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The death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 sparked a cultural renaissance in Spain that would become known as The Spanish Renaissance or La Movida Madrileña. This Renaissance threw off the conservative shackles that were imposed on the population by the dictatorship and by the Catholic Church and began to explore taboo themes such as homosexuality that the dictatorship had outlawed. Out of this cultural explosion emerged a film director who would make a series of films that would propel him into an internationally recognized celebrity and win him widespread critical acclaim, including two Oscars along the way.
Pedro Almodóvar’s films are all characterized by an exploration of the boundaries of sexuality and deconstructing established gender roles. Other common themes his films explore include violence, sex, religion, and occasionally politics. His postmodern tales of love and loss feature strong female roles in unconventional story narratives that explore a subterranean world which has until now been hidden from us.
He won major international critical acclaim with his 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a light romantic comedy that gave Almodóvar his first Academy Award nomination as well as winning him a slew of other awards. To date, Almodóvar has made 19 films, all of which continue to explore brave new subjects that prove he shows no sign of losing his touch.
This list will detail his most seminal and original works that often proved quite controversial, particularly in his home country of Spain. So without further ado, here are Pedro Almodóvar’s best films.
This was the film that brought Almodóvar to the attention of the whole world. Though definitely not his most controversial, the film established numerous elements of what can be called ‘the Almodóvar aesthetic’, namely strong female protagonists who have enormous depth of character and end up dominating the screen. Other trademarks include extremely well written and lively dialogue, often intermixed with moments of humor that will have you rolling out of your seat in laughter.
The story follows the character of Pepe, who after being dumped by her lover Ivan, without explanation, begins a journey to try to find out why it happened. A detective story at heart, along the way Pepe meets a series of characters including Ivan’s son and a terrorist, all the while as she struggles to make sense of the past and come to terms with her own feelings.
The film made more than $7 million at the box office and is a refreshing and innovative approach to the romantic comedy which deserves pride of place as one of Almodóvar’s greats.
Coming off the back of his 1999 Academy award winning film All About My Mother, Talk to Her would win Almodóvar his second and last Oscar to date. The film features on numerous critic’s lists as one of the best ever made and cemented Almodóvar’s reputation as one of the best Spanish film makers of all time.
Talk to Her is a story about two men, played by Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti, who begin an unusual relationship after they meet while caring for their two partners, both of whom are in a coma. The film is an interesting examination on how people come to terms with grief in different ways and the loneliness that this loss creates.
Stylistically, it is a masterpiece; Almodóvar combines a number of intertwined elements that include aesthetics taken from silent film as well as modern dance, to create a distinctive and innovative mis-on-scene that make the film instantly recognizable among his works.
If Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown brought Almodóvar to the attention of the world, then All About My Mother literally made him a household name that rates him as one of the best film makers ever. The film was released to critical acclaim and became one of Almodóvar’s highest grossing films, taking more than $67 million worldwide.
After the main protagonist, Manuela, played by Cecila Roth, loses her teenage son in a car accident, she begins a journey to track down his transgender father, Lola, played by Toni Cantó, in order to tell him about his son’s death. An added tension for Cecila grows out of the fact that Lola does not know that he had a son in the first place, a fact that Cecila knows will make the news even more difficult for him.
From the outset, the deep emotional undercurrents and serious themes around death, love, secrecy, transvestitism, and grief, make All About My Mother a poignant film and unquestionably another Almodóvar masterpiece.
2009 saw the release of another Almodóvar masterpiece, which despite not achieving the same level of box office success as All About My Mother, still did very well. The film is essentially a romantic thriller, though it has elements of many other genres including comedy and tragedy and perhaps some degree of autobiography.
The film tells the tale of Harry Cainem who is played by Lluís Homar. Due to a tragic accident, Caine has lost his sight and is completely blind. Caine retells his life to recount the tale of how he came to lose his sight and also the woman he loved. The woman, played by Penélope Cruz, was an actress who becomes involved in a love triangle with Caine and an eccentric millionaire. Through these characters, we are introduced to themes of obsession, greed, passion, jealousy, love and even remorse, all of which play out to the wonderful finale.
Broken Embraces has a complex narrative; the film repeatedly jumps from back and forth from the past to the present during the course of the narrative storytelling. Also as Almodóvar’s first collaboration with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, it features a distinctive visual break from his other works, as Prieto uses distinctive lighting techniques to distinguish past and present giving the film a really unique feel.
Live Flesh was the first Almodóvar film to star Penélope Cruz, who would become a frequent performer in many of his later works, as well as starring an unknown Javier Bardem. The film’s subject matter is extremely raw and controversial and deals with violence, sex, and drugs as well as themes of love and masochism.
The film is in a sense a melodrama about the three main protagonists who become linked through a series of murders that take place in Madrid. It features an excellent performance by Italian actress Francesca Neri, who plays a rehabilitated drug addict that becomes involved in a love triangle with Bardem and Liberto Rabal. This relationship becomes increasingly complicated as the plot progresses.
An intense psychological study, the film premiered at the 1997 New York Film Festival and later earned Almodóvar a BAFTA nomination for Best Film Not in the English Language.
Volver is a film that was very close to director Almodóvar’s heart as he drew on his own childhood for parts of the story line. To reinforce this biographical nature of the films subject matter, Almodóvar filmed many of the film’s scenes in his native La Mancha, where he spent his early childhood.
The film is in many ways a study of the family and how these family bonds can be tested by extreme events such as tragedy. It follows the life of three generations of women through the trials and tribulations that befall their lives. One of the women, played by Penélope Cruz, is forced to draw on all her resources to overcome the danger that the men around pose in order to keep her daughter safe from harm.
A signature theme of Almodóvar’s work is portraying the depth and strength of women, and Volver does this perfectly. The film’s male characters all end up looking increasingly pathetic and insignificant as the story unfolds, particularly when they must resort to brute strength in order to get sexual fulfillment.
Volver took the 2006 Cannes Film Festival by storm, where after a standing ovation, it won the Best Screenplay prize and the Best Actress prize. Penélope Cruz’s Academy Award nomination for Best Actress made her the first ever Spanish woman to receive a nomination in that category. The film also became Almodóvar’s highest worldwide grossing film to date.
The Skin I Live in is a dark psychological thriller that is one of Almodóvar’s darkest films to date. Starring Antonio Banderas, the film tells the story of a highly regarded plastic surgeon who becomes obsessed with creating a new type of skin that can resist burns after his wife is horribly burned in a car accident.
In order to develop this skin, he has kidnapped a mystery woman who he keeps prisoner inside his home on a remote island. The surgeon’s obsession intensifies as he tries harder and harder to achieve his goal, where soon nothing else matters, including life itself. Banderas delivers a stunning performance as a man driven mad by his passions and desires, which also marked a professional reunion between him and Almodóvar’s, who had first worked together 21 years before.
Upon its release in 1986, Matador caused a huge amount of controversy due to its violent subject matter that saw Almodóvar have to come out publicly to defend the film. The main issue was that the film was seen to glorify violence; something that the director agreed was the case, but went on to say that the film portrays a kind of abstract romanticized violence that is integral to the storytelling.
The film tells the tale of a young matador, played by Antonio Banderas, who confesses to a series of murders that he did not commit after he is arrested for an attempted rape incident. During this time, the matador becomes involved with a female lawyer who initiates a series of murders in order to heighten the sexual fulfillment between them. Arguably, a lot of the controversy came from the film forcing many Spanish people to see the role of the matador in killing bulls for sport in an uncomfortable light, as the film morphs the ring into the city, and the bulls into innocent people.