Spring is in the air, and it’s that time of year when we can enjoy a pint and a shot of Tullamore Dew on the patio (or while watching our favorite Irish movie).
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we have compiled a list of the 10 best Irish films to raise your glass to on the 17th. Cheers!
10. Gangs of New York (2002)
Okay, so we’re cheating a little bit with the first one on this list, but Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is his first partnership with the now Oscar winning Leonardo DiCaprio. The two have become a fruitful cinematic duo, a combination for which we moviegoers are grateful for (hello The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street). In this 2002 feature film, DiCaprio plays the Irish-born Amsterdam, who returns to New York’s Five Points to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Bill the Butcher (played by a charmingly ferocious Daniel Day-Lewis).
Amsterdam must enmesh himself in Bill the Butcher’s lair and good graces in order to enact his revenge and, in the process, catches the eye of Cameron Diaz’s crafty and beguiling Jenny – occasional ward of Bill and occasional thief.
It’s a luscious and unabashedly violent period piece, and the scene where Bill threatens to cut up Amsterdam with a cleaver, his face drenched in blood a la Carrie, is particularly potent.
9. The Magdalene Sisters (2002)
Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters chronicles Margaret, Rose, and Bernadette, three teenage girls sent to the Magdalene Asylum for reporting her rape by a cousin, flirting with school boys, and having a child out of wedlock. The film is a horrific chronicle of the abuse, cruelty, and squalor of the 1960s Irish Catholic laundries.
Bernadette (played by Nora Jane Noone, who also played the adrenaline junky Holly from The Descent) shows a restrained desperation for escaping by whatever means possible, and her despair is palpable. Though she enters the asylum a virgin, she must exploit her body to the boy who delivers goods in the hopes that he will marry her – or at least assist in her escape.
It’s a film that showcases the intense misogyny of an era where women were punished for abuses inflicted upon them – or for simply having bodies that could be (mis)construed as sexual and, therefore, sinful.
Fun side note: director Peter Mullan plays the troubled (and potentially homicidal) Gordon Fleming in the deeply disquieting Session 9 (2001). He also has a brief cameo appearance in The Magdalene Sisters as an abusive, angry father of one of the girls in the asylum.
8. Grabbers (2011)
In the spirit of monster movies like The Host or The Blob, Jon Wright’s Grabbers is a delightful horror romp where a cozy Irish island must fend off bloodsucking aliens by drinking copious amounts of alcohol.
Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) is a typ- A cop (akin to Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona) who is the perfect foil to her more low-key partner Garda O’Shea (Richard Coyle). When Garda finally takes to the bottle as a means of survival she lets her hair down in a melding of slapstick comedy and clumsy romance. Hilarity and destruction ensue in equal measure; this is a film that never takes itself too seriously, and we’ll cheers to that.
7. Once (2007)
It takes most of the movie, but when Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová finally duet in John Carney’s Once, the resulting “Falling Slowly” became the song everyone couldn’t stop singing all the way to the 2007 Academy Awards where it won for Best Original Song. This is an understated film, but the connection between the two musicians is undeniable. Simple, without being simplistic, their chemistry thrums like a guitar riff you can’t forget.
Though the music garnered countless awards, the performances of Hansard and Irglová hit a major chord. Their faces are expressive and open, unadulterated by affectation or stilted performance.
6. The Guard (2011)
Brendan Gleeson is an Irish actor who has been in a myriad of films, including (but not limited to) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Troy, 28 Days Later, and In Bruges. And he and Don Cheadle might be one of the best cinematic pairings since Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
In The Guard, directed by John Michael McDonagh, Gleeson plays a gruff and unorthodox Sergeant, and Cheadle plays a FBI Special Agent investigating a murder. The dry, witty banter between the two, coupled with an entertaining gunfire exchange and explosion (though perhaps a bit more realistic than those of the Tom Cruise ilk), makes for a film that is part comedy, talkie, and action adventure.
5. Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
Before Sean Connery was ordering martinis “shaken, not stirred” as James Bond in Dr. No or sporting red undies in Zardoz (1974), he was Michael McBride in Robert Stevenson’s 1959 Disney classic Darby O’Gill and the Little People. And before People Magazine’s 1989 sexiest man alive was saving the British Empire from diabolic villains like Dr. Julius No or Auric Goldfinger, he was serenading (and falling in love with) Darby O’Gill’s daughter (the missed Janet Munro), albeit in a supporting role.
The film follows titular character Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) and his hunt for a pot of gold, despite being repeatedly deterred by the tricky leprechaun King Brian (Jimmy O’Dea). The sets are picturesque and there’s music galore, complete with a dancing squad of leprechauns in King Brian’s lair.
It’s a fun family film, palatable for both parents and kids, with quotable lines such as, “You’ll get no more whiskey here today. But, if you care to be sociable, you can have a glass of stout.”
4. The Quiet Man (1952)
Director John Ford is the master of melodrama, landscapes, action, and love stories. The Quiet Man forms a conglomeration of all his motifs in a beautifully shot Technicolor drama.
John Wayne stars as Sean, an American boxer, who travels to Ireland and meets Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher. He quickly falls in love with the feisty red head who won’t put on her bonnet and who proudly states, “We Danahers are a fighting people.” To this Sean replies, “Can think of a lot of things I’d rather do to a Danaher,” a tongue and cheek response that requires no translation from Mary Kate’s shocked expression.
When Sean and Mary Kate finally kiss in a graveyard in the midst of a rainstorm, Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling’s kiss from The Notebook doesn’t hold a candle to Ford’s 1950s rendering of a wet t-shirt contest.
Yet Mary Kate’s obsession with her dowry throws a wrench in their romance (and subsequent marriage). Skyrockets in flight, afternoon delight this first wedding night ain’t. But there’s heart there – and it keeps beating between the two.
Also, what John Ford film wouldn’t be complete without a fistfight in a bale of hay or a horse riding sequence, this time in the surf of the ocean, rather than in the desert from Stagecoach (1939) or The Searchers (1956)? And we’re in across-the-pond heaven when Wayne orders “one of those black beers” in a pub. Let’s raise our glasses to this classic.
3. Hunger (2008)
British director Steve McQueen’s Hunger is a poetic and lyrical portrayal of the Irish hunger strike in 1981. McQueen, who garnered critical and widespread acclaim with his motion picture 12 Years a Slave (2013), began his partnership with actor Michael Fassbender in Hunger (Fassbender has starred in all three of McQueen’s feature films). And the Irish-German actors plays IRA member Bobby Sands here, who goes on hunger strike to protest the British government.
What follows is not a traditional prison film, nor a traditional historical drama. The inmates smear feces on the wall like a monochromatic Kenneth Noland painting, and McQueen sometimes has long takes that surpass 20 minutes (a take that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson make note of in their Film Art: An Introduction). And yet the film won major accolades including the Caméra d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, as well as joining the Criterion Collection ranks almost immediately upon release.
2. The Commitments (1991)
Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991) is a crowd pleasing, raucous, rock n’roll gem. If you like a story with an underdog (or band), and a soundtrack that will get you up and doin’ the twist, The Commitments is the film for you.
This is one of the more well-known and heralded Irish films from the past few decade, and a soundtrack that includes Al Green, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding is partially to blame—as is the scrappy, but loveable crew of Jimmy’s (played by Robert Arkins) makeshift soul band. There are bad hairdos, lots of drinking, and, ultimately, clashes of personalities and egos. But, to (mis)quote Bogie – here’s listenin’ to you, kid.
1. My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989)
From the opening close-up of Christy Brown putting on a record with his foot, Jim Sheridan’s film seizes ahold of your eyes and heart. The scene recurs when Christy picks up a piece of chalk with his foot as a young boy and is encouraged by his mother to “leave his mark.” He later rewards her in spades when he shakily writes “mother” across the floor.
The film follows Brown’s life as he develops as a painter and intellectual under the tutelage of his doctor Eileen Cole. “There are only two types of painting,” Brown expounds at his first exhibition, “religious and the circus.” Though it would be easy to create a caricature, Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal is all soul and no spectacle. The scene where Brown confesses his love to Cole at a restaurant is a gut-wrenching moment – but Sheridan doesn’t cut away until Brown gets the last word (and tablecloth).
Daniel Day-Lewis won his first of three Academy Awards playing Christy Brown. Hearing Day-Lewis recite Hamlet as Christy or score a goal in a soccer game lying on his side is worth the statue in gold alone.
Additionally, Sheridan directed Day-Lewis again in his 1993 feature In the Name of the Father and his 1997 feature The Boxer. American audiences may be more familiar with Sheridan’s 2003 film In America, which he co-wrote with his daughters, and stars Samantha Morton as the mother of an Irish family recently immigrated to New York City. Throughout his career, Sheridan has a proclivity for tough stories with tender centers – My Left Foot is no exception.