Two-thousand-eight will be remembered as a landmark year for Argentine cinema, beginning with the selection of not one but two local films for the official competition in Cannes. Those two movies — Pablo Trapero’s Lion’s Den and Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman — anchor AFI Fest’s five-film “Showcase on Argentina.”

Trapero’s fifth movie — his best since El Bonaerense (2002) — tells a deceptively simple story about a pregnant woman who goes to prison accused of murder. While waiting for the trial, she gives birth in jail, and her whole perspective on her life changes. Anchored by Martina Gusman’s powerful performance, the film becomes a study of the changes a woman goes through after an unexpected situation turns her life around.

Where Trapero’s movie is full of incidents, Martel’s equally absorbing third film is elusive, mysterious, at times head-scratching. And yet, The Headless Woman may also be seen as a movie about the same subject as Lion’s Den. In this case, María Onetto plays an upper-class woman from the provinces, who has a weird accident on the road (she appears to have killed a dog, but thinks it may have been more than that). From there, she suffers a strange kind of amnesia and starts seeing her world as a different place: blurry, enigmatic, full of secrets. She doesn’t even know who she is anymore. Neither do we.

Martel (La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl) and Trapero are both “veterans” of the so-called New Argentine Cinema, as are the makers of two other very good Argentine films showing here: Pablo Fendrik and Lisandro Alonso. Whereas The Headless Woman and Lion’s Den address the subject of female empowerment and the role of women in a male-dominated society, Fendrik’s Blood Appears (which premiered in the Critic’s Week at Cannes) and Alonso’s Liverpool (which screened in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight) are centered around male violence and the complex family relationships caused by it.

Fendrik’s second movie is the story of a father who struggles to contain “the beast within” and a son who goes through life without much care — like a younger version of the Robert De Niro character in Mean Streets — until he has to face some ugly truths. Scorsese and Cassavetes are two key influences in Fendrik’s work: nervous camera moves, intense acting, and verbal and physical violence always on the verge of exploding.

Alonso, by contrast, strips his story of all the conventional narrative elements, but you can sense a similar tension in his main character, a man who left his family in Argentina’s deep south to work as a sailor and comes back after 20 years to see what’s left of them. A sort of contemplative anti-Western, Liverpool shows the visual mastery of Alonso, his sense of place and his ability to convey complex emotions with minimal elements. It’s a film of stunning beauty and infinite sadness.

Thanks to these films and a few other titles, including Mariano Llinás’ Extraordinary Stories, Celina Murga’s A Week Alone and La Rabia (also screening in AFI Fest), Albertina Carri’s very personal and provocative film about man’s relationship to nature, this has become, surprisingly, one of the best (if not the best) years in Argentine cinema’s history.

Except where otherwise noted, all screenings in AFI Fest’s “Showcase on Argentina” take place at ArcLight Hollywood: Blood Appears, Sun., Nov. 2, 4 p.m. and Mon., Nov. 3, 9:45 p.m.; The Headless Woman, Thurs., Nov. 6, 9:50 p.m. and Sat., Nov. 8, 3:30 p.m.; Lion’s Den, Wed., Nov. 5, 9:30 p.m. (at Mann Chinese 6) and Fri., Nov. 7, noon; Liverpool, Sun., Nov. 2, 9:45 p.m. and Thurs., Nov. 6, 3:45 p.m.; La Rabia, Thurs., Nov. 6, 7:15 p.m. and Fri., Nov. 7, 3:30 p.m.

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