Recommends: Top 15 Pedro Almodóvar Films
Warning: Some Images NSFW
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest cinematic feat is something monumental in his long career. A short film starring Tilda Swinton and adapted from the play by French cinematic legend Jean Cocteau, The Human Voice is his first English language film. Having finished its brief theatrical run, we are now fortunate to be getting a limited edition Blu-ray out next Monday, exclusive to HMV. To complete my Almodóvar collection, I have very evidently pre-ordered this. In the wake of this release, I’ve been contemplating my favourites by the director who opened my eyes to the big ‘ole world of cinema beyond the English-speaking world, never to look back. He’s worked with and established some of the best actors to come out of Spain, including Carmen Maura, Cecelia Roth, Rossy de Palma, Victoria Abril, Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz. He has never given into the pressure of the film industry, staying true to his own vision and creating truly beautiful and startling cinema, strikingly original in its conception.
Almodóvar is one of the most progressive filmmakers of the modern era. Born in La Mancha, in Franco’s Spain, his early years were one immersed in heavy censorship and strict rule. As a homosexual young man, when the country was liberated during the 1970’s, he was able to embrace both his sexuality and his talent in the arts. Following Francos’s regime, Spain saw a boom of extravagant, outlandish arts that rebelled against the prior system, revelling in its cultural identities. Almodóvar was not only part of this but also a major player in the underground Gay arts movement that allowed him to break out into the mainstream. Here he tackled taboo subjects, controversy and shock cinema before establishing himself as one of the most important voices of the 20th century cinema and going on to win multiple academy awards and other highly regarded accolades.
Bright, madcap and bold, one cannot mistake an Almodóvar shot. Show a single frame to any film lover and they can tell you it’s him. Pop art, heavily influenced by Luis Buñuel, classic Hollywood melodramas, the LGBTQ+ communities, Almodóvar is important in so many ways. And if he isn’t poking tongue-in-cheek at the media, TV culture and celebrities in as camp and outlandish a way as possible, are we really talking about the same filmmaker. Without him, I may have never ventured out of English-speaking cinema. His stories have not only spoken to myself on a personal level but to so many others, providing canvasses for powerful female-driven narratives and much diversity that broke the barriers for many future filmmakers. His journey as a human being and a storyteller is wonderfully captured through film, the aspects of the creative periods of his life will be remembered in the years to come much like how we remember the great artists, so vibrant and significant are they to the understanding and context of his films. But even with all this, many of his works are commercial successes and perfectly accessible to so many people. Weird people, weird places and even weirder things happen there, just as Almodóvar’s worlds should be, which is why everyone loves visiting them again and again.
15. Broken Embraces (2009)
Beautiful as this film is, I have never quite seen why it had ranked as highly as it has. One of the few that I have been unable to lose myself in entirely, this film is often considered one of his best of the ‘commercial’ boom his films saw. A blind screenwriter reminisces on his past, the years before he lost his sight in which he was a director conducting a passionate affair with an actress (Penélope Cruz). A dire mistake in his career, the woman is supported by a rich financial backer and producer of his films. Through flashbacks, the ups and downs of this turbulent relationship are uncovered revealing not only plenty to the audience but exposing secrets long since buried. Of all Almodóvar’s films, this feels less significant. Not that all films should feel any other way, but it’s certainly that way for me anyway, the least rewarding of my experiences with his films. Still worth the watch, I rank it fifteenth for this.
14. Live Flesh (1997)
The only film he has ever made with the brilliant Javier Bardem, the first and one of few adaptations the director has ever made and a messy, sordid romantic/crime drama; so much of this film I love. But it lacks the very things I adore so much about Almodóvar, and often feels distant from his other work. This should and could be a good thing, with some amazing compositions and beautiful work from him as always, still, it feels lacking where I want it to thrive. I would love for him to work with Bardem again; the two could make some magic as Almodóvar has famously done with the actor’s partner, Penélope Cruz.
Adapted from the novel by Ruth Rendell, a messy love triangle between an ex-convict, Victor, an ex-addict, Helena, and a paraplegic police officer, David, plays out. A two part introduction, with the birth of Victor on a bus during a declared emergency under the Franco state by prostitute mother (played by Cruz in her first collaboration with Almodóvar) this is then followed by the now grown man’s encounter with addict Helena, the woman he lost his virginity to. They fight and the police arrive (Bardem’s David) who, in the dispute, is shot leaving him wheelchair bound and Victor sent to prison. We then skip forward to David and Helena, sharing a home together in seeming comfort. But Victor has now returned to woo and win Helena. There are many elements to this film, and it’s a bleak entry in the filmography, sandwiched between two distinctive melodramas, but there’s no doubt that its worth the watch.
13. Flower of My Secret (1995)
This film ties is so beautiful in the narrative of Almodóvar’s journey. Significant as a viewing choice with regard to his later works (the novelist in this film begins to pen a dark story that is later used by Almodóvar for the plot of Volver), but it is not a film I would ever recommend to anyone as a first in the submergence of his films. It lacks punch, is a little wishy-washy in places. But it is still beautiful, telling a mature woman’s story and focussing on her personal plight as the crossing of her writing and real life consumes her. Her trashy romance novels, which she writes under pseudonym, begin to lose focus as her issues surrounding her husband become increasingly more unbearable. The best part of this film is Marisa Paredes wonderfully vulnerable performance. Often playing the extravagant older woman, the seasoned player who offers some wisdom amongst her own dysfunction as age creeps up on her, in this role she is far more vulnerable. Desperate and sad, she carries the film with her powerful delivery.
12. Julieta (2016)
Another adaptation, this time from a collection of stories by Alice Munro, it follows a woman struggling with her past and the disappearance of her daughter. Its setting feels distant from prior films, with some of the story playing out in a rural seaside village and his colour scheme of blues blended within the 1980’s aesthetic is absolutely delicious to behold. It’s a melodrama through and through, with little to no major set piece moments. But it still holds the sensibility of the director in its grasp, an interesting territory he took up (it was set to be his first English-langue film but decided against the idea). With this he takes the works of the Canadian Munro and translates the stories into something significantly fitting with his own voice. The story plays around with time, space and perspective to unravel the personal dissipation of a family and explores the clash of female generations and the burden of motherhood. Not his best under this umbrella theme, as you will find out later, but still beautifully captured. It also features a late career Rossy de Palma, fabulous if downplayed, a wonderful addition in the combing of time periods, of old and new.
11. Bad Eductaion (2004)
One of Almodóvar’s most important films, it also isn’t a favourite. I am ashamed to admit it but it’s true. Highly personal, it tells the story of institutional abuse in a Catholic school for young boys and a homosexual child’s journey into adulthood and the bizarre relationship he later forms with one of his abusers. It’s such a bold film, certainly a wild follow up to his Academy Award winning Talk to Her, but I can’t bring myself to love it. Maybe that’s its point and I would never want anyone to miss out on such a powerful film. And why I rank it highly. It also boasts a brilliant performance from Gael García Bernal, in his one-time appearance in an Almodóvar universe. It’s sultry but dark, a combination which Almodóvar handles wonderfully.
10. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)
This film is so weird. I love it. A play on Italian neo-realism, melodrama and exploitation cinema, the best way I feel I can describe the film is total Social Surrealism. A housewife (played by early Almodóvar’s wonderful recurring player Carmen Maura) is put-upon, manipulated, and downtrodden by everyone in her life. Her family is strange and neglectful; her neighbours are quirky and bizarre, made up of a prostitute and an enviable picture perfect housewife. Her sons are a rent boy and addict, her husband is a taxi driver in love with a German singer from his past and she is hooked on amphetamines to get through the long hours of cleaning she must do to make ends meet. They live in a run -down high rise flat with their grandmother, strange in herself and longing for her village. And yet Maura’s housewife is all the more isolated. Despite all of this, Almodóvar paints a surprisingly funny and off the wall picture. A dysfunctional family all abhorrent in so many ways, it still manages to make social commentary whilst poking fun at the genres it’s heavily influenced by.
9. High Heels (1991)
Controversial opinion: I think High Heels is wildly underrated. Not only does it establish the very themes that Almodóvar later executes so beautifully but it captures the tantalising tragedy surrounding its subject matter beautifully. Similar in vein to works like Autumn Sonata (Bergman, 1978), its feeds on the absent mother and the resentment of the daughter into adulthood, competing for the affections of the same man and dealing with their own traumas and conflicts.
When Almodóvar handles stories like this, I can’t help but embrace them wholeheartedly. As one of the few male filmmakers to understand women, his balancing of the two characters, portrayed by the lovely Victoria Abril and Paredes as her mother the two balance the scales beautifully. There is something wholeheartedly meek and unsuspecting about Abril in all her performances, no matter how depraved or saucy the role is. Ultimately, she rings very true as a woman whose own maturity into womanhood has been hindered by a careless mother. It broke my heart despite having a very camp dance sequence in the middle. It features all the bizarre extravagances of Almodóvar’s world whilst still holding true to the sentimentality at its very heart.
8. Law of Desire (1987)
The film that really brought Almodóvar attention was this controversial classic. Featuring explicit scenes of gay sex, large amounts of violence and a relatively positive and highly underrepresented transsexual character, this film pushed boundaries that many filmmakers were not willing to cross, even now. Eusbeio Poncela stars as a porn director pining for his lost true love, and in his sadness begins a steamy affair with a psychotic fan played by the brilliant Antonio Banderas. This relationship proves dangerous and deadly all the while inspirational, as the director begins to pen a play for his transgender sister played by Carmen Maura. Their lives intertwine in the underbelly of Spain’s subversive culture, hypnotic and lavish in its composition.
One of my favourites of early Almodóvar, he tells an intricate story of human behaviour, jealousy and deception and relishing in the exploitative nature of his material to make a bold and true statement. The film is significant yet received no awards in its native Spain, too shocking at the time of release; even now it is far more extreme to many audiences than what they are used to, a testament to how brave Almodóvar was in his content. Its relevant and brilliant, a game-changer in representation on screen.
7. Pain & Glory (2019)
Almodóvar’s autumn years have truly begun with this contemplative piece. Semi-autobiographical, he reunited with Banderas to create a story of an aging filmmaker struggling for inspiration, battling ailments both physical and mental as he reunites with a past collaborator all the while contemplating a past that weighs heavy on him and who he later became. As every great filmmaker does in their latter years, they delve deep into their own experiences and psyche to create a masterful meditation of the life they have led, the childhood that shaped them and the people who came and went. Bergman did with Fanny & Alexander (1982), Truffaut did it with The 400 Blows (1959) and Fellini did it with Amarcord (1973), so he was bound to get reflective. But with a career heavily influenced by his own upbringing and past, being both mysterious and candid in his experiences, it’s an astoundingly fresh take for the director. Far more vulnerable a film, the experience is made all the better for Banderas amazing performance as his on-screen persona, a man who knows him very well indeed. Yet it is best enjoyed once fully immersed in the world of the filmmaker.
6. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
The film that shot Almodóvar to true fame in the English-speaking world is also still one of his funniest works. Boasting an amazing cast including Maura, de Palma, Banderas and more, it’s about as madcap and zany as he gets , a true farce of comedy and drama. There’s a reason it’s been adapted into a successful stage play, it holds all the elements that make the film work as a large scale set piece. Pepa (Maura), a voice actress, has been dumped by her married boyfriend who is now avoiding her. She throws clothes around the room, sets fire to her bed and ignores all her friends’ phone calls. So very depressed, she laces her Gazpacho with sleeping pills, intent on killing herself. Only, she is interrupted by a friend whose boyfriend has turned out to be a terrorist, a young couple in search of new apartment made up of Antonio Banderas and the uniquely stunning, unforgettable Rossy de Palma, and the maniacal wife of her ex-lover, now on the path of revenge.
So much happens in Women on the Verge, it doesn’t seem possible that Almodóvar can wrap it all satisfyingly. But he does. With heart and soul. His women are relatable and wild. His world is over the top, vibrant, with costumes straight off the catwalk. It’s a merging of all the things that worked so well for the filmmaker before, to create a concoction if mayhem. The writing is sharp, the acting is flawless. It’s purely delightful.
5. The Skin I Live In (2011)
This film came out around the time I became award of Pedro Almodóvar in general. With this in mind, it begins to feel incredibly contemporary to my own discovery of Spanish cinema. An ode to Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960), the story follows a renowned plastic surgeon (played by a wonderfully predatory Antonio Banderas) who after the tragic loss of his wife years before has developed a realistic synthetic skin to help burn victims of which he secretly tests, with the help of his faithful housekeeper (Parades returns for a more motherly role), on a mysterious female patient, Vera (Elena Anaya). Hidden in the safety of his isolated home in the countryside, the appearance of people from his past soon disrupt the strange harmony he has created and the perverse truth gradually unfolds.
The closest to a horror film that Almodóvar has ever made, it is certainly eerie but firmly resides in the psychological drama/thriller category. It’s sleek and voyeuristic, playing with characters framed within ginormous images (Think Bergman’s Persona, the boy against the projected image of the woman… I’m referencing Bergman a lot; someone needs to do a top fifteen of him next). The eyes are highlighted intensely, the intimacy and claustrophobic nature of the mansion, the rooms that become maze like. It’s deeply enjoyable on an entertainment level and on a deeper level. Either way, it’s a really fun place to start with Almodóvar, the perfect example of Banderas amazing acting chops when he’s working in his native language and with one of his best collaborators.
4. All About My Mother (1999)
An homage to classic Hollywood, the actresses of old and the icon Bette Davis (the title is a play on the 1950 Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve) is not all this film is good for. It is also one of Almodóvar’s most devastating dramas. Cecelia Roth plays a single mother, a nurse, raising her son. They share much in common including a love of acting and the theatre. One night they go to see a play of his idol, an ageing stage actress (Parades returns again) but tragedy strikes when he is hit by a car, dying later in hospital. Following this, his mother goes on a journey to the city in search of her son’s birth father who is now a transvestite. Along the way she meets many women who help her with her grief and the search for her ex, eventually forming a new surrogate family. One is played by the brilliant Penélope Cruz, in her second film under the director, this time in a larger role as a pregnant, HIV positive nun. She plays wildly against the American typecast that plagued many of her English speaking roles, embracing the meek and shy young woman suffering with an incurable disease. Also in this found-unit are the aging actress, finding comfort in the mother’s attentiveness and a transgender sex worker with a huge heart and wonderful sense of humour.
A perfect example of the fortitude of women, Almodóvar displays his beautiful understanding of the female kind, highlighting and encapsulating the power that exudes from a loving close knit group. He adores his actresses, and he clearly adores the women in his life. The film is filled with heart and soul, deeply moving and strikingly funny, the film lands on all marks. It’s simply beautiful, one of the best examples of a diverse, female-led film of recent history. His truest and most sincere depiction of motherhood, even after losing a son, he highlights the powerful endurance required to be a mother. There’s a reason it won the Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards.
3. Talk to Her (2002)
The film that won Almodóvar his second Oscar for best original screenplay, Talk to Her, to many this is his Magnum Opus… and the only film in which his predominant female characters are both comatose. What a fascinating premise, I hear you say? Well, it is. Somehow, Almodóvar has crafted an amazing story with matadors, nurses and male bonding. When Lydia is gored by a bull, seriously injured, in the ring, she is taken to a hospital and watched over by her writer boyfriend Marco. Here, he befriends male nurse Benigno, who cares for another comatose patient, Alicia with excessive, intimate and lavish care. Once a ballet dancer, she has been in a coma since being hit by a car. Through this friendship, he learns to communicate with the woman in his life better It is Benigno’s belief that these women somehow can hear and talk back to them in their own nuanced, affirmative if very silent way. However, the unfolding of events reveal that there is far more going on behind the scenes.
The men are fixated on the women, trapped by them as much as the others are in their comatose state. The women’s fate contrasts so dramatically with the physicality of both of their careers, and even more so with the opening and closing of the film, framed within two dance performances choreographed by the late, great Pina Bausch. These men meet here, although unbeknownst to them at the start of the film and the eventual closing of the films curtains allude to a future act in the story for Marco. Almodóvar plays with the acts as structures and shapes his story around this, aware that the medium of film is equally as lavish to that of theatre, revelling in his melodrama whilst remaining grounded in the humanity of his characters. He alludes heavily to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and also the cinema of the silent era, going as far as to intercept the film with the now infamous ‘Shrinking Lover’ silent short that becomes a metaphor for a shocking incident. In anyone else’s hands, the story would have unravelled in sheer ridiculousness. But somehow, Almodóvar has a magic touch, embracing the extremities in his story and keeping in touch with something that easily communicates with his audience. It’s how he’s had such longevity in the industry. This is the film that truly proves his mastery in storytelling.
2. Volver (2006)
The translation of its title is’ to come back’. That moves me in itself. I know it’s not as good as Talk to Her, or as significant as All About My Mother, but Volver takes and breaks my heart in a way that I didn’t know I was capable of. Over and over again, upon every re-watch, I can’t help but fall totally in love with the story. As mentioned before, it ties in nicely with Flower of My Secret, but this is far superior in cast, performances and story. Another reflection of the endurance of women and the power of motherhood, the maternal instinct, it’s a beautiful drama exploring grief and forgiveness. As much in the narrative as it is behind the scenes. Penélope Cruz leads the cast as the feisty Raimunda, troubled but deeply loving matriarch finally slipping into a lead role in the director’s filmography and proving to be absolutely devastating. The role of the sweet, unassuming and reliable sister, Sole, is played by Lola Dueñas, a supporting regular for the filmmaker. Most notably, Carmen Maura returned for the first time to an Almodóvar film since Women on the Verge, following a falling out with the director, playing the deceased mother of the two women, Irene. It is also a return of a few more familiar faces, and very much feels like a family feature, of women uniting.
Raimunda’s husband is alcoholic and abusive, but she never expected him to prey on their teenage daughter. In an act of self-defence, the young girl kills him. The woman decides to cover up the murder, protecting her daughter from the law whilst also overseeing the restaurant of a friend whilst they are away. Meanwhile, her sister, a hairdresser, is being visited by her dead mother’s ghost who was haunting their recently deceased aunt. She is trying to hide this from her sister, who not only regrets losing her mother but also had a strained relationship with the woman whilst she was alive.
It’s very melodramatic, but at this point if you’re watching Almodóvar for anything else then you should look into a different filmmaker. But it’s executed so warmly and stylishly. He imbues wonderfully tender and minute moments that hold so much more for the viewer than the more elaborate scenes. So attentive is Almodóvar to these moments, capturing sisterly bonding, the familial love that draws one into each scene with the women that by the end, you’re not ready to leave. A particular scene, of Raimunda singing (a dubbed Cruz at this point) to an audience of her neighbours, the song Volver by Estrella Morenete, is beautiful and powerful. Cruz’s performance is truly astounding, tugging at my heart strings. I’m a total sap for this film…
1. Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (1990)
There was no other choice for me. It could be no other way. Because Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (Atame! in Spanish) is the most entertaining, brilliantly tongue-in-cheek, outrageous romantic comedy of the Twentieth century. Ricky (played by an amazing Banderas) just got out of a mental hospital. He goes in search of the woman he lost his virginity to, now a Porn star, called Marina (Abril makes her first appearance in an Almodóvar film and plays wonderfully off her leading man). He kidnaps her, taking her hostage, demanding that she fall in love with him. Through a series of events, some kind of Stockholm syndrome and a rather funny, yet totally outrageous push and pull between the characters, she gradually begins to grow feelings for him.
Spoofing the rom-com formula, Almodóvar’s controversial romance is still shocking today. It would never get made, ignoring how very outlandish and cynical he is in his interpretation of girl-meets-boy, embracing and radicalising the basic tropes to the extremes, one would assume that the director was being offensive. But it’s clear he is incredibly well-versed in the history of cinema. So he instead takes the most familiar and makes it wildly uncomfortable, until even the audience is rooting for this questionable pair. It’s such a weird film, over the top in every way. It pokes fun at the adult film industry, the very melodramas Almodóvar is so fond of, with his cast giving brilliant comedic performances – every element just falls so nicely into place. It thrives in its controversy. Almodóvar truly made a wonderfully funny, wholly unique experience. It’s made all the better with Abril and Banderas, a pairing that could and should have been explored more, a display of the great performances the two deliver with Almodóvar and wildly likable despite the subject matter.
I don’t regret picking this as my number one. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t watched this film more than some of his other culturally relevant films, like way more. But this one is definitely important. Following Women on the Verge, he outraged everyone. He titillated and stirred the pot, provoking conversation on the depiction of relationships of women on film. He flipped the genre on its head and gave the story his own artistic twist. He does just what he wanted. And we fans wouldn’t want it any other way.
There is no denying just how influential Almodóvar is. After the years I have delved into his work, he never fails to move and engage me. Perhaps one the biggest influences on me as both a writer in all forms and as a human being, this Spanish filmmaker transcends many of his contemporaries. What is most significant, however, about Almodóvar, is his conviction. To his vision, to his work and to his quirky cast of characters, Almodóvar has remained entirely true. It is clear to see why so many of his actors return again and again to him, his sensibility and sensuality in all his work allows them to embrace their roles wholeheartedly and push themselves as creatives. One of the few true auteurs still remaining in the world of cinema, Almodóvar has never deviated, never crumbled under studio pressure. He’s remained admirable and inspiring to audiences and fellow storytellers alike.
To think this list was going to be a top ten, after much consideration I couldn’t manage it. With only twenty-one feature films (not including any of his numerous shorts or the out of circulation debut, Folle... folle... fólleme Tim! in 1978), I may as well have ranked them. But ultimately I wanted to revel in my favourites. Besides, my choices today have been incredibly personal to me and after being a fan for so long, I have spent long enough with the filmmaker to know what really works for me.
The Human Voice is available here.