Hollywood may be bigger, but make no mistake: Mexico has been producing great movies and pumping out icons—behind and in front of the cameras—for just as long. Here’s a list of must-see classic and contemporary works of enduring beauty, relevance and historical importance made in our neighboring country, compiled with the help of actress Adriana Barraza (Babel), producer Frida Torresblanco (Pan’s Labyrinth), cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) and Mexican film scholar Sergio de la Mora of the University of California at Davis. So forget the popcorn. Grab some elote and a six-pack of Jarritos and get to watching.
Ahí Está El Detalle
Comic genius Mario “Cantinflas” Moreno debuted in this hysterical farce about a ne’er-do-well who poses as the brother of a millionaire and woos a household maid. Cantinflas then does what he does best: get into increasingly absurd situations he has to wriggle, lie and charm his way out of and generally create mayhem. Pure joy.
Witness the breakthrough of one of the biggest stars of Mexico’s Golden Age (the 1940s and ’50s): the gorgeous, indomitable María Félix, whose real-life nickname would forever after be La Doña. Here, she plays a ruthless, rich ranchera who trades her body in return for land and wealth and who renounces love—until she falls hard for a neighboring rancher who, in turn, is only interested in her daughter. Capital-D Drama!
It’s amazing how, despite an outdated plot (a village girl, whose sinning mother was stoned to death, is shunned by her village and wooed by a galán), this movie endures. Part of the enormous appeal is Dolores del Río’s ethereal beauty, the chemistry between her and fellow screen icon Pedro Armendáriz and the movie’s lustrous black-and-white cinematography. No wonder it’s still one of the most beloved movies in the country.
In Mexico, comedy fans are either on Team Cantinflas or Team Germán “Tin-Tan” Valdés; the latter is the comic who gave Cantinflas a run for his money with hugely popular movies as absurd and sidesplitting as the master’s. In this one, Tin-Tan plays a down-and-outer hired to impersonate a businessman on the run from creditors while juggling three actresses who think he is a rich producer. Classic.
Iconic Spanish director Luis Buñuel, whose career flourished in Mexico, used mostly unknown actors to portray street urchins who battle their circumstances, each other and themselves for survival in a brutal neighborhood of Mexico City. The surreal dream sequences alone will haunt you.
Memorias de un Mexicano
The name Salvador Toscano Barragán is synonymous with Mexican cinema—he was the country’s first filmmaker. During the Revolution, he shot plenty of battle footage and documented its heroes. He never did anything with it, having moved on to feature films, but in 1950, his daughter Carmen put it all together and made a documentary—a priceless first-hand cinematic account of the birth of a nation.
La Sombra del Caudillo
Banned by the army for its frank portrayal of the Mexican government post-Revolution in the 1920s and ’30s, this movie by legendary director Julio Bracho focuses on the greed and dirty politics that dogged the nascent republic. As a study on the corruptive but nearly irresistible pull of power, it remains just as compelling today as it was back then.
Think of director Alejandro Jodorowsky—who is Chilean but built his iconoclastic career in Mexico—as the David Lynch of Mexican cinema. This trippy western about a gunslinger’s attempt to find his wife’s killer becomes a surreal tale filled with bizarre religious cults, bandits, subterranean deformed people—the works. A shot or two of tequila while watching definitely helps.
Based on the student protests that took place just before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Demián Bichir (Weeds, Che) is one of two college students who get caught up in the action, during which the government killed an estimated 200 to 300 people. Told largely from the point of view of his middle-class family as they look out on the bloody scene from their apartment, this is the definition of tense drama. The movie, directed by Jorge Fons, won 11 Ariel awards (the equivalent of the Oscars in Mexico).
Maria Novaro, Mexico’s best known female director, gives us a poignant story of a lonely, single mom whose only love is dancing a classic Cuban bailet at a Mexico City salon every Wednesday. When her usual dance partner goes missing, she takes a train to search for him—and it changes her life forever. When chosen to screen at Cannes, it signaled Mexico’s return to international prestige, missing for a decade.
Sólo con Tu Pareja
Alfonso Cuarón brought the sexy back long before Y Tu Mamá También. His first film is a satisfying comedy about a horndog juggling three women in his apartment building. The film turns unexpectedly poignant when a nurse he jilted makes him believe he has AIDS, leading him to rethink his lifestyle. Cuarón’s light touch and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography are a wonderfully engaging combination.
Like Water for Chocolate
In Revolution-era Mexico, a young woman in love with her brother-in-law pours all the passion she feels for him into her literally magical cooking. This Alfonso Arau film, which became the highest-grossing foreign film stateside at the time and was based on Laura Esquivel’s novel of the same name, manages to break your heart and make you hungry at the same time.
Check out the upcoming November issue of Latina for the full list of 25 Must-See Mexican Films, on newsstands Oct. 20.