David Mackenzie’s propulsive prison drama “Starred Up” wowed critics and audiences upon its release last year. Starring Jack O’Connell (“Unbroken”) and Ben Mendelsohn (“Animal Kingdom”), the film centers on young Eric Love (O’Connell), a violent repeat offender who has “starred up” from a Young Offender Institution to an adult prison. While there, he reunites with his long-imprisoned and volatile father (Mendelsohn) and confronts his inner-most demons in a group therapy program hosted by an idealistic new volunteer (played by “Homeland” star Rupert Friend). Contemplative, meticulous and brilliantly acted, “Starred Up” illustrates complicated familial dynamics and enduring personal imperfections with emotional intensity. Mackenzie, on his eighth feature film, exercises a remarkable level of control, with isolated bursts of violence lingering long after the final punch has landed.
“My Left Foot”
Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in “My Left Foot” is often cited as one of cinema’s best. As Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy who could only control his left foot, the infamously method actor stunned audiences around the world and won his first of three Academy Awards. Though the “personal affliction” genre is now oft-mocked for its awards-y nature, it’s impossible to deny Day-Lewis’ towering accomplishment here. In centering a film on a severely-limited character, writer-director Jim Sheridan took quite a risk. But beginning to end, Day-Lewis is staggeringly authentic and completely mesmerizing. In capturing Brown’s bottled anger, physical trauma and unbreakable spirit, Day-Lewis not only gives a stunning performance: he anchors “My Left Foot,” and makes it a compelling, profoundly moving piece of cinema that remains a classic decades later.
“The Crying Game”
Neil Jordan’s penetrating and subversive “The Crying Game” grapples with topics of race, sexuality, gender and nationalism in a fashion both complicated and mature, even by today’s standards. Starring Stephen Rea (“The Honorable Woman”) as IRA foot soldier Fergus, the film explores the triangular relationship between Fergus, a prisoner under his watch named Jody (Forest Whitaker) and Dil, Jody’s girlfriend with whom Fergus begins a secret relationship. Remembered for its twisty narrative and shocking twist, “The Crying Game” established Jordan as a leading Irish filmmaker and eventually netted him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The film remains exceptional for managing edge-of-your-seat thrills while also tackling many societal pressure points and creating rich, three-dimensional characters.
“Waking Ned Devine”
Before getting behind Hollywood studio comedies like “Nanny McPhee” and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” writer-director Kirk Jones made waves with his small Irish indie comedy “Waking Ned Devine.” The film, which neared an Oscar nomination for Best Picture after receiving equivalent recognition from the Producers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, examines the dysfunction of a small Irish village after one of its residents wins the lottery and dies shortly thereafter. With an infectious mix of humor and humanity, this small passion project crossed over as a big American success, grossing just under $25 million in the States despite its minuscule budget and local flavor. It also marks a high point in the career of David Kelly, the great Irish actor who passed away in 2012.
After his raucously funny, Golden Globe-nominated directorial debut “The Guard,” writer-director John Michael McDonagh outdid himself with “Calvary.” Premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film won raves as a richly realized and powerfully acted moral parable. Brendan Gleeson, who also starred in “The Guard,” plays an optimistic, good-natured priest who’s forced to confront his faith and his world after being threatened during a confession. With sweeping cinematography of the north Ireland countryside, the film mines haunting, boundless beauty with a dark comedic undercurrent. As one of Ireland’s most prolific and acclaimed actors, Gleeson once again drew notices for his work here, earning mentions from several critics’ groups and some chatter for an Oscar nomination. And with only two films under his belt, McDonagh has already proven himself as one of the most exciting filmmakers around.
This one should come as no surprise. “Once,” from veteran Irish filmmaker John Carney, went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song and was such a massive global hit that it spawned an equally-successful Broadway musical. The film version, released to great acclaim, follows two struggling musicians in Dublin as they document their love story by writing, rehearsing and finally recording a set of deeply-personal songs. It’s a catchy, warm and irresistibly romantic ride, and one of the best movie musicals of the past few decades. Most famously, it introduced the song “Falling Slowly,” which netted a Grammy Award nomination and has since been covered by Joy Electric and Josh Groban, among others. The film also led to broader success for Carney, whose last film “Begin Again” starred Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley and also competed at the Academy Awards.
Two films before his Oscar champ “12 Years a Slave,” Steve McQueen burst onto the scene with a brutal cinematic recounting of the 1981 Irish prison hunger strike. In “Hunger,” McQueen muse Michael Fassbender plays republican Bobby Sands, who leads the strike and wrestles with its longevity and ethical implications. Fassbender’s presence notwithstanding, the film introduced many stylistic choices that have come to be characteristic of McQueen’s work: a tense and unwavering focus on bodies and physical trauma, an unrelenting focus on abuse and mistreatment and a deeply-rooted sense of humanity which carries the film, especially at its most harrowing. For his blistering debut, McQueen won awards from BAFTA, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle, and of course, he’s since gone on to incredible success.