cassian Andor.
The female lead in the film is Maríbel Verdú, who also appeared in Pan’s Labyrinth. The film was shot in such a way that the actors added more than just their performance. The production crew set off on a road trip with hand-held cameras and a minimal script, allowing the performers to improvise and ad lib throughout the filming.
Y Tu Mamá Tambíen started slowly in terms of recognition. Its high levels of explicit sexual content earned it age restrictions in many countries and didn’t open in English speaking markets until 2002.
However, upon its initial release in Mexico it broke the record for opening weekend box office, so it was already destined for big things. The film eventually got the recognition it deserved picking up nominations for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards as well as Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards.
A fun romp of a film which dares to become emotional and sexual, it was one of my faves in my teenage years and I’m still very much on board with it today.
Volver - 2006
Yet again we return to Almodovar and another film about women.
Set in Madrid, Volver covers the feelings of emotional strain which women go through as mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives. The theme of returning runs through the film from beginning to end.
It’s a film which will surprise you at points as the heavy, almost brutal, realism begins to break apart and something more complex seeps in. It’s in this kind of arc where we might find comparisons to the Magic Realist movement of Latin American literature.
The plot of the film was originally found in one of Almodovar’s previous films The Flower of My Secret, where it served as a rejected novel. As that film focuses around pain and loss, so does this one; with sexual elements incorporated highlighting specifically gendered violence.
With such a personal and emotionally driven film, it requires powerful performances to make it work. Penélope Cruz takes the starring role in the film to great effect and is supported by an ensemble of Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo, and Chus Lampreave.
This ensemble collectively won the Best Actress award at Cannes for their performances, with Cruz being nominated individually for the Academy Award of the same name.
The film lost out in its battle for the Palme d’Or, but won Best Screenplay at Cannes while also sweeping up at the Goyas and the European Film Awards.
It’s an emotional watch but one you’ll be glad you’ve seen.
The Skin I Live In - 2011
I should probably rename this article to: Almodovar Films and a Bit of Some Other Spanish Movies Too.
As we enter into the next Almodovar piece, we find some of the similar themes of female struggle; literally and figuratively in this film.
However, this noble cause drives him to dark lengths as his single-mindedness sets up a psychological thriller. Despite this, Almodovar doesn’t go too far down the violent horror film path. He’s quoted as saying he wanted to make:
"a horror story without screams or frights"
What interests me most about this film is the way he achieves that. As you’re watching the film, there’s a continual sense of confusion. New characters keep coming in, new plots look like they’re about to emerge, you’re not sure of the characters’ motivations, and more and more stuff just keeps happening.
It feels like Almodovar is balancing too many plates and that eventually they’ll all come crashing down.
The film works because they don’t all come crashing down. Almodovar brings them down when he wants and has somehow controlled this chaos which the audience are battling with. The uncertainty of it all seems to create space for the horror to happen.
In the end, it won Best International Film at the BAFTAs and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, so it must have done something well.
The Spirit of the Beehive - 1973
Most of our films so far have been relatively recent; in the past 30 years or so.
This inclusion takes us a little further back in time to the 70s. This film by Víctor Erice was made under the fascist Franco government and was therefore subject to the strict censorship laws which were in place at the time.
As a result, Erice took inspiration from artists such as Luis Buñuel and other contemporaries to imbue rich symbolism into his work. Through these layers of storytelling Erice was able to be critical of the Franco regime while still being able to make and launch his film.
Critics have suggested that the breakdown of the relationships within the family in the film is symbolic of the journey of travel Spain had taken under Franco, and the sparse empty landscapes outside of Segovia represented the isolated nature of Spain globally and culturally.
The film follows the life of a young girl obsessed with the 1931 film Frankenstein and tracks her emotional growth and the relationships she enters into.
Considered one of the Spanish masterpieces, the film didn’t gain the international recognition it deserves until relatively recent years. It was only after the 2007 re-release in the United States that the movie began to win over critics and audiences. In 2012, the legendary film critic Roger Ebert entered it into his Great Movies list.
Bad Education - 2004
Back once again with the renegade master, Almodovar finds himself returning to the list as does Gael García Bernal.
This 2004 film traces many similar themes to Almodovar’s broader oeuvre, looking at transgression in sexual and gender politics. The film has characters explore their transvestism, their sexual orientation, and follows as they come to terms with sexual victimisation.
The drama unfolds as two childhood friends reunite and become wrapped up in a murder mystery.
One of Almodovar’s darker films, it screened at Cannes and across the festival circuit. Marjorie Baumgarten from the Austin Chronicle declared it to be Almodovar’s finest work, though the movie didn’t pick up as widely as some of his other pieces come awards season.
The Sea Inside - 2004
We return to a Javier Bardem masterclass in Alejandro Amenábar’s Mar adentro.
This tells the real-life tale of a ship’s mechanic who suffered a terrible accident and lost much of his physical ability. Now a quadriplegic, Bardem’s Ramon Sampedro fights a 28 year battle for the right to die.
An emotional story with powerful supporting performances, this film takes a close look at the struggle of one man and his resilience through it all. Though Sampedro is unable to live his life the way he would wish, his connections with those around him help others to flourish.
The film won Best Foreign Language Film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, and cleaned up at the Goya Awards too.
Widely nominated for other awards across a range of categories and institutions, this is an excellent film and a must watch for any Bardem fan.
Thesis - 1996
This psychological thriller sees a return of Alejandro Amenábar to our list. The film was his directorial debut and shot him into the spotlight of Spanish cinema.
The rough outline is that a student while researching for her project on violence in media discovers her professor dead. The professor had watched a snuff film which she discovers and watches, enveloping herself in this world of violence.
Jon Snyder, in an essay accessible via Academia.edu, writes:
Set in the 1990s, the film engages a critique of violence in television and film, market forces producing audiovisual media, and voyeuristic desires of audiences, as well as the burgeoning practices of security camera vigilance in public spaces.
Amongst others, the film stars Ana Torrent who had previously starred in The Spirit of the Beehive when she was only 7 years old.
The film was made while Amenábar was still a student yet managed to win 7 Goya Awards including Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director.
The best Spanish-language movies. Or are they?
I think we've included a pretty strong list of Spanish language films.
But there will always be some who say otherwise.
Why did I include so much Almodovar without including The Motorcycle Diaries?
I imagine you have many more questions too.
So, if you believe I've erroneously missed something off my list, throw the film in a comment below and tell me why you think it deserves including.
If enough strong suggestions are made I'll update and expand the original post with full credit to the commenters. That's a promise.
What, in your opinion, are the best Spanish movies?
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