Get ready to explore the best Russian films of the 2000’s and 2010’s, and read about the new Russian films of 2015.
2014 was the year in which Russia is returning to its Soviet ways. Putin’s foreign policy shocks and paralyzes Western politicians.Recently adopted laws silence dissenting voices within Russian borders (‘no more swearing everyone, and don’t dare being gay!’). Yet, there are also beautiful cultural artifacts coming from Russia in 2014 & 2015. The Palme d’Or contender of this year’s Cannes Film festival, Leviathan (2014) by Andrey Zvyagintsev breaks away from Russian films performing badly in 2013, and reminds us of Russia’ incredibly rich film history. Zvyagintsev is by no means a new face circulating the international film festival circuit, and seems to be the sole successor of Russian genius filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Eisenstein. Similarly innovative and eccentric, his films make up the majority of this list laying down the recent best Russian films of the 2000’s and 2010’s up to 2014/2015. Because that is what this article is about, examining the very best Russian films of the last few years. It is about time to understand the country we seem unable to wrap our heads around. About time to understand a country that will be dictating much of what will be happening in the upcoming years.
Mosts of them are available for streaming online in our foreign cinema online section.
Russian cinema preview: Russian films 2015
Preview of our most anticipated Russian titles in 2015.
Directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky
A biopic about the famous Soviet physicist Lev Landau that has the potential of becoming quite a cult film. It is a incredibly ambitious project on which director Khrzhanovsky has been working for six years (creating a 1950’s town), and for which he has shot 700 hours of footage. I only know him from the refreshing art house film sci-fi mystery 4 (2015), but I think he can bring this project to wonderful heights.
Directed by Ilya Naishuller
A new English-language Russian action film of which it is said that it could potentially change the future of action films. Described as an ‘adrenaline shot’, Hardcore is filmed as if it is a first-person shooter game. Ily Naishuller is making his feature film debut with this movie, after being compared to Quentin Tarantino for his Biting Elbows’s ‘Bad Motherfucker’ video (which is generated 39 million views in no time). I do not yet quite see the comparison, but with more money this could be an interesting project for gamers. It was first set for release in 2014, but has now been scheduled for 2015.
Other notable Russian 2015 feature films:
– Under Electric Clouds // Directed by Alexey German Jr. (yes the son of)
– Interesting Ethology // Directed by Vasiliy Sigarev
A highly anticipated documentary:
– Francofonia: Le Louvre Under German Occupation // directed by Aleksandr Sokuro
Top 11 best Russian films of the 2000’s up to 2014
Interestingly, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the subsequent demise of the Soviet-Union also meant the collapse of the Russian film industry in the nineties. Perhaps Soviet filmmakers were tormented by censorship, but at least there was some financing available. After 1989 it was rough for Russian cinema, and even in 1997 only 13 Russian-made films were released. At the start of the 2000’s things were looking up again, and there even was some moderate commercial success. In 2004 there was the Russian vampire film cult classic Night Watch which generated an impressive 16 million dollars, and there was a number of successful Russian action and war films, of which Ninth Company is the most famous one. Now there are still a lot more popular Russian English language films coming out, but fortunately they have never stopped making innovative indies.
11. 12 (2007)
Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov
Sergey Makovetskiy, Sergey Garmash, Apti Magamaev
Anyone who knows a bit about film history won’t need to long to understand to which film 12 is referencing. Indeed, this film by Nikita Mikhalkov can be regarded as the Russian and modern take on the Hollywood classic 12 Angry Men about one dissenting juror who is trying to persuade others to vote not guilty. Russia actually does not have a jury system like the US, but just like the film it is based on, it masterfully knows how to keep things exciting by focusing on interesting group dynamics, but especially impresses because it gives great insight into modern Russian society.
10. Aleksandra (2005)
Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
Galina Vishnevskaya, Vasily Shevtsov and Raisa Gichaeva
War and action flicks make up for the ‘popular Russian cinema’ that does very well worldwide. It are the action films and war films like 9 Rota (2005), that have established Russia as a household name within this genre. Fact remains, however, that the majority of Russian war and action films are terrible. But because Russia has a got a reputation for films like this, I have decided to include at least 1 or 2 on this list. 9 Rota deserves a mention, because although a bit preachy, it manages to get the harsh reality of war the war in Afghanistan, and gets down to the question of how being a human and experiencing war can possibly go together. Sokurov’s Aleksandra does more than that, being a quiet and subtle but way more powerful critique to war. It is a beautiful little drama about a grandmother visiting her grandson who is stationed at an army camp, and just by being there exposes the ridiculousness of war.
9. Hard to be a God (2014)
Directed by Aleksey German
Leonid Yarmolnik, Dmitriy Vladimirov and Laura Lauri
‘It is Hard to be a God’ is the last film by the late Aleksey German. Talented in achieving splendid surrealism but being anything but prolific, he spent the last 12 years of his life making this film. His 3-hour film based on the book by the Strugatsky brothers first opened at the Rome Film Festival in 2013, and it caused quite some waves. Stylistically it takes us back to the crispy black and white films with which Russia conquered the world, but it is not a historic tale. Some are even describing it as the most important science fiction film of this decade. Check out the estranging trailer of Hard to be a God with English subtitles online here.
8. Everybody dies but me (2008)
Directed by Valeriya Gay Germanika
Anyone reading my posts on The Filmtransition might have noticed my soft spot for naturalist laid-back coming-of-age films. Everybody dies but me is one of those realist coming-of-agers that without ever becoming to forced, is successful in its emotionally charged narrative. It demonstrates the naive beauty of ever-lasting teenage friendships that once adolescence kicks in turn out to be anything but infinite. Valeriya Gay Germanika shows she has a background in documentary filmmaking, because her gritty naturalist films have a great observational quality about them. If you are into Lukas Moodysson films (like Fucking Amal or We are the best!), this might be your Russian alternative. It is not as good as a Moodysson, but it is worth your while. (like We are the best! it is about three girls in the suburbs – but now in Moscow)
You can watch an English subtitled version of this Russian film on Youtube for free:
7. How I Ended this Summer (2010)
Directed by Aleksey Popogrebskiy
Featuring Grigoriy Dobrygin, Sergey Puskepalis and Igor Chernevich
Like Zvyagintsev, Popogrepsky’s dramas do not require obscure symbolism, unlike most Russian art house films, to get its message across. Its simplicity and straightforwardness captures your attention in a most subtle way. Often described as somewhat of a thriller, this is more of a solid interpersonal drama that plays out suspense very well, and although it moves rather slowly, is never dull. It takes place in the middle of the Arctic and the two protagonists only have each other to turn too when realizing the fragility of humans when compared to nature. Great performance by the two actors who contribute immensely to making it a an emotionally gripping drama.
6. Elena (2011)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Featuring Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Aleksey Rozin
We have now entered the must-watch Russian films section. The other ones were also great, but the following films you really should not miss. First, we have Elena, which after the slightly disappointing The Banishment, reminded me that Zvyagintsev is my favorite contemporary Russian filmmaker. He again, impressively zooms in on individuality within family contexts, and how individual decisions affect all. His pure and simple filmmaking instantly feels majestic, and his films stay with you forever.
5. Nastroyshchik – The Tuner (2004)
Directed by Kira Muratova
Featuring Georgiy Deliev, Alla Demidova and Renata Litvinova
I have to admit that I have not enjoyed this film thoroughly, but it does need to be on this list. The first reason being that The Tuner shows the unique value of Russian art house cinema, which really is a brand of its own. In this case it is mix of Russian/Ukrainian cinema (the director is Ukrainian but knows what it is like to live under the soviets, as she one of the artists that struggled against soviet censorship). But the major reason is that this film is perhaps the only truly accessible film by Kira Murotava, and therefore gives more people the chance to get to know her inner world. The film still displays her unusual directing style, but unlike her other huge body of work is rather straightforward. It is about a young piano tuner, who is also a scam artists and befriends two elderly ladies only to steal from them.
4. Leviathan (2014)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova
Cannes is said to have been solid but somewhat dull this year. The same cannot be said of Leviathan that, although losing to Ceylan’s ‘Winter’s Sleep’, was one of the buzziest films of 2014. This exceptional film did walk away with the best screenplay award. Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev, tells the gripping and sometimes even funny story of a man who is trying to fight the corrupt major of a small coastal town.
3. Voyna (2002)
Directed by Aleksey Balabanov
Featuring Aleksey Chadov, Ian Kelly, Ingeborga Dapkunaite
After ‘Brat’ in 1997 director Aleksey Balabanov grew to fame internationally, and also in the 2000’s he remained an important figure in Russian cinema. His drama/thriller 2008 ‘Cargo 200’ is probably his most popular recent film, but I want to draw attention to the lesser known Voyna, which is one of the better Russian war films out there. Unlike other war films this one is even slightly philosophical, but most importantly shows reality tempered by a healthy dose of cynicism. Next to that, it is interesting to get to know more about the Russia – Chechnya conflict.
2. Russian Ark (2002)
Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
Featuring Sergey Dreyden, Mariya Kuznetsova and Leonid Mozgovoy
Russian Ark is one of those films that you have heard about so many times, but did not get round to see. Friends have told you about the incredibly impressive long takes, and about the ambitious goal of the film to go to through 200 years of Russia history in 1,5 hours. You cannot help but feel that the film must be heavy, dreary and pretentious. Indeed, it might be slightly pretentious, but it is really an enjoyable watch. It is estranging, but mainly light, innovative and even rather funny. The 1,5 hours was over before I knew it. A must-watch!
1. The Return (2003)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Featuring Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko
You might think that I would provide you with a surprising number one title. A film that most people have not seen, just so that I could demonstrate my profound knowledge of Russian cinema. I could have done that, but then I would have to deny that The Return is the very best Russian film of the 2000’s. And I don’t want to do that (nor do I claim such knowledge). The above still suggests beautiful cinematography, and sure it has that too, but it mainly has a strong story and it is a film with one of the most life-like characters I have ever seen. It is a little story about two boys who are taken out on a trip by their estranged father, a grim and fickle man whose character remains ambiguous throughout. The boys react to him very differently, but both fear him while making him want to be proud of them.
Let me know which 2014 Russian films you are looking forward to, or which films should have been on this best of list.