The Best Icelandic Movies and Its Cinematic History

People sitting in a cinema, eating popcorn.

Iceland, with its beautiful landscapes immortalised in productions like Game of Thrones, Secret Life of Walter Mitty, James Bond and more, isn’t just a scenic backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters. It also boasts a rich history of filmmaking dating back to the 1920s. With numerous acclaimed films that have captivated movie fans worldwide, Iceland´s movie industry has a lot to offer. 

The first Icelandic movie

Director Loftur Guðmundsson holds a significant place in Icelandic movie history. He was the man behind both the first-ever Icelandic fiction film, the 1923 short farce Ævintýri Jóns og Gvendar (The Adventures of Jón and Gvendur), and the first Icelandic feature film, Milli fjalls og fjöru (Between Mountain and Shore) released in 1949. 

Loftur’s contributions to Icelandic filmmaking paved the way for the many filmmakers who followed.

Lights, camera, Iceland!

In a landmark moment for Icelandic cinema, director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson received an Oscar nomination in 1991 for his film Börn náttúrunnar (Children of Nature). This remarkable achievement remains unmatched, though it’s worth noting Hildur Guðnadóttir’s win for Best Original Score in 2020 for her work on Joker.

Other notable Icelandic directors include Ragnar Bragason, Dagur Kári, Sólveig Halldórsdóttir and Baltasar Kormákur, who is undoubtedly one of the leading figures in Icelandic cinema today. 

 

The Top 5 Best Icelandic movies

Despite its modest population, Iceland has an active film industry and produces a remarkable number of movies per capita. Several Icelandic films have garnered international acclaim, earning their place among the best in global cinema.

According to IMDB these are the top 5 best Icelandic movies:

1. Rams (2015), directed by Grímur Hákonarson

This drama film won over 30 prizes both internationally and in Iceland, as well as acclaim from the newspaper Kjarninn, which voted it the second best Icelandic movie of all time. The movie tells a tale of two estranged brothers who, after 40 years of silence, unite to try and save their cherished sheep.

2. Everest (2015), directed by Baltasar Kormákur

This star-studded film achieved remarkable commercial success, serving as a gripping depiction of real-life events. In 1996, a group of hikers found themselves ensnared in a terrifying storm atop Mount Everest, forcing them into a desperate struggle against the relentless forces of nature.

3. Life in a Fishbowl (2014), directed by Baldur Zophaníasson

The film follows the journey of a preschool teacher and mother who resorts to selling herself to make ends meet, a former athlete navigating the corporate world  and an older man grappling with the demons of alcoholism. 

4. The Deep (2012), directed by Baltasar Kormákur

The film brings the extraordinary true story of fisherman Guðlaugur Friðþórsson to life. Guðlaugur´s astonishing survival in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic captivates the audience. The Deep was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination in 2013 as Best Foreign Language film but went on to win numerous awards in Iceland.

 5. 101 Reykjavík (2000) by Baltasar Kormákur

This movie is an adaptation of the eponymous novel that won the Discovery Film Award at the Toronto Film Festival. The movie tells the story of Hlynur, an almost 30 year old leading a leisurely life under his mother´s roof, sustained by social welfare. However things change when his mother´s friend Lola, a Spanish dance teacher, pays a visit and stays through the holidays. This quirky romantic comedy quickly solidified its status as an all time favourite in Icelandic cinema.

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams to Play Icelanders in Eurovision Film

Iceland will have a starring role in Netflix’s upcoming movie about Eurovision, RÚV reports. American comedian Will Ferrell and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams will both play Icelanders in the movie, which may center around the fact that Iceland has never, in the 33 competitions it has taken part in since its debut in 1986 with ICY’s “Gleiðibankinn, or ‘The Bank of Joy,’ won Eurovision. (It has come in second place twice: in 1999, with Selma’s “All Out of Luck” and 2009 with Yohanna’s “Is It True?”)

Ferrell was introduced to Eurovision by his wife, the Swedish actress Viveca Paulin, who has herself worked on Eurovision’s national selection competitions in Sweden. Reportedly a huge fan of the song competition, he attended the event in Portugal in 2018 as research for the film; Rachel McAdams attended this year’s competition in Israel.

According to information obtained by RÚV, many of the character names are plays on Icelandic names, but purposefully made to be nonsensical. There will be a number of Icelandic actors in the movie, including Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir, and Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson. Filming will begin in London early next week and may also take place in the North Iceland town of Húsavík in the fall. Icelandic film production company True North is overseeing shooting of the film in Iceland.

Terrence Malick Filming in Iceland

American film director Terrence Malick is shooting a new film in Iceland, Vísir reports.

There’s a great deal of secrecy surrounding the film thus far, but Vísir was able to confirm with sources that British actor Ben Kingsley, known for his Oscar-winning turn as Mohandas Ghandi, among other notable roles, has a part in the film. Icelandic actor Björn Thors (Paris of the North; The Deep) is also in the film.

A photo on Vísir shows Malick’s film team working in the area around the Krafla caldera in the Mývatn region in North Iceland.

Terrence Malick has filmed previously in Iceland; part of his Oscar-nominated 2011 film Tree of Life was shot in the country, as were large portions of his 2016 IMAX documentary Voyage of Time.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in Iceland

Q: A recent conversation with a friend stimulated this question. He had just watched the Ben Stiller film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on TV, knows I visited Iceland in 2009 and wanted to talk about it. My wife and I saw the film earlier when it first hit our local movie theater and we like it a lot.

What did you think of the segment of the film that took place in Iceland? Did the film portray things fairly accurately?

Is Iceland’s ban on stripper bars still in place? The reason I’m asking this question is because there is a scene in the film where Ben Stiller gets off a ship in an Icelandic port and races several Portuguese (?) sailors to a bicycle so he can continue his quest. The ship captain tells Stiller that the sailors want to use that bike to pedal into town to a stripper bar.

Ron, MD, U.S.

A: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which premiered in Iceland in January last year, ended up being the fourth most-watched movie in theaters in Iceland in 2014.

Upon leaving Iceland in September 2012, Ben Stiller tweeted: “Last day of the shoot. Iceland is an incredible place. Going to miss it here.” He also raved about Iceland on Jimmy Kimmel Live! earlier in the year.

Judging by how Icelandic landscape was portrayed in the film, Stiller really did love it. Parts of it seemed like an Inspired by Iceland commercial.

Scenes were shot in Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur on Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland, in Höfn and on Vatnajökull glacier in Southeast Iceland, and in Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland. An indoor scene was also shot in Borgarnes, West Iceland.

However, not all of the scenes were supposed to take place in Iceland; Stykkishólmur and Höfn served as locations in Greenland, while the Vatnajökull scenes were supposed to take place in Afghanistan and the Himalayas.

Also in the Iceland scenes, the geography was messed up. Walter Mitty was in Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland when he witnessed Eyjafjallajökull erupt, but according to the map that he carried, he was in Stykkishólmur in West Iceland and the volcano was located in the town’s vicinity. In reality, Eyjafjallajökull isn’t anywhere near either of the two towns, its actual location is in South Iceland.

Stripping is still banned and there’s also no Papa John’s in Iceland so Stiller definitely didn’t portray things accurately, even though he certainly did Icelandic nature justice in his landscape shots, especially where Walter Mitty skateboards down Fjarðarheiði to Seyðisfjörður.

I thought the geographical mix-up was funny but it didn’t bother me much when watching the movie. Writers and filmmakers are granted a certain liberty as a good storyline trumps facts. Stiller isn’t the first filmmaker to play around with Icelandic geography—the locations in Icelandic Oscar-nominated director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s 1995 comedy Cold Fever (Á köldum klaka) didn’t make much sense either.

The film got mixed reviews and not everyone liked it, although the people I spoke with generally agreed that it was entertaining, a ‘feel good’ movie.

ESA

Papa John’s in Walter Mitty ‘Worst Product Placement’

Papa John’s pizzeria in Ben Stiller’s film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—which was filmed in Iceland—was chosen as one of the worst cases of latent advertising last year by Brandchannel, who handed out their annual Product Placement Awards last week, thewire.com reports.

Brandchannel also highlighted the product placement of Cinnabon, Time Inc.’s Life magazine and eHarmony in the film.

A bakery in the West Iceland town of Borgarnes was converted into Papa John’s for the movie. The film was considered priceless promotion for Iceland as a substantial part of the movie was filmed in Iceland. Stiller spent five weeks in the country filming at seven different locations. Two hundred and fifty Icelanders worked on the project.