Top 10 Films takes a look at the best Irish films of the last few years including The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Sing Street and Hunger.
Film scholar Phillip French writes, “a cinema […] is the tradition of movie-making associated with a place or area, a body of work expressing, directly and obliquely, the spirit of its inhabitants, their character, aspirations hopes and anxiety.”
National cinema works as the most successful tool for depicting cultural identity both to the people of that nation and the rest of the world. Ireland and its people have generally found themselves marginalised in terms of representation on screen and production of its own cinematic products. In fact, historically, in cinema, the Irish have been represented through an American or English lens and rarely its own. However, since the turn of the century, Irish cinema has begun to flourish with a marked increase in critically and commercially acclaimed texts emerging from the country’s film industry.
Finally Irish filmmakers are making diverse and groundbreaking films about Irish characters in Irish locations. Since the establishment of the Irish Film Board (Bord Scannán na hÉireann) in 1980 there has been a steady increase in indigenous filmmaking in Ireland. The 21st Century – thanks in large part to the success of Irish filmmakers Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan in the 80s and 90s – saw this increase of Irish film production grow further with the last five years alone having seen a significant rise in popularity for Irish films.
With such a wealth of brilliant Irish films released in recent years there is a need to celebrate and document the key Irish texts that absolutely everyone must see!
10. The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)
Ken Loach’s inspiring story of two Irish brothers joining the fight for Irish independence in 1919 is a testament to the director’s commitment to well drawn characters and a tribute to the brave men of the early IRA. Loach’s focus on the human element of war as opposed to the spectacle of it gives the film life and becomes all the more poignant for it. A stellar performance from the ever-reliable Cillian Murphy seals the film’s status as one of the great Irish texts of the 21st Century.
9. Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass, 2002)
Bloody Sunday is Paul Greengrass’ harrowing retelling of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland where British soldiers shot 28 unarmed protesters leaving 14 people dead and a country in mourning. Few films have documented the horrific era of the troubles enter Paul Greengrass pre-Bourne films success and looking to prove himself. And boy did he! Bloody Sunday is a no-holds-barred look at the horrific acts committed by British soldiers shot in the cinéma-vérité style from a human perspective. A tough watch but an important one.
8. Good Vibrations (Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, 2012)
At the height of the troubles in Ireland one man, Terri Hooley, looked to music to bind his people. Opening up a record store on one of the most dangerous streets in Belfast, Hooley revitalised the city and inspired a generation of music fans and musicians alike. Good Vibrations tells his story and is an inspiration to a world enraged by the constant threat of terror and division.
7. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
A second entry for John Michael McDonagh and another quirk-filled look at small-town Ireland and the cast of characters that inhabit it. Much more of a meditative piece than The Guard, Calvary sees Brendan Gleeson playing sombre priest, James, who after receiving a death threat tries to carry on with his pastoral duties. He encounters all kinds of characters seeking his advice and guidance, however, the thought that this person may be the potential killer hangs heavy over every encounter. Another successful blending of comedy and drama from one of the sharpest voices working in the Irish film industry.
6. Once (John Carney, 2007)
John Carney’s second feature on this list and it’s another music-heavy, heart-warming doozy. Played out on the streets of Dublin on a shoestring budget, Once follows a struggling musician as he meets a Czech flower seller and piano player. The two embark on a musical adventure as both battle demons of the past and growing feelings towards each other all whilst trying to survive from one day to the next. As expected from a man of Carney’s pedigree the music is phenomenal and celebrates the brilliant folk music of Ireland.
5. Song Of The Sea (Tomm Moore, 2014)
Beautifully imagined by Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, Song of the Sea riffs off the Irish folk lore of ‘Selkies’ – magical creatures that take human form when on land and become seal-like when in water. The story follows 10-year-old Ben as he discovers his younger sister Saoirse is a ‘Selkie’. Saoirse and Ben embark on an adventure to free faeries from the evil Macha (the Owl Witch) so they can pass through to a fabled mythical realm. The film’s masterful hand-drawn animation and wonderfully woven story earned it an Oscar nomination and a strong recommend here.
4. Adam & Paul (Lenny Abrahamson, 2004)
Directed by Room’s Lenny Abrahamson before he was a big deal, Adam & Paul presents a unique, and at times hilarious, look at the life of two Dublin-based heroin addicts. Abrahamson displays his knack for crafting quirky outsiders and his tendency towards marrying comedy with dark subject matter is no more obvious than in this strange film. There are hints of Chaplin and touches of Loach in what is certainly a key text of the drug experience genre.
3. The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, 2011)
Perhaps the most unapologetic black-comedy to come out in recent years, The Guard plays with stereotypes surrounding Irish people and goes deeper to display a diverse, hilarious and sometimes un-PC group of characters. Brendan Gleeson is the eponymous crass Garda who reluctantly teams up with Don Cheadle’s straight laced American detective to stop a major drug deal in a predominantly Gaelic speaking region of County Galway. The film places Cheadle’s character as the fish-out-of-water to portray a quirky and vibrant Irish community and delivers a truly unique look at the country and its people. Directed by the elder of the brothers McDonagh, John Michael (the younger being In Bruges’s Martin), the film became an international sensation garnering over £12 million in overseas box-office alone and becoming one of the most successful Irish films of all time.
2. Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)
Released last year in 2016 and receiving acclaim in both Britain and America, Sing Street was something few saw coming. It became an overnight hit garnering 98% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and returning a profit of more than three times its budget. Set in 1985, the film follows a school pop-band as they struggle against oppressive catholic teachers, school bullies and, of course, teenage angst. The songs performed by the band (all co-written by director John Carney) are all original and just utterly brilliant, embodying the synth-heavy pop ballads of the era. It is an absolute must watch for music fans and a tribute to anyone who’s ever been in love and felt powerless to do anything about it.
1. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
Directed by maverick British filmmaker Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and co-written by McQueen and Irish writer Enda Walsh, Hunger depicts the 1981 hunger strike by IRA prisoners in Maze Prison, Northern Ireland. The film is a harrowing and explicit retrospective of the struggle of IRA prisoners striving for political status in the face of British oppression. Not a film for the light-hearted, it stars Michael Fassbender as real life IRA volunteer and MP Bobby Sands who orchestrated the hunger strike and no wash protests whilst receiving brutal treatment by prison personnel. It is the film that launched the career of one of Britons most unique filmmaking voices in McQueen and introduced the world to the intense performances we would come to expect from Fassbender.
Over to you: what are your fave Irish films of the 21st Century?