Every Pedro Almodóvar movie, ranked

From the Oscar-winning 'All About My Mother' to his latest, 'Parallel Mothers', get to know the eccentric Spanish director's work.

by Lee Escobedo
01 February 2022, 12:57pm

Before it was trendy for American cinema to champion strong female roles, Pedro Almodóvar was making waves in Spain doing just that. Since his debut movie in 1980, Pepi, Luci, Bom, made on a budget of 400,000 pesetas (or $3,000), the 72-year-old auteur has been crafting melodramatic masterpieces around what it means to be a woman. 

Almodóvar’s films were also part of a wave of camp in cinema. They can be sexy, over the top, perverted and grossed-out, but also poetic, lyrical, meditative and deeply-personal. The director has often said he’s based his characters on the women in his life growing up, specifically his mother, and his male characters are at their most interesting when they embody femininity. He constantly investigates gender and queerness in his movies, showing all the complexities of what it means to be a sexual being in modern society – how that both complicates and makes life beautiful, as we know it. 

Almodóvar has also helped launch the careers of many now-famous Spanish actors and actresses — including Penelope Cruz (1997’s Live Flesh), Javier Bardem (also Live Flesh) and Antonio Banderas (1982’s Labyrinth of Passion). But he has also been a champion of lesser known Spanish stars: Carmen Maura, Julieta Serrano, Marisa Paredes and Chus Lampreave. These relationships have been at the backbone of his four decade-long careers. 

Though he received his first Oscar nomination for 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and has earned a total of seven nominations and two wins (Best Foreign Language Film in 1999 for All About my Mother and Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2002 for Talk to Her), Almodóvar is not as well-known in America as he is in Europe. However, with the release of his newest film, Parallel Mothers – his seventh collaboration with Cruz – it’s the perfect time to reflect on his long and challenging career.

This is every single Pedro Almodóvar film, ranked.

23. The Human Voice (2022)

The Human Voice is Almodóvar’s first attempt at a short film entirely in English. It stars the indelible Tilda Swinton in a Samuel Beckett-like situation as a woman waiting with her dog for a husband who may never arrive. The film is based on a play by Surrealist Jean Cocteau‎. It’s good, but deviates from what makes the director so special: his commitment to the Spanish language and his usual cacophony of colourful characters. 

22. I’m So Excited! (2013)

This film marked Almodóvar’s return to light-hearted camp after a string of serious films. I’m So Excited! suffers from an overabundance of characters, none of which we stay with long enough to gain favour, and is a diluted version of Almodóvar’s earlier more provocative work. Here, he’s a bit too in love with his creations, and hasn’t quite figured out how to let these character and his scenery properly breathe.

21. Kika (1993)

Kika runs like a freight train on fire, barreling through sex, slapstick and flamboyancy before crashing into a murder subplot. Veronica Forque scorches as the title character: a ditzy makeup artist who puts everyone she comes across under a spell, including the corpses she is charged with restoring. Sound bizarre yet? Welcome to Almodóvar’s world. 

20. Labyrinth of Passion (1982)

While not the dense masterpiece Almodóvar’s known for, Labyrinth of Passion is peak salacious sex romp. It runs the whole gamut of the director’s most outrageous signifiers: tackling incest, nymphomania and gay sex – sometimes all in the same scene. It’s a hilarious comedy that works thanks to great performances by its two leads, Cecilia Roth and Marta Fernandez-Muro. The film also features a brief cameo by a young Antonio Banderas as a punk rocker. 

19. Dark Habits (1983)

A harsh critique of Catholicism and the figureheads of the church run prominent throughout Almodóvar’s work. And Dark Habits explores the lines between passion and purity. Almodóvar’s framing of the Catholic Church against themes of repression and abuse is a devastating expose of the ills of organized religion, a theme the director would continue throughout his career. Insufferable, abusing men are another hallmark of his, and they’re on full display here, as Almodóvar ditches most male characters to tell the story of an illicit relationship, seemingly drawing inspiration from the true story of Sister Benedetta

18. Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom (1980)

As expected, Almodóvar’s debut film is a blueprint for much of what would become, just with more DIY panache. It’s all there in this loud, crude, degenerate tale about rapist pigs and the kickass punk rock women they try to keep down. Almodóvar was drinking the same punk-flavored Kool-Aid as fellow provocateur John Waters, as this early film shares the same grungy pathos as Pink Flamingos. This is a must-see for fans of filth. 

17. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)

This is where Almodóvar began to smooth out many of the rough edges that would become consistent themes throughout the following decades. His best films feature a tortured protagonist who projects his own soul-saving needs onto another broken person in need of healing. In this film, it’s Marina, a fledgling porn actress who meets Ricky, a troubled man who kidnaps her and brings the title to life as her kidnapper. The film’s playful tone keeps its head above troubled waters as the duo play with the conventions of kidnapped and kidnapper. 

16. High Heels (1981)

With High Heels, it becomes a bit more challenging to rank the director’s work. From this point on, most of Almodóvar’s films have distinctive qualities that make them endearing as they merge various cinematic genres. In High Heels, the director turns the concept of a love triangle into a trapezoid, with hearts bleeding all over the place. It’s ramped up to another level as this film takes on the appearance of a fanciful soap opera, and this is also where we begin to see Almodóvar’s love of colours become as vibrant as his love of actors. Scenes are staged with eye-popping sets and decor. It’s a feast for the eyes.

15. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

Class and politics are often an intrinsic part of Almodóvar’s storytelling; he’s adept at framing the tension between the haves and the have nots in Spanish culture. Frequent Almodóvar muse Carmen Maura plays the central character here, a cleaning lady working multiple jobs to pay the bills. Almodóvar shows the desperation, addiction and desire that permeates the lower-class of Spanish life and never lets the film, or the audience, rely on over-sentimentality. Instead, Almodóvar gives us a protagonist not only worth rooting for but to empathise with as well. 

14. The Law of Desire (1987)

Sometimes Almodóvar inserts parts of himself into his films. It just so happens the main character in The Law of Desire is a director by trade, who’s one part of a love triangle. The other is a bartender who is pushed out of the picture by the third lover, played with delicious bombast by Antonio Banderas. A criminal investigation ensues as the character’s sordid lives converge around a murder of an ill-fated lover. 

13. Broken Embraces (2009)

Distrust, mystery, shattered love: These themes build the backbone of one of Almodóvar’s most lush-looking films. In it, Lluís Homar plays a director haunted by his back-stabbing past discretions, and the mysterious circumstances around his former lover Lena’s death. The character, played by Cruz, haunt’s the film’s narrative too, imbuing it with a neo-noir pacing. Created 30 years after Almodóvar’s debut, it’s best to think of Broken Embraces as an updated dictionary of the director’s cinematic language — complete with modern takes on classic definitions. 

12. Parallel Mothers (2022)

In Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar is reunited with Cruz, who has been his motherhood muse starting with her first appearance in Live Flesh. This might be Cruz’s most intense and raw performance for Almodóvar. As a mother inside a cyclone of love, lust, grief and confusion, she grasps at those closest to her for companionship. By the end of the film, she is no longer alone but surrounded by a village of women who have lost as much or more, standing together, absolute in remembrance.

11. Matador (1986)

Matador is not for the faint of heart. The faint eroticism of Almodóvar’s more mainstream work is dialled up to a new level with this. The movie opens with a full-on masturbation scene, but in Almodóvar’s wild hands, he makes the character pleasure himself to scenes of violence from Spanish horror films. Underneath all the winking, dangerous camp here is a meditation on masculine violence and gender norms though.

10. Julieta (2016)

Next to Volver and Pain and Glory, Julieta is one of the director’s best modern films. Almodóvar draws from three short stories by the writer Alice Munro for the film’s plot, which follows a woman searching for her estranged daughter. The film shifts back and forth between Julieta’s past and present as she reflects on her life and the choices she made, which led to the shattered relationship with her daughter. As the title character, Emma Suárez is a force of nature and beautifully unravels the mysteries of middle-age. 

9. The Flower of My Secret (1995)

Almodóvar made another movie about his own self-perception. This time around, it’s as a trashy romance writer who has made a living by writing pulpy, popular novels. Despite her more high brow, serious literature aspirations, the central character is a woman who escapes her unfaithful marriage by becoming a romance novelist. She writes the books under a pseudonym to keep her identity a secret, and even trashes her novels in the press under her real name — causing a schism between her two identities. While The Flower of My Secret has a more overtly serious tone than his other films, it deals with the director’s attempt at self-needling with light-heartedness. This is one of his more literary works, with inter-textual shifts in point-of-view and rich mise-en-scene, all without losing the emotional pull of his most compelling work. 

8. The Skin I Live In (2011)

This is Almodóvar’s most direct attempt at classic horror. In the film’s central role, the actor does his best Vincent Price impression, never veering too far away from Almodóvar’s world, but also keeping the audience in the dark on his malevolent intentions. While many of the director's past forays into thrillers maintain a cynical tension, this movie stretches Almodóvar’s abilities into new found territory. 

7. Live Flesh (1997)

Many remember this to be the film that started the connection between now husband and wife Bardem and Cruz. Live Flesh features two early performances from the king and queen of Spanish cinema, and is bookended by two bus-ride birthing scenes. The first, which opens the movie, is one of the greatest scenes ever shot by the director, shows the birth of Victor. He’s delivered by his prostitute mother (Cruz), whose water breaks on the way to the hospital. The bus sits all alone on a deserted Spanish street, reflecting the fear and alienation of the Franco regime in the 70s. It’s a poetic reminder that Almodóvar pulls from many references as an artist. As the child becomes a cop (Bardem), we follow him into a spider-web of intrigue and illicit relationships, leading to him becoming paralyzed, and falling deeper into a growing conspiracy of lies and lust.

6. Pain and Glory (2019)

Banderas returns to the world of Almodóvar to deliver the best performance of his career as another stand-in for the director. This time, the comparison isn’t played for laughs or coyly hinted at. It’s direct, laying the filmmaker’s shortcomings off-screen bare. The regrets, pains and losses are more than a facsimile, it’s Almodóvar’s beating heart you’re seeing on on screen. No wonder Pain and Glory earned Banderas an Oscar nomination. As his character makes his way through an ageing body and isolating lifestyle, a chance encounter reminds him of what made him fall in love with art in the first place. 

5. Volver (2006)

Volver felt like the first breakout for Almodóvar in the US. Thanks, in part, to a rousing central performance by Cruz that earned her an Oscar nomination. The film is soft and lyrical and carries on the legacy storytelling of motherhood that the director has been mining for decades. In many ways, Volver embodies the age-old adage of “it takes a village to raise a child.”

4. Bad Education (2004)

In Bad Education, the director revisits the historical abuse of the Catholic Church, humanising the victims with a love story of a survivor and his former schoolmate. Gael Garcia Bernal, in one of his breakout performances, embodies all of the injustice, resignation and survival of the human spirit needed to flesh out his character: a complicated and courageous young sex worker. Most importantly, as a queer love story, it embraces the hardcore depictions of male bodies intertwined. When so much gay cinema is sanitised for mainstream consumption, it’s welcoming to see Almodóvar not surrender to the taste of others and show it like it is. 

3. Talk to Her (2002)

This is Almodóvar at his Surrealist peak. His most spectacular and fantastical tale of sound and fury. Kinky and profane, Talk to Her is mainly about how people never truly know one another. The two central women, a bullfighter and ballerina, are in a comatose state. The two men tending to them at their bedside project their own needs and desires upon their uncommunicative bodies. In the process, they become both closer and farther away from knowing these women.   

2. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

If not the best of the director’s filmography, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is certainly the most entertaining. It’s a cauldron of all of Almodóvar's favourite themes, and the movie feels like a tentpole Marvel picture, where all of his greatest archetypes come together in one scene. While being all of that, it’s also a relatively straightforward film. The title tells you everything you know. It’s about a group of women at different stages of their lives, pushed to the brink of insanity by men. The personal revenge they look to administer reveals itself in farcical and hilarious ways. Men have always used hysteria to admonish women’s reactions to their bad behaviour; in this film, Almodóvar lets his girl gang redefine what crazy looks like. 

1. All About My Mother (1999)

A pregnant nun, transgender sex workers and warring lesbians are the characters at the heart of All About My Mother. We learn about the film’s main protagonist, an actress and single mother who loses her son, early in the film. It asks: What does it mean to be a mother? How does it change with grief, loss, forgiveness and a second chance? With this film, Almodóvar balances drama and comedy and spins it into a somewhat Greek tragedy. In the process, he delivers the greatest poem on womanhood of his career.

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Pedro Almodóvar