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Russia on Screen: The 10 Best Russian Films
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Russia on Screen: The 10 Best Russian Films

Picture of Valeria Nikonova
Updated: 13 October 2016
Russia and the post-Communist countries have done much to revive the reputation of Russian cinema in recent years, although the Soviet period left a vivid cinematic heritage and high expectations which contemporary Russian directors often find hard to exceed. Russian cinema has experienced three political regimes that have greatly influenced its output: the birth of cinema itself occurred during the time of the Russian Empire, then the restrictive censorship of the Soviet Union, and the creative expression of contemporary Russia cinema. It is said that nobody likes Russian films, even Russians themselves. However, The Culture Trip disagrees; so explore the ten most interesting and brilliant Russian films, all of which Russia should be proud of.

Solaris (1972, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)

One of the few motion-pictures by the unsurpassed maestro Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films still excite the minds of many people around the world. Solaris has undoubtedly become a kind of reference point for filmmakers all over the world, setting the bar for quality. This existential drama explores the issue of morality in human society. The plot is set in the distant future, when long-term space flight has become possible. Scientists discover a new mysterious planet, which is given the name of Solaris. They study and discover more about this planet, which results in a whole branch of science called solyaristika. According to the information from the research station, the so-called ‘ocean’ of Solaris can read the thoughts of people, thereby mimicking the new visitors. An experienced psychologist, Chris Kelvin, immediately leaves for the station, where he will face his buried fears and the depths of the subconscious.

Leviathan (2014, dir. Andrej Zvyagintsev)

Leviathan is a cinematic interpretation of the biblical character Job set in modern Russia. In the Old Testament the Leviathan is a mythological sea monster, often depicted or imagined as a whale. This biblical image is used in the film as a metaphor of modern Russian government. But the title of the film also refers to Thomas Hobbes’ work of political philosophy Leviathan (1651), which argued in favor of absolute government (of any form) and discussed the apocalyptic consequences of the breakdown of state and political power. The film entered the main program of the 67th Cannes Film Festival, and it also became the first Russian film to be awarded a Golden Globe (as the best foreign language film). Leviathan is a story about the social injustice and corruption. The main character, Nicholas, is representative of the working class. He lives with his family near the Barents Sea. All that Nicholas has is a family, a house and a small shop, the only results of his hard work. However, the corrupt mayor of the city attempts to repossess and demolish Nichola’s home. Nicholas is unable to repel the permissiveness and impunity of the officials and asks his good friend Dmitry, who is a lawyer, for help. Leviathan‘s shocking and brutal depiction of the crushing weight of corruption in Russia is fascinating. Despite this, it was the Russia’s official submission to the 2015 Academy Awards.

Brother (1997, dir. Aleksey Balabashov)

Brother is a cult Russian film which includes elements of criminal drama and action. It tells the story of a young boy, Danila Bagrov, who is demobilized from the army in 1997. Arriving in his provincial home town, and realizing that his town does not have good prospects for him, Danila decides to take his mother’s advice and goes to visit his older brother, who lives in St Petersburg. On arrival, Danila quickly learns that Victor is a killer and leads a criminal life. After an unfortunate deal with other criminals, Victor is in danger, and now Danila is involuntarily drawn into the intrigue and world of the crime, meets new people, and starts to learn a new criminal profession.

Stalnaya Babochka (2008, dir. Renat Davletyarov)

The film is a Russian detective drama based on the real story of Pavel Shuvalov, a serial killer and a police officer who killed underage girls in St Petersburg between 1991 and 1995. Stalnaya Babochka shows the life of the runaway and homeless teens, led by young Chuma, who earn money by robbing people. Caught once during a robbery, Chuma is forced by the policeman Hanin to become live bait for a serial killer. Even if she joins the list of his victims, no one will be looking for her since she has no home. However, neither the policeman Hanin nor Chuma thought it would be a dangerous enterprise that will have unexpected consequences.

White Sun of the Desert (1970, dir. Vladimir Motyl)

An action-adventure film, the plot of which is known off by heart by a large number of people in post-Soviet territories. White Sun of the Desert won a Laureate of the State of the Russian Federation Prize in 1998. The film takes place in the 1920s and follows the adventures of a Red Army comrade Sukhov, who is returning home after the end of the civil war. His journey home goes through a desert, and passing through this his mind is occupied with thoughts of seeing his beloved wife Catherina. However, Fate has prepared many surprises for Sukhov. While travelling through the desert, Sukhov saves the life of the local named Said, meets the Red Army Commander Rakhimov, who asks to take care of the harem of the escaped criminal Abdullah. Sukhov continues his journey, and when he reaches the seaside village of Pedzhent he faces Abdullah’s ferocious gang.

Hipsters (2008, dir. Valeriy Todorovsky)

Hipsters is a Russian film dedicated to the life of the youth and their subculture in 1950s Russia. Film authors and critics define the genre of the film as a musical comedy, due to its abundance of choreography and vibe of happiness. The film presents Moscow of the mid-1950s, which is going through a special period: Stalin is no longer alive, but the cult of his personality has not yet been exposed. Some young people dream of a bright life and the movement becomes known as ‘hipsters’, or admirers of the West, who listen to rock’n’roll and dress exclusively in bright and trendy clothes. Of course, the older generation does not like it. And during a raid on the Muscovite hipsters, one of the Komsomolets named Mels falls in love with Pauline. She asks him to join her at the Broadway on Gorky Street, where Mels gradually begins to understand hipsters’ freedom-loving spirit, and even becomes one of them.

Assa (1988, dir. Sergey Solovyov)

Assa is considered a cult Soviet film, and is the first part of the trilogy directed by Sergei Solovyov. Produced during the revolutionary times of pubic manifestation and protest, the film is imbued with the romantic pathos and the absurdity of human existence in the degenerate socialist system. This film was considered avant garde for its time, and quickly gained sympathy from many viewers. The popular rock musician Viktor Tsoi had a minor role in the film, while the soundtrack includes songs by Boris Grebenshchikov, Janna Aguzarova and rock band Kino. The plot focuses on young Alika, who is tired of her poor existence and exchanges her youth for a beautiful life with the help of the criminal Krymov, who is constantly busy with fraud opportunities. Alika meets a young bohemian guy named Bananan, who is the complete opposite of her influential suitor. Krymov is jealous and is not prepared to tolerate this, so Bananan will have to make a difficult choice.

Battleship Potemkin (1925, dir. Sergei M. Eisenstein)

Battleship Potemkin is a silent historical film which has been recognized as one of the best films of all time by numerous filmmakers and critics. The story, based on true historical events, expressed major social trends of the 20th century: mass desire for freedom, the struggle against tyranny, human dignity, and unification in the name of equality. The plot tells the story of the sailors of the Black Sea Fleet in Odessa, who in 1905 rebelled because they were given meat eaten by worms. The instigators of the rebellion were sentenced to death, however during the execution the rest of the sailors rush to their rescue. The ship’s officers are thrown overboard, but the man behind the uprising, sailor Vakulenchuk, is killed. Thus begins a lengthy fight between civilians, who support the revolutionary uprising of the sailors (which later spread across Russia), and the government troops.

Dersu Uzala (1975, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Dersu Uzala is a Soviet-Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa and based on the work of the same name by Arsenyev. This is the first of Kurosawa’s films not in his native language of Japanese. The film is based on the novel by scientist and traveller Vladimir Arsenyev. The plot revolves around protagonist’s travels around the Ussuri taiga and his friendship with the hunter Dersu Uzala, whose extraordinary personal qualities he admires. Their dangerously adventurous journey through the Ussuri taiga forms the basis of the narrative of the film. Dersu Uzala won many prestigious film awards, including ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ award at the Academy Awards, ‘Best Foreign Film’ at the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics and ‘The Golden Prize’ at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Everybody Dies But Me (2008, dir. Valeriya Gay Germanika)

Everybody Dies But Me is the debut film by Russian director Valeria Gay Germanika. It won several awards at world famous film festivals, including ‘The Golden Camera Special Prize’ at the 61st Cannes Film Festival, the ‘CineVision Prize’ at the Munich Film Festival, and ‘The Best Actress’ award at the International Film Festival in Brussels. Life is never easy, especially for 14 year old girls. Some young people have to deal not only with their inner feelings and complexes, but with real cruelty from classmates. Katya, Vika and Zhanna, are ordinary Moscow girls from middle-income families. One day they learn that their school will host a disco party on Saturday. All week long the girls try to find a common language between their parents, teachers, classmates, and ultimately each other. That incredible Saturday evening promises to bring a lot of surprises, and each of the protagonists will experience Fate’s blow – a moment of transition from their childhood to adult lives.