To call Cubans cinephiles is a gross understatement: Cinema looms in the national consciousness. It makes sense, then, that if any major art form offers a vivid, frank window into Cuban society, it’s film. Cuban cinema has gathered accolades from around the globe; a glance at the list below reveals awards and honorable mentions for a great number of films. Before the revolution, Cuban cinema existed in a diluted form controlled by the U.S. film industry. In the 1960s, the support granted by the newly formed ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinema Art and Industry) — plus the copious cache of primary material and inspiration on the ground in Havana — allowed a handful of talented filmmakers to launch careers that would, in turn, launch Cuban cinema to internationally-recognized heights.
Although some might contest precisely which of his films should top this list, Tomás Gutierrez Alea is without doubt the most important Cuban director, for both his candid portraits of Havana and the manner in which his renown managed to snag the international spotlight and shine it on Cuba. His oeuvre alone stands as a testament to the power of Cuban cinema; his films are alternately bitter and sweet and always reflect the sharp sense of humor for which Cubans are known. A second generation of experienced filmmakers that are still producing today (Fernando Pérez, Juan Carlos Cremata, and others) can be looked to for searing insights into the socio-cultural phenomena that make Cuba what it is today. While those who make substantive contributions to cinema are relatively few—this list would be barren without Gutierrez Alea, Solás, Pérez, Tabío and Chijona—they, and their work, are powerful. Happy viewing.
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1966)
This black comedy that lashes out against institutionalized bureaucracy tells the story of a young man’s attempts to disinter his uncle who was buried with a document that his widow now needs to legalize her pension. This was the first great Cuban film of international significance. Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Karlovy Vary Film Festival (Czechoslovakia).
Humberto Solás (1968)
These three tales about three Lucías set in three separate periods that were essential to the formation, consolidation and splendour of Cuban national conscience—1895, 1932 and the early years of the Revolution, reflect the parallel maturing process of Cuban women. Gold Medal at the Moscow International Film Festival, 1969; Golden Globe at the Italian Cinematheque Film Festival (Milan) 1970.
3. Memories of Underdevelopment
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1968)
A middle-class intellectual, who has stayed in Cuba after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, faces during those early years a new world he does not seem to grasp. Solid dramaturgy and outstanding acting, it is the most acclaimed Cuban film by national and international critics and was selected among the best 2000 films of all times by the International Federation of Film-Clubs. Based on Edmundo Desnoes's award-winning novel.
4. A Cuban Fight Against Demons
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1971)
Based on a true story told by Fernando Ortiz in his book, Historia de una pelea cubana contra los demonios, the film shows the climate of superstition, personal ambition and shady relations with pirates and corsairs that went hand in hand with the founding of the first Cuban towns. The documentary-style camerawork in the film comes closer to a more present-day type of fiction cinema. Some of the film's scenes combined with the actors' brilliant performance make this one of the most coherent and 'modern' artistic achievements of Cuban cinema.
5. The Last Supper
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1976)
Set in 18th-century Cuba and freely based on a true story, the film recreates the tale of a slave owner who decides to instruct his slaves in the canons of Christianity by inviting twelve of them to a re-enactment of the Last Supper, where hypocrisy under the disguise of faith and the ancestral instincts of liberty are brought face to face with each other. The famous supper scene?centrepiece of the film—with its solid dialogues, accomplished portrayals, profound historical research, brilliant acting, meticulous set design, artistic coherence, timely music and bold camera work gives rise to one of the best moments in Latin American cinema of all time. Its numerous awards include the Golden Hugo at the 1976 International Film Festival of Chicago and the First Grand Prix at the 1979 Iberian and Latin American Film Festival of Biarritz.
6. The survivors
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1978)
Set in the 1960s, an aristocratic family from Havana seeks refuge in their estate when the revolutionary process adopts a radical position. Their total isolation from the outside world leads them to their material and spiritual disintegration in an evolutional journey that goes from civilization to a state of barbarism. The theme of the closed universe of a house, at times dealt with by European cinema, adopts here a Cuban view of the absurd and extravagance. Notable Film of the year, London Film festival, 1979; Gold Prize, Damascus Film Festival, 1981; Gold Plaque and Ghandi Award, Laceno d'Oro Festival, Avellino, 1981.
7. Portrait of Teresa
Pastor Vega (1979)
The crisis of a marriage is accentuated when the husband's sexist attitude and the wife's desire to become more liberated clash in this incisive portrayal of Cuban society of the 1970s: a profound insight into prejudice and conventionality. Outstanding performance by one of the screen idols of Cuban cinema, Daisy Granados. Best Actress, Moscow Film Festival, 1979 and Cartagena Film Festival, 1980; Outstanding Film of the Year, London Festival, 1980, among others.
8. House for Swap
Juan Carlos Tabío (1983)
Gloria, Yolanda's mother, swaps their old house in the outskirts of Havana for a modern, larger apartment in Vedado in preparation for Yolanda's upcoming wedding, but her plans take an unexpected turn. Using the difficulties involved in obtaining a new house in Cuba, this comedy reveals the attitudes of certain archetypal individuals of Cuban society at that time. Successful debut in post revolutionary Cuban cinema of legendary actress, Rosita Fornés. Best Actress Award at the Film, Television and Video Festival, Rio de Janeiro, 1984.
Fernando Pérez (1987)
Based on real events of urban guerrilla units fighting the Batista regime during the 50s, the film reflects the atmosphere of terror in which these young people fought and overthrew the tyrant, giving up their own lives, without losing the joy of living or the conviction that victory would be achieved. Fernando Pérez made his debut as a director with this film, characterized by convincing dramaturgy, impeccable performances, accurate script and meticulous photography. Corals for Best First Work and Best Actress, International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana, 1987; Golden Catalina for Direction and Best Actor, International Film Festival, Cartagena de Indias, 1988.
10. The Alhambra Beauty
Enrique Pineda Barnet (1989)
The story of a vaudeville actress during the 1920s, who asserting herself unscrupulously in the sordid world behind the curtains, achieved fame, and in her old age was nurtured by her memories. Based on Miguel Barnet's novel Canción de Rachel [Rachel's Song], it is also an anthology of the best Cuban music of the first decades of the 20th century. A melodrama that is easily seen more than once thanks to its soundtrack music, excellent versions of Cuban vernacular music and the terrific performance of its versatile star, Beatriz Valdés. Goya Award, 1989; Best Actress, Latino Film Festival (New York), 1989; Coral Awards for Soundtrack, Set Design and Setting, International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana, 1989.
11. Supporting Roles
Orlando Rojas (1989)
The film's stories, told in an atmosphere of professional frustration, take place during the rehearsal of a play whose ending reveals the moral weaknesses of the characters while it stresses individual and collective responsibility in their personal as well as national future. Awarded the Bronze Hand at the 1990 New York Latin Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at the 1990 Latin American Film Festival of Italy.
12. Adorable Lies
Gerardo Chijona (1991)
A make-believe swapping of sexual partners triggers a reflection on hypocrisy, falseness, mediocrity, corruption and the loss of values of certain individuals of Cuban society of the late 1980s. The film plays with the resources of melodrama and comedy of intrigue to reveal the conflicts without attempting to solve them. Coral to Best Screenplay, International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana, 1991; APCLAI Award to Best Screenplay, Latin American Film Festival, Trieste, 1992.
13. Strawberry and Chocolate
Tomás Gutiérrez and Carlos Tabío (1993)
A young college student and a homosexual who loves the culture of his country build up a complex relationship in the midst of social prejudices during the late 1970s, early 1980s. The film is an attack on sexual, ideological, political and religious intolerance. Based on Senel Paz's short story El lobo, el bosque y el hombre nuevo [The Wolf, the Forest and the New Man], the film has received numerous awards and recognitions, including the 1994 Berlin International Film Festival's Special Jury Prize, and is the first Cuban production ever nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign language film.
14. Life is a Whistle
Fernando Pérez (1998)
Set in Havana in the late 1990s, the characters' dreams, hopes, needs and frustrations are interwoven in an imaginary situation which blurs the line between reality and wishes. Built upon a language of the absurd, the story of each of the characters reveals a constant search for happiness, here and now, and how complicated this can be when destiny is a factor to be reckoned with. Best Spanish Language Foreign Film Goya Awards (Spain) 2000; C.I.C.A.E. Award at Forum of New Cinema at Berlin International Film Festival 1999; Special Mention, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Actress, Havana Film Festival; FIPRESCI Award; Glauber Rocha Award; Grand Coral-First Prize; OCIC Special Award; Radio Havana Award at Havana Film Festival 1999; KNF Award at Rotterdam International Film Festival 1999; Special Jury Award at Sundance Film Festival 1999; Flaiano Award for Best Foreign Film, Italy 2000.
15. Buena Vista Social Club
Win Wenders (1999)
Subsequent to the international success of the best selling and Grammy winning album of the same name, German director Wim Wenders filmed this documentary, a true testimony of the lives of these veteran musicians who achieved universal success when most of their contemporaries had already retired from public life. Recording sessions, unforgettable performances, the charm and unpretentiousness of these popular performers, the atmosphere and colour of the humblest streets and neighbourhoods of Havana are all captured with admiration, respect and above all, sincerity. Wenders's film was both a box office and critical success, winning numerous awards including Best Documentary at the European Film Awards.
16. Family Video
Humberto Padrón (2002)
When a family decides to tape a video-letter for a son who has been living abroad for four years, contradictions, self repressions and heartbreaks come to the surface. A catalogue of ideological, racial and sexual prejudices present in many contemporary Cuban families. Notable for the authenticity of the situations portrayed as well as the actors' solid performances. Coral for Best Short Film, International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana, 2001; Best Short Film, Latino Film Festival, Los Angeles, 2001, among others.
17. Suite Habana
Fernando Pérez (2003)
Revealing the anguish, frustrations and hopes of people who live in corners of Havana that are never included in package tours, this film both moves and shocks by its poignancy. A striking feature is the fact that the director chose to focus on the images in an intense dialogue with music, and where no words are spoken precisely in a society that is characterized by its loquacity. First Prize at the Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, 2003; and SIGNIS Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, 2003.
18. Viva Cuba
Juan Carlos Cremata (2004)
Set in the 1990s, this road movie of a girl and a boy who travel from Havana to the easternmost tip of Cuba is an ode to friendship and the simple daily experiences that conform the meaning of homeland, as well as a call for respecting children's needs, concerns and contradictions, so often overlooked by adults. The film's many awards and recognitions are justified not only for the amazing performance of its two young lead actors but for the message of humanism it puts across. Grand Prix Ecrans Juniors, Cannes, 2005; Best Film, International Children's Film Festival, L'Aisne, France, 2006; Best Film, Wurzburg International Film Festival, Germany, 2006; Best Film, Internationale Kinder Film Festival, Bremen and Hannover, Germany, 2006, among others.
19. Neighbourhood Cuba
Humberto Solás (2005)
The struggle to achieve happiness, to regain or attain love, to maintain personal dignity in the midst of hostile circumstances, marks the film's characters who go from one neighborhood to another in present-day Havana. Excellent direction. Audience Award, Huelva Film Festival, 2005; special Jury Prize and Best Actress (ex aequo), International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana, 2005; Best Actress, Ceará, Film Festival, Fortaleza, Brasil, 2006.
20. El Benny
Jorge Luis Sánchez (2006)
Second attempt to portray on the silver screen the life of who is perhaps the most popular Cuban musician of all time, Benny Moré, a man of complex personality who led a disorganized life, a rebel, an inveterate drinker, but with an extraordinary musical talent which made him the people's idol. In spite of the efforts to characterize the legendary figure and the use of footage from the real—life Benny, the film has been criticized by the public who remembers the powerful magnetism of this showman par excellence. However, the film has a respectable narrative structure and his unforgettable songs are most appreciated. Coral to Best First Work, International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana, 2006.