The 13 Best Irish Films of The 21st Century So Far

7. Adam & Paul (Lenny Abrahamson, 2004)

Adam & Paul

Lenny Abrahamson has only made five full films – his adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room is due later this year – but each of them has made an impression. What Richard Did and Garage were festival darlings and last year’s Frank with Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhall was a critical hit.

But to date he has not surpassed his debut. Adam & Paul follows two homeless, helpless heroin addicts (played by the writer Mark O’Halloran and the late Tom Murphy) over the course of a typical day. They wake up on a mattress in the middle of a field – Adam somehow glued to it – junk sick.

From there they go on the hunt for heroin. They narrowly escape a dangerous dealer. They show up to a picnic with mutual childhood friends, where they hover awkwardly as just about tolerated ghosts. They rob a handicapped boy.

A bleak and uncompromising insight into their lives, Abrahamson tells the story with a relentless, savage realism absent from films on the same subject such as Trainspotting. Here is disciplined film-making, pared back and free from showy theatrics that may catch out some on their first films. Often it seems like they just went out with a camera and their actors and shot on the streets of Dublin (not that they’d be the first or last!) and that it comes across as so documentary-like is a testament to them.

The film does offer relief by way of its black humour, and the interesting dynamic and history it manages to build between our two protagonists (impressively) through their semi-coherent rambling. It shows us their behaviour for what it is – the routine desperation of two men whose faces and souls have been eroded by profound despair.

You grow to hope for them. But Adam & Paul was never going anywhere too romantic, all hope is snuffed out with a numb sadness by an ending fitting to this most unglamorous of films. It’s there to make us think differently about those afflicted people we try not to make eye contact with on the street every day. It’ll stay with you if you watch it in full.

Available on YouTube.


8. In America (Jim Sheridan, 2002)

In America

Jim Sheridan made a lasting impression with his debut, the 1989 classic My Left Foot. After that, he made The Field – one of the films that Roger Ebert was horribly wrong about – and another two with Daniel Day-Lewis in In The Name Of The Father and The Boxer which firmly established him as the greatest Irish director.

That he convinced Day-Lewis to work with him three times surely proves this! Before embarking on a difficult time making American films – he attempted to revive the Alan Smithee name for flop Dream House – Sheridan made this one.

In America is the semi-autobiographical (his daughters co-wrote it with him) tale of a poor Irish family trying to make a life in Hell’s Kitchen. The tenement they live in is rough, but doesn’t compare to the grief they are suffering following the death of son Frankie. The cast are astounding.

Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou, Sarah and Emma Bolger all bring so much complexity and warmth to their performances as these broken people soldiering on through hardship, all the more poignant for the narration coming from one of the family’s daughters.

The theme of emigration is a common one in Irish film and never tackled better than here.


9. The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, 2011)

The Guard

The Guard opens with Garda – Irish for ‘police’ – Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) happening upon a car crash in the middle of a deserted country road. The car was full of youths, all dead. Boyle inspects their bodies and finds a tab of LSD on one, which he doesn’t think twice about swallowing himself – to save the bereaved Mammy’s embarrassment, presumably. He stands up, looks out over the fields, and drily exclaims: ‘What a beautiful f***in’ day,’

The film continues in this vein, with this very Irish humour permeating almost every moment of it. Not that that put off international audiences, who made The Guard the highest grossing Irish film ever, while it won admiration from the likes of Roger Ebert.

This opening scene, followed by a murder which suggests the occult, sets up an entertaining plot involving FBI agent Everett (a game Don Cheadle) who is sent to Galway to liaise with An Garda Siochana in an investigation for the three villains (the literate trio of Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and Liam Wilmot). The introduction to Everett is the funniest scene in the whole film, with the Irish police attempting to look sophisticated in front of the American and coming off even worse.

A lot has been said about The Guard’s humour and clever subverting of cop thriller tropes, but what really makes it recommended viewing is Boyle himself and his relationships in the film. He is an enigmatic character, a ‘cop that doesn’t do things by the book’ type, but behind his boorish manner we get the impression that there is a lot going on. ‘I can’t tell if you’re really motherf***in’ dumb or really motherf***ckin’ smart,’

Everett wonders aloud at one stage, and it’s a perceptive remark. He is consistently saying racially insensitive things to Everett, and whether he is winding him up or genuinely ignorant you just can’t tell but its funny either way.

Also a must-see for Fionnuala Flanagan’s performance as Boyle’s Mother, a fine actress so often underused in her films, here she shows her great talent.


10. Inside I’m Dancing a.k.a. Rory O’Shea Was Here (Damien O’Donnell, 2004)

Inside I'm Dancing

A fine if more broad example of that melancholic juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic, Inside I’m Dancing works best because of its varied focus: it is at once a dramedy about the hardships of living with disability, but it is also about the difficulties in maturing that everybody faces in their twenties. Director Damien O’Donnell describes it as being ‘about a friendship between two people who happen to be disabled,’ and he’s dead right.

Michael (Steven Robertson) is a young man with cerebral palsy. He lives in Carrigmore Residential Institute for the disabled, and is the definition of institutionalised – his life consists of scheduled meal times, classes, etc. He is perfectly happy until one day the free spirited Rory O’Shea (James McAvoy, nailing the accent) tears into the institution. He suffers from muscular dystrophy but that doesn’t damage his sense of adventure.

Befriending Michael due to his ability to understand his impossible speech, he is desperate to be away from Carrigmore and such homes – ‘Don’t you want to be like the rest of them? Get drunk, get arrested, get laid?’ His application for an independent living grant are repeatedly rejected on the preposterous grounds of ‘immaturity’ (‘A right must exist independently of its exercise’ – how else might Rory grow up?) but he tags along on Michael’s – as his interpreter.

Inside I’m Dancing may verge at times on predictable melodrama, but it remains a fluid, thought-provoking and touching piece. It faced huge criticism at the time for not casting genuinely disabled actors in the lead roles, but when you get such convincing and respectful performances as McAvoy and Robertson give here, such criticisms seem nonsensical, though they seem to pop up more and more these days.


11. The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

One of the big criticisms of recent digitally-shot period cinema is its lack of believability. They make you feel as if you’re watching a behind-the-scenes tape of a rehearsal. The Wind That Shakes The Barley suffers no such drawback, from the urgency of the opening segment it not so much draws you in as surrounds you, bringing you on Damien O’Donovan’s (Cillian Murphy) journey from apathy to extremism. It was so effective and visceral it won Ken Loach the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year.

It opens in rural Ireland in 1920, with a hurling match interrupted by the Black & Tans. Hurling is an Irish sport and was therefore illegal under British rule, the Black & Tans a thuggish group of soldiers put to use after World War 1 in Ireland to fight the War Of Independence.

A boy is horrifyingly beaten for giving his name in the Irish language, and we see a perfect illustration of how the Black & Tans did as much for anti-British sentiment as the IRA did. This affects our protagonist O’Donovan, due to leave Ireland for his studies. In a moment reminiscent of Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, he leaves his train at the platform and from there on in his path is set.

As much a rounded history lesson as a film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley offers the most compelling depiction of the War Of Independence and the Civil War that followed. It takes an often told story and makes it feel new, even definitive. Perhaps most resonant is Damien O’Donovan’s linked fate with brother Teddy (Padraig Delaney) in an emotional ending that just about sums up the sorry period.


12. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

For his second feature McDonagh once again teamed up with Brendan Gleeson, but here is a film with more serious intent than The Guard, though it’s not short of wit.

Father James (Gleeson) is a good priest. He is a diligent representative of his church, a fine spiritual leader to the members of the rural community – well, those who are interested. And this makes the opening scene seize you all the more.

James is sat in his confession booth, when an unseen man enters. He graphically details the abuse he suffered as a boy at the hands of a priest, and says that he intends to murder a member of the Church, and that will be James himself. Not because he is a bad priest, but because he is a good one. ‘Certainly a startling opening line,’ is the response from admirably unperturbed James.

We then see him go about his week in the parish, and we meet an eclectic and eccentric cast of characters, aware that one of them has pledged to kill Father James at the end of the week. Not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘who will do it’.

McDonagh’s film is an ambitious one – a dissection of newly secular Ireland. We meet characters who display the fractured condition of faith in the 21st century, from Aidan Gillen’s creepy atheist doctor to Dylan Moran’s arrogant but lost millionaire to a devout young woman.

Also here is a performance from Kelly Reilly that makes the film succeed, as the suicidal daughter of Father James – a married man before entering the priesthood as a widower – who develops into a narrative-turning, life-affirming character.

Calvary could be accused of being a bit of a truism, but it’s one worth being said.


13. Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009)

Five Minutes of Heaven

The troubles have been dramatised often with varied results, but German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s (Downfall and, erm, Diana) BBC production about two men tied together by violence is one of the strongest. Five Minutes Of Heaven is about the difficulty of forgiveness and healing, but also shows what a tasteless medium television can be, admirable for a film originally intended for just that medium.

It starts with a tense dramatisation of a killing in 70’s Belfast, told with an urgency and severity that pulls the air taut. The narration by older Alistair Little (Liam Neeson) works because it is sparely used, and this section of the film is gripping as it relies on the piercing eyes of his teenage self (Mark Ryder).

Here is a young man determined to show his worth in his community with the killing of an outsider. Little gives us revelatory insights into the environment and the conditioned mindset which led to this terrible crime, the cold blooded shooting of a teenager in front of his kid brother.

Fast forward to 2008 and we meet Joe Griffin, that kid brother as a grown man, played by James Nesbitt. He is on his way to a meeting with Little, as part of a televised reconciliation project. Nesbitt’s performance is big, at once comic and despairing.

While Griffin is obstreperously rising above the tension he feels leading to this meeting, in another car is the pre-storm calm of Little, who seems to shrink meekly behind it – but we can see the shattered depths in his eyes and the nuances of Neeson’s performance. Add to the mix Griffin’s intentions to kill Little, and the drama is palpable.

A film unconventional in its plotting from the immediacy of it’s opening to that final emotional blow, Five Minutes Of Heaven tells a story with familiar characters and themes, but is so affecting and honest that they become fresh and engaging. The acting from the two leads is first rate, as is Guy Hibbert’s script and Hirschbiegel’s direction – the film is difficult to anticipate, yet the imagery is bold in its eloquence. Religion seems to be at the centre of every contentious frame.

Author Bio: Fabien is a Dublin-based antiques dealer who supplies props and sets for period films. He is a filmmaker-actor of the ‘weekend rockstar’ variety, though keen for an upgrade.