In celebration of the upcoming Cinco de Mayo holiday, and as part of a new series of posts that will focus on the best of specific national cinemas, we have decided to begin with Mexico.
The films on the list not only represent what I think is the best in the history of Mexican cinema, but they also showcase the variety of styles and subject matters that concern its filmmakers. Some titles might sound familiar, others will probably sound obscure; nonetheless, they are all great. So get your “subtitle pants” ready for the ride, and if you think we forgot one of your favorites, or you believe we totally got it wrong, let us know in the comments section below.
Yes, you guessed it; I’m going to start with number 10 and force you to scroll down to find out which film took the number 1 spot. It’s an evil strategy to make you read the entire post (or scroll for a few seconds if you’re the sort of person who reads a book’s ending at the start).
Dir. Fernando Eimbcke, 2004
Witty and heavy on quotable dialogue, this film is probably the closest to an “indie”, in the likes of American movies like Juno, to come out of Mexico. Two best friends get together to play video games on a regular Sunday, but when the power goes out, their day turns into a strange combination of adolescent madness and quirky characters. Filmed in black and white, and in a single location in the neighborhood of Tlatelolco, Mexico City, this ingenious piece proves that a well-written script can thrive even with minimal resources.
Winner of the 2004 AFI Fest Grand Jury Prize
9.The Crime of Padre Amaro (El Crimen del Padre Amaro)
Dir. Carlos Carrera, 2002
Controversial and revered at once, Carrera’s film became an international hit, while raising many eyebrows at home. Religion is a big part of Mexican culture, and when your story deals with a priest tempted by desire, you are gonna get some people upset. Mexican superstar Gael Garcia Bernal delivers a superb nuanced performance as Padre Amaro, who falls in love with a 16 year-old church girl played by a young Ana Claudia Talancon.
If this is not too risqué for you yet, how about we throw in some abortion, drug lords funding church activities, and a score of corrupted priests? Jokes aside, this is definitely an achievement for all its great acting, and thought-provoking question.
Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film
8. After Lucia (Despues de Lucia)
Dir. Michel Franco, 2012
The most recent film on the list it’s a hard-to-watch but important piece of filmmaking for our times. After the death of her mother, Alejandra and her father move to Mexico City. Her new classmates seem friendly at first, but when an incriminating video goes around, they become her tormentors in this heart-wrenching, beautifully acted film about bullying. Tessa Ia Gonzalez delivers a riveting performance, that is matched by Franco’s brilliant script that includes a chilling and unexpected ending.
Winner of the Un Certain Regard Prize in Cannes 2012
Dir. Roberto Gavaldon, 1960
In a time when Mexican cinema was full of mostly mainstream fare -musicals, comedies, melodramas- Gavaldon’s evocative film set itself apart. Comparable in style to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the film tells the story of an impoverished rural worker upset at his precarious situation. Macario wishes to eat a whole turkey on his won, but when human personification of the Devil, God, and Death itself appear he discovers the unbreakable cycle of life. Atmospheric, poetic, and beautifully shot, Macario is a mystical tale set in a distinctively Mexican context. Look out for the scene in the caverns with endless candles signifying human lives, trippy but very cool.
6. Midaq Alley (El Callejon de los Milagros)
Dir. Jorge Fons, 1994
Salma Hayek would not be the Hollywood superstar she is today if it wasn’t for the exposure this film gave her. Based on the Egyptian novel of he same name, Jorge Fons translates the story of dreams and passion from Cairo to the streets of Mexico City. Here, several stories intertwine to create a portrait of colloquial Mexican life. A cantina owner in search of love, a seductive young woman, a homophobic man who must escape to the US, and all sorts of other peculiar characters pave the streets of this kaleidoscope of emotions. Certainly considered one of the best Mexican films ever by critics and audiences alike.
Winner of 11 Ariel Awards (Mexican Oscars)
Dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2001
Hidden behind the façade of a raunchy buddy-comedy this road trip movie delivers laughs, yet its about something much more profound. Garcia Bernal partners up with real-life friend Diego Luna, and Spanish actress Maribel Verdu, in a story about friendship, living in the moment, and how destiny breaks people apart.
The film thrives on the talented cast, which makes this coming-of-age tale an unforgettable journey. There is, above all, a remarkable chemistry between the two leads that is palpable throughout the story; here you have it, “bromance a la Mexicana”. Underneath all the dick jokes and sports rivalry, Cuaron managed to create an endearing meditative film about the anguish of growing up from a Mexican perspective.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay
4. Los Olvidados
Dir.Luis Buñuel, 1950
Legendary Spanish director Luis Bunuel had many different phases throughout his career. His most influential work during his years in Mexico was the film Los Olvidados, which is sometimes known in English as “The Young and the Damned”. Brutally honest and explicit in its depiction of street children in Mexico City, the film is a social realist piece about a gang of young criminals striving to survive in atrocious conditions. There are no euphemisms here, no sugarcoated hope, only ravishing necessity and lost innocence. One of the director’s greatest films, which relevance stands the test of time.
Winner Best Director in Cannes 1951
3. Amores Perros
Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, 2000
The debut feature by Academy Award nominated director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a masterpiece of not only Mexican cinema, but also world cinema as a whole. The stories interlocked here are so perfectly written by Guillermo Arriaga, it’s hard to not be entranced by the film.
Characters that come from all walks of life in Mexican society -a supermodel, a man involved in illegal dog fights, a homeless man with a sordid past- all trying to figure out how to cope with the running theme of betrayal in the story. With an ensemble cast that includes Mexican poster-child of great acting Gael Garcia Bernal and Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza, it is no surprise this is such an outstanding film.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
2. Silent Light (Luz Silenciosa)
Dir. Carlos Reygadas, 2007
Any of Carlos Reygadas’ films would find a place in a list of the best Mexican films; however, this, his Magnus opus, sets him apart from any other filmmaker in his native country. A masterpiece of light, faith, and the collision of modernity and tradition, Silent Light follows a Mennonite family in the north of Mexico. They keep their European tradition and language while learning to relate to the globalized world around them.
Reygadas, with sublime skill, shows his characters vulnerable and uncertain, surrounded by stunning beauty that is a trademark in the director’s oeuvre. Some will find this art-house piece rather inaccessible, but there is no denying that there is a vision here. It defies your expectations of what Mexican cinema could be.
Winner of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize
1. Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)
Dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006
There have been many great films in the history of Mexico’s cinema, but no film can compare to the irrefutable winner. Guillermo del Toro’s spellbinding masterpiece is without a doubt the number one film of the list. The level of artistry, style, originality, and over-all achievement are unmatched.
This is a story that singlehandedly disarms the viewer into pure cinematic bliss. The story of a girl during the Spanish Civil War, whose fears are reflected in a darkly magical world like no other, so bold and peculiar as only the master of monster, del Toro, could do. The director, aided by the Academy Award winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, created a world of insane beauty that is at once scary and uplifting. A must see for anyone that loves movies, and the definitive champion on our list.
Winner of 3 Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Make-up.
There you have it, if you think we forgot one of your favorites, or if you have an opinion on our choices please let us know in the comment section. We’d love to hear what you think.