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The 10 Best Movies Set Down Mexico Way

Ah, she was a picture in old Spanish lace, just for a tender while I kissed the smile upon her face ...

Uh, I mean there a number of great films set in Mexico. With Oliver Stone’s Savages debuting in theaters this Friday, the tale of drugs, lust and violence sends two friends over the wrong side of the U.S./Mexico border to reclaim what has been taken from them. So what better way to celebrate its forthcoming debut than to explore the top 10 films set in the land of tequila? Vamonos!


10. Monsters

We begin small with the indie, well, monster flick, Monsters, from first time director Gareth Edwards, which finds a NASA probe crash landing in Mexico carrying with it some rather dangerous alien life. By the time we check in, it has been decades since the outbreak and a large portion of Mexico and has been quarantined by American military action and mammoth wall that stretches from coast to coast. Monsters offers plenty of potent visuals of an abandoned and creature-riddled Mexico and presents the country as an infested Jurassic Park of sorts. All for a $500,000 budget, this indie offering was shot using guerrilla-style techniques and regular Mexican citizens in the cast. It’s unlike any other film you’re bound to see concerning our amigos to the south.


9. Frida

The tumultuous life of famed feminist painter Frida Kahlo became an acclaimed 2002 film for which lead Salma Hayek earned a Best Actress nomination. Thanks to a more reigned-in visual style from director Julie Taymor, Frida provided both a compelling character study and gorgeous slice of Mexico in the 1920s and is a film that never forgets to explore the hardships of the time as well. For art admirers or those for a passion for history, Frida is a must-see and for everyone else, this biopic is worth exploring for the performances.


8. A Fistful of Dollars

The birth of the Spaghetti Western and beginning of the acclaimed “Dollars” trilogy is also one of the best films to be set in Mexico. Director Sergio Leone pulls the traditional cowboy shoot-‘em-up even further south and creates a dusty, dirty, grungy Western that still remains a showcase for Clint Eastwood’s steely presence. Set in the fictional border town of San Miguel, filming actually took place in Spain (as the production was an Italian/Spanish/German effort) but makes a fine stand-in for Mexico. Although not the most authentic from an “on-location” perspective, A Fistful of Dollars nevertheless became the quintessential film of the time for how people would envision Mexico.


7. Sin Nombre

Sin Nombre is a harrowing exploration of a clash of worlds, not just for those on either different sides of the law, but also the perceived utopia of the United States when one comes from impoverished upbringings. The arduous journey for immigrants traveling from Mexico to the U.S. is particularly forceful in Cary Fukunaga’s 2009 film and captures Torreon in a harsh but beautiful light. The mostly unknown cast only adds to the potency and authenticity of the situation which at its core is less about if these characters will reach their destination but how the journey shapes them. As a character study and a crime tale, this is a must-see.


6. Apocalypto

One of the most original action films of the decade, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto sets itself up as an intimate, historical tale before erupting into tour-de-force of survival and impending doom. Although this film marks the beginning of the end for the Mayans with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, Apocalypto is not about an all-out war between countries but a fascinating clash within a culture and how one man is determined to rise above it. With eerie sets, gorgeous location shots and one of the best chase sequences ever put to screen, Gibson was able to craft something infinitely accessible but wholly distinctive.


5. Y Tu Mamá También

The film that put Alfonso Cuarón on everybody’s radar and made actors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal talents to watch, Y Tu Mamá También is a sensually charged, surprisingly funny and smartly written coming-of-age tale. Admired for its honesty and controversial for its frank depictions of drug use and sex, Y Tu Mamá También is a road trip film that never feels like a rehash and has a fantastic feel for Mexico and its prevalent economic and political issues. Don’t let its subtitles dissuade you, this is an absorbing and memorable piece of filmmaking.


4. Amores Perros

Love is a bitch. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s start of his “death” trilogy debuted at a time before the interconnecting story format became an overused gimmick – dropping three individuals into Mexico City who become connected after a car accident. Gael Garcia Bernal makes another appearance on the list, proving that he is one of Mexico’s finest talents. Amores Perros is an incredibly memorable effort and is powerful not just because of the intricately linked stories, but also for its characters who are far more than pawns in some sort of kitschy intertwining narrative. A Best Foreign Language Film nominee in 2001, Amores Perros made Iñárritu one of those few directors film fans expected award grade work from – a blessing and a curse, yes but his debut effort is worth the praise.


3. Traffic

Populating a number of Oscar categories the same year as Amores Perros, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic takes a somewhat similar, multi-threaded approach and tosses it into a pressure-cooker of violence, illicit substances and criminality. Not all of Traffic takes place in Mexico mind you, but to discount that country’s importance in this film would be idiotic and frankly an insult if not included on this list. Winning four Oscars including a directing Oscar for Soderbergh and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio del Toro, Traffic made dozens of top 10 lists and prepped him for mainstream fame before his eventual helming of the “Oceans” trilogy. If you’re ever planning on playing catch-up with some earlier films from the aughties, be sure to put Traffic high on your list.


2. The Treasure of Sierra Madre

One of the many masterpieces in director John Huston’s canon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre won the legend two Oscars for directing and writing and acting win for his father Walter. This tale of two Americans hunting for gold in the mountains of Mexico is presented in still-stunning black and white and captures areas such as Acapulco and Durango in all their beauty. This was one of the first Hollywood films to be shot entirely on location. What starts as an adventure film of sorts, “Sierra Madre” eventually chronicles a decent into madness, spurred on by the power of greed and the promise of wealth. This is essential viewing for all film buffs.


1. The Mariachi Trilogy: El Mariachi/Desperado/Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Without question there are better films on this list, but nobody has captured Mexico quite like Robert Rodriguez in his “mariachi” trilogy. Born just three hours from the border in San Antonio, Tex. to Mexican-American parents, by the age of 24 he was already making movies. On a $7,000 budget (just to see if he could), he filmed gritty actioner El Mariachi, a film that garnered him instant recognition. 

His eventual friendship and working relationship with Quentin Tarantino would help define him later in his career, but he never forgot his love for Mexico, filming From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and El Mariachi’s unofficial sequels Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico on location. His pulpy, hyper-violent style and warped presentation of the country as a near barbaric wasteland (all with a Spaghetti Western twist) Rodriguez is easily the modern day minstrel of Mexico.


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