Over the hills and far away: Top 10 films for St. Patrick’s

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2013)

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With Saint Patrick’s Day falling on this weekend, I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with these 10 grand recommendations…

 The Butcher Boy– A sleeper from director Neil Jordan, featuring one of the most extraordinary performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen (Eamonn Owens is a midget Brando). Difficult to describe, the film is in the vein of An Angel at My Table or Heavenly Creatures. The difficult and dark subject matter is handled with a surprising amount of warmth and compassion. Heartbreaking, savagely funny, and worth seeking out.

The Commitments– “Say it leoud. I’m black and I’m prewd!” Pulling together a cast of talented yet unknown actor/musicians to portray a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius from director Alan Parker. This “life imitating art imitating life” trick works wonders. In some ways a thematic remake of the director’s own 1980 film Fame, Parker transplants the scenario from New York to Dublin (look fast for a sly reference when a band member sings a parody of the Fame theme).

However, these working class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy; there’s an undercurrent referencing the economic downturn in the British Isles. The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the musical performances that really shine, especially from (then) 16-year old Andrew Strong, who has the soulful pipes of someone who has been drinking a fifth and smoking 2 packs a day for decades. In 2007, cast member Glen Hansard popped up  as the co-star of the surprise low-budget hit, Once, a lovely (if a bit over-praised) character study that would make a good double bill.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People– Sean Connery…in a film about leprechauns?! Well, stranger things have happened. Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from perennially family-friendly director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, The Absent-Minded Professor, That Darn Cat!). Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and the strapping pre-Bond Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well (considering the limitations of the time). The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing (“Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”).

Garage– I only recently discovered this bittersweet 2007 character study by director Leonard Abrahamson and writer Mark O’Halloran, but I would easily place it as one of the finest films to come out of Ireland in the last decade. It’s a deceptively simple tale about an emotionally/socially stunted but good natured 30-something bachelor named Josie (Pat Shortt), who tends a gas station in a small country village (he bunks in the garage). When he befriends a teenager (Conor Ryan) who takes a summer job at the gas station, it unexpectedly sets off a chain of life-shaking events for Josie. Shortt (a popular comedian in his home country) gives an astonishing performance. I like the way the film continually challenges expectations, delivering an insightful glimpse at the human condition as affecting and profound as Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

In Bruges– Full disclosure. In my original review, I gave this 2008 Sundance hit a lukewarm appraisal. But upon a second viewing, I realized that I had “missed something” the first time around, and have now decided that I actually like this film quite a lot (it happens).

A pair of Irish hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low until their piqued Cockney employer (an over the top Ray Fiennes) dictates their next move. What ensues can be perhaps best described as a tragicomic Boschian nightmare (which will make more sense once you’ve seen it). Written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who deftly demonstrates the versatility of  “fook” as a noun, an adverb, a super adverb…and an adjective.

Into the West– A gem from one of the more underappreciated “all-purpose” directors working today, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one purty pair o’humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at the time).

My Left Foot– This was the first (and best) of three rewarding collaborations between writer-director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis (1993’s In the Name of the Father and 1997’s The Boxer were to follow). This 1989 biopic about Christy Brown, a severely palsied man who became a renowned author, poet and painter despite daunting physical roadblocks makes for an incredibly moving film.

What makes this film unique within its genre is the avoidance of that over-used audience-pandering shtick of turning its protagonist into the cinematic equivalent of a lovable puppy (see Rainman, I Am Sam); Brown is fearlessly portrayed by Day-Lewis “warts and all” with all his peccadilloes laid bare. As a result, you quickly acclimate to Day-Lewis’ physical tics, and see past them, allowing Brown to emerge as a complex human being, not an object of pity. That is a mark of a truly great actor, and Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar. Brenda Fricker also earned her supporting Oscar as Brown’s mother. It’s easy to overlook 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s contribution as the young Christy; it’s also a great performance.

Odd Man Out– An absorbing film noir from the great director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol). James Mason is excellent as a gravely wounded Irish rebel who is on the run from the authorities through the dark and shadowy backstreets of Belfast. Interestingly, the I.R.A. is never referred to directly, but the turmoil borne of Northern Ireland’s “troubles” is most definitely implied by word and action throughout F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff’s intelligent screenplay (adapted from Green’s original novel). Unique for its time, it still holds up remarkably well as a “heist gone wrong”/chase thriller with strong political undercurrents. The great cast includes Robert Newton and Cyril Cusack.

The Quiet Man– A John Ford classic. I was never a huge John Wayne fan, but he’s damn near perfect in this role as a down-on-his-luck boxer who leaves America to get in touch with his roots in his native Ireland. The most entertaining (and purloined) donnybrook of all time, plus a fiery performance from the gorgeous Maureen O’Hara round things off nicely. Although quite tame by today’s standards, I’ve always found the romantic scenes between Wayne and O’Hara to be surprisingly tactile and sensuous for the time. The pastoral valleys and rolling hills of the Irish countryside have never looked lovelier onscreen, thanks to Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout’s Oscar-winning cinematography.

The Secret of Roan Inish– John Sayles delivers an engaging fairy tale, devoid of the usual genre clichés. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that frequently recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have been nominated for a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal.

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