Reel Latino: The 20 best movies about us

Reel Latino: The 20 best movies about us

Since the dawn of cinema, the Latino has been there. So why should we complain? Maybe because for decades Hüerowood insisted on portraying MexFlixers as stereotypes or worse: the gang banger, the drug lord, the revolutionary, the Latin lover, the hot chica with deep brown eyes, the comic relief.

Been there, seen that.

Gracias a dios, over the past 30 years or so, Latino roles and stories have matured and ripened. Things still are far from perfect — Latino presence onscreen remains as rare as a gringa waitress who can actually pronounce chipotle — but there is proof that it can be done! (Sí se puede, Hollywood holmes— read our pinche script already!) If you're looking for a baseline folio of mainstream Latino-American movies, this chronologically listed 20-film primer will get you off to a good start. It will also introduce you to multiple performances from a handful of our favorite MexFlix screen icons, including Edward James Olmos, Jennifer Lopez, Esai Morales, Elizabeth Peña, America Ferrara, Lou Diamond Phillips and directors Luis Valdez and Gregory Nava. 

1. Zoot Suit (1981): Stagey but totally exciting, this film version of Luis Valdez’ play is based on the real-life Sleepy Lagoon murder of 1942, when a group of L.A. pachucos were unfairly prosecuted, culminating in riots throughout the city. Edward James Olmos tears up the screen as El Pachuco, the play’s narrator and ultimate vato id of accused barrio boy Henry Reyna, played by Luis' real-life carnal, Daniel. Written and directed by Valdez.

2. El Norte (1983): For less than $1 million, Gregory Nava directed this stunning three-act tale of a brother and sister fleeing bloody labor clashes in Guatemala for the United States. With dialogue in Quiché, English and Spanish, it presents one of the most accurate cinematic portraits of the challenges faced by refugees who smuggle themselves across the border. Even when Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) evade the government goons who murdered their parents, they must be wary of duplicitous coyotes who promise them easy passage and then, once arrived, the constant threat of being discovered and deported by La Migra. Notable for being the first indie film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. (Isaac Guzmán)

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3. La Bamba (1987): Lou Diamond Phillips stars as doomed Chicano singer Ritchie Valens in this Golden Globe-nominated movie about the 17-year-old kid who turns the Mexican folk song of the title into a rock-and-roll anthem. With Esai Morales as his bad-boy hermano, Elizabeth Peña as Esai's long-suffering wife and Rosanna DeSoto as Ritchie's sainted mamacita, it's as much about family as it is the music. Directed by that Zoot Suit guy, Luis Valdez.

4. The Milagro Beanfield War (1988). Robert Redford directed this adaptation of John Nichols' magical-realist novel, which depicts the fallout after poor campesino Joe Mondragon (Chick Vennera) insists on irrigating his field with water that has been set aside for a big-time real estate developer. Musicians Rubén Blades and Freddy Fender star as the sheriff and mayor, respectfully, who are caught between their culture, community and the laws they must enforce, while Sonia Braga turns up as an idealistic organizer. But at the heart of the film is the Coyote Angel (Robert Carricart, above), a wizened old spirit who coaxes Joe's tiny rebellion into an all-out war. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Score, by Dave Grusin. (I.G.)

5. American Me (1992): OK, normally we don't endorse the whole Latino gangbanger cliché, but in this case el más chicano himself, Edward James Olmos, directed a fictionalized take on the origins of the ultra-violent Mexican-American prison gang The Mexican Mafia a.k.a. La eMe or The M. In the vein of Scarface and The Godfather, Olmos portrays a crime family's ascent to power as a uniquely American way to protect its members and earn respect. The real-life eMe didn't quite see it that way. In one scene, young Montoya Santana, loosely based on real-life eMe founder Rudy "Cheyenne" Cadena, is forcibly raped in prison, only to emerge later as a powerful leader. But homosexuality violates the gang's founding principles and it's alleged that gang members attempted to extort Olmos and may have even murdered two film consultants in retaliation. (I.G.)

6. Mi Vida Loca/My Crazy Life (1994): After telling the stories of white folk living along la frontera in Border Radio and Gas Food Lodging, director Allison Anders turned her camera on Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) and Mousy (Seidy Lopez) a pair of gangbanging Echo Park cholas who are up to little good even as they raise young kids. Out to prove they are as tough as the men they love, they narrowly avert tragedy and learn that gang codes are no substitute for deep-seated friendship. If Anders sometimes has a tin ear for the dialog, she did manage to capture the cholx aesthetic in a vibrant and unexpected film. (I.G.)

7. Lone Star (1996): Hard to top writer-director John Sayles’ work in this film, a tough-as-nails look at anti-Mexican attitudes in West Texas. Ostensibly following a small-town sheriff (Chris Cooper) investigating the death of his racist and corrupt predecessor (Matthew McConaughey), it’s also a great love story involving Cooper and late Latina actress Elizabeth Peña (winner of the Independent Sprit Award for Best Supporting Actress). The killer soundtrack features Freddy Fender doing a wailing, Spanish-language version of “Since I Met You Baby.”

8. Selena (1997): Remember when our Latina Queen J. Lo actually made good movies? Yeah, we know, it’s been a long time since Jennie from the block starred in ‘A’-grade flicks like Out of Sight (featuring steamy scenes with George Clooney) and this winner, a top-notch bio of Tejano star Selena Quintanilla, who was murdered by the president of her fan club at the tender age of 23. Featuring Edward James Olmos, Lupe Ontiveros and Jon Seda, and directed by Gregory Nava, it's a tragic portrayal of a blazing talent who left us way too soon.

9. Star Maps (1997): We can't really argue with New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who called this emotionally volatile immigrant story "a California Midnight Cowboy." Boricua director and writer Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Beatriz at Dinner) made his debut with this story of Carlos (Douglas Spain), whose sells directions to celebrity homes by day while seducing Hollywood insiders at night in an attempt to break into acting. The picture was nominated for five Independent Spirit awards and spawned a groundbreaking rock en español soundtrack featuring Control Machete, Aterciopelados, Juana Molina and more. (I.G.)

10. My Family/Mi Familia (1997):  Seems Gregory Nava was en fuego in ’97, what with his direction of Selena and this film, the story of three generations of a Mexican-American family who left their native land and settled in East L.A. Edward James Olmos —him again? — stars with Esai Morales, Jimmy Smits and Elizabeth Peña.

11. The Mask of Zorro (1998): We already know what you're gonna say: Chale, MexFlix, this campy cartoon with a hüera playing a heroine named Elena? But hear us out: Zorro (Antonio Banderas) is a bad-ass native Californian — before the U.S. takeover — who fights against nasty Spanish overlords. Dude represents for La Raza in Aztlan, no? Plus there's plenty of swashbuckling adventure, Catherine Zeta Jones at her feistiest and solid period detail. You tell us if there's another film that's as fun to watch while overtly acknowledging the Golden State’s Latino roots.

12. Stand and Deliver (1998): Edward James Olmos earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination playing real-life high school teacher Jaime Escalante, whose calculus classes were so successful that all of his East L.A. students — including cholo-in-charge Lou Diamond Phillips — passed the advanced placement test. But the tan tonto Educational Testing Service couldn’t believe these ‘culturally deprived’ kids didn’t cheat on the exams, so Escalante offered a re-do, which they passed with flying colors. One of the best films ever about anti-Latino social prejudices. Speaking of which, see how the career of director Ramón Menéndez, who won Independent Spirit awards for directing and screenplay, failed to get any advanced placement of its own. 

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13. Before Night Falls (2000): This biopic about Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, an openly gay man who was persecuted for his sexuality and eventually moved to the States, features a powerhouse, Oscar-nominated performance from Javier Bardem in the lead role. Directed by artist Julian Schnabel, “Before Night Falls” is a moving testament to a man fighting to be accepted for what he is.

14. Real Women Have Curves (2002): America Ferrera made an impressive film debut in this Sundance award winner, playing a young woman fighting cultural and sexual prejudices, particularly those involving body image. A total upper in every sense, directed by Colombian native Patricia Cardoso.

15. Raising Victor Vargas (2003): The story of a horndog Dominican-American kid growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City won raves upon its release and turned its amateur stars and director into full-fledged professionals. While trying to shag every girl in the hood, Victor (Victor Rasuk) finally falls for the gorgeous girl every guy wants Judy (Judy Marte), which complicates his relationship at home with brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and his abuela (Altagracia Guzman). The movie is as charming and effervescent as Victor himself, and sent director and co-writer Peter Sollett on to Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Freeheld, while Victor Rasuk scored roles in Lords of Dogtown and Fifty Shades of Grey, and Marte landed two TV series, NYC 22 and The Get Down. (I.G.)

16. Quinceañera (2006): Totally heart-warming film about pregnant Echo Park teen Magdalena (Emily Rios) and her gay cuz (Jesse Garcia), who are estranged from their families and taken in by a great-uncle. A real sense of time and place in this indie, co-directed by gay Anglo couple Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

17. El Cantante (2006): Then a happily wedded Latinx superduo, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez starred in this biopic about legendary salsero Héctor Lavoe. Surprisingly downbeat — Lavoe’s life wasn’t exactly unicorns and balloons — but filled with excellent performances by the leads and a killer Borinquén soundtrack.

18. Under The Same Moon/La Misma Luna (2008): Mexican actress and president of the El Chapo Fan Club —Kidding! We are incorrigible chistosos, MexFlixers — Kate del Castillo stars in this drama about Rosario, who illegally emigrates to the States, leaving behind a young son, Carlitos (Adrián Alonso). But after five years apart, her little man decides he can’t live without mom and heads to El Norte on his own. A great family film and major weepie, it's directed by Guadalajara native Patricia Riggen, and features America Ferrera and Eugenio Derbez in key roles.

19. A Better Life (2011): The best film ever made about the undocumented? Maybe. You certainly can’t beat Demián Bichir’s Oscar-nominated performance as Carlos, a handyman trying to get his son Luis (José Julián) away from gangs while working hard to make a living. When his truck and tools are stolen, Carlos’ desperate search to reclaim his means of livelihood — an echo of the classic Italian film Bicycle Thieves — is a compassionate dive into L.A.’s hidden Latino demimonde.

20. McFarland, USA (2015): Kevin Costner may be the big name here, but this film is really an aspirational tale, based on reality, about a group of Chicano high school kids living in a nowheresville farm town who gain a measure of self respect — and overcome prejudice — when they become a championship cross-country team. Think Hoosiers in California lettuce country, and you’ve got the essence. Uplift doesn’t come much better than this.

Chécalo! These far-out pachuco jitterbugs need a movie as mas chingón as their moves

Chécalo! These far-out pachuco jitterbugs need a movie as mas chingón as their moves

Lowriders bounces over box-office expectations with $2.4M stashed in the trunk

Lowriders bounces over box-office expectations with $2.4M stashed in the trunk