From Iceland — 2020 In Icelandic Cinema: A Historic Time For International Recognition

2020 In Icelandic Cinema: A Historic Time For International Recognition

2020 In Icelandic Cinema: A Historic Time For International Recognition

Published January 26, 2021

Valur Grettisson

One could easily argue that 2020 was the best year in the history of Icelandic cinema. C’mon, an Icelandic artist won not only an Oscar, but more or less every other international award possible for the best cinematic score. We also had two films on The Guardian’s Top 50 Best Movies of the Year. When else has that happened?

Even the domestic box office in Iceland went better than expected. Two Icelandic movies—’Amma Hófí’ and ‘Síðasta veiðiferðin’—received more attendance than the rest of the 16 Icelandic movies and documentaries released in 2019 got combined. And that doesn’t even get into the quality of this year’s material, so here’s our highlights for the last year in Icelandic cinema.

Sharp political comment

The year started with ‘Héraðið’ (‘The County’) directed by Grímur Hákonarson. If you haven’t heard about Grímur yet, please put him on your list. For reference, his last movie ‘Hrútar’ (‘Rams’) got the Un Certain Regard award at the 2015 Cannes Festival, which is more or less the second biggest prize there. At the time, this was the highest prestige any Icelandic filmmaker had received.

‘Héraðið’ is a strong and surprisingly sharp exploration of injustice and corruption in Iceland. In this critic’s mind, the film is the smartest and most successful political criticism ever made by an Icelandic filmmaker. Many others agreed—in fact the movie made headlines for its nuanced take on the history of farmers being exploited in Iceland by various institutions.

The movie ended up as number 47 on The Guardian’s aforementioned Best Of list, and deservingly so.

A slow burner enchants

But Icelanders weren’t only thinking of politics in 2020. ‘Hvítur, Hvítur Dagur’ (‘A White, White Day’) by Hlynur Pálmason was a compelling character drama starring Ingvar Sigurðsson that I was particularly fond of. The movie tells the story of an ex-cop named Ingimundur, who realises that his dead wife—who he is still mourning—had an affair with his friend. Hlynur’s creation is a slow-burner that turns everything up to eleven at the end. The director sprung up from nothing in 2017 with his film ‘Vetrarbræður’ (‘Winter Brothers’), which you should also watch.

‘Hvítur, Hvítur Dagur’ is an interesting showcase of Hlynur’s vision and talents. In my view, it’s just a matter of time until he will—if not win an Oscar—grab Europe’s attention with his raw and innovative storytelling. His film received the 31st spot on The Guardian’s list.

Hildur writes history

But the biggest win—and a historic moment for Icelandic cultural life—is without a doubt the amazing success of Hildur Guðnadóttir. The composer started in 2019 by hypnotising the world with her score for the HBO miniseries ‘Chernobyl,’ which I assume you’ve watched because it’s fantastic. She followed that up with the iconic score for Todd Philip’s ‘Joker’. For her contribution to this film, she won the BAFTA, Grammy and finally the Oscar.

I anticipate that the bathroom scene from ‘Joker’ will probably become compulsory viewing for anyone in film school studying how to combine music and cinema. The movie itself is an odd masterpiece, but it manages to become one because of its unusual combination of stark imagery and compelling music. Add Joaquin Phoenix to the mix and you’ve got something special.


Of course, 2020 was also a record year for Icelandic TV series. Six series were on TV, which is pretty good for a nation of 360,000. One of them, ‘The Valhalla Murders’ also did quite well on Netflix, and we believe more will grab the world’s attention in good time, such as the fantastic show ‘Minister’ starring Ólafur Darri Ólafsson.

2021 looks good when it comes to Icelandic film because if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to wear a mask and that Iceland’s success in films and TV is just beginning.

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