St. Patrick’s Day is the one annual holiday where you get to celebrate being Irish. Unfortunately it often just means people getting a little more wasted than usual. It’s a holiday that’s a bit insufferable, but that’s too bad because there’s plenty about Irish culture to celebrate. The food, the music, and yes even the drink.
If you’re a movie lover, appreciate Ireland, and also hate large crowds of people who are blackout drunk, I’ve got your Friday night planned for you. Choose one of these five movies!
Bloody Sunday (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2002)
I never said that it was going to be a cheery Friday night, did I? A large portion of movies about Ireland end up being about the political repression and violence in Northern Ireland. Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) began his career long fascination with dramatic recreations of real life events with this film. It’s a docu-drama about the infamous 1972 civil rights march in Derry, Ireland, which ended in the murder of 13 civilians at the hands of British paratroopers. Greengrass lends his signature real time, cinema verite style to the recreation,making you feel like you’re right there with the characters. It can feel nauseating and overwhelming at times- but it’s worth it, as the film is pure adrenaline for your heart and mind. Watch it with the subtitles on, because they might be speaking “English,” but in their thick Northern Irish accents, it’s basically a different language.
The Commitments (dir. Alan Parker, 1991)
Another type of Irish film is the working class comedy- usually revolving around shit out of luck characters trying to cope with the doldrums of daily Irish living. Director Alan Parker brings the music scene of Dublin to life in this tale of Jimmy Rabbite (Robert Arkins), a knowledgeable music snob who tries to put together and manage a soul band. He loves American soul and R&B, and believes that the underdog spirit of the Irish people is the perfect fuel for making music about finding joy in dire circumstances. The fact that life sucks for poor Irish people is a foregone conclusion, one that The Commitments wrings plenty of laughs out of. It has aged somewhat strangely in terms of cultural appropriation- but watching these mostly non professional actors bringing such heart and naturalism to their performances is a marvel unto itself.
Hunger (dir. Steve McQueen, 2008)
Hunger takes the devastation of Bloody Sunday and turns it in on itself, resulting in a film as miserable feeling as it is breathtakingly alive. The first film from Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) and the first lead role for Michael Fassbender tells the story of real life IRA soldier Bobby Sands, who in 1981 led a hunger strike while imprisoned with fellow IRA soldiers. The film’s centerpiece is a lengthy unbroken shot of a conversation between Sands and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), one that will be studied in film classes for decades to come. It’s this scene that puts everything that came before in context, and sets the stage for the decay that will follow. It’s a cold, cold film that is slow to reveal itself, so have patience. It’s worth the effort.
Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
This one falls more into the “working class comedy” category- and yet, it has a beating heart of empathy and redemption at its core. Starring Brendan Gleeson as Father James, a priest whose life is threatened by an anonymous patron in a confession booth. The confesser shares that he was molested by a priest as a child, and has chosen to take his revenge by killing Father James after he “gets his affairs in order.” In some ways it begins to feel like an Irish Catholic version of High Noon. We know a showdown is coming, and most of the film follows James around as he, often in a hilariously dark manner, ties up the loose ends in his life. You’re laughing at jokes about suicide one minute- then contemplating the endless capacity of regeneration in the human spirit the next. If that extreme contrast isn’t the most quintessentially Irish thing, I don’t know know what is.
The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Of course it’s hard to talk about the Irish people without noting the Irish Americans. Martin Scorsese won his long awaited best picture and best director for this 2006 Irish Mob epic, remaking and transporting the Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs to a Boston setting. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as Billy Costigan and Collin Sullivan, an undercover cop and crime family police mole caught in a cat and mouse game, both out to discover each other’s true identities. In a way it’s second tier, Scorsese lite. But it’s probably his most purely fun movie, and a surprising kind of departure (heh) for him as well, in that it doesn’t take itself very seriously at all. The violence is shocking and brutal, but the laughs are also constant and the characters memorable. In that sense it’s of a type with Cavalry, and as such feels extremely, well, Irish.
Honorable Mentions: Sing Street, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Michael Collins, Brooklyn, In America