The internationally renowned Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has been making films for over 40 years. Since his feature debut, 1980's Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom, the writer-director has gone through several cinematic phases; from shock artist to stylish farce specialist to award-winning dramatist.
Almodóvar honed his filmmaking skills during a cultural renaissance in Spain, following the death of dictator Francisco Franco. His unmistakable visual style — which includes the employment of striking production design, innovative camera angles, and bright, primary colors — has remained intact since his earliest works.
With a diverse filmography that spans melodramas, dark comedies, and thrillers, the auteur's work is perhaps best known for his portrayals of complex women. (He has directed Penélope Cruz to multiple Oscar nominations.) He also consistently explores the themes of identity and desire, while showing an uncanny ability to find quirky humor in his collection of oddball characters.
His latest film is Strange Way of Life, a 31-minute Western starring Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke. As it opens in theaters, A.frame is taking a look back at some of the Almodóvar's most defining films. All of his films are brimming with creativity and worthy of at least one viewing, but here are 10 essential films showcasing his boundless versatility and knack for capturing the more colorful corners of the human condition.
Almodóvar’s style first reached full bloom with this stylish romp involving a sexually insatiable Madrid pop singer (Cecilia Roth) and a gay Middle Easterner (Imanol Arias) tied to her childhood amnesia episode on the beach. Almodóvar himself has a memorable musical cameo here, and frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas turns up here in his big screen debut.
After mixing melodrama with absurdist comedy in two more features, the nun-crazy criminal hideout tale Dark Habits (1983) and housewife survival saga What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Almodóvar turned his eye to Spain's most controversial public spectacle, bullfighting, and ventured into the horror genre for the first time. Psychic abilities and religious mania factor into the fatalistic romance that erupts between a wounded bullfighter (Nacho Martinez) and a serial killer attorney (Assumpta Serna), with Banderas on hand once again as an aspiring matador with a blood phobia and ESP. Complete with a show-stopping opener highlighting films by Mario Bava and Jess Franco, there's nothing else out there quite like it.
The film that really put Almodóvar on the international map in a major way, this freewheeling farce is a great showcase for one of his most famous stars, Carmen Maura, who had just played a tough-as-nails transgender woman in his comedic thriller, Law of Desire, a year prior.
A big hit in the U.S. and the filmmaker's first Oscar-nominated feature (for Best Foreign Language Film), the episodic tale charts the attempts by voice actor Pepa (Maura) to deal with a heartbreaking split from her married boyfriend and the pandemonium that ensues in her rooftop apartment and throughout Madrid. From drug-spiked gazpacho to a pompadoured mambo taxi driver, this one is filled with unexpected delights and makes for a great gateway film for anyone new to Almodóvar's work.
Almodóvar's most controversial film was largely responsible for the creation of the NC-17 rating, which was intended to allow a viable theatrical platform for commercial or art films geared only for an adult audience. Banderas stars here as Ricky, a young man recently released from an institution who has only one goal in life: to romance Marina (Victoria Abril), a drug-addicted former adult film actress whom he keeps captive in an apartment. A highly unorthodox and unsettling study of love, delusion, and codependence, the film was the first of a trio of films with Abril, followed by the murder melorama High Heels (1991) and another ratings-testing envelope-pusher, Kika (1993).
Clearly seen now as a dividing line in the filmmaker's career, this adaptation of a 1986 Ruth Rendell mystery novel tones down the candy-colored approach for a darker, twisty thriller. Live Flesh marks Almodóvar's first time directing Penélope Cruz, whose role is key during the film's opening. Javier Bardem, another Oscar winner-to-be, stars as a wheelchair-bound cop whose destiny intersects with the accused criminal who shot him, igniting a complex love quadrangle that leads to more passion and murder.
One of the director's most beloved films was his first Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Language Film) and remains one of the most honored films to ever come out of Spain. Openly drawing on everything from A Streetcar Named Desire to All About Eve, the story brings together multiple characters, including grieving mom Manuela (Cecilia Roth), the renowned stage actress (Marisa Paredes) connected to her son’s death, and a pregnant nun (Cruz). The film also marked the third time that Almodóvar worked with composer Alberto Iglesias, who has scored most of his work since. The score for this film marks one of their finest achievements together.
Almodóvar's next film was also an Oscar winner, this time winning him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. He also received an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
Incorporating elements from modern dance to surrealism, the film hinges on the unusual rapport that forms between reporter Marco (Dario Grandinetti) and nurse Benigno (Javier Cámara) while they both care for comatose women (Rosario Flores and Leonor Watling) at the same hospital. Their motivations, however, are markedly different, leading to a bittersweet twist ending.
With its evocative photography and symmetrical story structure, Talk to Her marked another consecutive masterpiece for Almodóvar, which he followed with another acclaimed feature, Bad Education (2004), starring Gael García Bernal.
Cruz takes center stage in another of the director's odes to motherhood in all its many forms, here with a story originally introduced as a narrative vignette in Almodóvar's earlier The Flower of My Secret (1995). In the Spanish countryside, Raimunda (Cruz) takes drastic measures to cover up for a self-defense slaying committed by her daughter courtesy of a handy freezer. Her close-knit matriarchal family proves to be a source of strength but has a strange secret in store involving Raimunda's mother (Maura, in a welcome return to the Almodóvar repertory company), who was presumed dead years before in a fire.
Cruz, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Volver, would star in Almodóvar's next film, the dual-narrative drama, Broken Embraces (2009).
Almodóvar returned to the horror genre with a vengeance with this perverse, haunting thriller riffing on countless stories of mad scientists operating on unwitting young women. In this case, there’s a big twist involved as plastic surgeon Robert (Banderas) is extremely protective of and obsessed with a bandaged woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), being kept in his multi-story home. To mention anything else would ruin the surprises, but the mixture of Cronenbergian body horror and Gothic tropes adapts well to the filmmaker's more delicate and sentimental side once the full truth comes to light.
After two more features, the fizzy comedy I’m So Excited (2013) and the female-driven drama Julieta (2016), Almodóvar directed Banderas to his first Oscar nomination (for Best Actor in a Leading Role) as Salvador Mallo, a physically ailing filmmaker channeling his most vivid childhood experiences into his latest project. Turning to heroin to manage his pain after reuniting with one of his key actors from a past film, he’s forced to deal with his issues head-on including the death of his mother (Cruz). Also an Oscar nominee for Best International Feature Film, Pain and Glory is the director's most direct commentary yet on the process of bringing stories to the screen and features a surprising flourish at the end that will make any viewer gasp.