A bizarre, unwholesome, sexually explicit melodrama whose depiction of rape would now be considered problematic, to say the least. Penélope Cruz is made up to look authentic and unglamorous as Italia, a vulnerable working-class woman assaulted by a prominent surgeon (played by the film’s director, Sergio Castellitto) who then conceives an obsession with her. Not a great part for Cruz, but the movie does at least approach her with something other than the traditional celebratory/lifeforce reverence.
19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)
The role of the comely Greek woman Pelagia in this syrupy wartime romance is the kind of Euro love interest role that Hollywood would offer Cruz without thinking about it. Here she is torn between her hunky fisherman boyfriend, played by Christian Bale, and of course, the outrageously accented Italian officer Captain Corelli, played by Nicolas Cage, billeted on her island and twanging away at that awful mandolin of his. Cruz’s proud/passionate persona is caricatured here.
18. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
Cruz had worked with director Rob Marshall on the toe-curling musical Nine, but this was something more palatable: a rare chance for her to play mainstream Hollywood comedy. She did it well, striking some meet-cute sparks with one of the biggest franchise stars of the era. Johnny Depp returned as the roguish pirate Jack Sparrow and Cruz enjoyably plays fiery pirate Angelica, an old rival or maybe old flame of Jack’s. Yet there is a disconnect: Cruz can’t help but be warm and romantic, while Depp’s Sparrow is a fastidious, oddly asexual turn.
17. Soy Uno Entre Cien Mil (or, I am One In A Hundred Thousand) (2016)
This is a 45-minute documentary directed by and starring Cruz, about the work of the Uno Entre Cien Mil foundation, a Spanish NGO that raises money to fund research projects into childhood leukemia. Cruz presents the film and interviews physicians, careworkers, parents and of course the children themselves – which she does with heartfelt sincerity and compassion. It’s interesting to see a nonfiction film that addresses Cruz’s now firmly established motherly image.
16. Belle Époque (1992)
The Spanish director Fernando Trueba won the best foreign language Oscar for this movie, a variation on Don Siegel’s US civil war drama The Beguiled, giving Cruz an important early role. This takes place just before the Spanish civil war: an army deserter fetches up at a villa owned by an unrepentant old anarchist who is only too happy to offer hospitality, and the fugitive finds himself highly enamoured of the owner’s daughters, especially the innocent Luz, played by Cruz. A sweet, gentle, uncomplicatedly sensual movie that established the keynote to Cruz’s own sexuality on screen.
15. I’m So Excited (2013)
Cruz’s screen career will always be shaped by her magnificent work with the great master Pedro Almodóvar and their first joint appearance on this list is Almodóvar’s modestly intended comic romp set aboard a plane, in which his longtime leading lady contributes a high-spirited cameo at the start. She is, of all things, a baggage-handler driving one of the luggage carts across the asphalt when she is distracted by her husband, a ground-crew guy played by Antonio Banderas – which leads to a fateful revelation. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance and yet her appearance flavours the entire movie.
14. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Cruz co-starring with Tom Cruise should theoretically have been a conflation of pure physical gorgeousness to blow the roof off any cinema in the world. And in fact, after filming Vanilla Sky, the couple (Penélocruise? Tomcruz?) had a three-year relationship that reportedly foundered on Cruz’s inability to accept Cruise’s Scientological strictures. This was a Hollywood remake of the far superior Spanish mystery thriller Open Your Eyes (see below), in which a wealthy man gets cosmetic surgery to repair his face, which has been ruined in a car crash, and falls in love with a beautiful woman (Cruz). In this remake, Cruz reprises her role, but opposite a more self-consciously starry male lead; this arguably unbalances their relationship, and the film’s whole emotional ecosystem.
13. The Queen of Spain (2016)
It has become a cliche to compare Cruz to Sophia Loren, but it’s unavoidable in this enjoyable, silly meta-movie comedy from Trueba. Cruz is on regal form as Macarena, a gorgeous film diva from the 50s who is returning to her Spanish homeland after a triumphant Hollywood career to play Queen Isabella of Castille in a preposterous US-Spanish co-production. The production runs to farcical problems, at least partly because an anti-Franco director, serving a jail term as a political prisoner, is doing day-release manual labour on the set. The entire cast and crew become involved in a scheme for him to escape.
12. Live Flesh (1997)
Another short appearance from Cruz in this early movie of delicious brashness from Almodóvar, loosely adapted from the novel by Ruth Rendell. Her sensational charisma and screen presence, as a sex worker who gives birth to the movie’s hero in the opening sequence, provide the motivating power for the drama. It is also probably the case that, as the years went on, Almodóvar had to change his own style to accommodate the richness and breadth of Cruz’s performing potential – and her presence in his life is what governed his development as a film-maker.
11. Elegy (2008)
Cruz’s fiercely composed performance in this film from Isabel Coixet reclaims her character from the somewhat vapid desire-object that Philip Roth seems to have had in mind in his original novel, The Dying Animal. She plays Consuela, the literature student in a class taught by the goatish sensualist and Roth alter ego David Kepesh, played with beady-eyed concentration by Ben Kingsley. They begin an affair, and Cruz’s personal flowering is signalled by her ditching her rather lovable nerdy fringe in favour of something more glamorous. As a performer, she goes toe-to-toe with Kingsley, who might have upstaged another co-star.
10. Everybody Knows (2018)
Here is an atypical movie from the Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi, coolly received by some critics at the time. He gives Cruz a very strong role, in a bold and intricate mystery drama-thriller, as Laura, who comes for a family wedding to the Spanish village of her childhood with her two children, leaving her husband behind in their adopted home of Argentina. Her daughter tells Laura that she has found out there is a local man here (played by Javier Bardem) who was once in love with Laura. It is an unhealed wound of the past that is to become horribly significant when Laura’s daughter disappears. Farhadi gives Cruz something different to do – she is not the metafictional earth mother and romantic myth-icon that so many make of her, but someone more rooted in the grim and unadorned real world of secrets and shame.
9. Jamón Jamón (1992)
Here is Cruz’s movie debut – at the age of 18, she played the beautiful, young Silvia, who lives in a surreally conceived Spanish small town where the main employers are a ham production plant and an underwear factory. She has been having an affair with the spoilt young heir to the tighty-whitey empire; the man’s formidable mother tries to break them up by hiring a handsome man to seduce Silvia, and this is Raúl, a wannabe bullfighter who has recently been doing some male-lingerie modelling, and has in fact an emotional connection with Silvia’s mother. He is played by Bardem, whose appearance in Cruz’s CV here is significant given that they were to get married almost 20 years later. Like Belle Époque the same year, Jamón Jamon’s extravagant sexiness and absurdity set the keynote for Cruz’s own sensuality and desirability, which were coloured by a kind of romantic innocence and charm.
8. Ma Ma (2015)
Basque film-maker Julio Medem directed this brashly emotional melodrama, clearly constructed around Cruz’s established persona, and for some critics, it was too schematic. But it is such a lovely performance from her that the film deserves attention. She plays Magda, a teacher and single mum who gets breast cancer and then forms a relationship with Arturo, played by Luis Tosar, a romantic development leading to a complex emotional triangle involving Magda’s doctor. Granted, there is something contrived and even a bit preposterous about it all, but Cruz sells it with conviction; she is vivid in the way that only she can be, and the film shimmers and throbs with emotion.
7. Abre Los Ojos (or, Open Your Eyes) (1997)
A flawed but very intriguing film about illusion and reality with hints of Buñuel and Franju, and growing cult status. It comes from director and co-writer Alejandro Amenábar, starring the Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega and Cruz – later remade as Vanilla Sky, with Noriego’s role going to Tom Cruise. Noriega plays César, a rich young guy who gets cosmetic surgery after being horribly disfigured in a car crash and then experiences ultra-real hallucinations indistinguishable from reality involving an affair with the fascinating young woman, Silvia (Cruz), whose dalliance with him led to the crash. In some ways, this movie was instrumental in Cruz getting cast as a heightened version of the manic pixie dream girl: the beautiful, unattainable, faintly dreamlike muse-like figure for entranced men.
6. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Cruz won her best supporting actress Oscar for this Barcelona-set film from Woody Allen – a moderate comedy from Allen’s luxury-tourist Euro period that also included his Italian romp To Rome With Love (2012), in which Cruz played a stereotypically conceived Italian call girl. This is a more interesting and engaged role for her and, whatever the film’s drawbacks, Cruz absolutely blows the rest of the cast out of the water with a showstopper of a comic performance. She plays Maria Elena, the passionate, troubled ex-wife of the moody Picasso-ish artist Juan Antonio, played by Bardem – and playing together in this movie kindled their professional friendship into love; they married two years later. Maria Elena is still a presence in Juan Antonio’s life, looming over his attempt to seduce two visiting Americans, the Vicky and Cristina of the title, played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson.
5. Broken Embraces (2009)
Here is one of the amazing movie mirages or dizzyingly mesmeric meta-melodramas that come so naturally to Almodóvar. Cruz plays a stunningly charismatic movie star and producer’s mistress called Lena (inevitably, this is short for Magdalena, another hint of the sacredness wrapped in the profane that Almodóvar has ecstatically discovered in Cruz’s screen personality). There is a wonderful scene in which Lena tries on various costumes and styles, experimenting with a platinum-blonde Marilyn look. “Don’t smile!” gasps the enchanted director. “The wig is false enough!”
4. All About My Mother (1999)
For some, this is the high-water mark not merely of Cruz’s career but Almodóvar’s also – and it continues to have a sensational effect, irradiating its fans with bliss. Brilliant though this is, I think later Cruz/Almodóvar pictures superseded it. When a teenage boy is tragically run over and killed in the street, his mother decides to travel to Barcelona and make contact with the boy’s father: a trans sex worker who has also had a relationship with – and indeed impregnated – Sister Rosa, a young nun played by Cruz. It is an amazingly potent, complex pattern of emotional relationships and sexual identities, and although Cruz is not the star (this is Cecilia Roth), her presence is integral. Almodóvar found in Cruz that innocent and almost childlike quality that anchors the movie’s melodrama.
3. Pain and Glory (2019)
Once again, Cruz’s presence marks the supercharged place where life and art meet in an Almodóvar film: a film about pleasure that is itself a pleasure. Antonio Banderas plays Salvador, a film director who is in the grip of midlife crisis, health worries and a career lull. A chance meeting (that key Almodóvar narrative component) unlocks something in him and he experiences ecstatic memories of his mother, wonderfully played by Cruz, a performance that fuses sensuality, motherhood and innocence – and also that certain sort of beauty that is idealised and poignantly unattainable through being in the past.
2. Parallel Mothers (2021)
Cruz and Almodóvar took it to the next level with this late-breaking masterpiece about the passionate courage of single mothers. Cruz plays Janis, a stylish photographer who gets pregnant after a brief affair; she finds herself sharing a room in the maternity unit with Ana (Milena Smit), a troubled teen who is also going it alone. Janis becomes a friend and even in some ways becomes a mum to her too. The ensuing baby-swap drama is deepened and complicated by a plot line involving Spain’s fascist past. Cruz brings to this role a maturity, passion and emotional intelligence bordering on genius.
1. Volver (2006)
Volver is the fierce melodrama about women’s bravery that most fully unleashes Cruz’s amazing intensity, beauty and charisma. She plays Raimunda, a hardworking wife and mother (of course) whose world shatters after a terrible act of violence. The movie has something of Sirk and also Hitchcock, and there is an amazing overhead shot of Raimunda washing a bloodstained knife in the kitchen sink. The shot discloses the glistening crown of her raven hair and an enamel miniature of the crucified Christ nestling in her cleavage – an image wittily deconstructing the patriarchal world of church and state in which Raimunda finds herself, while also celebrating her unselfconscious resourcefulness and toughness. Cruz has a glorious song in this film: a lament for past lives and loves that she delivers for the crowd in a restaurant. She is one of cinema’s great heroines.