Posted April 8, 2009 by William Dunmyer in Best of 2009

Sin Nombre: One of the Best of 2009

Originally written April 2009

Sin Nombre (Spanish for nameless) is a tough, serious, beautiful film with an uncompromising view of Latin American poverty and social decay. It is the best film of 2009 so far.

First-time writer/director Cary Fukunaga is a prodigy. What a thrilling new talent. Not surprisingly, he was named Best Director at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

The main characters are a man and woman about 21 years old who meet on top of a freight train in Mexico. (Yes, they are literally on top of a moving train.) The train is bound for the United States, where they and the hundreds of others sitting alongside them hope to build new lives.

He is from the local area in Mexico. She has walked all the way from Honduras, her feet bloodied from the ordeal. He is trying to escape gang warfare; she is trying to escape poverty. The circumstances under which they meet are extremely violent. A word of caution: Sin Nombre does not pull any punches. The brutal underbelly of Latin American poverty is exposed fully. This is not a film for the faint of heart. 

Guess how many people on the train will make it to the United States. 90%? 50%? 1%? What happens to those who don’t make it? What could be so hard about riding a train to the U.S.? Watch and learn.

But Sin Nombre is far from a social-studies lesson. We learn so much about the characters, especially about the young man, that we become emotionally invested in the story. The narrative is aided by a remarkable set of acting performances, especially from Edgar Flores, the male lead. Flores, who has acted in only one other film, is a real find and deserves consideration for a Best Actor Oscar. He is the kind of actor who can convey a character’s soul just with his eyes. Flores’ brooding introspection is reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s best work. Flores even looks uncannily like Ledger (who will be terribly missed).

Flores’ character has been in a gang for years but has begun to have second thoughts about that life. Several violent encounters and a dramatic heat-of-the-moment decision cause his life to suddenly turn, unleashing consequences that put his life in grave danger. The film does a wonderful job keeping this drama taut but not letting it take over the film. It never devolves into a chase movie. The director’s attention always is on the characters’ inner lives, even when they’re in the midst of a whirlwind of violence.

Rarely does a film come around that is interesting for the mind, soulful for the heart, and pulse-quickening to keep you on edge. It’s all there with Sin Nombre. Thanks to Focus Features for giving Americans the opportunity to see this powerful and thought-provoking film.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.