A Gringas Guide to the Best Mexican Films

by Merin 

The coronavirus pandemic and self-isolation are drastically changing the very fabric of society, from the way we work to what we do in our free time. For many of us, this means passing time indoors reading, exploring creative pursuits… and after that, lots and lots of streaming. In my case, I’ve been watching a hodgepodge of crime shows, old school comedies, and of course, beloved Mexican films.

More than just entertainment, our newfound watch time is an opportunity to learn about new places and cultures — to discover new directors and actors, countries and languages. With this in mind, I’ve assembled a few of my favorite Mexican films for your viewing pleasure! No list could ever capture the rich diversity of Mexican movies over the decades. Rather, this is a small sampling to pique your interest and give you a wide-ranging view on life and cinema here.

1. Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too)

best Mexican films
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox/FlixWatch.

Before Roma, before Gravity, before the Oscars and international renown, Alfonso Cuarón was a young Mexican filmmaker who wanted to capture a slice of life in his country. The result of his efforts was Y Tu Mamá También, the ultimate Mexican road trip movie and one of my all-time favorite films.

The movie follows Julio (middle-class) and Tenoch (upper-class), two Mexico City teen boys. They invite a beautiful Spanish woman, Luisa, on a road trip to the untouched beaches of Oaxaca. The spontaneous trip will bring unintended consequences for the trio. Meanwhile, Y Tu Mamá También propelled actors Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal to stardom and made a name for the young director.

With its contemporary soundtrack, heavy use of Chilango slang, and deep-seated class, political, and sexual tensions, the movie set the standard for a new era of Mexican films. It’s a deceptively simple movie. Yet Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa’s journey across Mexico expresses many subtle truths about both the country’s beauty and its sharp, cruel divisions. Y Tu Mamá También sketches Mexico at the turn of the 21st century. It depicts a rapidly changing society reeling from NAFTA’s transformative economic effects, yet still relatively calm before the start of the drug war.

Y Tu Mamá También is available on Netflix US and the Criterion Collection.

2. La Jaula de Oro (The Golden Dream*)

best Mexican films
Image courtesy of sensacine.com

A starkly different kind of “road” movie. This little-known film from director Diego Quemada-Díez follows another trio, these young people moving across Mexico with much higher stakes. Juan, Sara, and Samuel are Central American preteens who leave home with a few belongings — seemingly without telling family. They head north, crossing into Mexico with the hope of reaching a better life in the United States.

Once in southern Mexico, they begrudgingly allow Chauk, an indigenous Tzotzil Mayan boy, to join their group. Together, the kids head north on la Bestia, the dangerous cargo trains that many migrants ride. This isn’t the first time this journey has been placed on film. However, La Jaula de Oro is by far the most beautiful and heart-wrenching depiction. These young amateur actors convey the innocence and hope, love and realism of young migrants who have to grow up far too quickly. The film immerses you in their world: where adolescent jealousies and a youthful sense of adventure coexist with the nagging, very real fear of assault, rape, kidnapping, and detainment.

La Jaula de Oro is available to rent on YouTube.

*A more accurate translation of the original Spanish title is “The Golden Cage,” however, the film’s creators chose the English title “The Golden Dream.”

3. Como Agua para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate)

best Mexican films
Image courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin.

For a magical realist escape from reality, Like Water for Chocolate is a fun and fantastical romp through Revolution-era Mexico. The film is based on the famous book by Laura Esquivel. Both book and movie follow a Northern Mexican family through trials of love and loyalty during the 1910s and beyond. The action is centered around food, as the protagonist is a jilted woman who pours all her repressed desires and feelings into elaborate meals. The movie will have your mouth watering for baroque Mexican dishes. (Enjoy them for real at El Cardenal once self-isolation ends!) It’s a little fluffy and melodramatic — and a hell of a lot of fun.

Like Water for Chocolate is available to rent on Amazon Prime.

4. Rojo Amanecer (Red Dawn)

Rojo Amanecer tlatelolco massacre
Image courtesy of La Izquierda Diario.

Rojo Amanecer is no escapist flick. On the contrary, it’s one of the most important Mexican films in history, depicting a moment shrouded in darkness and controversy. When director Jorge Fons decided to make a film about the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, he was risking his own reputation and career. It takes place over the course of one infamous day. On October 2, 1968, the Mexican army and paramilitaries opened fire on student protesters and killed hundreds in Tlatelolco Square. This occurred just 10 days before the Mexico City Olympics.

The film follows a middle-class Mexican family living in an apartment on Tlatelolco Square. As the day begins, the family bickers and goes about their daily routines. By nightfall, all of them have witnessed a brutal, state-sponsored mass killing. Their ordinary domestic life has been shattered, and more bloodshed is to come before the dawn.

Despite filming Rojo Amanecer two decades after the massacre itself, Fons still faced government censorship that nearly derailed the project. He shot the movie secretly in a warehouse, unable to show the full extent of the day’s violence. As a result, the film takes place entirely in the family’s apartment. We don’t see the massacre and chaos in the plaza itself. Instead, we see only the horrified reactions of the family witnessing the killing from their high-rise window. The effect is powerful. We feel their fear, the oppressive claustrophobia as they are trapped inside, phone lines and electricity cut.

One family’s apartment becomes a microcosm of Mexican society on that fateful day, reflecting the paralysis and bitter conflict that ensued. The result is an important, necessary, and difficult entry into the lexicon of Mexican films.

Rojo Amanecer is available on Facebook here.

5. Roma

best Mexican films
Image courtesy of Rome Central.

Roma came out to so much fanfare in 2018, from Oscar nominations (and wins) to feverish praise from Mexican and international critics. So when I watched it, my expectations were already sky high. As a result, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit let down by the much-hyped film. After all, almost no movie could live up to such high praise!

While Roma isn’t my favorite Mexican film, it is very well done, and certainly worth a watch. The movie is a beautifully-shot exploration of the life of Cleo, a domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City. Roma follows her life during a tumultuous period for Cleo, the family she works for, and the city itself. Set in black and white, the film looks back at director Alfonso Cuarón’s own childhood through the eyes of his beloved nanny (a fictionalized version of her, anyway).

My advice is to go into the film without expectations, and without reading reviews beforehand. Watch with subtitles — in Spanish, ideally. (The movie features a lot of obscure Mexico City slang terms and can be hard to follow for non-native speakers.) Finally, appreciate Roma‘s sensory details. No film captures the sounds of Mexico City better than this one. The street musicians, the trash-collector’s bell, the camotero’s whistle, the melodic and chaotic cacophony. For this alone, the film is worth a watch (and listen).

Roma is available to stream on Netflix.

6. Miss Bala

Miss Bala move
Image courtesy of Encadenados.

This Mexican thriller from Gerardo Naranjo is unsettlingly, ominously quiet. We’re used to fast-paced Hollywood action movies with slick dialogue and frequent explosions. Miss Bala, however,is more of an inaction movie. It makes the most of actress Stephanie Sigman’s expressive face as she tries to survive an impossible situation through passivity and acquiescence. Most rational people would probably have done the same.

There is no hero in Miss Bala. It’s a movie about the ways Mexico’s problem with organized crime and violence takes away ordinary peoples’ agency and voice. All of this is channelled through Laura Guerrero (Sigman), a young beauty pageant contestant who becomes unwittingly wrapped up in Northern Mexico’s organized crime. The film doesn’t provide easy answers or a satisfying resolution. Instead, it focuses on the gray areas between criminal and civilian, government and cartel, that arise with a weak and corrupt state. These shadows make for fascinating, thought-provoking film.

Miss Bala is available to rent on Amazon Prime. Moreover, be sure not to confuse it with the widely-derided 2019 Hollywood remake.

7. María Candelaria

best Mexican films
Image courtesy of El Universal.

This 1944 film is the oldest on the list, hearkening back to Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema. María Candelaria takes place in Xochimilco. (This agricultural canal region of Southern Mexico City is so iconic, it’s been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) Legendary Mexican actor and director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández filmed in Xochimilco itself. As a result, the area really becomes its own vital character.

The film follows María Candelaria, a young woman (played by beloved actress Dolores del Río) who lives on a flower-covered chinampa (island farm) in 1909. The setting certainly seems idyllic, almost dreamlike. But María’s mother was a prostitute, and the villagers treat María and her fiancé as pariahs. When a renowned painter becomes obsessed with María’s beauty, a tragic course of events is set into action.

Nowadays, Xochimilco is a part of Mexico City, its famous canals and chinampas much diminished. But in the 1940s, the area was still pristine, small villages sitting far outside the big city. The location serves as a symbol for all of rural Mexico right before the violent, destructive Revolution and 20th Century transformations. With spectacular music, setting, and cinematography, the film is a well-deserved giant in Mexican film history.

Watch María Candelaria on Facebook here.

8. Güeros

best Mexican films
Image courtesy of Quique Ollvervides.

Imagine an old school road movie — filmed in black and white, nostalgic soundtrack, friends on an epic quest as they drive for hours down endless roads. Both Mexico and the U.S. have their fair share of road movies, with plenty of beautiful landscapes and desolates highways to film on either side of the border. Güeros takes this age-old movie formula, and twists it. Here, the kids set off on their road trip…and basically never leave Mexico City.

This “urban” road movie follows a group of young students navigate the never-ending streets, traffic, slums and highways and even farms of Mexico City metro area. A troubled tween is sent from coastal Veracruz to the capital to stay with his older brother in the capital. After they both become obsessed with finding an old, obscure Mexican rock-and-roll star, this improbable quest sends them all through the city. Above all, it’s a joy to watch them meander through the UNAM (National Autonomous University), Chapultepec Forest, the center, even Texcoco. The Mexican film is a sweet and pensive rumination on the passionate curiosity of youth, exploring the city as its own self-contained universe.

You can rent Güeros on YouTube.

Mexican Films: Honorable Mentions

There are several Mexican films that for whatever reason, I 1) Just didn’t connect with personally and found hard to watch, or 2) Haven’t had time to watch fully yet, but come highly recommended by friends and colleagues. These are those films.

best Mexican films

Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned):

Firstly, this midcentury classic by Luis Buñuel. Los Olvidados is considered as one of the only films in history to unflinchingly depict young, troubled delinquents. It is a sad, often brutal film to watch, but a fascinating and important look at rough young lives on the outskirts of Mexico City. It’s become part of the fabric and historic and 20th Century Mexican films.

Amores Perros:

Secondly comes Amores Perros, a surprisingly hard-to-watch popular film. Everyone loves this fast-paced early movie that subsequently propelled director Alejandro González Iñárritu into the spotlight. It traces several storylines around the capital city, exposing fault lines of class and identity. On the other hand, I just can’t stomach its depiction of dogfights and other suffering dogs…and that’s the whole theme of the movie.

Canoa:

This film depicts a horrific real-life event. In documentary style, it follows a group of students who became the victims of anti-communist fervor during a hiking trip. Canoa depicts the heady atmosphere of political fear and repression in 1970s Mexico. It’s simply not in the main list above because, well, I still need to see it!

Museo:

This is the second film from Alonso Ruizpalacios, director of Güeros. While it didn’t receive as much critical acclaim as his first film, Museo was praised for its unique style. The movie retells a stranger-than-fiction heist from the ’80s. Then, a couple of slacker students decided to rob hundreds of priceless Prehispanic artifacts from the National Anthropology Museum. Improbably, they succeeded.

In short, Mexico has been home to an incredibly rich, diverse film industry since the days of silent movies. Because of this, keep in mind that this guide is only a small taste of Mexican cinema heritage. Finally, write the Gringa’s Guide a message on Facebook with your recommendations on what else to watch

ABOUT THE GRINGA

The Gringa's Guide to Mexico City

I’m Merin McD, an American writer, and traveler living in Mexico City. Since I was about 10 years old, growing up in the Midwest, I’ve been fascinated by Mexican culture, language, and society. Finally, a scholarship gave me the chance to live here, and I’ve fallen head over heels in love with Mexico City. This megacity of over 11 million inhabitants (double that when you count the suburbs) is bursting with life and color. The capital has been the center of the Mexican universe for centuries, since its inception as the canal-ridden center of the Mexica (Aztec) empire, then its conquest by the Spanish, and its unbridled 20th-century growth. 

about page mexico city guide

Today, Mexico City is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves. Tourists and foreigners are flocking to discover its thriving art scene and gastronomy. At the start of 2019, National Geographic named it the top destination of the year worldwide.

Despite this heightened interest, the city remains a mystery to many visitors. Tourists often flock to the same spots: the Zócalo, Frida Kahlo’s house, the Palace of Fine Arts. After all, in such an enormous city, often facing a language barrier and culture shock, it’s natural that many visitors and even expats become intimidated, sticking to the heavily-touristed comfort zones. Without a doubt, these places are grand and wonderful must-sees. But there is so, so much more for the adventurous traveler to experience here. 

As a foreign woman living in Mexico City, I understand that outsider’s experience of being a “gringa” very well. I’ve felt self-conscious, linguistically perplexed, wary, and very lost at times. But mostly, I feel invigorated by the possibilities: I have never been anywhere that so thrilled me with its endless possibilities and spontaneity. So I understand what it’s like to feel like a “gringo/gringa” here, and I’ve also had plenty of insiders to show me the way deeper into the city and country’s culture. 

The site is divided into several sections, all updated frequently with new posts:

  • Explore Mexico City: A guide to of the incredible cultural offerings of this city, including art and architecture, food, culture, entertainment, and neighborhoods
  • The Basics: Everything you need to know to visit or move to Mexico City, from house-hunting to safety
  • Travel Guides: Useful, fun guides to the many day trips and weekend getaways you can take from Mexico City.
  • Understanding Modern Mexico: Explainers on the often perplexing stories behind Mexican current events, history, and environmental issues. 
  • What to Do Now: A frequently updated panorama of events and things to do in or around the city. 

I love holding this intermediary role — between cultures, countries, and individuals. On this site, I hope to share this passion for Mexican culture with you. Whether you’re a weekend visitor to Mexico City or a new expat, I’d like “The Gringa’s Guide” to encourage you to venture out beyond your comfort zone, while still feeling safe and in control.

Follow the Gringa on her fabulous page www.gringaguide.com

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