Ranking filmographies is a little silly and a lot impossible. Ranking the films of Pedro Almodóvar is particularly fraught, in part because they are so different. In a career that has spanned over three decades, he has made quite the complex stylistic journey from his rough and rebellious Movida comedies to his polished art house achievements.
At the same time, however, comparing his films is troubled because of how much they share. The performances of his usual actors and actresses build off of each other, from decade to decade and from film to film. His greatest masterpieces are not individual works, rather but the larger ideas that he’s engaged with over the years.
That being said, ranking is all sorts of fun. Here are all 19 feature films directed by Pedro Almodóvar, listed in increasing order of magnificence. (Also be sure to check out our new interview with Almodóvar, in which he discusses "I'm So Excited!" and compares disco to The Bible).
19. "I’m So Excited!"
Well, this is depressing. Almodóvar’s newest feature is his first bad film, the lone flat work in a career of quirky underrated gems and universally hailed masterpieces. The comedy doesn’t quite work, the drama is oddly structured, and it has none of the punk fun of the auteur’s earlier efforts at ribaldry. It’s a disappointment, through and through.
18. "Broken Embraces"
With its director protagonist, “Broken Embraces” could ostensibly be seen as Almodóvar’s most personal film. It certainly takes liberally from his filmography, simultaneously spoofing and paying homage to “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Yet it doesn’t have much bite, and in some ways has the blandest approach to character of any of his dramas of the last decade.
Of course, “Broken Embraces” is still a good movie. So is “Kika,” which includes some of Almodóvar’s most interesting ideas regarding the media. It’s particularly prescient around the role of reality television, and the constant obsession we have with the more violent of criminal acts. Victoria Abril is excellent, as a sort of sexed-up Nancy Grace with more guts. Calling it a “minor work” would be silly, but also not inaccurate. Track it down anyway.
16. "Pepi, Luci, Bom"
“Pepi, Luci, Bom” is a terribly solid first film. It’s a wonderful early example of Almodóvar’s impish and freewheeling sense of morality, in this case driving straight at the militaristic heart of the culture of Franco’s Spain. It may not necessarily deserve to be on a list of the top debut features of all time, but it’s an awful lot of fun. It’s also a must for fans of Carmen Maura, though leading Movida musician Alaska steals the show.
15. "Live Flesh"
Others absolutely adore this one, and I can’t really blame them. It opens with one of Almodóvar’s best sequences, a very pregnant Penélope Cruz trying to find her way to a hospital to give birth on Christmas Eve, 1970 in the middle of a Franco-ordered state of emergency. The resulting baby grows up to be Victor, played unsettlingly by Liberto Rabal in the role of a lifetime. It’s perhaps the director’s most direct exploration of masculinity, most astutely through Javier Bardem’s character. Yet there’s something missing here, and it seems to take place slightly outside of Almodóvar’s world.
14. "Dark Habits"
“Dark Habits” is like “Sister Act,” but so much better. There are nuns doing drugs, nuns raising a tiger, lesbian nuns and nuns who write pornographic novels. The ensemble of actresses is an Almodóvar dream team, the key element to most of his better films. At times it almost feels too irreverent, a little obvious in its lampooning of organized Catholicism. Yet in the end it wins you back with some bongos and a fabulous nightclub act.
13. "High Heels"
Film scholar Linda Williams has addressed “High Heels” as the ultimate female Freudian myth, a tale of mother and daughter that dives right into the inherent sexual psychological tension therein, and replaces Oedipus. I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly one of the more interesting mother-daughter films out there. With Bibi Andersen, Luz Casal, and Chavela Vargas along for the ride, “High Heels” is a drag “Stella Dallas” for the ‘90s.
12. "The Flower of My Secret"
Marisa Paredes is an immensely talented actress, and is the sole reason that “The Flower of My Secret” is this high up on this list. True, there’s nothing particularly irritating about this tale of a romance novelist sick of her repetitive trade. There just isn’t anything extra-compelling about it either. Yet Paredes turns it out, bringing the sort of frantic urban life crisis a kind of realty that most narratives of this sort don’t even touch on.
11. "What Have I Done to Deserve This?"
Blending the shell of an Italian Neorealist film with Almodóvar’s ridiculous flare for the comic (and a plot point stolen from Alfred Hitchcock Presents), “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” is among the director’s stranger projects. Maura is, as usual, on the top of her game, and the film’s gleeful lack of regard for any common standard of morality makes it both brilliant and hilarious.
READ THE TOP 10 ON PAGE 2.
10. "Labyrinth of Passion"
Like Derek Jarman’s “Jubilee” but for Spain’s post-Franco Movida movement, “Labyrinth of Passion” is both an impressively gifted sophomore feature and an instant cult classic. It ran for a decade of midnight screenings in a theater in Madrid, and still retains much of its infectious appeal. Fast-paced, sexy and brash, the film has a messy glory that sometimes seem lost altogether from the director’s recent work.
9. "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"
This perverse anti-romantic comedy features career-best work from both Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril. They both dive right in to this quirky, dangerously sexy genre-buster, which falls somewhere between “Pillow Talk, François Ozon’s “Criminal Lovers” and “Silence of the Lambs.” The cause of great controversy in the United States, leading to the implementation of the NC-17 grade, “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” is the director’s most uncomfortable triumphs.
There are so many reasons to love “Volver.” Its odd, pitch perfect moments of comedy set the tone for the more heartbreaking revelations it has in store. Maura’s return is both emotional within and without the world of the film, a mother returning to her children and a star returning to work with her greatest collaborator. And, of course, there’s Penélope Cruz. This is the purest example of Almodóvar’s sense of family, a group of women brought together to mourn and celebrate their lives.
7. "The Skin I Live In"
Now, “The Skin I Live In” was not a critical smash like some of the director’s other work from the last decade. I think this might have something to do with how confrontational it is, how much effort it puts into unsettling and undermining our ideas of both genre and gender. It’s also a stylish wonder, “Eyes without a Face” with the polish of “Talk to Her.”
6. "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"
The thing about “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” is that it’s the perfect turning point for a career. It has all of the insanity of Almodóvar’s earlier films, and begins to drive for the mainstream accessibility of his later work. This could have turned out disastrously, of course, but it didn’t. It’s his ultimate achievement as an entertainer and comedian.
5. "Bad Education"
This is Almodóvar’s magnum opus on masculinity. It is also one of the most perceptive and intelligently structured treatments of the often sinister influence that the institutions of the Catholic Church. Gael García Bernal and Fele Martínez are revelations, both finding new footing in this raw and throbbing film. Its blend of strict religious schooling, flashy drag kitsch and sweat is enough to knock you out.
“Matador” has the most striking images of any Almodóvar film, and not only because it devotes the most time to the already arresting iconography of the bullfight. It’s the dark, vicious sibling to “Law of Desire,” a potent cocktail of sex and doom. Maria and Diego smolder, they bleed, and they live by the blade. This is Almodóvar’s most brutal work, and occasionally feels like his most vindictively honest.
3. "Talk to Her"
“Talk to Her” is Almodóvar’s unassailable masterpiece. Its diversions into the arts of music and dance are brilliant, and its film-within-a-film tribute to silent cinema is just as invigorating a step forward as it is an homage to a former time. If you’ve seen it, you already know how extraordinary it is. Yet somehow it isn’t quite emblematic enough of the overall ingenuity and accomplishments of Almodóvar’s career to climb all the way to #1, at least not for me.
2. "Law of Desire"
Almodóvar is (arguably) the greatest queer filmmaker of his generation, in Spain or otherwise. Desire is the life blood of his work – El Deseo, after all, is the name of his production company. “Law of Desire” is his masterpiece of sex, gender, and fiery passion. It is a bold and theatrical melodrama, a romance of great urgency, and a unique blend of genre conventions. It might not be as stylistically polished as “Talk to Her,” but for my money it’s the more interesting film.
1. "All About My Mother"
“It costs a lot to authentic, ma’am, and one can’t be stingy with these things. Because you are more authentic when you more resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”
“All About My Mother” is about finding your own family, finding your own identity, performing who you want to be and then becoming who you really are. It’s warm, witty, colorful, and accessible without losing a single ounce of Almodóvar’s signature resistance to social norms of sexuality, gender and religious obligation. It is a model for real, loving and profoundly human motherhood that will not compromise, and can conquer anything at all, even the most devastating of perils. “Talk to Her” is the filmmaker’s ultimate contribution cinema. “All About My Mother” is his greatest gift to our lives.