30 Essential Iceland Movies That Are Worth Your Time
30 Essential Iceland Movies That Are Worth Your Time: Iceland represents one of the world’s smallest national cinemas. The country’s population is just above 334,000. Few Nordic critics point out that sometimes even a successful local film fails to recuperate its cost at the local box office. So why bother? Isn’t it better for the largely English-speaking domestic population to just watch Hollywood blockbusters? Or couldn’t they make cheap – both in terms of money and thinking — imitation of those generic works? Well, the Iceland film-making fraternity exactly didn’t want that. Despite minimal resources, they started by making cinema strictly for the native audiences and gradually evolved to weave culturally distinct yet universally resonant stories. Today, the relative quality of Icelandic cinema is simply staggering.
Iceland had been the location for the making of Nordic silent films in the late 1910s. The first film by an Icelander was made in 1924, yet the officially approved Icelandic feature film was made in the year 1949. And up to the early 1980s, film-making was considered an anomaly in the small nation. In 1978 with the initiation of the Icelandic Film Fund, the nation’s modern film-making journey commenced. Thanks to the early talented Iceland directors, the home-grown films took off well. However, the novelty of Iceland movies soon wore off by the mid-1980s. Again in the 1990s, the Iceland cinema saw an unparalleled explosion, thanks to pan-European funds and a new generation of filmmakers. After the 2008 financial crisis, the future of Iceland cinema was once again forced into a precarious position. Yet, their filmmakers are continuing to provide excellent, multiple award-winning works in this new decade too. Some may say that there’s nothing great about Iceland cinema. It may have limited scope and almost always have a brooding, distressing mood, but in this increasingly homogenized world, it is exhilarating to watch the survival of the unique domestic film industry (time for an interesting trivia: in 2009 Iceland’s comedy Mr. Brajnfredarson beat Avatar in the local box-office).
It has been a hard but enjoyable task to produce this list of good Iceland cinema. I wasn’t able to include a few acclaimed Iceland comedies because it isn’t available [mostly I wanted to see — On Top (1982), New Life (1983), & Stella On Holiday (1986)]. If I am unaware of any other Iceland movies, not mentioned throughout the list, please educate me in the comments section. Anyway, here’s my selection of essential cinema to contemplate on the human condition in Iceland’s landscapes:
1. Land and Sons (1980)
Movie critics often cite Agust Gudmundsson’s Land and Sons (Land og synir) as the origination point of contemporary Icelandic cinema. It was based on Indridi G. Thorsteinsson’s novel (father of renowned crime-fiction writer Arnaldur Indridason). It’s a story about a generation of weary farmers, dwelling in a remote valley north of Iceland.
The film deals with typical themes you may expect from a narrative set in cold, isolated land: the unyielding bleakness of the rain-swept landscape, the degradation of familial bonds, and the distant dreams of the younger generation. Despite the occasional ineptness in acting and production, Land and Sons was the first Iceland film to ponders over urban expansion and the rapidly changing social & economic climate. The movie was also infamously known for the unsimulated shooting of a horse.
2. When the Raven Flies (1984)
Hrafn Gunnlaugsson wanted to make an authentic Viking-era movie in order to counter the insipid Hollywood stereotypes. Swedish producer Bo Jonsson and Gunnlaugsson wrote the story which was predominantly inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, John Ford’s The Searchers, and the sagas of early Icelanders.
Known as the Icelandic film industry’s first international co-production, the movie churned out a brooding revenge narrative. The story opens with Vikings plundering an Irish village. A young boy witnesses his parents’ murder and the kidnapping of his sister. Two decades later, he arrives at the Icelandic beaches for revenge and to know the whereabouts of his sister. Although Gunnlaugsson’s aesthetic flourishes aren’t half as good as the aforementioned cinematic masters’, he should be commended for a realistic rendition of an ancient time and place. ‘When the Raven Flies’ is followed by fairly good sequels — ‘Shadow of the Raven’ (1986), and ‘The White Viking’ (1991).
3. The Juniper Tree (1990)
Nietzchka Keene’s self-funded feature is an adaptation as well as a feminist re-imagining of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. It marks the acting debut of Icelandic pop star Bjork. Set in the medieval era and shot in spellbindingly stark black-and-white, Juniper Tree is a coming of age tale of a young woman named Margit (Bjork), whose mother is murdered for allegedly practicing witchcraft. The mother is buried under the juniper tree. Margit and her sister Katla leave their home. Katla marries a widowed farmer Johann who has a young son. Naturally, the situation turns violent and the outcome is devastating.
There are no clear-cut villains or simple messages of morality in Nietzchka’s haunting drama. She undercuts the layers of misogyny that are prevalent in fairytales. But the most mesmerizing aspect of Juniper Tree is its arresting imagery which pays ample tribute to Ingmar Bergman.
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4. Children of Nature (1991)
The 1980s Iceland movies were largely inspired by home-grown mythical tales & sagas. Moreover, these films were made for Icelanders. However, in the 1990s new generation of filmmakers deeply contemplated on their nation’s social themes yet injected universal emotions to resonate with film-lovers around the world. In that way, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Children of Nature marks the great international breakthrough of Iceland cinema.
While the aesthetic sense of 1980s movies borrowed from major directors like John Ford and Sergio Leone, the 1990s cinema had a more subtle art-house film form. Mr. Fridriksson, in the 1970s, ran a film society, which had more than 2,000 members. It was a revolutionary number, considering the nation’s population, and remember that this was before the video-revolution era, so it involved careful transportation of 35mm or 16mm films for screening. Fridriksson worked with the government to establish Reykjavik Film Festival and also set up the Icelandic Film Fund.
Before Children of Nature, Fridriksson mostly made documentaries. He made his first feature film in 1987 – White Whales. Neither the documentaries nor the debut feature doesn’t stand close to the brilliance of Children of Nature. The film chronicles the journey of two geriatric couples who escape from Reykjavik old age home to reach their birthplace, situated in remote fjords. Fridriksson’s minimalist film-making style is mostly character-driven and hence moves at a glacial pace. The old people’s odd pilgrimage takes us through the haunting and stunning beauty of Iceland’s raw countryside. This is a very simple road movie about an elderly couple reinstating their dignity. Yet the passages of sublime visual beauty and restrained performances make it a very memorable one. Although the film deals with tragic themes, Fridriksson spikes the narrative with a fine dose of observational comedy and whimsical vignettes. Children of Nature became the first Iceland film to be nominated for Oscar which led to its international distribution. Mr. Fridriksson used the profits from distribution deals to buy production equipment.
5. Remote Control (1992)
While guns set up narrative conflicts in Hollywood films, a missing remote control drives this tale of Reykjavik underworld. Oskar Jonsson’s debut feature revolves around young mechanic Axel (Bjorn Jorundur Fridbjornsson), his mother, and his hard-partying sister Maeja. Axel goes on to retrieve the TV remote for his mother which was accidentally taken by the sister.
In this absurd quest, he gets embroiled in the conflict between a local liquor smuggler and nightclub owner and also falls in love. Remote Control’s comedic sense is considered to be too ‘Icelandic’ to be fully appreciated by foreigners like me (and the English subtitles don’t make sense now and then). However, the clumsy and silly antics of the imperfect characters make it an enjoyable comedy, providing a fine counterpoint to the nation’s bleaker visions of life.
6. Cold Fever (1995)
Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s fourth feature film has an enchanting transnational narrative. American indie film-maker Jim Jarmusch was invited (in the early 90s) for the screening of his brilliant anecdotal comedy Mystery Train (1989) at Reykjavik Film Festival. Producer Jim Stark made the visit on Jarmusch’s behalf.
When Fridriksson and Mr. Stark had an amiable conversation, there were talks of making a film. Stark asked the director to include Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase in his new story ideas. Later, Fridriksson traveled to Japan to get a grip on his story when he came across the news about the death of two Japanese scientists in Iceland (by drowning). Japanese people traveled to Iceland to perform the due rituals for those scientists and hence Fridriksson was bestowed with a narrative idea (Jim Stark also co-wrote the script for Cold Fever).
The film is about a young Tokyo executive Hirata traveling to Iceland to perform ceremonies at the site of his parents’ death. Alas, he chooses to visit the nation in the middle of winter and has many strange, magical adventures. Similar to all the great culture-clashing road movies, Cold Fever is memorable for its oddball characters. Director Fridriksson portrays nature in the same way as the people – both cruel and unbelievably poignant. Similarly, the culture gets blurred as Hirata binds with the inapprehensible native people through the common thread of humanity.
7. Devil’s Island (1996)
Fridrik Thor Fridriksson follows up Children of Nature & Cold Fever with yet another good wry comedy, based on Einar Gudmundsson’s novel. The film is set in the 1950s in the squalid premises of Reykjavik. Renowned Iceland director Baltasar Koramkur plays rebellious Baddi whose mother has left him and his introverted brother Danni for an American soldier. The brothers move into abandoned army barracks with their weary grandfather and haranguing grandmother.
Fridriksson opens the film with a marriage and ends it with a funeral. In between the extreme rituals, lie the quirky, tragic, and unpredictable small-scale adventures. The narrative mostly unfurls in episodic vignettes, rejecting the notion to center its tale on one particular character. Devil’s Island could be read as the allegory for Iceland’s mordant Americanization. The sullen characters of the movie are left to feed on the unsavory parts of a culture that isn’t theirs.
8. 101 Reykjavik (2000)
Baltasar Kormakur’s crowd-pleasing black comedy doesn’t have any particularly likable characters. Protagonist Hlynur (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) is a man-child who sleeps, drinks rummage through porn collection, and engages in meaningless relationships with members of the opposite sex. Slacker would be too simple a word to describe his existence. His bleak, hopeless life with his mother goes unchanged until the arrival of a sexy Spanish house guest Lola (Victoria Abril). Yes, of course, Hlynur is romantically interested in her. Alas, Lola becomes his mother’s lover. Although Hlynur isn’t an appealing character, Gudnason’s effortless performance exposes the distracted guy’s vulnerability.
The comedic elements aren’t very unique and mostly rely on oddity and surprise. Yet Gudnason boosts the funny quotient of the narrative. Baltasur Kormakur’s comedic style reflects Aki Kaurismaki’s works, whereas the film’s sexual propensity brings to mind Pedro Almodovar. 101 Reykjavik was one of the widely seen Iceland movies (with great commercial success and mixed critical reviews), although it only provides a middling snapshot of Icelandic life.
9. Angels of the Universe (2000)
Based on author Einar Gudmundsson’s novel, Fridriksson’s visually impressive life-affirming feature tells the story of a thirty-something Icelandic artist with mental health problems. Paul (Ingvart E. Sigurdsson) is an unsuccessful painter who lives with his parents after experiencing unbearable rejection from his girlfriend Dagny. Since Paul’s increasing violent nature baffles his parents, they place him in a mental institution. There he becomes friends with Viktor who believes he’s Hitler and Oli who thinks he wrote the Beatles’ song through telepathy.
While the film like many asylum-based works tries to blur or comment on the line between sane & insane in society, it also serves as a vital piece to showcase the alienated life in Scandinavian lands. Its cynical, melancholic tone expresses how empty life would be if all there’s left to reflect in society is insanity and anger. Sigurdsson performance is powerfully eloquent and Fridriksson’s occasional surrealistic touches keep the melodramatic narrative buoyant.
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10. The Seagull’s Laughter (2001)
Based on Kristin Marja Baldursdottir’s popular Iceland novel – The Dance – Agust Gudmundsson’s movie possesses the familiar brand of eccentricity, exaggeration, and mayhem witnessed in Iceland’s tragicomedies. The film is set in the 1950s and revolves around a recently widowed femme fatale named Freyja (Margret Vilhjalmsdottir) who returns to her homeland after leading a privileged life on American soil.
When a cousin inquires about her husband’s death, she says he had a heart attack while defrosting the refrigerator. The cousin’s eyes exude surprise and she asks, ‘you have a fridge?’ Freyja is determined to keep her slim figure and lavish lifestyle. One of her agendas is to find a suitable new husband. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of 11-year-old Agga who perfectly sees through Freyja’s plans. The Seagull’s Laughter is melodramatic and overly exaggerated. Nevertheless, its devilish sense of humor and feminist punch turns it into unpredictably entertaining dramedy.
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11. The Sea (2002)
Similar to the debut feature 101 Reykjavik, Baltasar Kormakur’s sophomore directorial effort depicts a bleak, blue-and-white palette to reflect the harsh landscape and the harsh predicament of its unlikable, downcast characters. Like the polarizing qualities of Iceland’s landscape – beautiful as well as desolate – the characters are too haunted by extreme emotions. They are burdened by the dull crawl of routine days.
Based on Olafur Haukur Simonarson’s play, The Sea revolves around the web of secrets & lies, plaguing a wealthy Icelandic family. The explosion of emotional violence in the film brings to Thomas Vinterberg’s acclaimed work ‘Festen’ (The Celebration). However, similar to most of other Kormakur’s movies, the narrative core is emotionally inert and devoid of compassion. Director Kormakur is adept at designing breath-taking shots to permeate the landscape’s beauty, but we hardly feel for his bitter characters.
12. Stormy Weather (2003)
Iceland-American director Solveig Anspach made her directorial debut with the French-Begian drama ‘Haut les coeurs!’ about a pregnant breast cancer patient. The film was memorable for French actress Karin Viard’s enlivening performance. In her second feature Stormy Weather, Anspach once again builds a fascinatingly unsentimental healthcare drama.
Icelandic novelist Didda Jonsdottir plays the central character Loa, a mentally challenged middle-aged woman. Loa runs away from her children and alcoholic husband. She is found in Belgium and brought into a psychiatry ward as a nameless, untalkative, vagabond. Young, unorthodox psychiatrist Cora (Elodie Bouchez) tries to build a communication bridge with Loa while the authorities try to find out the identity of the woman. It’s the kind of set-up that could easily follow the sentimental path of ‘Rain Man’ or ‘Awakenings’, yet this is a subtle tale about mutuality inpatient and doctor relationships. Despite the very thin plot point, the film works mainly due to the complex and remarkably nuanced performances of the two lead actors.
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13. Noi the Albino (2003)
Dagur Kari’s familiar coming-of-age tale inventively conveys the quiet desperation of a young man using a singular, exquisite atmosphere and droll sense of mischief. Noi (Tomas Lemarquis), the 17-year-old, lives with his insane, jig-saw-puzzle-obsessed grandmother. When he is late for school she wakes him up by firing her shotgun. Noi’s father is an alcoholic. He lives in a small-town guarded on one side by a giant mountain and surrounded by people who are as emotionless as the weather-beaten mountain. Noi is definitely someone with ‘true potential’, yet he decides to not attend classes, figuring out there’s no life for him within these geographical and emotional barriers.
Dagur Kari bestows a range of indelible shots including a rainbow shooting across the ocean. The surface beauty of the land is, however, juxtaposed with the time-worn looks of the town’s inhabitants whose existence truly tells what it means to live in a frozen wasteland. On other occasions, director Kari uses the physically intimidating landscape as a stand-in for Noi’s existential angst. Tomas’ (Snowpiercer) remarkably naturalistic performance effortlessly brings an emotional connection to the alienated protagonist.
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14. Children (2006)
Ragnar Bragason’s bleak family drama revolves around the interlinked lives of four main characters: Nurse & tired single mother Karaitas; her 12-year-old son Gudmund; Gudmund’s violent & criminal father Gardar; and Gudmund’s fragile and older schizophrenic friend Marino. Each of these characters is misled or cloaked in confusion, alienation, and anger. The remarkable imagery depicts how these people gradually sink deep into their despair.
Shot in black-and-white, the aesthetic style lends distinct depth to the proceedings. The mastery of Mr. Bragason lies in the way he breathes some hope into the narrative and how he depicts the characters in different shades of gray. Although the film is set in less savory parts of Reykjavik (in Breidholt neighborhood), the coarse family life dynamic witnessed in it is universal in nature. Director Bragason’s raw, visceral depiction of the place could be compared with the works of British filmmakers Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold. The pitch-perfect performances add more layers of grittiness to the stark proceedings. Bragason made another family drama titled ‘Parents’ (2007) which isn’t as bleak as ‘Children’ and is set in the suburbs of Reykjavik.
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15. Jar City (2006)
Crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason’s detective Erlendur, like other Nordic detective protagonists, is an enigmatic personality with a bruised past and is constantly engaged in a battle to conquer his inner demons. He is a solitary, straight-faced, and well-determined individual who pretty much seems to be an embodiment of Iceland itself. In Baltasar Kormakur’s adaptation of Indridason’s best-selling novel Jar City, the detective (Ingvar E Sigurdsson) investigates an allegedly simple murder case. The victim is a old guy, his head split by an ashtray. As the accompanying detective remarks to Erlendur: “its typical Icelandic murder: messy and pointless”. Nevertheless, there’s much to the dead old man’s murder and his unsavory past.
Jar City is mostly a character-driven thriller rather than plot-driven. Hence there aren’t big unpredictable twists. You may easily guess the whys & what’s behind the killing. Yet, what’s intriguing about Jar City is Indridason’s social commentary and characterization of emotionally battered people. Detective Erlendur is an intriguing personality who transcends the archetypal elements of detective tales. Director Kormakur, for his part, makes perfect use of Iceland’s damned, intimidating landscapes which reflects the torments of the characters.
16. Reykjavik-Rotterdam (2008)
Director Oskar Jonasson who was best known for making Icelandic comedy films tried his hands at the thriller genre with Reykjavik Rotterdam. The script was co-written by renowned novelist Arnaldur Indridason and the lead character was played by Baltasar Kormakur. The cast includes other well-known Iceland actors like Ingvar E. Sigurdson (Jar City), Theodor Juliusson (Volcano), and Olafur Darri Olafsson (The Deep, Trapped).
The story revolves around two friends: Kristofer, a security guard who was fired from a freight ship for smuggling alcohol; Steingrimur, Kirstofer’s partner in crime and holds a strong position on the docks. Since Kristofer never squealed on his partner, Steingrimur helps him in little ways. Nevertheless, the financial strains threaten the future of Kristofer, his wife Iris, and his two sons. When Iris’ brother fumbles with a smuggling job, it falls upon Kristofer to do it. At 83 minutes, this is a tight thriller with fairly good twists and turns. Along with Jar City, Reykjavik Rotterdam stands as one of few decent genre attempts in Iceland cinema (Kormakur’s recent thriller The Oath has gained some good reviews which I haven’t seen it yet). Actor/Director Kormakur made an average American remake of the picture under the title ‘Contraband’.
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17. Mr. Bjarnfredarson (2009)
Ragnar Bragason’s blockbuster comedy is based on popular Icelandic TV shows (The Night Shift & The Prison Shift). Georg Bjarnfredarson (Jon Gnarr) is granted parole. He protests that he’s never applied, but anyway he is thrown out. Tyrant would be too simple a word to describe how Georg imposes his will upon others. His single mother has raised him as a feminist, socialist, and vegetarian. Georg was supposed to be an important person. But his misadventures only put him inside jail. Upon his release, Georg’s mother shuns him and so he stays with his prison buddy Daniel. Olafur is another roommate, a 40-year-old man-child.
Mr. Bjarnfredarson is an oddball comedy that’s empathetic towards its outcast of misfit characters. The comedy elements don’t strictly belong to the ‘acquired taste’ category. Even though it’s a movie version of TV series, prior knowledge about the show isn’t necessary. Anyhow, this mainstream Icelandic comedy kindled my interest to watch the eccentricities of the three outsiders.
18. Volcano (2011)
Runar Runarsson’s tender love story tells the story of Reykjavik elderly couples Hannes (Theodor Juliusson) and Anna (Margret Helga Johannsdottir). Hannes, aged 67, retires from a long career of being a school caretaker. Before that, he was a fisherman at Vestmaneyjar archipelago. The sudden volcanic eruption has forced him to the mainland. Dreading what old age holds for him, Hannes contemplates suicide, only to back out at the last minute.
He doesn’t have a smooth relationship with his children who adore their mother. For men like Hannes, whose identity within the house and society is marked by their job status, the retirement phase is an unfathomable curse. Yet, Hannes slowly retrieves himself and tries to kindle the relationship dynamics with his caring wife. The fleeting moments of happiness, however, are invaded by cold terror. Anna loses her brain function and motor skills and Hannes, to his children’s protest, takes on the caregiver duties. What follows is an unsentimental yet devastatingly poetic study of love, illness, and death.
Veteran actor Theodor Juliusson delivers a quiet performance as the introverted & frustrated Hannes. The way he subtly expresses his love for his wife and grandchild plus the way he wears an inexpressive mask to repress grief and disappointment haunted me long after the film’s end. Margret has the very difficult task of portraying a bed-ridden stroke victim and she does it with tremendous poignancy. Mr. Runarsson must be commended for tackling such a distressing subject in his debut feature. His study of faces and emotions reminds us of the visceral power of early Terrence Malick’s works. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s widely celebrated Amour (2012) has a startlingly similar storyline.
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19. The Deep (2012)
Based on true events, Baltasar Kormakur’s survival drama is set in 1984. Six hard-drinking Icelandic fishermen take out their trawlers for just another day of fishing in the North Atlantic Ocean. Disaster strikes and five men go down with the vessel to meet their icy grave. But tall and big-boned Gulli (Olafur Darri Olaffson) unbelievably endures the cold and swims five hours to reach the land. Gulli is not only seen as an anomaly, but their phenomenal survival turns him into a national hero. The rest of the film deals with how Gulli comes to terms with this new identity.
The first hour of this 90-minute film was thoroughly engrossing. Director Kormakur ably uses the limited technical elements to build fine dramatic momentum. And, Olafson with his hefty frame and exhausted looks brilliantly carries the narrative. However, Kormakur loses some of the narrative grips in the last half-hour when Gulli is back on land. It doesn’t profoundly delve into Gulli’s emotions apart from unremarkably reiterating his survivor’s guilt and solitary social status.
20. Metalhead (2013)
Icelandic farmer parents ask their little daughter Hera to fetch her elder brother Baldur for dinner. A few minutes later, Baldur dies in a horrific accident on the farm, in front of Hera’s eyes. The little girl is emotionally frozen from that moment. She processes her grief by taking possession of her brother’s heavy metal music collection. Every morning she waits for the bus that may take her out of town but never gets on.
She grows up to be a hostile, alienated young woman (Thorbjorg Helga Dyrfjord) still waiting for the bus and yet reluctant to lose the only place she has – home. Hera takes up Baldur’s black t-shirts and channels her anger and grief into the loud guitar. Although Hera’s parents wear the ‘normalcy’ facade, they too are trapped by emotional agony. Metalhead isn’t definitely a deft study of Iceland’s inclination towards heavy metal worship. Much of the narrative choices verge on melodrama and rob us of profound emotions. Yet director Bragason’s central character and Thorbjorg’s robust performance make this an adequate portrait of mourning and grief.
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21. Of Horses and Men (2013)
Benedikt Erlingsson’s remarkable art-house drama studies equine elegance and human eccentricities in an insular, picturesque Iceland community. Erlingsson brings together interlinked series of stories that deliver cultural critique as well as celebrate the small nation’s distinct, beloved creature. To give a fair idea about the inventive & strange stories, let me narrate the tale of Kolbeinn (Ingvar E Sigurdsson). He is a rich man, riding a newly tamed white mare to visit his attractive neighbor Solveig (Charlotte Boving). Solveig’s black stallion is enamored by the white mare.
When Kolbeinn leaves her after the graceful visit, the stallion breaks free. It runs behind the mare and mounts Kolbein’s mount while the guy was still sitting atop. Despite the scattershot script, what’s interesting about Of Horses and Men is its visual strength where Erlingsson cleverly stitches together human and animalistic commonality. Each darkly humorous vignettes brim with memorable imagery. In Iceland, the law forbids the import of foreign horses. So these creatures are an integral part of the nation’s history whose bond with mankind extends back to its first settlers. Instead of paying sentimental, straightforward tribute to this strong bond, director Erlingsson uses the weird fables to deeply reflect on the Icelandic soul and nature.
22. Life in a Fishbowl (2014)
Iceland was the first nation to be affected by the 2007/08 economic crash. And, it was hit very hard. Baldvin Zophoniasson’s social realist drama is set during the great crisis period and looks at the seemingly interlinked or overlapping life paths of three characters. Eik is a single mother working as a preschool teacher and as an escort to make ends meet for herself and her diabetic daughter. Mori is a famous author, now an alcoholic, who develops a friendship with Eik. Then there’s Solvi, a former football star who is now taking big strides to climb the corporate ladder. We slowly learn about tragedy and mistakes that shaped these characters.
Life in a Fishbowl possesses a deftly intertwined narrative, in the vein of Crash. Despite many coincidences, the writing here adds more depth to the character than the shallow, stereotypical approach in films like Crash. The film resonated well with Icelandic audiences as it speaks of telling truth and overcoming unseen hurdles, in the contrived atmosphere of secrecy and oppression.
23. Sparrows (2015)
Director Runar Runarsson who dealt with the day-to-day tribulations of an old couple in ‘Volcano’ followed it up with a distressing tale of adolescent metamorphosis. The film opens with the shot of teen protagonist Ari (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson) cloaked in a virginal white dress and singing in a movingly pure voice in the majestic cathedral.
The narrative is about how his purity is threatened by the mean world. Ari is forced to stay with his distant father in a remote seaside town since his mother and step-father are going away on a tour. The town’s residents are bitter victims of the bumpy economy. However, there’s solace in the town as Ari is able re-connect with his childhood friend Lara (Rakel Bjork Bjornsdottir). What follows is unbelievable cruelty and tear-jerking humane gestures. Like in Volcano, Runarsson’s symbolism remains subtle and mesmerizing. The visuals emphasize on poetic realism to depict the frozen emotions of the characters and harsh communal existence.
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24. Rams (2015)
Director Grimur Hakanorson’s poignant tragicomedy opens with a blend of typical Icelandic images: a calm, beautiful valley, neatly aligned buildings, serene lambs feeding on the pasture, and a fence dividing the land. The human elements very crucial to this story are: bachelor brothers Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) who haven’t exchanged a word for 40 years despite being neighbors to each other.
Initially, the taciturn, bearded brothers are seen competing in the prestigious ‘Best Rams Contest’. But soon a dreadful, contagious disease known as ‘scrapie’ threatens to affect the sheep in the valley. Authorities call for the slaughter of the sheep, disinfection of the farm, and wait out two years before re-stocking the barns. For these isolated brothers, rams are the only companions in life. So Kiddi and Gummi reluctantly join hands to preserve the only love in their life.
Rams is yet another Icelandic movie with a seemingly sentimental plot handled with astonishing profundity and humanity. Director Harkanarson’s brilliantly depicts the hardscrabble realities of farm life. It’s an eloquent lament for the lost way of life or loss of identity (land’s native Bolstadur stock gets replaced with hormone-injected sheep, imported from western fjords). Although the film comprises of irredeemably tragic core, there are quite a few delicate comic touches. Theater actors Sigujonsson and Juliusson have convincingly transformed themselves into sheep farmers. Their quirky, unsentimental displays of brotherhood are as sublime as the shots of Iceland’s atmospheric beauty.
25. Virgin Mountain (2015)
Dagur Kari’s bittersweet character study of a social misfit uses a refined sense of visual storytelling method to banish the familiarities in the material. The protagonist Fusi (Gunnar Jonsson) is a 43-year-old overweight, terribly shy virgin. He lives with his mother, loves to eat chocolate cereals, obsessed with war games and remote cars. Fusi works at the airport in the baggage handling department and is subjected to relentless verbal harassment.
Fusi’s very late transition into adulthood happens when he goes to line-dancing class. He meets a fellow lost & lonely soul Sjofn (Ilmur Kristjansfdottir). Virgin Mountain has a time-worn plot structure that could have easily followed the paths of Hollywood rom-com or crass adult comedy. Yet, director Kari writes his characters with an abundance of compassion and empathy that they are never turned into tools for making us laugh. Even when the narrative runs through predictable premises, it’s endurable because of the absence of cloying sentimentality and due to Gunar Jonsson’s soulful performance. Gunnar was actually a TV comedian who splendidly conveys Fusi’s inner torment and the subsequent emotional journey of the belated adolescent phase.
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26. Heartstone (2016)
Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson’s splendid directorial debut movingly chronicles the coming-of-age crisis of two teenagers, living in a small, dilapidated fishing village. The film doesn’t open with the mystifying Iceland landscape, but rather gently gazes at the boys’ bodies. Their changing emotions and physicality become the focal point while the unbridled atmospheric beauty is slightly pushed to the background.
When we first see 14-year-old Thor and Christian they are fishing with other buddies. Their world is filled with little humiliations, provocations, cruelties, and joys. After catching a fish they beat it to death and when afflicted by boredom they destroy old cars. Yet these small unleashes don’t alleviate the boxed-in feeling or smooths the transition into adulthood. Heartstone’s impressive imagery (warm sunlight and battering rains alternately make its presence) and touchingly real characterizations are its biggest strength. Similar to the haunting Iceland coming-of-age drama Sparrows, Heartstone also doubles up as the study of judgmental, toxic masculinity in an isolated community.
27. Woman at War (2018)
Benedikt Erlingsson’s idiosyncratic drama is the perfect movie for the climate-change era. It revolves around the middle-aged Halla, who doesn’t simply distribute pamphlets in order to emphasize the need to save our environment. She goes to the beautiful Reykjavik countryside and singlehandedly sabotages power lines that carry electricity to a nearby aluminum smelter plant. Halla also leads a double life as a choir teacher. Things get complicated when she receives news that her application for adopting a girl is accepted.
Woman at War is perfectly balanced between humor and moral complexity. There are few conventional notes in the writing, but largely it is a refreshing take on environmentalism at political as well as personal levels. It ends on a seriously meditative note of climate refugees walking away from a drowning world. Another fascinating aspect of the film was the inventive, fourth-wall-breaking use of music.
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28. And Breathe Normally (2019)
Isold Uggadottir’s feature-film directorial debut deals with the refugee crisis alongside themes like social injustice and homelessness in the most understated and naturalistic manner. The narrative begins with a single mother, Lara, and her little son Eldar. She is a recovering addict and on the brink of poverty. Fortunately, Lara gets a chance to work as a trainee border security guard at Iceland’s Keflavik airport. While examining the paperwork of a Guinea-Bissau woman she finds some discrepancies. The woman named Adja is an asylum-seeker, and she is subsequently caught in bureaucratic limbo. Later in the narrative, the two women come together due to different circumstances.
‘And Breathe Normally’ is a beautiful tale about empathy and openness that transcends the usual drama we expect from immigrant crisis movies. It’s a narrative about various inhibitions that push to live in our cages. It shows us what it means to build a human connection in a world that’s inhumane and indifferent.
29. A White, White Day (2019)
There’s something luminous and profound in the way Hlynur Palmason captures the stasis in one’s life. His Danish directorial debut The Winter Brothers (2017) is a remarkably staged tale of loneliness and hopelessness. With ‘A White White Day’, he explores the stasis in a man’s life that originated due to the death of his wife. Ingimundur is a policeman who can’t quite adjust to the situation and he doesn’t know how to handle his grief. He is rebuilding his home for his daughter and precocious granddaughter, with whom Ingimundur spends a lot of time.
Though there’s a minor mystery at its center, Palmason’s movie is a slow-burn character study. Both Ingvar Sigurdsson and Hlynsdottir (who plays the granddaughter) offer intense performances that reach their zenith in the tense third act. It’s not an easy task to gradually explore the feelings of a man with repressed emotions. Palmason’s perfectly realized visual form and the performances turn this into one of the most heartbreaking Iceland movies.
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30. Last and First Men (2020)
It’s fascinating as well as sad to watch this starkly beautiful cinema from the great Icelandic composer Johann Johannson. He passed away in February 2018 at the age of 48. Shot on black-and-white 16mm film, Last and First Men is an idiosyncratic sci-fi cinema that is closer to a video installation art or speculative literature than Spielberg. Its set two thousand million years in the future and almost entirely moves around towering structures in a vast landscape. Set to Tilda Swinton’s deeply meditative voiceover, we see our abandoned planet picking up a voice from the remotest depths of space.
I think it’s no need to emphasize that this is not a film for everyone. If we have patience and are open to delving into Johansson’s multi-sensory vision, it could be one of the most unforgettable viewing experiences. Moreover, there’s nothing distinctly Icelandic about Last and First Men. But maybe someone like Johansson who grew up around such vast and magical landscapes would inevitably come to reflect upon the vastness of the cosmos.
Notable Omissions: Icelandic Dream (2000), Astropia (2007), Stormland (2005), Movie Days (1994), Cold Light (2003), Land Ho! (2014), Niceland (2004), Paris of the North (2014), Jitters (2010), Parents (2007) and Either Way (2011).
Must-see Iceland documentaries: Heima (2007), Hlemmur (2002), Screaming Masterpiece (2005), Dreamland (2009). Gnarr (2010), and Rock in Reykjavik (1982).
Must-see Iceland short films: The Last Farm (2004), 2 Birds (2007), Whale Valley (2013), and Herd in Iceland (2013).