The Most Significant Russian Films of the Last Decade

Rimgaila Salys has just published The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader: 2005-2016, an update to her two-volume Russian Cinema Reader. This new volume surveys the most significant modern Russian films of 2005-2016. Designed to supplement undergraduate courses in Russian film and culture, the reader draws on seventeen films, all available with English subtitles. Some are freely available online.

Read on for short excerpts with insights for each film covered, with accompanying trailers and clips.

Dead Man’s Bluff (Aleksei Balabanov, 2005)

“Dead Man’s Bluff is the only film branded as comedy in Balabanov’s filmography. His friend and producer Sel´ianov notes that they imagined the film as a comic flashback to the ‘roaring’ 1990s—the era of nascent capitalism in Russia. The filmmaker produced his vision of Russia’s gangster wars of the nineties in the style of a black humor parody of gangster film conventions. The title Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki in Russian) is a word play invoking the game blind-man’s-bluff (zhmurki) as well as the colloquial word for a corpse or stiff (zhmur). By referring to the game in which the blind (the dead) are looking for those who can see (those who are alive), the director provides a metaphor for gangster wars in post-Soviet Russia and emphasizes the role of chance and luck in them—a far cry from a meritocracy or any other socially legitimate mode of upward mobility. Not unlike Jean Luc Godard’s dedicating his A Bout de Souffle to Monogram Pictures, Balabanov playfully reinforces his title with a dedication: ‘To those who survived the nineties,’ that is, the lucky ones who won the game of death.” Aleksandr Prokhorov, Associate Professor of Russian, College of William and Mary

The Sun (dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, 2005)

The Sun is set in Tokyo in the waning months of Emperor Hirohito’s ‘divinity,’ from Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, to Hirohito’s meeting with General Douglas MacArthur on September 27, 1945, to the Emperor’s renunciation of his divinity on January 1, 1946. In Sokurov’s rendering, these nearly five months are condensed into what seems to be a two or three day period, with Hirohito deciding to renounce godhood immediately after having dinner with MacArthur. Events that other historians consider central to this story mainly go unmentioned, although Sokurov does hint at the devastation in Tokyo caused by Allied ‘carpet bombing’ of the city, which Hirohito sees (apparently for the first time) as he is being driven to meet MacArthur. Unlike Moloch and Taurus, which display their protagonists muddling through a single uneventful day, The Sun offers viewers the solace of a simple narrative. Hirohito listens impatiently to his cabinet ministers’ dire prognostications about the war; he meets twice with MacArthur; he decides to bend to the will of the victorious foe by ‘resigning’ as a god. None of this seems to faze Sokurov’s Hirohito much, which is a key to unlocking the director’s messages.” Denise J. Youngblood, Professor of History Emerita, University of Vermont

Cargo 200 (dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 2007)

“If not the best Russian film of 2007, Balabanov’s Cargo 200 was certainly its most controversial. At its first public screening at the 2007 Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi, critics were split, in the words of Seth Graham, ‘over the question of whether it was a mature virtuoso’s masterpiece or an irresponsible act of celluloid hooliganism.’ Theater owners were reluctant to book it and for many viewers the psychological tension, graphic sexual torture, and increasing sense of madness, claustrophobia, and hopelessness make the film almost impossible to watch to the end. Still, for those who could stomach its violence, perversity, and pathologies, Cargo 200 is probably Balabanov’s most significant achievement: a visually striking and emotionally powerful film that speaks to the Soviet past as well as to post-Soviet reality. Although Russian cinema of the late 1980s and 1990s reveled in depicting the horrors of Soviet and post-Soviet life, such films had become exceedingly rare in following decades. Perhaps not since Aleksei German’s Khrustalev, My Car! (Khrustalev, mashinu!, 1998) has a Russian movie depicted the social squalor, criminality, and sexual and psychological torture of everyday life in the Soviet Union as darkly and as powerfully. Building on this tradition of so-called chernukha films, Balabanov created a kind of Soviet Gothic, a shocking and shattering look at Soviet life guaranteed to horrify all but the most jaded film viewers. The film represents Soviet society circa 1984 as the poisonous wreck of an industrial civilization tottering on the verge of collapse from the sum of its vices: a pointless foreign war, a terrorized and infantilized populace, a corrupt police force, rampant alcohol abuse, a geriatric and out of touch government, a dismal and hypocritical popular culture, an arrogant and cynical intelligentsia, a nihilistic younger generation, and the soul-crushing hopelessness of everyday life for the masses.” Anthony Anemone, Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature, The New School

Mermaid (dir. Anna Melikian, 2007)

“Inspiration for Mermaid sprang from Melikian’s avowedly favorite Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1837), which earlier had been transferred to the screen by Soviet directors Ivan Aksenchuk (1968) and Vasily Bychkov (1976), Japan’s popular animé specialist Tomoharu Katsumata (1975), and, most influentially, Walt Disney (1989). Predictably, Disney’s musical fantasy generated a host of lucrative products that held children around the world in thrall and possibly drew viewers to Melikian’s film. The automatic association of fairy tales with children doubtless accounts for most directors’ preference for animated adaptations, with Bychkov and Melikian the rare exceptions. Bychkov’s film, however, opted for a melodramatic scenario preoccupied with the lamentable fate of individualism within Soviet society, whereas Melikian infused her film’s narrative with comic characters, situations, dialogue, and commentary. As in her other works, Mermaid’s major concern is female love in today’s Russia, loosely linked to Andersen’s popular fairy tale and evocative of the Russian folkloric rusalka, a pagan water spirit incarnating a young woman who perishes by watery suicide when betrayed in love.” Helena Goscilo, Professor of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures, Ohio State University

Hipsters (dir. Valery Todorovsky, 2008)

Hipsters has been influential in three areas of Russian cinematic culture: genre revival in the film industry, the arguments about the Soviet past, and the viability of a social message with contemporary reverberations. Set in 1955–56, the slippery time loosely framed by the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress, the film deals with a group of jazz-loving dandies, led by Fred (Fedia), the son of a Soviet diplomat, who imitate what they suppose to be an American phenomenon, and are persecuted by the Komsomol and the KGB. Komsomolets Mels (named for Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin), literally falls for a stiliaga girl, Polly (Polina) or Pol´za when she pushes him into a lake. Mels transforms into the stiliaga Mel and eventually marries Pol´za, who gives birth to a mulatto baby and becomes an ordinary Soviet mother, straining the relationship. Nevertheless, Mel and Pol´za are ultimately reunited in a traditional ending for the musical, as Hipsters extends its message of inclusivity from the couple to the outside world of a fantasy present. To date, Hipsters is the only post-Soviet musical film—a bold attempt to return a mainstream genre to cinematic mass culture. In a landscape dominated by patriotic blockbusters and simplistic comedies featuring media personalities, Todorovsky put forth his musical as the conscious choice of a third way: ‘Every director must, at least once in his life, make a film accessible to everyone without exception.’ As a visual and auditory surface phenomenon (colorful clothes, jazz song and dance music), the stiliagi were, in fact, perfect subjects for a musical film.” Rimgaila Salys, Professor of Russian Studies Emerita, University of Colorado–Boulder

Silent Souls (dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko, 2010)

“[Aleksei] Fedorchenko’s first full-length feature film, First on the Moon, was a 75-minute mockumentary about an ‘unknown,’ successful voyage to the moon conducted by the first Soviet ‘cosmopilot’ in 1938. His second feature film, Silent Souls (Ovsianki, 2010) is also a mockumentary of sorts. Yet, unlike in his début, here Fedorchenko moves beyond the retrofitting of familiar plotlines and visual conventions (of the USSR’s heroic history) with new content. Instead, he creates an ethnographic trompe l’œil by inventing a realistically detailed story about entirely invented customs of the actual Merya people. What is unsettled here is not a particular plot or myth, but rather the very desire to find ontological certainty and identificatory stability in a tradition carefully protected from the influence of the present. As Silent Souls suggests, traditions are indeed invented, made from scratch, and constantly woven into the fabric of the daily life. Rather than providing an emotional template, they mystify social relations. Instead of suggesting a clear direction in an uncommon situation, they obscure already available paths.” Serguey Oushakine, Director, Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, Princeton University

Silent Souls presents an inventive and original exploration of a cultural identity that seems to differ from, if not directly oppose, an imperial Russian identity. Osokin and Fedorchenko disclose the captivating mythology of the Merya, a Finno-Ugric tribe that occupied the territory of central and northern Russia, from the Volga to Moscow, but completely assimilated into Slavic tribes by the sixteenth century, leaving traces in the toponymy of this region and a substantial body of archeological artifacts. Western film critics were enchanted by the way the film envelops contemporary viewers in ancient Merya mythology and rituals.” Tatiana Mikhailova, Senior Instructor of Russian Studies, University of Colorado–Boulder

My Joy (dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2010)

My Joy is the feature film debut of Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa. The film won several awards on the international circuit in 2010, including grand prizes at the Tallinn and Minsk International Film Festivals and was a selection for the main competition at Cannes. In Russia, My Joy has proven to be one of the most controversial films of the new millennium. Praised by many critics and intellectuals as an uncompromising and original portrait of society, it provoked indignation from others who saw in it the ‘Russophobic’ gaze of an outsider. Karen Shakhnazarov, head of Mosfilm Studios, described My Joy as an ‘openly anti-Russian film, implying that anyone born in Russia should be shot,’ while another critic called it ‘a crime against national pride and morality.’ Despite its controversial content, it won a number of prestigious awards at Russian film festivals, including Best Director and the Critics’ Award at the Kinotavr Film Festival and Best Debut from the Guild of Russian Film Critics. Indeed, My Joy struck a nerve in the post-Soviet world and its reception reveals much about the highly polarized discourse surrounding artistic production in Russia in recent years.” Justin Wilmes, Assistant Professor of Russian Studies, East Carolina University

Elena (dir. Andrei Zviagintsev, 2011)

“In his third feature film, Elena (2011), Zviagintsev … probe[s] the inner world of a complex woman (Elena is both wife and mother, both nurse and murderess) and the film retains the broad symbolism and intellectual rigor of the early features. But by setting his film in two contrasting flats in contemporary Moscow, and by invading the space both visually and aurally with constantly jabbering television sets, he adds a new social specificity to his work.” Julian Graffy, Professor Emeritus of Russian Literature and Cinema, University College, London

“Like all of Zviagintsev’s films to date, Elena zooms in on the problems of family and parenthood. Unlike his other films, it focuses on a woman, a mother, a grandmother, and a wife. The title of the film is the protagonist’s name and thus a deviation from Zviagintsev’s tendency to name his films in a more abstract and symbolic way: The Return, Banishment, Leviathan, or Loveless. The title character, Elena, is a former nurse who lives with her wealthy aging husband Vladimir in a luxury apartment in an élite area of downtown Moscow. (Think of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.) The husband and wife are united by a pragmatic arrangement: she enjoys the comforts of an upper middle class lifestyle in exchange for cooking, cleaning, nursing and, if needed, sharing Vladimir’s bed. As the couple sits down to have breakfast it instantly becomes clear that their orderly family routine is only superficial; beneath it simmers an old argument about two eternal things: family and money. Both Elena’s son and Vladimir’s daughter first emerge in that conversation, and the looks that Elena and Vladimir exchange betray mutual frustration. As with Zviagintsev’s other films, this opening scene already contains all the questions (and perhaps the answers) that lie at the core of the narrative: who exactly counts as ‘family’? What, if any, obligations do we have toward those ‘others’ whom we do not consider ‘us’? And how do we expect to be treated by those we reject?” Elena Prokhorova, Associate Professor of Russian, College of William and Mary

The Target (dir. Aleksandr Zel′dovich, 2011)

“The American philosopher and literary theorist Fredric Jameson once described Utopia as a radical form of historicization of the present. This interpretation is obviously relevant for any Utopia or anti-utopia, but it has a special significance when discussing The Target. The film problematizes the very historicization which serves as a basis for both Utopian and anti-utopian imagination. … According to Sorokin, the society represented in the film is a kind of visualized dream of Russia’s political elites. The Target portrays Russian society in the imminent future, such as in the year 2020, or, more exactly, contemporary society slightly masked as a future one. The depicted society is radically alienated from the historical process. The film’s protagonists, unaware of their situation, try to break out of this unhistorical state, but have no psychological resources to acquire historical agency. In such a society, the historical process has nothing to which to return, there is no psychological and social room for it. The semantic focus of the film, which brings to the fore the motif of the impossible return of history, is the image of the Target itself.” Ilya Kukulin, Associate Professor, Department of Cultural Studies, National Research University-Higher School of Economics (HSE, Moscow)

The Horde (dir. Andrei Proshkin, 2012)

“Proshkin’s films balance suspenseful plots with a meditative visual style to explore philosophical issues, while sustaining indeterminacy of meaning. The Horde (Orda, 2012), based on a screenplay by Arabov, exemplifies this technique, framing political and historical commentary in the guise of the blockbuster epic. The film is a fictionalized account of a legendary episode from the Mongol occupation of medieval Russia, when the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Aleksy was called from Moscow in 1357 to cure the blindness of Taidula Khatun, the mother of Khan Dzhanibek of the Golden Horde. The historical Aleksy (c. 1296–1378) reportedly succeeded in his commission; he was canonized in the fifteenth century, and is celebrated as a wonderworker in the Russian Orthodox Church. While The Horde depicts Aleksy in heroic terms, Proshkin’s portrait of the saint withstands easy appropriation by the Russian church and state—despite the metropolitan’s role, according to historical accounts, in substantiating the authority of both institutions.” Tom Roberts, Assistant Professor of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, Smith College

Short Stories (dir. Mikhail Segal, 2012)

“When Short Stories was released, it was prevailingly received as a witty, well-crafted absurdist comedy, and brought Mikhail Segal the reputation of a dazzling creator of ‘(sm)art mainstream,’ one of those rare talents whose work is equally captivating to an undergraduate audience and to a sophisticated viewer equipped to detect its carnivalesque motifs and Foucauldian analysis of the power structure. Short Stories’ accretion of prizes and awards looks enormous, but consists mainly of critics’ commendations and a Grand Prix from only a second—if not third—rate festival. This is, of course, with the exception of Kinotavr. Many critics linked the anthology structure of Short Stories, consisting of four ‘novellas,’ to the director’s previous experience in music video production, alleging that the film inherits the notorious ‘clip-based consciousness.’ … I would like to argue that Segal masterfully emulates a fragmentary structure as one of the key justifications for his artistic logic, while simultaneously furtively unraveling his vision in a single coherent thread, from the movie’s first episode to its last. Segal presents his fragmented composition as a replacement for a ‘big and totalizing form,’ about which, in the frame narrative of the movie, the publishing house’s editor in chief dreams aloud while rejecting the young author’s book of titular short stories.” Mark Lipovetsky, Professor of Russian Studies, University of Colorado–Boulder

“The writer Boris Vasil´ev once defined cinema as follows: ‘Cinema for me begins when I cannot tell with words what I have seen; everything else is literature.’ The writer Mikhail Segal has given his film a simple yet simultaneously provocative title by proposing a text with a narrative quality already designated in the title. It is largely meaningless to tell the plot of Short Stories. The narrative here is not linear and the text is a story that can be told in different ways. From this interpretation of a continuous process in which the author and the hero constantly change places stems also the film’s dynamic and energy. The film, in fact, ‘grows’ from a waste paper basket, where the story is thrown after being rejected as a manuscript by an unknown author that lacks topicality. The secretary of the publishing house ‘kicks off’ the engine, reading the first short story and recognizing her own.” Liliia Nemchenko, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Ural Federal University

Legend Number 17 (dir. Nikolai Lebedev, 2013)

Legend No. 17 was named the most popular Russian film of the past fifteen years by the leading online portal Kinopoisk. It is a rousing sports drama, but like many films about sport, it is so much more. It is a ten-million-euros biopic about one of the USSR’s greatest ice hockey players, Valery Kharlamov. It is the story of a superstar player and his relationship with an unorthodox coach. It is a sports drama based on real events, many of which have been captured on tape and are easily recalled by hockey fans who saw the team live or on television. It is a patriotic film that arouses audience emotions in support of the national team against great odds, and yet the narrative is critical of systemic corruption in Soviet sports. The film examines the context of the moral dilemma of pitting the world’s best ‘amateur’ players against hardened professionals. The action culminates in the first game of the Soviet Union’s epic 1972 Summit Series with the Canadian all-stars of the NHL. Structured as a chronological biopic, the film dramatizes Kharlamov’s life from his seminal childhood experiences in Spain during the running of the bulls to his rise up the ranks of Soviet ice hockey. Tracing the proven formulae of the sports biopic, Legend No. 17 highlights Kharlamov’s female-centered family relationships, his loyal male friendships but, most importantly, his complex relationship with the magical and charismatic super-coach of the Soviet National Team, Anatoly Tarasov.” Greg Dolgopolov, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Hard to be a God (dir. Aleksei German, 2013)

Hard to Be a God—the most important Russian film of the twenty-first century so far and the last testament of Aleksei German, considered the greatest Russian filmmaker after Andrei Tarkovsky—is a tough nut to crack. It not only intrigues, it irritates. It not only delights, it exasperates. It will leave you not only with thoughts and feelings, but maybe a headache. Watching it may become torturous, but you may be permanently changed—although you would need to see it more than once for that to happen. This is a guide that will make it possible for you to survive your encounter with this film and come out of the screening satisfied.” Anton Dolin, Editor in Chief, The Art of Film (Iskusstvo kino)

“There are no protagonists in German’s cinema. There is no hero who is given the author’s cherished message. And even the offscreen narrator … is not identical to the author. However, it is the author who, if not the main hero of German’s films, is then the bearer of the moral imperative—the highest ethical authority. Ethics is exceptionally important for this artist. At times his ethical sensitivity moved him to publicly declare his civic position although social activism as a way of life was not characteristic of German.” Elena Stishova, film critic and reviewer for The Art of Film (Iskusstvo kino)

Leviathan (dir. Andrei Zviagintsev, 2014)

“Its central narrative concern, the examination of a family experiencing crisis and betrayal, … makes Leviathan immediately recognizable as a ‘Zviagintsev film,’ while the physical destruction of the family house has been prefigured by the abandonment or loss of home in the earlier films. But while it shares with his earlier features a formal ambition and a desire to offer a commentary on the human condition, the reticence and distance that marked all those works has now been replaced by a ferocious urgency and civic passion. Neither The Return nor The Banishment made explicit reference to contemporary Russian reality and Elena (discussed by Elena Prokhorova in this volume), though set in two flats at opposite ends of the economic scale in contemporary Moscow, was nuanced in its social commentary, leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. Leviathan, on the other hand, makes constant and explicit reference to the pressures and tensions of life in the contemporary Russian hinterland.” Julian Graffy, Professor Emeritus of Russian Literature and Cinema, University College, London

The Land of Oz (dir. Vasily Sigarev, 2015)

“Sigarev’s cinema (now after his third film, we can certainly talk about the distinctiveness of his filmic world) is genetically connected with his plays, wherein a marginal space becomes the place to explore the important anthropological features of the modern-day human, and wherein violence exhibits a routine, accustomed character. Not by coincidence, the working title of the comedy The Land of Oz was ‘Amusing Ethology.’ Like a natural scientist, Sigarev analyzed individuals in their natural habitat. The title The Land of Oz is provocative since, on the one hand, it refers to a fictional country from a well-known book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), by the American writer L. Frank Baum. On the other, Baum’s stories were interpreted and translated into Russian by the writer Aleksandr Volkov in his fairy-tale The Wizard of the Emerald City (Volshebnik izumrudnogo goroda, 1939). Baum’s Dorothy became Ellie and the nameless evil sorceress (the Wicked Witch of the West) received a name in Volkov’s version, becoming Bastinda—a name that will sound in the film as a threatening incantation, pronounced by the marginal hero, Diuk. The only character that remained unchanged in both the American and Russian versions of the book is the little dog Totoshka (Toto), who became Diudia in the film. Certainly, the viewer can find associational connections between Dorothy/Ellie and Lenka, the heroine of the film: all of them are searching for good while getting mixed up in incredible situations along the way. However, Baum and Sigarev’s heroines have different final goals: Dorothy wants to return to Kansas; Lenka would return to her unloved native town only by necessity.” Liliia Nemchenko, Associate Professor, Department Philosophy, Ural Federal University

My Good Hans (dir. Aleksandr Mindadze, 2015)

My Good Hans, Mindadze’s third film as a director, is unusual in many ways, but loosely follows his approach to cinema mapped out in his previous two movies. It is a war film that features no battle scenes and that largely takes place outside of battle zones. Mindadze and his collaborators deliberately made a complicated film in order to counter what they saw as a growing Soviet-like veneration of the victory in World War II. … The film gained notoriety not for its complex plot but for the politics surrounding its release: the Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, threatened to withhold state funding for the film because he agreed with the pronouncement of the Military-Historical Society that it ‘falsified history.’” Steve Norris, Walter E. Havighurst Professor of Russian History and Director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, Miami University

Paradise (dir. Andrei Konchalovsky, 2016)

“Set during the Second World War, Paradise follows the fate of Ol´ga Kamenskaia, an émigré Russian aristocrat and member of the French Resistance, from her arrest in Paris for hiding Jewish children from the collaborationist French police in Autumn 1942 to her death in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in January 1945. … Despite anxieties as to whether the Holocaust can or cannot be represented visually, films of the Holocaust have existed from the very period when its central events unfolded, as the Nazis employed film to humiliate their victims and liberators to document the barely credible crimes. Since then, film has become an important element in depicting and commemorating the Holocaust, leading to the formation of a genre of Holocaust cinema, with its own canon and aesthetic norms. Konchalovsky’s Paradise is a conscious polemic with and contribution to that genre. However, it is a genre that is not really Russian, and rather more significant in Europe, Israel, and the US.” Jeremy Hicks, Professor of Russian Culture and Film, Queen Mary University of London

The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader: 2005-2016 is available for purchase on our website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or wherever you buy your books.