This week, a little flick called Pain & Glory is landing on certain U.S. shores. The 21st film from acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, Pain & Glory teams two of the director’s greatest muses – Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas – in a semi-autobiographical exploration of his life and legacy. Considering that the film is taking a look back at his filmography, I figured we should do the same. I have devoted my last couple years to tracking down every last feature film he directed, so it is my distinct honor to present a fully researched ranking that you are almost certain to disagree with! Let’s do this thing!
20) What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)
The early work of Almodóvar is an interesting mix, with his future knack for color design and shot framing rubbing against the kitchen-sink punk rock aesthetics of Spain’s Movida movement, which his first few films were born from. This tale of tangled lives in a single Spanish apartment complex has its moments of brilliance (even bad Almodóvar is still Almodóvar), but it’s too crowded with incident and doesn’t do much to rise above every other similar film in the Euro-arthouse gutter. It doesn’t help that every single character and plot point he has done better somewhere down the line.
19) Dark Habits (1983)
This tale of sin, depravity, and a live tiger in an urban nunnery is better in concept than in execution. Although the third act setpiece is a glorious explosion that shows his natural aesthetic instincts, the plotting here is once again too crowded and, dare I say, boring.
18) Matador (1986)
Matador is the first film in the run where we can see the first sustained glimpses of the fully fledged director Almodóvar was going to become just the next year. The pitch black comedy (about two murder obsessives who fall in love) is violent and edgy in an electrifying way, but the story just can’t quite limp its way across the finish line. It’s the only Almodóvar movie that feels like it overstays its welcome.
17) Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls on the Heap (1980)
Almodóvar’s first feature film (at least the first that’s publicly available to someone who doesn’t have access to the shoeboxes in his closet) is a delightful three-hander between different types of women trying to live their lives around the edges of Spanish society. It’s a lively comedy with a bold, kinky approach, but it’s undeniably cheap and messy. I would never accuse Almodóvar of being a “focused” filmmaker at the best of times, but Pepi, Luci, Bom is a jagged freestyle that launches back and forth at whiplash-inducing speeds.
16) Labyrinth of Passion (1982)
Of his extremely early work, all of which lives in this lower sector of the list, Labyrinth is the one that best showcases his knack for blending humor, queer storylines, and melodrama in endlessly delightful ways. It might not be a masterwork, but it’s an endlessly watchable document of La Movida with a heap of compelling characters who expertly deliver his snappy dialogue, including one played by a very young Antonio Banderas, working with the director for the first time.
15) Kika (1993)
Almodóvar hit a transitional period between his string of successes in the late 80’s and his award-gobbling run in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and while Kika – about a very eventful week in the life of a cartoonishly peppy cosmetologist – is still fun it’s certainly the weakest of that in-between span. Other than Matador, it’s the film where his kinky and twisted sense of humor ages the worst. There’s a rape scene that is an excellent, very European comment on the trials women face every day, but it’s also incredibly off-putting and nasty in a way that most of his other work just isn’t. There’s a reason Kika was pretty thoroughly despised by most audiences at the time; it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
14) Talk to Her (2002)
Now here’s where we start getting controversial. Talk to Her (about the friendship between two men who meet in the coma ward of the hospital) is widely hailed as one of Almodóvar’s masterpieces, but for me this one lacks the spark that all of his best films display. It’s a rule of thumb that his films revolving around men tend to be less interesting than those with predominantly female ensembles, and this entry suffers even worse because the relentless melodrama of this film lacks the subtle humor and stylized aesthetic impulses that usually cut his more complicated screenplays.
13) High Heels (1991)
Here’s another of those transitional films. It’s a rote mother-daughter melodrama, although for Almodóvar “rote” still includes a dance number in a prison yard and the daughter befriending a drag queen who dresses up as her mother. This one is also bumped up the list by giving Almodóvar ensemble stalwart Marisa Paredes her first grab at a truly meaty role.
12) Broken Embraces (2009)
Before Pain & Glory, Broken Embraces was almost certainly Almodóvar’s most autobiographical film, though casting himself as a straight man did some damage to the emotional core of the narrative. It’s a quietly beautiful film brought to life with sharp, precise technique, but it’s just not particularly unique.
11) Julieta (2016)
Almodóvar’s most recent film, following a woman through the various tragedies and triumphs of her everyday life across the decades, shows the director is still capable of reaching his aesthetic and stylistic peaks, but the cast is almost entirely fresh faces. His best work tends to be with the collaborators who have spent the most time with him (as evidenced by the hilarious scenes featuring Rossy de Palma the one actress pulled from his usual ensemble to play a role here), and the film’s anticlimactic ending fails to bring together the dozens of plot threads it unspools involving these capable, but not entirely compelling relative unknowns.
10) Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
Here’s where things start to get really interesting. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a Stockholm Syndrome thriller about Antonio Banderas kidnapping his favorite porn actress, who is starring in her very first legitimate feature film. Somehow, through his kaleidoscopically kinky approach, Almodóvar turns this film into a warmly comic romance, with a twist of biting Hollywood satire for good measure. It’s a bizarrely satisfying good time.
9) The Skin I Live In (2011)
Of the Almodóvar films I’ve seen only once, this is the one I’m most keen to revisit. This thriller about a woman in captivity boasts one of the director’s tightest screenplays, and its geometrically chilly aesthetic almost dares us to miss his warm, colorful previous works. There are some elements of this film that deserve a very thorough digging-through before I can assess how I really feel about them, but Antonio Banderas delivers a spine-chilling performance for the ages.
8) I’m So Excited! (2013)
Yes, this is the plane orgy movie. I’m So Excited! gets a bad rap because it’s so easy to dismiss in such pithy terms. Sure, there’s a ten minute sequence off the plane that threatens to run the movie aground, but this is Almodóvar’s most pure, lightweight comedy. It might not have a lot of substance, but it’s a whole lot of fun to see him flex his humor muscle and see what that looks like in its full, unfiltered-by-melodrama glory.
7) All About My Mother (1999)
All About My Mother could easily fall in the Talk to Her camp of straining too hard to achieve weighty Oscar worthiness, but it’s rounded out by its lush, gorgeous cinematography, lively queer storylines, and a deep-rooted sense of humor, especially from actress Antonia San Juan. The story is all over the place, linking a woman suffering from the loss of her son with different types of mothers across the city, but it juggles its moving parts into an excellent and satisfying conclusion.
6) Live Flesh (1997)
Live Flesh doesn’t enjoy A-list status among fans of Almodóvar, but I absolutely feel that it should. It’s a drum-tight thriller about an ex-con interfering with the relationship between two of his victims, and it’s brought to the screen with a kinetic artistry that stands with the director’s best work. Also featuring an extremely young, extremely handsome Javier Bardem.
5) Bad Education (2004)
Even if you know nothing about Almodóvar, this film feels very personal. A searing look at the abuse of young boys in a Catholic school that then becomes a Talented Mr. Ripley-esque thriller starring a never-better Gael García Bernal, Bad Education is a lot to handle. It’s a complicated narrative lurching through several layers of metafiction (guess what, this film is about a director making a semi-autobiographical film), but Bernal – in several different roles – is the utterly fabulous glue that holds this all together.
4) Law of Desire (1987)
Law of Desire is the very first film where Almodóvar showed the directorial hand he would be working with for the remainder of his career, and it is a project that comes careening out of the gate from minute one. Starring Antonio Banderas as a psychopath who’s obsessed with a promiscuous gay film director (nope, that character doesn’t sound familiar at all), there’s no other way to describe this film than pure, capital-A Art. Carmen Maura also shines as the director’s transgender sister, and gives us three of the film’s most stunning moments: a song performed in front of a priest who presumably molested her as a child, a heated moment where she is cooled off by a hose, and a performance art piece featuring child actress Manuela Velasco. This is another movie stuffed to the gills with material, and every single element gets its due.
3) The Flower of My Secret (1995)
The story of a writer who uses a pseudonym to pen romance novels and is then hired under her real name to review those novels expands into a luscious, heaving tragedy cut with some of Almodóvar’s best comic relief pairing ensemble members Chus Lampreave and Rossy de Palma to sublime effect. It’s a celebration of women, love, art, beauty, and home, and while it suffers under one of those messy third acts that he loves to write himself into, it’s a sublime act of creation nevertheless.
2) Volver (2006)
Volver is colorful, tragic, gorgeous, and contains the best fart joke in cinema history. And it can be all of these things, because it sees Almodóvar working on absolutely every cylinder. It’s a paean to the village where he grew up and the power of coming home again in the shape of a sweet, gentle comedy about a long-lost mother returning to her daughters as a ghost. But it’s not so gentle that it doesn’t also include incest and murder. Volver is a wild ride that imbues everyday life with a beauty that makes you want to drape yourself in every single frame.
1) Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Almodóvar’s untarnished masterpiece is an all-out, door-slamming farce with a cast of almost all women taking place largely in a single apartment. A group of different women who are on the verge of… well, you know, flit in and out in this hilarious comedy involving breakups, real estate, mental institutions, guns in handbags, terrorist plots, and gazpacho laced with sleeping pills. It opens with Almodóvar’s finest use of cinema as a delivery system of pure, visual emotion (what is essentially a dream ballet followed by Carmen Maura’s Pepa in an ADR booth reading lines opposite her co-star/ex, whose onscreen visage speaks silent nothings to her), runs its players through a candy-colored world of eye-searing patterns, and delivers us a pitch perfect comedy script. This film is a paragon of tight plotting from a man who hasn’t met a runaway plot thread he doesn’t like. All of his best instincts collide in this uproarious celebration of modern womanhood that earned its place in cinema history, dragging him onto the international scene in a big big way.