Each year, as folks down pints of green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, we’re often in too festive a mood to remember that there’s much more to Irish culture 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 Emerald Isle. Check out this list — it’ll make you want to go to the movies. Or, as the Irish might say, “Dul chuig na pictiúir.”
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.”
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).
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.
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 he 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 notably unique 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; it’s a movie to pair with Guinness, tissue, and the occasional venture into mourning song. “Watching director Paul Greengrass’s explosive Bloody Sunday, you have to remind yourself at moments that you’re not looking at a documentary,” wrote David Ansen of Newsweek.
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.
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.”
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). Over the course of a week, 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.”
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.
Technically, Odd Man Out director Carol Reed is from England, but if you look at his 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
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 appreciated the extra effort; as TV Guide wrote, A rich cinematic experience, this uplifting British production will leave you in awe of the extraordinary Christy Brown.
Check out the rest of our Total Recall archives here.
Finally, we leave you with some of the most articulate and sensitive ambasadors of Irish culture: the Pogues.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Written by Jeff Giles, Tim Ryan, Sara Schieron, and Alex Vo.