9. A Place in the World (2001) Dir. by Artour Aristakisian
Though visually stunning, this black and white curio is not always pretty-in fact, there are many cringe-inducing moments. Aristakisian, an ethnic Armenian from Moldova, is a committed hippie, and by his own admission he got into cinema to document and present the lifestyle associated with that movement.
Here the focus is on a down-and-out hippie community that’s squatting in an abandoned Moscow building. Their leader starts a sort of a cult, the credo of which is to give love to the dirty, downtrodden, and the maimed. Literally and physically, as, he reasons, the healthy, young, and beautiful will get it anyway. These hippies live in squalor, eat things that will make a vulture hurl (a rat is a delicacy), are routinely harassed by the outside world, and try to live by the leader’s message.
In the end, they are unable to live up to the lofty aspirations and to overcome their repugnance, and that spells the end of that family. Filmed in black and white, with natural lighting, and in an actual former squat house, ugliness and beauty are juxtaposed and intermix here. A lyrical and unforgettable experience.
Other works: Aristakisian’s only other work as a director is a documentary Palms (1994), filmed over 5 years on the streets of Chisinau, and it’s arguably even more striking, as he trains the camera on the almost grotesque assortment of homeless.
10. Russian Ark (2002) Dir. by Aleksandr Sokurov
An art-house hit that placed Russian cinema back on the map, and Sokurov’s best-known accomplishment. Whereas his teacher Tarkovsky made do with as few editing cuts as possible, Sokurov here dispenses with them altogether, shooting an hour and a half film in a single take.
For that purpose, his cast of 900 and crew occupied St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, a former residence of the czars and now a museum, for the whole day, and after several false starts the Steadicam operator Tilman Büttner finally was able to complete his mile-long walk through 33 rooms of the palace and several centuries of Russian history (after which, one can imagine, high fives and butt slaps were passed all-around).
It’s doubly ironic that Sokurov utilized this technique, considering that Russia is also the place where the masters of montage and rapid-cuts Sergey Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov hailed from. But there is much more to this masterpiece than technical wizardry. Thematically, it takes the viewer through the St. Petersburg of Peter and Catherine the Greats, to the imperial balls and bygone era, through the horrors of Leningrad blockade.
The unseen narrator and the French traveler, a pair of time travelers, comment on Russian history and culture, thus giving the old argument a new spin and visual illustration. One striking set piece follows another, culminating in a grand Imperial ball sequence, set in 1913, a year before Russia would plunge into the hell of World War I and the Revolution. The advances of digital technology have allowed Sokurov to fulfill Tarkovsky’s credo of sculpting in time with cinema.
Other works: since Mother and Son (see #3), Sokurov made a sort of trilogy dealing with dictators (Moloch, Taurus, Sun-Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito), as well as a lyrical Father and Son (2004) and the Golden Lion-winning Faust (2011). Aleksandr Sokurov IS Russian art-house cinema, and world’s as well.
11. Chekhov’s Motifs (2002) Dir. by Kira Muratova
Muratova is the filmmaker that benefitted greatly from the collapse of Communist rule – her Soviet-era masterpieces were mercilessly banned, re-edited, and otherwise mauled. Since then, she is more or less able to present her unique vision as she sees fit. This black and white film is a good example of her inimitable style.
Anton Chekhov wrote both short-story prose and stage works. Over the years, some directors were able to successfully adapt one or the other-Muratova does both here. The first half is the short story “Difficult People”, where a seminary student visits his oppressive home and has to ask his despot of a father for money. The second – an adaptation of one of Chekhov’s early dramas, “Tatyana Repina”, all of which takes place at the wedding ceremony.
The fact that Muratova sets both in our times takes nothing away from the power of the originals, and, in fact, underscores Chekhov’s continuing relevance in both prose, drama, and Russian culture. The dirt of the farmyard is contrasted by the opulence of the Orthodox wedding ceremony (dominated by the restless spirit of the groom’s deceased previous fiancée).
Other works: from late 60’s on Muratova has made a number of musts: Brief Encounters (1967), The Long Farewell (1971), Change of Fate (1997), The Asthenic Syndrome (1989), Three Stories (1997), The Tuner (2004). May she keep on going!
12. Roads to Koktebel (2003) Dir. by Boris Klhebnikov and Aleksey Popogrebsky
An engaging and meditative road film that’s marked by a brisk pace and haunting locales. A homeless father and son travel by any means necessary from Moscow to Koktebel in Crimea. It’s mentioned that the father is a former aeronautic engineer, and also a former alcoholic. Their journey acquires a meaning-it’s an escape from the gloom of the past towards a sunny future on the seashore.
Along the way, they survive by doing odd jobs and occasionally shacking up with various equally lonely characters, who turn out to be not what they initially seem (a kindly old man causes the father to relapse into drinking and ends up shooting him, while a mean truck driver takes care of the boy and gives him a free ride). This film is artistic and haunting, and yet doesn’t try to be so, which makes it engaging and very watchable.
13. The Return (2003) Dir. by Andrey Zvyagintsev
If Sokurov is Russian cinema’s continuing hope, then Zvyagintsev is its new hope. This debut feature of his garnered numerous accolades, including the Golden Lion in Venice-much like Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood did 40 years prior. It’s a victory for the concept of unique artistic vision and proof that a talented filmmaker does not need a huge budget and stars to make a work of art-a vision and a certain level of culture will do just fine.
The story is simple – a father of two boys returns after being gone for years. He takes them on the fishing trip to a remote island, during which they painfully try to find ways to connect and communicate. Then, he tragically perishes. The atmosphere and the commitment to visual artistry is what sets this film apart from the rest. It’s a parable that doesn’t forcefully try to be one.
The primeval wilderness of the Gulf of Finland, the allusions to Bible and paintings of Andrea Montegna, feelings and thoughts that are hinted at and suggested rather than thrown onto screen-all combine to enchant and stay in memory.
It’s also notable that most key crew members were also making their feature debuts, and their youthful energies brim beneath the austere and stunning visual façade of this must-see film that will make one a believer in the power of the art of cinema.
14. Harvest Time (2004) Dir. by Marina Razbezkhina
An impressionistic drama of the absurd. Taking place in the remote rural region of Chuvash, it tells the tale of the woman working at the collective farm who is cursed with a prize. For gathering the most crops at harvest time, she is awarded not the cloth cut she wanted, but the prestigious red flag. The catch is that the flag is passed down to another best worker next year. Unfortunately, the mice make it almost unpresentable.
Fearing reprisals, the heroine now must win the award every year to avoid the discovery of this horrible desecration of a sacred Communist symbol, even at the cost of driving herself and her family to insanity and alcoholism.
The plot might be a bit farfetched, but the visuals are gorgeous-best naturalistic lighting this side of Terence Malick, almost feasible stalks of wheat and wafts of breeze, variety of the best colors and hues nature has to offer. The use of Chuvash documentary footage and the epilogue taking place in the late 80’s add to the variety of this moving film.
15. The Island (2006) Dir. by Pavel Lungin
A sort of morality film that avoids heavy moralization. During the war, a young sailor had to make a terrible choice. Rescued by the Orthodox monks from the nearby monastery, he spends the rest of his life trying to make amends for what he perceives was his sin. In the process, he gains almost mystical powers.
The film is presented from a very spiritual point of view, and the actors do it justice, particularly the multi-talented Pyotr Mamonov in the lead role. But its visual side is the best thing about it. The setting is the North, close to the Polar Circle.
The land of short summers and long, dark winters. Of coolly glistening fjords, violet snow of the permanent dusk, and the always steamy breath. Of Brueghel-like human figures on the white plains and wooden structures that only grow darker and more prominent with age. All of it is perfectly captured to make this thematically unique film a visual feast as well.
16. Playing the Victim (2006) Dir. By Kirill Serebrennikov
Kirill Serebrennikov hails from the theatre world, and it shows here-this film is very theatrical and meta-theatrical (he previously directed the stage version). Its hero is a young man with a Hamlet complex, helped by the fact that he is, in fact, a modern-day Hamlet, whose widowed mother is shacking up with his uncle.
Plus, he got his own neurotic Ophelia of a fiancée. His entertaining job, though, provides a welcome diversion from all the brooding and dilemmas. He works for the police investigating unit, literally “playing the victim” in reenactments of murders that are recorded. Those are often hilarious, as are the colorful people he and the team meet in the process (the aged “geisha” in the Japanese restaurant is a particular riot).
So, in fact, it’s a film that contains several mini-plays. There is a bit too much focus on the hero’s Hamletian issues, but the overall atmosphere is engaging and very entertaining, and the change of “scenes” provides for a constantly changing look and overall feel.
17. Day Watch (2006) Dir. by Timur Bekmambetov
More known now as the director of Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (with a growingly annoying fetish for slow-motion), Bekmambetov gained fame about 10 years ago with the two adaptations of Sergey Lukyanenko’s fantasy sci-fi novels. In those novels, forces of Good and Evil observe a shaky truce, and to monitor this truce they set up two rival Watches – Night Watch to curtail the activities of Evil during the night, and Day Watch – to do the same to the forces of Good during the day.
An uneasy balance. This is the second film, and though not as close to the book as the first, it makes up for it with overall drive and tasteful special effects. Back then, Bekmambetov had the ability to check himself and not throw slow-mo and color filters on the screen just because-here, they are where they belong.
The use of Moscow landmarks is an added bonus – the sights of Alice the witch driving her fire-red sports car on the side of a famous Cosmos hotel shaped liked a half-circle (nicknamed “half-glass”), or the Ostankino television tower snapping in two and collapsing are worth the admission price alone.