After weeks spent spotting recurring patterns in Pedro Almodóvar’s films, it was a pleasure to tackle a task that involved ordering rather than counting. Here is my personal list of the great director’s movies, ranked from best to worst. As you can see, I consider the films Almodóvar made after 1999 to be consistently superior to their predecessors. Items 1 through 5 are outrageous masterpieces, Items 6 through 8 are disturbing and brilliant, Items 9 through 11 are odd and interesting, and Items 12 through 16 are flawed and creepy. Items 17 and 18 are for completists, historians, or stoned over-50s only.
1. Talk to Her (2002). This film earned the top spot on the strength of the wonderfully complex character of Benigno, the sheltered son of a shut-in who is one of Almodóvar’s sweetest psychopaths. The formula for a great Almodóvar film is humor + heart + social commentary + weird plot twist. It should also explore at least one of his obsessive themes. This film does all that, and it’s lovely to look at, too. It includes one of the most random, but also the most beautiful, of the many musical performances in his films: Caetano Veloso singing “Cucurrucucú Paloma.” I awarded bonus points for the casting of singer Rosario Flores, a member of a prominent Spanish musical family, as bullfighter Lydia González.
2. All About My Mother (1999). The Almodóvar joint most likely to make me cry—especially the final words on the theater curtain that signals the end of the movie: “To my mother.” (The director’s mom died the year it was released.) The cast includes three great leading actresses—Cecilia Roth as a grieving mother; Marisa Paredes as a troubled actress, and Penélope Cruz as a saintly, pregnant, HIV-positive nun—as well as the amazing Antonia San Juan as Agrado, a truck-driver-turned-whore who happens to be both pneumatic and well-hung. A redemption tale.
3. Broken Embraces (2009). Almodóvar’s most romantic movie. A heartbreaking love story, it had a shot at No. 1, but there’s one plot line too many. The director should have chosen between the extended scenes from Chicas y Maletas, the film-within-a-film bizarro-world version of Almodóvar’s own breakthrough movie, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or the story of Diego’s paternity. Both was too much.
4. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). The movie that made Almodóvar an international star. Perhaps his leanest film, it zips along as a good farce should. It’s packed with comedic turns—Loles León as an opinionated receptionist, María Barranco as a model who has gotten mixed up with a bunch of Shiite terrorists, Rossy de Palma as uptight Marisa, Chus Lampreave as a porter who can’t tell lies, and the fabulous Mambo Taxi—but it’s driven by a big question: How can a couple communicate if the man isn’t listening?
5. Volver (2006). In her Slate review of Volver, Dana Stevens described it as “a tribute to maternity and the feminine life force,” as well as “a celebration of a way of life that’s particularly Spanish.” Whereas many of Almodóvar’s films end in the pueblo, that is, the ancestral village, this film begins there, placing the characters right in the middle of all the unresolved issues they need to work out. The two halves of the plot—a woman a) covers up the murder of her husband and b) deals with the return of her dead mother—never really come together. Still, Raimunda, played magnificently by Penélope Cruz, is so warm that you can’t help pulling for her second chance at life to work out. If ever a character deserved a happy ending, it’s her.
Disturbing and Brilliant
6. Bad Education (2004). A story of revenge and power shifts, this is one of Almodóvar’s most accomplished movies, but I find it rather gloomy. (I can’t help wondering if that’s due to the absence of female characters.) There is humor at the beginning of the movie (Javier Cámara—Benigno in Talk to Her—is hilarious as a bird-brained queen), but the tragic tale of the consequences of priestly abuse takes a grim film-noir turn at the midpoint.
7. What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984). There’s too much going on in Almodóvar’s overstuffed fourth film, but it’s socially conscious and surprisingly moving. I have to deduct points for the misfires—the telekinetic child’s home improvements, everything related to Germany, and the horrifically homophobic portrayal of the predatory dentist to whom Gloria sells her teenage son. (Gay directors don’t get a pass on perpetuating gross stereotypes.) But it also deserves praise for its ambition. There are several pleasingly complex performances, especially Verónica Forqué as the whore next door (Almodóvar’s first truly integrated comedic role) and Chus Lampreave as a miserly granny who longs to return to the pueblo.
8. Law of Desire (1987). Rarely has Almodóvar shown the power of—and the problems with—unconditional love as well as he did in Law of Desire. The plot summary suggests unremitting misery—a boy who was sexually involved with his father and changed his sex to please him, only to be abandoned; a jealous lover who murders his rival; a man who loses his memory and with it his passion—but as is so often the case in Almodóvar’s universe, the sadness is balanced by goofiness and joy. The casting is typically subversive: Tina, the male-to-female transsexual, is played wonderfully by woman-born-woman Carmen Maura, while the mother of her surrogate child is played by real-life male-to-female transsexual Bibi Andersen.
Odd and Interesting
9. The Skin I Live In (2011). This is indisputably a well-made film—it’s expertly controlled, and the twist is sprung with great efficiency. It’s just too cold for my tastes. To avoid spoilers, I’ll say only that the tone is unusually dour—for once there’s very little light relief.
10. The Flower of My Secret (1995). The story of a woman in transition. Leo, played with the perfect dose of vulnerability by Marisa Paredes, is lost at the beginning of the movie—but thanks to the love of a good man and a rejuvenating trip to the pueblo, she finds herself in one of the most gorgeous apartments in Madrid by the end of the film. (I concede that my affection for Flower may be motivated by nostalgia: I once lived across the street from Ángel’s amazing pad, though my home was a sketchy hostel.) Yet another bittersweet performance by Chus Lampreave, as Leo’s mom, whose life is a two-front battle against daughter Rosa (Rossy de Palma) and constipation.
11. Live Flesh (1997). Almodóvar’s most openly political film opens with a 1970 speech by Manuel Fraga, a member of Franco’s regime who was still active in politics at the time of the film’s release. Fraga declares a state of emergency on the night that the protagonist, Victor, is born on a Madrid bus circling the empty city. At the movie’s end, 26 years later, Victor’s son is born in a cab moving through the bustling capital of a Spain that has “lost its fear.” Victor’s apprenticeship in sex—he takes lessons in love from an older woman so that he can finally please the first woman he slept with—is Almodóvar’s second bite at that story line. (Ricky of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! completed a similar project.)
Flawed and Creepy
12. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990). “How can you love a kidnapper who ties you to the bed?” asks a character in this film. I ask myself a similar question: How could I enjoy a film about a woman who falls for the man who kidnaps her and holds her in bondage? The kidnapper, played by Antonio Banderas, has had a hard life, he’s obviously mentally ill, and he really does love Marina. Victoria Abril plays Marina with a perpetually startled expression, as though someone had just woken her from a deep sleep by screaming her name.
13. Kika (1993). Positives: Verónica Forqué’s performance as the eponymous logorrheic airhead, Almodóvar’s mother playing the world’s unlikeliest TV talk-show host. Negatives: Peter Coyote’s dubbing, the drawn-out dénouement, and the grotesque extended rape scene. The nays have it.
14. High Heels (1991). Miguel Bosé, a heartthrob among teens when the movie was released, is the son of a great Spanish bullfighter and a former Miss Italy, a perfect biography for a movie about the travails of the mediocre daughter of a talented and successful mother. I love that Almodóvar makes bold casting choices like this, but Bosé couldn’t carry the weight of the role he was given, a complicated character with multiple identities and personalities, and the film suffers for it.
15. Dark Habits (1983). It’s hard to stand against a film about nuns who drop acid, care for pet tigers, and write lurid romance novels, but Almodóvar dropped the ball on the characters who don’t wear habits. Yolanda, the marquesa, and Sister Rat’s sister Antonia are all dislikable and dull, a lethal combination. And, yes, this tale of a nightclub singer finding refuge in a convent appeared eight years before Sister Act.
16. Matador (1986). The killer story of a man and a woman who are both turned on by death gets lost amid the folderol of an unfathomable murder mystery. The last (thank goodness) of Almodóvar’s three films to feature a character with superhuman powers.
For Completists Only
17. Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls From the Heap (1980). Almodóvar’s first film to receive a theatrical release is a fabulous disaster. More significant for what it is—low-budget, lo-fi documentation of the movida Madrileña that flowered after the death of Franco—than for anything it contains. My favorite section: Pepi’s ads for Ponte Bragas (Put-on Panties), featuring a young Cecilia Roth, who, 19 years later, played Manuela in All About My Mother.
18. Labyrinth of Passion (1982). Pepi, Luci, Bom enjoyed such extraordinary success as a midnight movie that Madrid’s art-house cinema commissioned a follow-up. Almodóvar responded with this shock-fest concoction of sex, drugs, and punk rock. Although this is clearly a beginner’s effort, several scenes turn up in later movies, from Women on the Verge (the airport scramble), All About My Mother (the taxi tour of gay cruising grounds), Bad Education (the presentation of an adult behaving inappropriately with a child), and even The Skin I Live In (a doctor desperate to make amends with his daughter).