18. Mermaid (2007) Dir. by Anna Melikyan
Fellini meets Amelie in this zany and mystical tragicomedy. Its heroine is a girl named Alice from a dusty provincial seaside town, who lives in a hut with her larger-than-life mother (who has a thing for sailors) and ancient grandmother. Constantly at odds with the earthy mother, she responds by withdrawing into her own world, in process developing several magical abilities, among them the gift of making her dreams come true and to affect the surrounding world.
After going Firestarter on the hut in rage, she and her family move to Moscow, which provides the setting for further adventures and misadventures. Both her and mamacita meet their princes there-mom’s is an equally earthy butcher, while Alice’s-a glamorous and suicidal playboy who sells real estate on the Moon.
The clash and intermixing of real and magical makes this film charming and leaves an excellent aftertaste. Of special note is the leading character-an ugly duckling who at times transforms in a surreally beautiful creature (her photo as the Moon Girl for the company’s promotion comes out of nowhere and simply awes). An honest, romantic, positive, slightly naïve, but magical film.
19. Hipsters (2007) Dir. by Valery Todorovsky
A highly original musical tragicomedy. The Russian title for it is “Styliagi”, meaning “stylers”, a derogative term in the 40’s-60’s, adopted by them as a banner. It means young people who try to dress up in the latest Western fashion and listen and dance to Western music, particularly jazz.
The movie is set in mid-50’s, and these hipsters are being constantly harassed by the fun-as-bricks Communist Youth activists and the police, while trying so hard not to conform and having their own personal dramas as well. While its dramatic parts often come up short, the musical side is simply phenomenal-the zany and wild songs and dances, an explosion of colorful clothes and characters, the highly original choreography and the overall drive pull the film up and make up for any shortcomings.
20. Elena (2011) Dir. by Andrey Zvyagintsev
A clinically-cool film. After the success of his parable The Return (see #13), Zvyagintsev has turned his focus on more realistic portrayals of modern Russian society, while retaining his high stylistic standards. Although last year’s Leviathan gained him an Oscar nomination and additional notoriety, this is a purer and better film. Here, the objects of attention are the titular character, her wealthy and domineering husband, and their grown children from previous marriages.
The director deftly explores the potential family dynamics and the conflicts that occur when there is a dearth of communication and understanding. He does so almost in real-time, bringing to mind the works of Gus van Sant and Chantal Akerman. The tension mounts, until the very violent finale that makes sense by buildup of preceding events.
The technical elements are top-notch, it’s worth seeing it for them alone. Muted (blue and grey) color hues, controlled camera movements, phenomenally crisp sound recording and editing (particularly, the dialogue), and the always-haunting score by Phillip Glass-they will remain in the memory long after the film has ended.
21. Bullet Collector (2011) Dir. by Aleksandr Vartanov
The 14-year old hero’s (identified only as Him) life is bleak even by Russian standards. His mother is neglectful, his step-father despises him, and he is being mercilessly bullied in school. When he fights back, tragedy ensues and he is sent to reform school, where the bullying is even more vicious.
Small wonder that he retreats so often into his intricate imaginary world, where he is the son of the legendary Bullet Collector, and in training to become one himself, readying to fight the Wormwoods, with a beautiful girlfriend to boot.
Unfortunately, the young director, making his debut feature, somewhat lost the footing in storytelling, and the promising premise turned out murky. But he did excel in creating a fantastically looking film.
Easily jump-cutting between real and imaginary, utilizing the most odd and fantastic camera angles since the days of Eisenstein and Vertov, varying the pace at will-Vartanov has established himself as a director to watch with this frenetic experience of a film. The washed-out BW stock adds equally well to both worlds.
22. Living (2012) Dir. by Vassily Sigarev
Sigarev is decidedly NOT the most cheerful of artists. From the trilogy of plays that first made him famous in Russia and England (Placticine, Black Milk, Ladybirds-dealing with child rape, abusive relationship, and grave robbing, respectively), to his first feature film, Wolfy (2009, focusing on a young girl with a nightmare mess of a mother), his main themes appear to be cathartic suffering sprinkled with the darkest of humor.
This film is no exception, it’s a sort of feature Six Feet Under. Death, grieving, denial (and the rest of the stages) are at the core of its plot. The three interconnected stories are set in the sticks of the provincial Russia, providing an almost post-Apocalyptic setting. Very appropriate for a film that is, essentially, about life and death. People die – the ones they leave behind live, for better or for worse.
Sigarev provides a sure-handed and appropriate visual style for it. The cinematography, the editing-both can be described as “meditative Eisenstein”, with the principle of “montage of attractions” skillfully used here-images freely and organically follow each other. A very beautiful and worthy downer.
23. Hard to Be God (2013) Dir. by Alexey German
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the giants of Russian science fiction, have been both blessed and cursed by cinema. Their deep and philosophical parables have attracted the attention of the best Russian filmmakers, who in turn made some of the most artistic and stunning films out of them-“Roadside Picnic” became Tarkovsky’s Stalker, “Definitely Maybe” – Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse, and now Alexey German has finally adapted their, perhaps, best-known work.
Unfortunately for the bros., these filmmakers are also known for their own unique artistic visions, and in process have almost unrecognizably changed the source material. This adaptation, at least, kept the original title, but completely reworked the overall mood and message. The original story takes place on a planet populated by the exact same people as us, just in a different stage of development. The historians from our enlightened planet come here to study the historical process.
This planet is still in the medieval times, with all the associated cruelties. To the advanced earthlings, who at times feel like Gods, the hardest challenge is to maintain the academic detachment and practice non-interference, the dilemmas that face the story’s hero, Don Rumata.
German takes the story and presents it in a completely different way (from the original material-he actually used those same stylistics since the 70’s). Here, the bright hope is all but eliminated, and the screen often drowns in dirt, blood, viscera, and other ungainly fluids, made somewhat more bearable by the silvery BW stock.
The imagery is straight out of Bosch, with Goya thrown in for good measure. German’s meticulousness is legendary, and every piece of prop, every nail seem authentic. That’s also the reason why the film took 6 years to shoot, and 6 more to be completed, with the director dying just as it was. For those not faint of heart, a rewarding medieval, visual, and philosophical experience.
Other works: see all. Trial on the Road (1971), Twenty Days Without War (1986), My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998)-all bear German’s striking touch.
24. The Role (2013) Dir. by Konstantin Lopushansky
Although Aleksandr Sokurov is widely recognized as Tarkovsky’s heir apparent, Lopushansky is his most apt student and follower, ever since his days as the production assistant on The Stalker. Being a St. Petersburg-based artist, from the city of little sun, white nights, and dark alleys, he takes the melancholy to the next level.
This film is his best post-Soviet work. Conceptually similar to Roberto Rossellini’s General Della Rovere, it takes place in the Petrograd of the 1917 Revolution. An actor from the Silver Age of Russian culture desperately wants to take his craft to the next level, to the real world. His wish comes true when it turns out that he is a doppelganger of the Red Army commander that almost executed him.
Lopushansky’s films were always marked by almost symphonic measure and rhythm, and this one is no exception. The striking monochromatic look makes the implausible almost believable, while also creating the moods of both involvement and detachment. An engaging and gorgeous-looking film, proudly continuing both St. Petersburg and Tarkovsky traditions.
Other works: best ones were made in the late Soviet times-Dead Man’s Letters (1986), Visitors to the Museum (1989). Of the Russian-era ones, The Russian Symphony (1994) and The Ugly Swans (2006).
25. Test (2014) Dir. by Aleksandr Kott
A visual poem that came out of nowhere. Prior, the director made several decent, yet decidedly mainstream movies. And then-this. A dialogue-free story of a love triangle at the remote village somewhere in Kazakhstan, it successfully continues the fine traditions of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, and Paradjanov. Who needs words when the otherworldly images and music explain everything much better?
The attention to detail and the inspired pace will make one forget about words and gain a new appreciation for the power of images. And Kott really doesn’t invent anything new here-the principles of filming he uses are the same the above-mentioned masters used-frame, shoot, edit, repeat as necessary. Any further descriptions are simply unnecessary.
Author Bio: Leo Poroshin is a Russian-born aspiring writer/director (film and theatre), residing in Michigan. He enjoys life, and, naturally, the arts, as they are one of life’s best manifestations.