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When it comes to arts and culture, Ireland is a country that has always punched above its weight. The small island has produced far more than its fair share of brilliant poets and musicians, but its contributions to cinema should not be overlooked. Irish filmmakers of past and present have mined the nation’s harsh conditions, fraught political history, and poetic spirit for inspiration, and the resulting films are often wonderful. And there has never been a better day to stop and appreciate them. Instead of going out to the pub this St. Patrick’s Day (seriously, stay home!), why not spend some time learning about Irish cinema? Alternatively, the holiday makes for a great excuse to add a beloved movie to your collection. Either way, we’ve compiled a list of must-own Irish films for your purchasing pleasure. These movies represent the best, most authentic voices in Irish cinema. There isn’t a leprechaun to be found, but any film on this list can hold its own against a great Seamus Heaney poem.
The only criteria for the films appearing on this list: telling an honest story about the nation of Ireland, and being made by an Irish director. From musicals and animation to biopics and thrillers about the IRA, the best Irish films touch on wildly divergent subject matter. That makes it all the more interesting that certain motifs emerge throughout many of them. Ireland’s rich musical history is a popular subject for filmmakers, whether their subjects are songwriters perishing in obscurity, world-renowned singers who pack concert halls, or simply common citizens who rely on music to get through their lives. Many of these movies are both a tribute to the nation’s musical tradition as well as a reflection on the physical and economic conditions that necessitated that musical flourishing. From a tonal standpoint, most of these films are quite bittersweet, finding beauty in hardships without ever losing sight of reality. The country is diverse enough to produce a variety of great art, but small enough to have a shared cultural vocabulary that reoccurs in countless great works. Taken together, the collection of films provide an ample illustration of the current state of Irish cinema. Keep reading for our favorite Irish movies available on Blu-ray.
John Carney’s intimate musical is a raw, warm slice of life that follows two young Irish musicians falling in love during a moment they both know is fleeting. The sparse, almost-DIY cinematography leaves the actors nowhere to hide, and the result is a hauntingly realistic Irish love story that never feels sentimental. And it produced one of the great film songs of all time, “Falling Slowly,” which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It was later adapted into a Broadway musical and essentially remade as a star-studded American film (“Begin Again,” which is also also worth a watch) but nothing comes close to the magic of the original.
No discussion of Irish cinema would be complete without an entry from Neil Jordan. The writer and director has made several of the nation’s most acclaimed films, but “The Crying Game” might be his best. The story of an IRA member’s increasingly complicated encounters with a British family is a thriller that offers no easy answers to complex subject matter, and landed Jordan an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
These days, Sir Daniel Day-Lewis is near universally recognized as one of the greatest actors of all time. But in the late ’80s, he was just another impressive character actor waiting for his breakout. That came with “My Left Foot,” Jim Sheridan’s biopic about Christy Brown, an Irish writer and artist who struggled with cerebral palsy and could only work with his left foot. Day-Lewis’ physical transformation is incredible, but never lacks empathy or resorts to caricature. The performance is essential, but the rest of the film also holds up as an excellent portrayal of life in Ireland.
One of the most recent movies on this list, “Brooklyn” tells an authentically Irish story despite taking place far away from Ireland. Saoirse Ronan plays a young Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s, who falls in love with a young Italian plumber in a film that is equal parts Old Hollywood closeups and Irish melancholy. It is the kind of film that emphasizes what moving pictures are capable of, with director John Crowley relying on sweeping images and subtle facial expressions to advance the plot more than any dialogue. We recommend buying the Blu-ray and watching it on the largest screen you can find.
There are plenty of great movies about Irish musicians, but this lovely film from director Lisa Barros D’Sa pays tribute to the people who help facilitate those musicians’ careers. “Good Vibrations” tells the story of Terri Hooley, an Irish man who opened a record store in Belfast and was an integral part of the city’s punk scene. He later went on to found the record label that the movie is named after. It serves as a reminder of the legitimately dark circumstances in Ireland at the time and the way they shaped the now-beloved music genre. But have no fear, the wildly-entertaining movie has plenty of fun moments as well. And given the film’s subject matter, it should come as no surprise that the soundtrack is absolutely electric.
This biopic tells the story of Joe Heaney, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest practitioner of traditional Irish folk music. In his relatively short life, Heaney recorded hundreds of folk songs unique to the island nation and became an international celebrity in the process. Pat Collins’ film about his life serves as a great introduction to traditional Irish folk music and the lengths people go to preserve it, while touching on universal themes about what it means to be an artist. It’s worth owning a physical copy for the gorgeous music alone, which you will want to revisit again and again.
This wonderful animated movie is the first entry in director Tomm Moore’s trilogy of films drawing on Irish folklore. It follows a young boy working at a monastery in ninth century Ireland in a fictionalized accounting of the “Book of Kells,” a famous illustrated biblical manuscript. Many critics have called “The Secret of Kells” the Irish equivalent of a Miyazaki movie, which is about as high of praise as you can give an animated film. It also serves as a great introduction to Cartoon Saloon, an Irish animation studio that produces consistently charming work and has been nominated for five Academy Awards. In addition to its references to Christianity, the beautifully hand-drawn film also pays homage to Celtic mythology, making it a great St. Patrick’s Day viewing for movie lovers of all ages.
Years after the success of “Once,” John Carney returned to Ireland to make this delightfully poppy musical set in Dublin in the 1980s. It follows students at a strict Catholic school who discover their identities through forming a rock and roll band. More playful and sporting a glossier sheen than his first Irish musical, this film is all the better because it never tries to be “Once.” The ’80s rock-inspired soundtrack is infectious, but it still manages to tell a poignant story about family dynamics against the backdrop of economic hardship.