The best Mexican movies of all time

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma.

It might not be as widely recognized as the cinema of some European countries, but Mexico is home to some of the best filmmakers in the world. In the last 10 years, three separate Mexican directors have won the Best Director Oscar, and they’ve all deserved it.

When great directors turn their eyes to the country of Mexico, the results are often fascinating. It’s a great, sprawling country containing all of the beauty and violence that also exists in America. These are just some of the best movies about that vibrant country south of the U.S.

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón is one of the greatest directors to come out of Mexico, and Roma is perhaps his most directly autobiographical work. Telling the story of an indigenous maid working for a wealthy family in Mexico City, the film is tender and nostalgic without ever feeling like it’s sugarcoating anything. Roma is a beautiful story about what it was like to live in a certain place at a certain time and features some truly wonderful performances from across its ensemble cast.

Amores Perros

Gael Garcia Bernal will come up a number of times on this list, and deservedly so. In Amores Perros, he plays one of the three characters at the center of the car crash that defines the film’s narrative. Following three different characters involved in the wreck, director Alejandro González Iñárritu weaves an intimate and emotional tale out of the way different lives intersect in Mexico City. It’s the kind of high-wire act that Iñárritu has become famous for, and it’s one he pulls off expertly.

Nosotros Los Nobles

Mexican cinema isn’t all depressing. Nosotros Los Nobles succeeds because it is wildly funny and buoyed by a terrific ensemble cast. The film follows three spoiled children who find themselves cut off from their family fortune and forced to find real jobs as a result. Like many great works of fiction about the wealthy who are forced to mingle with common folk, Nosotros Los Nobles gets a lot of its juice out of the idea that wealth ultimately distorts how a person sees the world.

La Montaña Sagrada

A surreal fantasy film from the 1970s, La Montaña Sagrada follows a Mexican master who leads a Christ-like figure and other people to a mountain of immortal wise men. Directed, written, produced, co-scored, co-edited by, and starring acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, La Montaña Sagrada is a fairly singular vision. The movie was produced in part by The Beatles, and you can see their fingerprints all over the finished product.

Enamorada

Set against the Mexican revolution of 1917, Enamorada is one of the oldest movies on this list and also one of the best. The film follows a female aristocrat as she falls for a revolutionary, and the two are forced to deal with the political implications of their romance. It’s a wonderful full-throated tragic romance, and while it may seem like the kind of thing that has no relevance for modern audiences, it’s a wonderful portal into a different time and place.

Y Tu Mamá También

Alfonso Cuarón’s second entry on this list is even more vivacious than his first. Y Tu Mamá También, more than any other movie in his career, announced the emergence of a new auteur voice that demanded attention. The film tells the story of two young boys on the verge of adulthood who travel across the country with a beautiful older woman. Ultimately, it’s a movie about self-discovery and growing up, and it’s a lovely, moving tale told on a small scale.

Cronos

Guillermo Del Toro has made fewer movies set in Mexico than his contemporaries, but his movies have nonetheless been influenced in both subtle and obvious ways by where he grew up. Cronos is Del Toro’s first feature film, though, and elements of his style are evident all over it. The film follows an antiques dealer who discovers a relic that provides him with eternal youth and is then forced to protect it against sinister forces. It’s a thrilling, playful movie filled with imagination.

Sicario

An American movie from a Canadian director, Sicario is nonetheless one of the more trenchant looks at what is happening in the Mexican drug trade. The movie, which features outstanding performances and stunning cinematography, is a look at how U.S. intervention in the war on drugs has only made the situation inside of Mexico more dire. It may have a distinctly U.S. perspective, but it’s also a searing indictment of the role Mexico’s northern neighbor has played in its drug trade.

Like Water for Chocolate

A fantastical romance, Like Water for Chocolate tells the story of a pair of lovers who are forbidden from marrying because custom dictates that the girl must look after her mother. As the two attempt to bury their feelings they emerge in unconventional ways, transforming the entire film into a sweeping, swooning romance. Like Water for Chocolate is wonderfully inventive, and that’s part of what makes it such a wonder to behold.

Biutiful

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s second entry on this list, Biutiful is a meditative look at a compassionate criminal who discovers that he has just a short time to live. As he attempts to get his affairs in order, he communes with the spirits and attempts to find meaning in the world around him. Javier Bardem is wonderful in the film’s central performance, and Iñárritu is able to create a subtle, moving portrait of a man trying to live the kind of life he can be proud of.