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The 30th annual Latin American Film Festival features 53 films from 23 countries, from Sept. 12 to Oct. 2 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. The wide-ranging program includes a rom-com from Argentina (An Unexpected Love, Sept. 12 and 15), a documentary about a football legend (Diego Maradona, Sept. 21 and 26), a showcase for Brazilian music legend Seu Jorge (Marighella, Sept. 14 and 16), and a Puerto Rican boxing movie (The Sparring Partner, Sept. 23 and 25). But aside from a crowd-pleasing documentary that focuses on a pair of stray dogs, the five good-to-great titles we’ve sampled from this year’s diverse slate fall on a more troubling end of the spectrum, with abandoned children, brutal killings and a mysterious stranger. High-profile titles like Monos and Tigers Are Not Afraid will soon end up at the local arthouse theaters, but for many of these titles, AFI’s festival will be your only chance to see them on the big screen. You can’t go wrong with any of the films we’ve seen, which bodes well for the rest of the festival.

Los ReyesDirected by Bettina Perut and Iván Osnovikoff ChileDirectors Bettina Perut and Iván Osnovikoff started out this project intending to document Santiago’s oldest skate park. But over the course of filming, they realized that the constant presence during their visits wasn’t human: Two dogs, named Football and Chola, became the focus. Shot from dog-level, the camera follows the pair as they listen in on boisterous teens who talk about their troubled home life and the corrupt cops that spoil their fun—which, more than skateboarding, seems to be smoking weed. More often, we see the dogs making do with the toys they have at hand, like a filthy tennis ball, or the huge concrete slabs that Football, who barks at everything, will grab with his powerful jaws. The dogs lead their lives in the street, well-cared for and indifferent to the human dramas at play; on the other hand, the focus on dogs reveals a great deal about our hardened hearts, so easy to sympathize with man’s best friend but reluctant to warm up to people who are just as lost. With extreme close-ups of the dogs at rest and at play, Los Reyes is one of the more experimental dog stories you’ll see, but it’s not without its Hollywood-style arc, making you care about the dogs’ welfare. 

Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 16 at 5:30 p.m., and Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Monos Directed by Alejandro LandesColombiaColombian teenagers with names like Rambo, Smurf, and Bigfoot live on their own on a remote mountainside. But there’s a catch, a human one: They’ve taken as hostage an American they call Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). Director Alejandro Landes is skimpy on backstory, which makes the spectacle of young men banding together in the wilderness that much more unsettling. It helps that the dissonant score is provided by Mica Levi, who created an eerie soundscape for movies like Under the Skin and Jackie. This is a tale of survival, not just for the hostage (Nicholson plays her role with intelligence and desperation), but for these kids, especially Moises Arias (a New York-born actor with a voice credit in Despicable Me 2) as the ferocious Bigfoot and Sofia Buenaventura as the conflicted Rambo, who’s as much a captive as the doctor. 

Sept. 13 at 7:15 p.m. and Sept. 17 at 9:15 p.m. Tigers Are Not AfraidDirected by Issa LópezMexicoIn the handful of festival titles we previewed, there’s an alarming, recurring theme of abandoned children. The neglected skaters of Los Reyes are merely in the background; the rogues of Monos are aggressors. In Issa López’s ambitious Tigers Are Not Afraid, the director addresses the countless children left behind by the Mexican drug war. The film focuses on what happens when a group of five street kids, orphaned by cartel violence, face a newcomer, Estrella (Paola Lara), whose mother has just been killed by a vicious dealer. How do children cope with the devastation around them? López suggests that fairy tales help, and elements of ghost stories and magical realism run through most of this dark film. It’s a tricky balance: That tone seems to distract from the horror the children face, but there are scenes that might be unbearable without that glimmer of fantasy to bring the viewer out of the intense suffering. By the harrowing final act, Tigers leans completely into its vision, in both reality and fantasy, leading to an unforgettable conclusion. This is López’s third feature, and Guillermo del Toro is slated to producer her next film, an untitled western-vampire project. 

Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 26 at 9:45 p.m., and Sept. 29 at 9:45 p.m.RojoDirected by Benjamín NaishtatArgentinaSet in the 1970s, soon before Argentina’s President Isabel Perón was overthrown in a coup, this confident, slow-burning thriller begins with a strange encounter. Middle-aged Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) is a successful, upstanding lawyer waiting for his wife in a busy restaurant, when an unruly stranger demands that he give up his table. It doesn’t go well, but Claudio doesn’t think anything of it, and, with his third feature, Buenos Aires-born director Benjamin Naishtat takes his time circling back. But what unfolds is quietly riveting. We watch Claudio tend to his family and be persuaded by a colleague to get involved in a shady deal to claim ownership of a house whose owner was “disappeared” in the country’s increasingly volatile political environment. Naishtat distracts the viewer with subplots that may be irrelevant but contribute to a fevered tension that makes this the strongest of the festival titles we previewed. Don’t miss it. 

Sept. 22 at 6:30 p.m. and Sept. 25 at 9:00 p.m. Murder Me, MonsterDirected by Alejandro FadelArgentinaThis year’s festival includes eight films from Argentina, but Alejandro Fadel’s creature feature takes place far from the urbane setting of Rojo. Cruz (Victor Lopez) is a police officer whose beat covers a rural area at the base of the Andes. His latest case is baffling and grisly: A headless corpse is discovered on a farm, and the suspect happens to be the husband of the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But the husband claims he’s been possessed by a monster, and the bodies keep piling up. With its brutal, eerie atmosphere, remote setting, and goofy notes (Cruz likes to dance), Murder Me, Monster has shades of Twin Peaks, without the hipster trappings of the Bang Bang Bar. Its pacing is glacial, but the gorgeous cinematography by Julián Apezteguia and Manuel Rebella creates a surreal, nightmarish world. And Lopez, who comes off like a cross between Charles Bronson and Garry Shandling, has an enigmatic presence which steals the movie.

Sept. 14 at 10:20 p.m. and Sept. 16 at 9:15 p.m.

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