Michael Dear’s Top 15 Border Films
Here is a list of my 15 favorite border films in chronological order, including many “classics” of the genre. Most films are easily accessible, but some might require a deeper search.
1949 BORDER INCIDENT Anthony Mann
One of the earliest and most powerful of films in the border film catalogue, Border Incident tells the story of cross-border migration from the US viewpoint, and optimistically emphasizes the successes of binational law enforcement in preventing the exploitation of migrants crossing over from Mexico.
1955 ESPALDAS MOJADAS /WETBACKS Alejandro Galindo
An early film relating the story of cross-border migration from the Mexican viewpoint, Espaldas Mojadas highlights the nobility and courage of Mexican migrants in the face of brutal exploitation on both sides of the line. The film opens with a dire warning deterring Mexican migrants from attempting to cross the line because the lawless US Border Patrol shoots first, and never bothers with questions afterwards.
1958 TOUCH OF EVIL Orson Welles
The first border film masterpiece, Touch of Evil is set along the borderline in the style of gangster-oriented film noir, with non-stop action, standout performances, memorable music, and the darkest photography. This is absolutely the top ‘must-see’ border film, still relevant and shocking.
1983 EL NORTE / THE NORTH Gregory Nava
The best account of the perils of cross-border migration, El Norte is told through the tragic story of a sister and brother forced to flee from certain death in Guatemala. Beautiful to look at and heartbreaking to experience, the film garnered many awards and remains among the foundational contributions to the emerging border film catalogue.
1987 BORN IN EAST LA Cheech Marin
The funniest farce in border film ever! Rudy is an American who is accidentally deported to Tijuana where—lacking any documents to prove his nationality—he spends most of the film struggling to return to the US. This is a comedy about undocumented border crossinsg before fences existed. Friends of mine who lived in Tijuana in the 1980s swear that the craziness portrayed in this film was exactly what real life was like along the line at that time.
1995 LONE STAR John Sayles
Lone Star is an epic of small-town borderland life told through the lives of diverse characters and many generations. The story is fueled by the terrors wrought by the murderous actions of a racist Texas sheriff, but ends hopefully as biracial younger generations begin to free themselves from the tyranny of the old prejudices.
2000 TRAFFIC Stephen Soderburgh
The twenty-first century opened with a striking sequence of big-budget, mega-star films portraying the origins and consequences of drug trafficking along the borderline. The first was Traffic, a multi-layered story portraying the global reach of organized crime, the conflict between drug cartels and US law enforcement, and the corruption of any person, community or country exposed to the rule of drug lords.
2004 AND STARRING PANCHO VILLA AS HIMSELF Bruce Beresford
Inspired by an incredible-but-true story from the Mexican Revolution, when the rebel General Pancho Villa signed a contract with a real US film studio allowing his battles to be filmed in return for payments supporting his military campaign. The film is tragic, comic, romantic and convincingly imagined, bouncing between the film crew’s adventures in the borderland war to the film’s glittering premiere in New York City.
2008 SLEEP DEALER Alex Rivera
Sleep Dealer is the most original science-fiction fantasy film about the US-Mexico border. Mexico is now completely sealed off from the US by enormous walls. Drones maintain constant surveillance along the line, dispensing death as required. Workers in Mexico are connected to robots that carry out actual work in the US, thus removing the need for imported migrant labor. Yet even in ruthlessly authoritarian societies, resistance is possible—along the border’s edge.
2010 MACHETE Robert Rodríguez/Ethan Manaquis
A disgraced Mexican cop nicknamed Machete flees from an assassination attempt and hides in a Texas border town. There he joins the local resistance movement led by a young woman who operates out of a taco truck. Machete joins with immigrant domestic workers, nurses, dishwashers, and field hands united in revolt against oppression! This is the world imagined by Robert Rodríguez, so get ready for a deluge of comedy, heroism, sex and violence. (Like his kind of craziness? Watch out for the borderland vampires in From Dusk Til Dawn.)
2015 SICARIO Denis Villeneuve
Fifteen years after Traffic, Sicario announced that the US and Mexico had lost their wars against drug cartels. The defeat was replaced by an endless series of local battles, involving a kind of trench warfare where gains were measured by minor, temporary victories that were inevitably followed by setbacks. Convincing, violent, and thrilling, this is filmmaking of the highest quality.
2015 600 MILLAS/600 MILES Gabriel Ripstein
A smart, tense film about a US government agent whose day job is to combat cross-border gun trafficking but also finds time to collaborate with local drug lords. The agent is kidnapped and taken into Mexico by an inexperienced gang member who delivers him to the home of his uncle, a cartel chief. After multiple murders and a betrayal, the agent returns to the US and takes up his dual life once again..
2017 CARNE Y ARENA / FLESH AND SAND Alejandro González Iñárritu
Unlike any in my experience, this short film is an immersive, virtual-reality installation made by one Mexico’s most prominent film directors. At night, you witness a small group of migrants intercepted by the US border patrol, and are drawn into the deafening, terrifying action in ways that are difficult to resist. The engagement is unforgettable, but such installations may also foretell how we will be entertained, experience the world, and know ourselves in the not too-distant future.
2019 YA NO ESTOY AQUÍ / I AM NO LONGER HERE Fernando Frias de la Parra
This is a close look at the life of Ulises, a charismatic teenager forced to flee from Monterrey (in northern Mexico) when his life is threatened by neighborhood gang members who don’t like the way he looks, dresses or dances. Unhappy in his New York City exile, Ulises longs to return to Mexico even though he faces certain death if he does. The film was shortlisted as Mexico’s nomination for an Academy Award.
2021 SIN SEÑAS PARTICULARES / IDENTIFYING FEATURES Fernanda Valadez
What happens to small-town Mexican communities once they are occupied by cartels? After the takeover, many residents flee and communities become ruined, empty shells. The few remaining inhabitants live in remote caves or holes in the ground, scratching out marginal lives in terrified seclusion. One of the most accomplished Mexican-origin films in the current crop, especially noteworthy because it is directed, produced, and written by two women, using an almost all-women crew and mostly nonprofessional actors.
1952 AVENTURERA / ADVENTURESS Alberto Gout (I know, this is film #16, but it’s very special!)
Mexican cabaretera films were the equivalent of US film noir – lots of macho villains, deadly dames, and one honorable private eye. This film has a knockout performance by the incomparable Ninón Sevilla at the heart of a riotous combination of Latin music, song and dance, heartbreak, comedy, and non-stop bad behavior. Some critics dismiss it, but I cherish this border film because no-one ever mentions crossing over into the USA to realize something called an American Dream.