Blarney! Ten Great Irish Movies

We celebrate St. Paddy's Day with the finest in cinema from the Emerald Isle.

by | March 14, 2008 | Comments

Each year on St. Patrick’s Day as folks down pints of green beer, we’re often
in too festive a mood to remember that Irish culture is much more than
intoxication and law enforcement, Riverdance and leprechauns. Today,
Rotten Tomatoes digs deep and celebrates everyone’s favorite snake-banishing,
fifth-century missionary with a list of some of Irish cinema’s finest — movies
that capture the distinctive rhythms, as well as the struggles, of life in the
country. Check out this list — it’ll make you want to go to the movies. Or as
the Irish might say: “Dul chuig na pictiúir.”

My Left Foot
(1989, 100 percent)
John Belushi‘s SNL
routine about how the luck of the Irish is a dirty
lie may not have been inspired by the tale of Christy Brown, the cerebral palsy
victim whose autobiography formed the basis for My Left Foot, but it’s an
apt setup for a movie about a man who got through life with nothing more
than a limitless supply of gumption and the use of — you guessed it — his left
foot. Nominated for five Academy Awards (and winning two), Foot was the
earliest high-profile display of
Daniel Day-Lewis‘ Method madness; the actor
famously had to be wheeled around the set for the duration of the shoot, and
broke two ribs due to his hunched-over posture while in character. Critics such
as the New York Times‘ Vincent Canby — who called the movie
“intelligent” and “beautifully acted” — appreciated the extra effort.


Odd Man Out

(1947, 100 percent)
Technically, Odd Man Out director
Carol Reed is from England, but if
you look at the body of his work, he’s got a lot going on about nationalism.
(Two years after Odd Man, he’d make a little film called
The Third
Man
about three countries contained in the boundaries of Vienna.) So Reed’s
a logical choice to lend images to Odd Man Out — the story of an
underground nationalist who has to escape the police after he fails a robbery
intended to refill the organization’s treasury. Boasting an early performance by the
velvety James Mason, Odd Man Out has a sexy way of making the back alleys
of Belfast look like a wintry haven of dregs on the make and angry young men.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called this vision of Belfast in noir “a picture
to see, to absorb in the darkness of the theatre and then go home and talk
about.”


Darby O’Gill
and the Little People
(1959, 100 percent)
Need a sweetly pictorial view of the Emerald Isle? Look no
further than Darby O’Gill and the Little People: it’s got the lush countryside and
guys in hats drinking pints, along with banshees and tricksy leprechauns guarding pots
of gold and teasing out riddles.
Albert Sharpe stars as Darby, a village fool
who tangles with King Brian, ruler of the leprechauns, through a series of comic misadventures. Though initially a box office disappointment (which especially
rankled Walt Disney, since he spent nearly 10 years developing
and producing the project), the movie holds its own against the era’s other live-action Disney movies. It’s “[an] overpoweringly charming concoction of standard
Gaelic tall stories, fantasy and romance,” wrote New York Times‘ A.H. Weiler, and we agree: The Little People are perfect for family viewing on Sunday evenings.



Once
(2007, 97
percent)
Here’s 2007’s other movie that could. Shot on a budget of $150,000 across
17 days, Once sings the simple but never slight tale of a Dublin busker (Glen
Hansard
) and a Czech flower girl (Marketa
Irglova
). During a week’s course, the two form a relationship based on their
mutual love for music and deep-seated desire for human connection. Critics,
audiences, and even the Academy responded to Once‘s heart-on-its-sleeve
authenticity; it was shot discreetly on Ireland’s streets, shops, and backroads,
and each of its songs are seamlessly integrated into the story. Once
“[elegantly captures] the alchemy of songwriting,” writes Lisa Rose of the
Newark Star-Ledger, “Not to mention the alchemy of fleeting romance.”

The Snapper
(1993, 97 percent)
Roddy Doyle’s “Barrytown” trilogy of novels had already inspired The
Commitments
, which necessitated a change in last names for the family at the
center of this story — 20th Century Fox, you see, owns the film
rights to Doyle’s Rabbitte family — but the wit and blue-collar charm at the
heart of Doyle’s books is still here in spades. It’s a familiar story
(small-town girl gets pregnant, family rallies around her, laughs and tears
ensue in equal measure), but thanks to Doyle’s screenplay,
Stephen Frears
sure-handed direction, and a terrific cast that includes the always-reliable
Colm Meaney, critics fell in love with The Snapper almost unanimously.
Among the crowd were writers such as Empire‘s Kim Newman, who lauded the
film as “a rare attempt to make drama of ordinary people doing the right thing.”



In the Name of the Father

(1993, 95 percent)
Based on a true story, Father stars
Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon,
a petty crook and freewheeler who’s implicated, along with several friends, in
an IRA bombing plot in Belfast. Conlon confesses under duress, and is jailed
with his father, who’s also been falsely accused. As a spirited defense attorney
(Emma Thompson) works to free Conlon, he becomes closer to his father than ever
before — and matures in the process.
Jim Sheridan‘s fine film doesn’t just
feature an embarrassment of great acting; it’s also a powerful tale of the
Troubles, the search for justice, and the bonds of family. “It is an injection
into a society at war, Northern Ireland and England in the Seventies and a
compelling account of a son and father making their peace,” wrote Robert Faires
of the Austin Chronicle.

Bloody Sunday
(2002, 92 percent)
Before Paul Greengrass was rendering the
United 93
martyrs into points
of inspiration, or playing Jason Bourne for a high speed victim of identity
theft, he was getting recognized stateside for shaking a camera at
The Troubles circa 1972. Greengrass wrote and directed Bloody Sunday, and
though it’s one of a handful of films about the now legendary protest that ended
with the deaths of 13 national activists by British Troops, it’s a stridently
different look at the conflict. Aiming for a documentary aesthetic, Greengrass
pits the locals’ fierce nationalism against their survival instincts in a
decades old conflict that’s fractured the UK and is far from a binary argument.
Austin Chronicle’s Kimberly Jones calls Bloody Sunday “a triumph in
anguish.” We call it a good one to pair with Guinness, tissue, and the
occasional venture into mourning song.



The Quiet Man
(1952, 91 percent)
Director John Ford struggled for years to find a studio home for his
adaptation of the Maurice Walsh short story. After over a decade, he was only
able to convince Republic Pictures to finance the production if he and stars
John Wayne and
Maureen O’Hara agreed to film a Western for the company (Rio
Grande
, the third installment of Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”). For Wayne, the
story of an Irish-American whose journey to reclaim his family’s homestead —
only to be predictably waylaid by a tempestuous fiancée and (occasionally
unintentionally hilarious) third-act fisticuffs — was an important one; he
described The Quiet Man as his favorite film. Audiences agreed, making it
a hit at the box office, and it went on to rack up an impressive seven Academy
Award nominations (winning for Best Director and Best Cinematography).




The
Commitments
(1991, 91 percent)
In the early 1990s, right when Corporate Rock v. Indie Rock was turning the
“average” listener into a niche group and Sundance was making its name with the
help of Todd Haynes and
Steven Soderbergh, The Commitments came barreling
past the Channel, making regional art look sincere, sweet, and terribly hip.
The story of out of work Dubliners who form a soul band was based on a novel by
Roddy Doyle, and played the role of music in Irish culture in a way that’s as
funky-awkward as every soul-stirring experience should be. Variety called The Commitments “fresh, well-executed and original,” and it started the
international crossover appeal of now-greats like Colm Meany and
Maria Doyle
Kennedy
. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll get nauseous when the backup singer’s
baby gets snotty.




The Magdalene
Sisters
(2003, 90 percent)
The Magdalene Sisters dramatizes a particularly dark chapter in Irish
social history. The film follows four women (including the mischievous
Bernadette, sharply played by
Nora-Jane Noone) who have been committed by their
families to the Magdalene Asylum for (sometimes trumped-up) “impurity” — aka
sexual deviance. Under the auspices of cleansing the girls, the nuns at the
asylum put them through a series of sadistic, humiliating punishments; some of
the young women crack under the strain, while others find ways of subverting the
situation. Dark, vivid, and often horrific, The Magdalene Sisters is by
no means a barrel of laughs, but it’s emotionally absorbing, potently
atmospheric, sometimes bleakly comic, and fueled by committed, relentlessly
authentic performances. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post called it “a
stirring, emotionally galvanizing film, not only due to its shattering subject
matter but thanks to [director
Peter] Mullan‘s spot-on eye for casting and
fluid, uncoercive style.”

— Written by Jeff Giles, Tim Ryan, Sara Schieron, and Alex Vo

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