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The 10 best Irish movies

What's in common among Brooklyn, Sing Street and Hunger─the Irish movies.

Sing Street

Ireland might be small, but the impact of its cinema is proudly outsized. Here're the Time Out picks for the 10 best Irish movies. 

Best Irish movies

Brooklyn (2015)

The bearded-hipster image of Brooklyn has gone so global, it’s almost miraculous that a film would succeed in making the borough seem exotic again—by reaching back to its blue-collar Dodgers-loving past. That’s one of the many feats of Irish director John Crowley’s rapturously big-hearted adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, an immigrant tale set in 1952. But Brooklyn is no mere nostalgia piece (even though these Montreal streets sure do the trick). It’s also a reclamation of a kind of sincere moviemaking that’s gone out of style, where decent characters grapple with real ethical dilemmas and awaken to new versions of themselves. Call it square, but no other drama this year feels quite so virtuous. Its beating heart is 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan, once the bright-eyed teen from Atonement but now, on evidence here, the most quietly expressive actor of her generation. She plays Eilis, bored and amused by her provincial life in Ireland as a browbeaten market assistant, yet still not grown-up enough to happily embrace the promising American future that’s been arranged for her by a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent). Leaving behind her mother and older sister for the journey to Ellis Island, she’s a sad, lonely figure barely able to speak, but the movement of the story—from wrenching homesickness to blooming confidence and a smile on one’s stroll to work—elevates the movie into universal urban poetry. Sharply scripted by Nick Hornby (who speeds the plot through what might have been

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Once (2007)

A vacuum repairman (Glen Hansard) moonlights as a street musician and hopes for his big break. One day a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova), who earns a living selling flowers, approaches him with the news that she is also an aspiring singer-songwriter. The pair decide to collaborate, and the songs that they compose reflect the story of their blossoming love.

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The Quiet Man (1952)

Ford’s flamboyantly Oirish romantic comedy hides a few tough ironies deep in its mistily nostalgic recreation of an exile’s dream. But the illusion/reality theme underlying immigrant boxer Wayne’s return from America to County Galway—there to become involved in a Taming of the Shrew courtship of flame-haired O’Hara, and a marathon donnybrook with her truculent, dowry-withholding brother McLaglen—is soon swamped within a vibrant community of stage-Irish types. Ford once described it gnomically as “the sexiest picture ever made.”

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The Commitments (1991)

Foul-mouthed, fast-talking and very funny, this is Parker's best to date. It's an intentionally 'small' movie that treats a familiar subject (kids forming a rock band) with a deft intimacy. But as the young hopefuls from Dublin's working-class Northside go through the round of auditions, rehearsals and gigs, it becomes clear that the film is big in heart. For Parker and his excellent, mostly non-professional cast are indeed committed to characters, milieu and music: classics from Otis, Wilson Pickett, Aretha et al. For one thing, the script precisely captures both the witty banter and the modest dreams of the streetwise kids. For another, Parker never over-emphasises the unemployment and poverty, nor does he glamorise the band. The result is a gritty, naturalistic comedy blessed with a wry, affectionate eye for the absurdities of the band's various rivalries and ambitions; and the songs are matchless.

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Kisses (2008)

Dylan (Curry) is an 11-year-old who fears and loathes his rageful dad (Roe). His next-door neighbor Kylie (O’Neill) has her own set of prepubescent worries—notably a creepy, lascivious uncle. After a particularly violent blowup at Dylan’s place, these two Irish kids ditch their working-class ’hood and head into Dublin aboard a river dredger. (Given the way the film explicitly wears its references on its sleeve, you’re shocked that the pilot of their getaway boat isn’t a large black gentleman named Jim.) The boy’s older brother ran away from home years ago, so Dylan and Kylie brave both twee and terrifying misadventures in the urban jungle while searching for his him, losing what little innocence they have left. No one would claim that director Lance Daly delivers an Emerald Isle version of The Spirit of the Beehive, though this scrappy film does have a knack for capturing the elation and confusion of late childhood in their ragged glory. Those well-pitched moments of tween angst and youth-run-wild freedom have to share screen time with rookie tricks (switching from dour black and white to color for the city scenes is pure Film School Pretension 101), a quirky obsession with Dylan’s famous namesake and some graceless melodramatic string-pulling. These abused, antsy kids may, or may not, be all right as they slowly, reluctantly mature. The adult behind the camera, however, still has some growing up to do.—David Fear Watch the trailer More new Film reviews

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In the Name of the Father (1993)

In this powerful drama, Jim Sheridan explores the father-son relationship between Gerry and Giuseppe Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite), who were wrongly convicted of a 1975 IRA bombing. Director Sheridan and Day-Lewis already mined Oscar gold with their 1989 collaboration My Left Foot, but this one’s better.

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Hunger (2008)

Hunger’s ostensible protagonist is IRA member Bobby Sands (Fassbender), the brains behind a 1981 hunger strike at Northern Ireland’s Maze prison, which resulted in his death (after 66 days) and made worldwide headlines. Yet director-cowriter Steve McQueen elides Sands’s presence for much of the film’s first half, focusing instead on the isolating rigmarole of prison life through the alternating perspectives of a paranoid cell-block guard (Stuart Graham) and a freshly incarcerated convict (Milligan). When Sands finally emerges—dragged naked and screaming into a bathroom, where he’s forcibly washed and shaved—it’s as if from a chrysalis, and a shit-caked one at that. Sands’s hunger strike is detailed in grueling fashion, the mostly static camera lingering over aspects of his increasingly wasted anatomy, just past the point of discomfort. Flesh hugs bone, eyes glaze over, open sores stain bedsheets—a literal breakdown of the body politic. McQueen’s conception is schematic, but his aural and visual aesthetics are continuously arresting, even as they edge, in Hunger’s final movement, toward cliché. As Sands sinks further into dementia, he sees himself as a teenager running through darkened woods, birds hovering ominously overhead. It’s an interesting effect: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “child is father to the man” sentiment clashes provocatively with John Donne’s “death be not proud” corporeality, though McQueen seems too enamored of his shorthand art-house symbolism for it to truly

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Calvary (2014)

What do you tell a priest whom you plan to shoot point-blank between the eyes? “Say your prayers,” of course. John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to 2011’s The Guard is a wickedly funny and Tarantino-esque black comedy—all fatalism and gallows humor but with a beating heart and an inquiring mind beneath its tough-guy bluster. The mighty Brendan Gleeson, a visibly weathered actor, plays Father James. In the confession box, a man tells him how he was raped by a priest at the age of seven. That cleric is now dead, so it’s Father James who must pay. The mystery voice gives James seven days to put his affairs in order; the murder is set for next Sunday. The film then becomes a sly, shaggy-dog mystery. McDonagh (whose brother, Martin, wrote and directed In Bruges) casts the best of Irish talent as the insane locals, a lineup of oddballs. Any one of them might be the would-be culprit: Is it the coke-snorting cynical local doctor (Aidan Gillen)? Or the intellectually challenged, racist butcher (Chris O’Dowd)? You won’t find as many guffaws as McDonagh had in The Guard, and Calvary has its flaws: Not all the characters tickle, and it’s slipshod in places. McDonagh’s brand of surreal, paint-it-black humor is an acquired taste, smuggling in bigger questions—e.g., why would God create a serial killer? That’ll be a shade too dark for some. But everyone else can sit back and enjoy Gleeson’s career-best turn, an authentic heart-and-soul performance.

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The Crying Game (1992)

Drunk at a South Armagh fairground, black British soldier Jody (Whitaker) is abducted by the IRA and held hostage on a farm. His jailer Fergus (Rea) comes to respect and understand his prisoner, and after an army raid, heads for London to seek out Jody's lover, hairdresser and chanteuse Dil (Davidson)... It's perhaps surprising that Jordan's thriller hangs together at all. After the opening carnival scene, it virtually turns into a statically theatrical two-hander; then, when Fergus reaches London, both locations and focus become more diffuse as the narrative steadily winds itself up for a bloody finale. There's a problem not only in the clumsy structure, but in Jordan's determination to keep surprising us with twists. Even though the whole is never more than the sum of its parts, the film does work, raises a plethora of questions concerning loyalty, violence and the nature of desire, and is in some respects a summation of the various themes that have emerged from Jordan's work.

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