Caveat: 90 percent of the films on this list are subtitled, but it’s totally worth it just to listen to that beautiful language.

5. Maria Full of Grace (2004)

It’s rare to come across such a real, intimately-told film. Straightforward and free from pretentious camera movements, Maria Full of Grace actually feels more like a documentary; and the result is a refreshing and compelling human drama.

Catalina Sandino Moreno‘s performance is mesmerizing as teenage Maria. Pregnant, jobless and crumbling under the pressure to support her growing family, she has few options. She has no delusions of rap video-worthy grandeur; her decision to mule (transport drugs into America by swallowing them) is simply so she can take care of her family. But Maria is not an adult. She is little more than a child, and her decisions bear tragic consequences.

4. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo del Toro is basically a modern-day Grimm Brother. No one can twist and darken a fairytale quite like he can. Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of the imaginative young Ofelia, struggling against the dismal reality of fascist Spain. She soon finds refuge in a breathtaking, magical world, possibly even darker than the one she leaves behind. See my previous review for more details.

The story is as beautifully shot as it is beautifully crafted. The performances are solid all around, and the score, comprised of a haunting lullaby that resurfaces throughout the film, manages to embody the movie in just a few simple notes.   

3. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Gael Garcia Bernal gives a truly stellar breakout performance in The Motorcycle Diaries as a young Che Guevara. Before he became the icon that he is today, Guevara was a typical college graduate, uncertain of his path. So he and his best friend Alberto embark on a journey across South America that will not only change their lives but the world.

This is  hands down one of the most beautiful, profound films ever made. Bernal, again, is amazing in every frame. The cinematography sweeps elegantly over the gorgeous landscape, and Gustavo Santaolalla‘s poignant score practically makes the film.

2. Sin Nombre (2009)

My obsession with CaryJoji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre led me to this film. I was not disappointed. Fukunaga’s riveting directorial debut Sin Nombre (Nameless) is cinema at its finest. The movie opens in Mexico with Willy (or El Casper), a young Mara Salvatrucha gang member, preparing his younger brother Smiley to be initiated into the same gang. The next scene, which features the 12-year-old getting the crap kicked out of him, is merely the first in a series of  unflinching (at least on part of the actors) violent scenes. There is nothing “cool” or even stylistic about the way the scenes are shot. It’s hard to watch–not because it’s over the top or gross–but because it is realistic. Fukunaga actually hung out with real MS gang members just so the film would be accurate.

 Shortly after Smiley’s initiation, terrible circumstances force Willy to re-examine his life and forge his own path. At which point he meets Sayra, a young would-be illegal immigrant, heading for the U. S. through Mexico. Despite Willy’s initial misgivings, their lives intertwine. Together, they desperately weave their way through their unforgiving surroundings in the hope of freedom and redemption. 

The story is compelling, if slightly predictable. That said, it’s still one of the best films of 2009, and tackles its controversial subject matter fearlessly.

1. Selena (1997)

This movie really brings back memories. This poignant biography of the beloved young singer was meant to celebrate her tragically short life (at her family’s behest Selena’s murder is neither shown nor lingered upon), which it accomplished beautifully. The film is well-acted, often funny and ultimately heartbreaking.  As far as biographies go, the film follows the template flawlessly, chronicling Selena’s childhood when she first falls in love with music, as well as her various successes and trials. It’s straightforward, but no less impacting; the bittersweet ending is captured with particular grace.

Also, the songs are amazing. I still have no idea what I’m saying, but that has never stopped me from singing along. I ask you, who can sit still through “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom?”



Okay. Let’s talk about Drive because this film is not being discussed nearly as much as it should be. There are so many perfect things about this film. Let’s start with the cast. Ryan Gosling plays the nameless main character known simply as The Driver, a Hollywood stuntman by day and a getaway driver by night. Gosling strides through the film like a Steve-McQueenJames-Dean hybrid in a white Scorpion jacket that’s sure to become iconic. Then you’ve got Hellboy–I mean, Ron Perlman, who manages to be way more intimidating here than he’s ever been with red skin and devil horns. Is that enough awesomeness? All right. Add Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and Carey Mulligan to the mix, and this was a no-brainer for me.

In a word: awesome. In two words: PURE awesomeness.

The Good:

 The acting was on point all around. Gosling, in particular, was stunning–a remarkable feat considering he says very little (a caveat for those who do not like long, sometimes awkward silences: this film is full of pauses). Cranston is just as amazing in a slightly smaller role. Brooks is magnetic as the “uncle-ly” psycopath whose innate warmth makes his bursts of rage all the more startling and menacing. His delivery of the simplest line–“It’s over. It’s already done”–will stick with you long after the credits roll. Perlman isn’t given much to do except be an overbearing bully, but he’s brilliant all the same.

The soundtrack is absolute perfection. It’s nostalgia for all those 90s babies who grew up on “Pop-Up Video” back when VH1 was good television. The song that plays  over the opening credits–“Nightcall” by Kravinsky and Lovefoxxx–is now on my mp3 player and a mixed CD on heavy rotation in my car.

The style in which the film is captured is perhaps its biggest asset. The lighting, the camera movements, the length of a shot (which often lingers on a character’s still face) is handled quite skillfully, separating the film even more from your average action film.

The Bad

Director Nicolas Winding Refn is on record saying that he wanted to channel John Hughes’s films, but with more violence. Mission accomplished. The violence in this film is thankfully spread out enough that it isn’t gratuitous, but make no mistake, those scenes are not for the faint-hearted. In one unfortunate scene, someone gets their head stomped in. 

The women in this film are disappointing and quite simply do not belong in the 21st century. Honestly, they don’t belong in any century because they are not realistic or even well-rounded. Gosling’s neighbor and love interest is played by a dimple-cheeked Carey Mulligan (with hair barrettes no less), who perfectly embodies the Madonna stereotype. As if that’s not clear enough, she’s an actual mother. That’s not the problem though. The problem is that Mulligan has is practically perfect, without the slightest flaw, unless you count being irredeemably stupid as a fault. She remains clueless throughout the 90 percent of the film. I can’t say much about Hendricks’s character without giving important plot points away, but if Mulligan is The Madonna, Hendricks is definitely The Whore. In contrast to Mulligan’s angel-face and svelte frame, Hendricks is built like a brick house with smoky eyes and a Betty Bop-gait. They do have one thing in common though: Stupidity. Hendricks makes a very idiotic mistake that proves fatal in several ways.

All that said, the men in this film aren’t exactly peaches either. So I guess that’s fair.


Drive is pure entertainment, and not in the “Wow, look at the car explode!” type of way. Where your average action films relies on explosions and fast chases, Refn relies on style and real emotions. Much more than heart-pounding and thrilling, Drive is mesmerizing.