Pedro Almodóvar is Spanish cinema. At least, that’s what many people outside of Spain believe. After two Oscars and countless other accolades won in his home country and abroad, the movida madrileña’s shining star has eclipsed other Spanish directors in the world’s eyes. Watching Almodóvar’s movies is like pitching up at an eccentric, dysfunctional family get-together. He recycles his actors and actresses, themes and plot strands. But whereas the word ‘recycling’ may imply blandness or tiredness with other directors, for Almodóvar it implies bigger, bolder and all the more memorable. This man is nothing short of visionary; over three decades’ worth of fantastic films will attest to that. Here’s a countdown of the top ten.
#10 The Flower of My Secret (1995)
The Flower of My Secret centres on Leo (Marisa Paredes), a middle-aged woman left alone in Madrid after her soldier husband goes to war. Struggling to come to terms with the fact her marriage is crumbling, she becomes increasingly cynical about her career as a romance novelist. A great director of women, Almodóvar gets a fantastic performance from the po-faced Paredes, and manages to inject enough bizarre humour into the script to keep things light. Main highlight is the scene featuring the protagonist’s batty mother.
#9 Law of Desire (1987)
This film saw Almodóvar collaborate for the third time with Antonio Banderas, who plays a gay film director’s dangerously jealous lover. The first of Almodóvar’s films to properly explore homosexuality, Law of Desire is a brilliant, sinister portrayal of love triangle-angst. You’d never guess it by listening to him voice Puss in Boots, but Banderas does ‘psychopath’ pretty damn well.
#8 Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)
A romantic comedy as different from Nora Ephron’s films as you can possibly get. Antonio Banderas stars as a recently released psychiatric patient intent on kidnapping a porn star (Victoria Abril). His aim: to force her to fall in love with him. A zany look at the complexities of Stockholm syndrome, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! makes for great viewing.
#7 Matador (1986)
Sex and death are the two key ingredients of this movie. A lot of blood is spilled. In fact, Matador is awash with every shade of red imaginable, from the vermillion of actress Assumpta Serna’s lipstick to the dark heart-blood of a gored bull. The story revolves around Diego, a retired bull fighter, and Maria, a rather alternative lawyer. Orgasms and murder are passionate obsessions for these two. It may be macabre, but Almodóvar creates pathos and beauty in a story which, on paper, sounds batshit crazy. Includes another brilliant performance from Antonio Banderas as a gentle, guilt-ridden youth who wreaks havoc by admitting to a slew of homicides he played no part in.
#6 Broken Embraces (2009)
For this feature, Almodóvar worked with Penélope Cruz for the third time. Rich with vivid characters, this is the story of Harry Caine, a blind film-maker haunted by remorse. Switching continuously between past and present, Almodóvar’s script allows for all the unique little quirks which have become key features of his movies: undisclosed truths, clever cameos, colourful montages and dead-pan line delivery. A brilliant film.
#5 Bad Education (2004)
Starring Mexican heartthrob Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, Casa de Mi Padre), Bad Education is a murder mystery with more twists and turns than a flamenco dancer’s performance piece. This film features one of Almodóvar’s best narratives to date: a delicious, metafictional escapade weaving together the lives of cross-dressers, paedophilic priests and film-makers. And García Bernal as you’ve never seen him before.
#4 Volver (2006)
A masterclass in gallows humour, Volver saw Penélope Cruz established as Almodóvar’s latest female muse. She plays Raimunda, a mother struggling to make ends meet as her good-for-nothing husband lazes about. That is, until one night he tries to rape their daughter, who stabs him to death. While the first act may have you thinking it’ll chiefly be about Raimunda covering up the murder, the story soon veers into completely new territory, as a figure from the protagonist’s past turns up out of the blue (‘volver’ means ‘to return’). Cruz is superb as the fat-bottomed, sassy protagonist, and her outrageous story will have you chortling and wincing in equal measure.
#3 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
The title may be long-winded, but Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a sharp, snappy comedy that earned Almodóvar his first Oscar nomination. He has attributed his love of colour to the Moorish blood coursing through his veins (Almodóvar is an Arabic-Spanish name), and he lets it be known in this movie. Centring on Pepa (Carmen Maura), a dubbing actress desperate not to lose the love of her life, Women on the Verge… is brighter and bolder than Warhol on crack. Ladies lose their minds, gazpacho splatters everywhere, fires blazes, guns are drawn…And men go running for cover. The best way to watch this film is by flinging yourself into the fun. So, crack out those castanets and don your brightest pair of pantalones. You won’t regret it.
#2 Talk to Her (2002)
So often the ebullient, vibrant focus of Almodóvar’s films, women in Talk to Her are silenced. This movie follows Benigno, an effeminate male nurse, and Marco, a sentimental writer, whose paths cross at a hospital. Both men are madly in love with strong women who now lie comatose, and their stories are unravelled through flashbacks. These gentle men must rattle along, frustrated by the limitations of their power and haunted by the memory of days when their loves were awake and well. Talk to Her is a brilliant exploration of gender, sex and fate, featuring some of the most moving scenes in Almodóvar’s filmography. It earned him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
#1 All About My Mother (1999)
Featuring astounding performances from Cecilia Roth, Penélope Cruz and Marisa Paredes, All About My Mother is a tribute to womanhood and motherhood. This film, set in Barcelona, follows Manuela (Roth), a single mother who loses her son and leaves Madrid in search of his estranged transvestite father. Along the way, she meets and befriends a string of hilarious, troubled characters that are to play a key part in her future. This film possesses astonishing emotional resonance, and earned Almodóvar the long-deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. If you only ever see one of his movies, make sure it’s this one.