With Broken Embraces in cinemas, Nine on the way, and Volver on SBS ONE on Boxing Day, it's Penelope Cruz-apalooza. We look back at ten of her best performances.
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14 Dec 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

It didn't take long for the camera to find Penelope Cruz Sanchez. The eldest of three children born to Encarna Sánchez and Eduardo Cruz in the Alcobendas community of Madrid, Spain, Penelope trained in ballet at the Spanish National Conservatory. Her skill as a dancer and her radiant beauty led to her first gig before the cameras – in pop group Mecano's 1992 video for their hit song "La fuerza del destino". Penelope was 17 years old.

 

 

Now 35 and with 50 movies to her credit, Penelope Cruz has become the most successful movie star that Spain has ever produced. She has worked alongside an entire generation of leading men (Cage, Cruise, Depp, Damon, Day-Lewis, Downey Jr , Matthew McConnaughey, Adrian Brody, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Christian Bale and her countryman, Javier Bardem), fellow Oscar-winning actresses (Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard) and international cinema's leading directors (Stephen Frears, Cameron Crowe, Alejandro Amenábar, Mathieu Kassovitz, Sergio Castellitto). Once again the muse for the legendary Pedro Almodovar in his latest film Broken Embraces, and with advance images of her lingerie-clad dance number in Rob Marshall's Nine melting down the internet, we take a look at the 10 great performances that have made Penelope Cruz the superstar she is today.

 

10. Maria Alvarez
Bandidas (2006)

Though slammed by critics and released direct-to-DVD in most territories (including Australia), this action/comedy/western now enjoys a cult following. For Cruz, it allowed her to unleash a brand of broad, sexy slapstick that revealed a very talented comedienne. Directed by two Norwegians (!) and co-starring Hollywood's other Latino bombshell, Salma Hayek, it is the only one of Cruz's Hollywood films to make the cut, saying something about her rocky path to mainstream audience acceptance.

What the critics said: “Cruz seems to be having a ball, freed from her traditional heavy dramatic roles and set loose in the Wild West. Hayek and Cruz share tremendous chemistry, and their goofy, competitive interplay keeps the film rolling.” – Brian Orndorf, eFilmCritic.com

 

9. Macarena Granada
La niña de tus ojos (The Girl of Your Dreams, 1998)

Fernando Trueba's dashing, true-life historical drama tells the little known story of the Spanish film industry's mass exodus to the studios of Germany during the nation's Civil War to avoid persecution by the Republic. Cruz, playing the star of a lavish Latin musical being shot in Berlin, finds herself the obsession of none other than Goebbels (Johannes Silberschneider). And most of Europe's present day cinemagoers, too – the film was a huge hit, earning Cruz the first of her Best Actress Goya awards.

What the critics said: “Without the vitality of this actress, The Girl of Your Dreams would not have achieved the same impact.” – Francisco Pena, Cinevisiones (translated from Spanish text)

 

8. Melibea
La Celestina (1996)

 

Based upon Fernando Rojas iconic 1949 Spanish novel, this bawdy tale of witchcraft, inflamed teenage passions and sinister forces cast Cruz as Melibea, the simmering object of desire for young farmer Callisto (Juan Diego Botto). A lavish costume drama, primed with a raw sensuality that put purists offside, La Celestina earned 7 Goya nominations, capturing Cruz's potent sexuality like never before and solidifying her stardom in her homeland.

What the critics said: “The achingly beautiful looks of young thesp Penelope Cruz and the potent sensuality of Maribel Verdu (both from "Belle Epoque") have the potential to cause offshore ripples.” – Jonathan Holland, Variety

 

7. Enza
La ribelle (The Rebel, 1993)

 

Cruz's cinematic dance card filled very quickly in the early 1990's; the one-two punch of Belle Epoque and Jamon jamon in 1992 meant she was offered every teenage role on the market. Enjoying critical and commercial success with Todo es mentira (Life's a Bitch, 1994) and Alegre ma non troppo (1994), Cruz found her best role of this period in Aurelio Grimaldi's 1993 adaptation of his own novel, La ribelle. As Enza, the 16 year old petty criminal seeking love through random acts of sex, Cruz is heart-breaking, even brittle yet fierce and defiant. It is one of her great unsung performances.

What the critics said: “Cruz, whose expressionless mask can be interpreted as sullen or mysterious, deep or shallow, has the magnetism to push the film through its more deja-vu moments.” – Deborah Young, Variety

 

6. Sofia
Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes, 1997)

 

The breakthrough arthouse hit that brought Cruz to the attention of international audiences, Alejandro Amenabar's twisted, puzzling thriller captured the defining sweetness of her allure while evoking a shadowy, compelling screen presence. Reprising the role in the under-rated US remake Vanilla Sky, Cruz inhabited the darker corners of her characters soul, and blew away any critics still decrying she was just a pretty face.

What the critics said: “Penelope Cruz fashions Sofia as an enigma. Always beautiful and sexy, she can be cold and cruel or warm and comforting.” – James Berardinelli, Reelviews.

5. Italia
Non ti muovere (Don't Move, 2004)

 

After a hectic period of not-always satisfying work in the US, Cruz was lured back to Europe by auteur Sergio Castellitto to play the role of Italia in the existential thriller, Non ti muovere. A manifestation of the lead character's memory, Cruz plumbed the desperate soul of Italia, sallow of skin and dark-eyed, striving to provide intense sexual pleasure to a lover that offered her a way out of her destitute life.

What the critics said: “Cruz is utterly committed and...gives an unforgettable portrayal of a beautifully raw and innocent woman whose capacity for love towers over all who would despoil her.” – Ray Bennett, The Hollywood Reporter

4. Maria Elena
Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008)

That Cruz won the Supporting Actress Oscar for Woody Allen's ugly-American comedy-of-manners is very ironic. She commanded the film with such a blazing intensity, it was as if everything that had gone before her second-act entrance was just working up to her appearance. She overshadowed everyone as Maria Elena. Rarely has film come so ferociously alive as when Pene met Woody.

 

 

What the critics said: “Cruz is a stunner in every sense of the word — wild, erotic, quick-witted, touching and possessed of a beauty that can sneak up and break your heart. In this light-comic breeze of a movie, Cruz is a gathering storm.” – Peter Travers , Rolling Stone.

 

3. Consuela Castillo
Elegy (2008)

 

When we first meet David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), his masterly control of his own existence seems inpenetrable. It's going to take something otherworldly to shift this man from his self-styled pedestal. Consuela Castillo is just the levering that David's middle-aged arrogance didn't need, but he can't resist. No one can. Cruz is the sharp, warm blade that cuts through Kingsley's granite exterior as if it was warm butter. Vicky Christina Barcelona won her the Oscar, and she danced to a similar though saucier tune with Ian Holm in 2005's Chromophobia, but fellow Spaniard Isabel Coixet's Elegy is her best English language performance to date (and Ben Kingsley's too, just quietly...).

 

 

What the critics said: “Cruz is quietly powerful and very true. An actress needs depth and the experience of life to play these scenes, and Cruz has them.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

 

2. Sylvia
Jamón, jamón (1992)

 

Washington Post reviewer Rita Kempley sums up the 'appeal' of Bigas Lunas immoral romp rather precisely – “The film is chiefly a tribute to throbbing Latin manhood”. At 17 years of age, Cruz made her film debut as Sylvia, the pregnant teen who finds herself the conquest d'jour for stud Javier Bardem. Asked to her hold her own as the blossoming, tempted flower amidst all the oak-like representations of male lust, Cruz proves a mountain of smarts that's not that easy to climb. Performing beyond her years and experience (one hopes!), she was a revelation and an overnight star was born.

What the critics said: “A sexy soap opera with heartfelt romance, and cheerful satire with heedless raunch. As is only proper, it stars actors of considerable physical appeal, most particularly Penelope Cruz as Silvia” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

1. Raimunda
Volver (2006)

 

Cruz and Pedro Almodovar are cinematic kindred spirits. She, the form that inspires and then embodies his work; he, the adoring puppetmaster who gives colourful life and soul to his favourite toy. There could have been other Cruz/Almodovar characters in this list – Live Flesh's Isabel Caballero, All About My Mother's Hermana Rosa. But Raimunda, the fried, untangling central character of Volver, goes a step further for the director and his muse. This is a woman too long on the verge, now teetering on the edge of an emotional abyss, and Almodovar and Cruz know her intimately. Raimunda is the character they have been working towards all their professional lives, and practice has made her perfect.

What the critics said: “Sporting a prosthetic posterior, she's one hot mama. But never mind the buttocks: it's the pitch-perfect blend of pride and vulnerability, spirit and sadness that really makes her performance stand out.” – Matthew Leyland, BBC Movies