Once upon a time, there were no Icelandic films. I know, it’s shocking. Things have changed though, now there are lots of them. Every few months we Icelanders are able to go to the cinema to see new Icelandic movies. Most people don’t, except when a film becomes a cultural phenomenon in its own sense – like Leyfðu mér að falla (Let me fall) is now or Hrútar (Rams) was a couple of years ago – then everyone rushes to see it. I try to see all Icelandic films made, and I have been quite successful.
I haven’t seen the first one, Milli fjalls og fjöru from 1949, and I haven’t seen Lof mér að falla (I will, though!) but if you haven’t seen any, I want to give my recommendations (in no particular order) on what I think are the best Icelandic movies.
Undir trénu (2017)
d. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson
To be a true Icelandic movie, you have got to have a lot of angst and Undir trénu (Under the Tree) is filled to the brim with it. It’s about neighbours fighting over a tree that is causing shade. It doesn’t sound too crazy, and even relatable to some, but things get pretty insane quickly and we, the audience, never really know what will happen next.
The shining star of the film is Edda Björgvinsdóttir, who is a celebrated Icelandic actress and mostly known for her comedy works; here, she is intense and, at times, psychotic. She manages to portray a character that is at the same time an insane caricature of a hostile old lady, and somebody you know personally in real life.
d. Baldvin Zophoníasson
A single mom has a part-time job as a prostitute to make ends meet. She befriends an alcoholic writer – who has a massive dark backstory – and tries to make it in a world that was not tailored for a person like her. Vonarstræti (Life in a Fishbowl) is at times incredibly bleak and has all the tropes of an Icelandic film (adultery, paedophiles, addiction, child endangerment, general miserableness, etc.); however, it is in essence a feel-good story about overcoming adversity and that things might get brighter. That might be the reason the setting for the film is Vonarstræti, which is literally translated as Hope Street.
d. Grímur Hákonarson
You know how it is when you live in the next farm to your estranged brother who you refuse to talk to and you are giving each other a bad time? Well, this movie has that in spades. Hrútar (Rams) is a triumph for everyone involved, especially famed comedian Sigurður Sigurjónsson who portrays one of the brothers, and it made people really fall in love with the idea of stubborn old kooks living in misery somewhere out in the countryside. The film is wall-to-wall rams, both the animals and the brothers, and is a must-see. It also received high critical acclaim.
d. Baltasar Kormákur
You might not think that Iceland is full of murder mysteries, and you would be right. Instead, we have books about murder mysteries and the most famous series is about detective Erlendur and his adventures solving crimes in modern Reykjavík. The first, and only, film adaptation of an Erlendur story is Mýrin (Jar City) and by golly, it’s good. Ingvar E. Sigurðsson was born to portray the permanently-resentful Erlendur. All the other characters are perfect, the mystery is a fantastic Nordic crime tale. Everything just fits. Watch it.
Sódóma Reykjavík (1992)
d. Óskar Jónasson
Now, this list isn’t in any particular order, but if it was, you better believe that Sódóma Reykjavík (Remote Control) would be number one. It is the best Icelandic film, ever, and not just because of the fact that it came out when I was a child and I have deep-rooted nostalgia for it. It’s a cultural icon. Walk up to any Icelandic person and ask him where Dúfnahólar 10 is. Do it, I dare you.
You don’t know what I am talking about because you haven’t seen the flick, but that random, slightly terrified, Icelandic person will know. In essence, the plot is simple: a young man needs to find a remote control for his mother, before she flushes the goldfish he keeps in the bath down the drain, and gets involved with Icelandic wannabe gangsters, which leads to all kinds of trouble. It’s hilarious, it has great music, it’s the perfect film.
d. Friðrik Þór Friðriksson
During World War II, the UK, and then the US, occupied Iceland and they built over 7,000 steel huts – barracks. When they left, those steel huts were used as housing for less-fortunate Icelanders, making up neighbourhoods called braggahverfi. Djöflaeyjan (Devil’s Island) takes place in the 1950s in one of these neighbourhoods. It’s about Baddi, a typical Icelandic guy who goes with his mother (who married a US soldier) to the US. When he comes back to Iceland, you better believe that he has been turned into a greaser (like those guys in the film Grease). Hilarity and drama ensue.
101 Reykjavík (2000)
d. Baltasar Kormákur
In many ways, Hlynur, the protagonist of 101 Reykjavík, is a loser. And by “many” I mean “all.” He lives with his mom in a small, cramped, apartment in downtown Reykjavík and spends most of his time at the local bar. When his mom brings home a girlfriend, things get complicated, especially when the girlfriend and Hlynur have sex. Most of the film is the daily struggles of a suicidal man that does nothing, but as the story progresses, so does Hlynur. Will he find his place in the world? You have to watch the movie to find out! Also, yes he does.
Karlakórinn Hekla (1992)
d. Guðný Halldórsdóttir
Karlakórinn Hekla (The Men’s Choir) is one of those movies that everybody (in Iceland) remembers seeing at some point and nobody has anything bad to say about. It’s about a men’s choir in a small town outside of Reykjavík – I know, sounds too perfect to be true. One day, the most beloved member of the choir, Max, has a heart attack and dies, so the remaining choir members do the most logical thing possible: they decide to have a statue of him raised in his birth town in Germany. The group (most played by noted 80s comedians) decide to head to Germany, accompanied by Max’s girlfriend, and everything goes as well as you might expect.
d. Viðar Víkingsson
Legend has it that when the made-for-TV movie Draugasaga (Ghost Story) was broadcasted in Norway, the good people there thought it so bad that it was time to reevaluate its relationship with Iceland (it’s not a legend, it’s true). Sure, is Draugasaga a cheesy horror flick? Yes. Does it make Spanish soap operas look calm and collected? Of course it does, but, more importantly, is it fun? Hell yeah it is. It’s about a guy that takes on a role as a night guard at a TV station (the only TV station in Iceland at the time) and is quick to realise that something spooky is going on there. If it wasn’t so hard to find, it would be a cult classic.
Nói Albínói (2003)
d. Dagur Kári
The bluest hues you will ever see on the big screen! Nói, the albino, is a socially inept smart-arse living in a remote fjord in Iceland (most fjords in Iceland are remote). He dreams of a better life elsewhere, but escaping the fjords can be a difficult task. He falls for a girl from the city (there is one city in Iceland) and sees a chance of a better future with her, but he is socially inept so, you know. The film is funny and all around a great watch.
d. Ragnar Bragason
The epic conclusion to the story of Georg Bjarnfreðarson, a cultural icon in Iceland. The film follows three seasons of a TV show about him and explores why he is like he is. What is he? An arrogant narcissist with five University degrees and the mentality of a Soviet-era communist. When we first met him, he managed a gas station; through the three seasons, he and his co-workers got into all kinds of trouble (resulting in the third season, where they are in jail).
The film is a, I dare say, unique, character study into one of the most ridiculous pop culture figures Iceland has produced, and it all works. Georg – played masterfully by one time Mayor of Reykjavík Jón Gnarr – is obnoxious and you wouldn’t want him around you, but he is also a sympathetic character because seeing how he was raised, by the equally insane mother, he really never had a chance of being anything else.
I recommend watching the three seasons (Næturvaktin, Dagvaktin, Fangavaktin) before the film and just get into Georg.
d. Baltasar Kormákur
The most Icelandic film that has ever been filmed. No joke. Every trope that I have mentioned is here on steroids. Adultery, incest, alcoholism, family drama, shouting, full frontal male nudity, small towns, landscapes, the ocean, angst, blueish hue over everything, inheritance about fish-related things, and more! Hafið (The Sea) is about a dysfunctional family that comes together when the head of the family wants to discuss what happens to his fish industry company after he retires.
The problem? His kids suck. I mean, they really are the worst people imaginable. In their defence, the father is married to his dead wife’s sister (they began the affair when the mother was on her deathbed in the other room). I mean, all these people suck. A film about them though, now that’s magic.
Englar Alheimsins (2000)
d. Friðrik Þór Friðriksson
I still remember renting Englar Alheimsins (Angels of the Universe) on VHS and being blown away. I still regard it as a turning point in how Icelandic films are made, and how the actors perform in them. The film is about Páll, portrayed by Ingvar E Sigurðsson, who is slowly, but surely, losing his mind to schizophrenia. We follow his descent into madness, from his girlfriend leaving him to his being sent to a mental hospital and his escapades there.
The film tackles a serious issue, and is partly based on the real-life brother of the author of the novel it is based on; however, it is filled with wry humour that helps us tackle the subject. For instance, the supporting characters at the mental institute; we have a guy that is sure he actually wrote all The Beatles’ songs, and another that signs his name “Adolf Hitler.” Now, the “absurdity” of their illness is not a joke – these fantasies are something real people have to deal with as reality – but how they tackle their situation and how they interact with each other brings lightness to the film.
Of course I couldn’t mention all great Icelandic films. There are plenty more, like Stella í Orlofi and Með allt á Hreinu, to name two. Maybe I’ll write about more in the future, who knows. If you want to read about more Icelandic films, I did write an article about my favourite Icelandic documentaries some time ago.