Great Russian Movies: The Tragedies

Nobody does beautiful despair like the Russians:

Брат (Brother): At his mother’s behest Danila goes to visit his brother Viktor, a low-level gangster, in St. Petersburg. Turns out that, of the two, Danila is the better criminal. Friends have told me that when this movie came out Sergei Bodrov, who plays Danila, was heralded as the great new Russian star. Tragically, he was killed in an avalanche only a few years later.

Утомленние Солнцем (Burnt by the Sun): The year is 1936 and Sergei Petrovich, former revolutionary hero, hopes to spend a relaxing summer at his family country home. But when his wife’s cousin Dmitri returns after some time in Paris, things start to go sour. Stalin’s powers are increasing and Dmitri’s visit is no accident. For your info Nikita Mikhalkov, who stars here, was also in Walking around Moscow some thirty years earlier.

Иди и Смотри (Come and See): During the Nazi occupation of Belarus young Flyora finds a rifle in the sand. That marks the beginning of the end. As the war continues things become more exaggerated and more intense as Flyora and his companion Glasha sink deeper into despair. This one is tough to take–I recommend a couple of sittings.

Летят журавли (The Cranes are Flying): Veronika and Boris are in love. But when Boris goes off to war his musician/slacker cousin starts making increasingly obvious advances to Veronika. This is a particularly beautiful film because Tatiana Samoylova, who plays Veronika, has such an expressive face. Some of the camera angles are just incredible too and have been discussed extensively.

Гамлет (Hamlet): You may think you have seen Hamlet, but have you seen the version with a text translated by Boris Pasternak, a score composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, and a performance praised by Laurence Olivier? That’s this one. And for a bit more gossip, the protagonist, Innokentiy Smoktunovsky from Watch out for the Automobile (an honest-to-goodness comedy!) plays Hamlet.

Иваново Детство (Ivan’s Childhood): This was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first major film, and my favourite. Ivan’s family is killed on the Eastern front and Ivan, only twelve years old, vows to avenge their death. Very, very sad but very, very good.

Крылья (Wings): Nadezhda used to be a famous fighter pilot and was fiercely loyal to The Party. Now, some years later, she is finding her life as a headmistress unfulfilling. Say what you will about feminism in Russia but Larissa Shepitko, the director of Wings, was getting nominated for film awards in 1966. The first woman nominated for an Oscar for directing came only 10 years later, with Lina Wertmüller. Incredible.





Great Russian Movies: The Comedies

This’ll be quick–the only five comedies in all of Russian cinema! Actually there are lots but, linguistically and culturally, I can’t always follow the humour. Fortunately, the following five are very accessible, and very well known. They’re even on YouTube and the excellent Mosfilm site, so you don’t have to pay a cent. I have even more to say about Russian cinematic tragedies, which are numerous, so stay tuned.

Берегись автомобиля (Beware of the Car): Yura is a modern-day Robin Hood, an insurance salesman who steals cars from the rich and gives them to the poor. His best friend is the police officer working on the case. Very silly, but very well done.

Ирония судьбы (The Irony of Fate): Every year, on December 31st Zhenya and his friends go to the banya to relax and drink a bunch of vodka. His friends remember that one of their group has a plane to catch and so bring Zhenya to the airport to fly to Leningrad. As it turns out, it’s the wrong friend and when Zhenya arrives he is so drunk he takes the nearest taxi to his Moscow address: “Builders’ Steet.” This being Brezhnev-era Russia, the cities’ street names are standardized and Builders’ Street exists in Leningrad too. Mayhem and romance follow. A popular rewatch around New Year’s Eve, think of this as Russia’s answer to It’s a Wonderful Life.

Иван васильевич меняет профессию (Ivan Vasilievich Changes Professions): Perhaps you thought that time travel and Ivan the Terrible would never meet in the same film. Well think again! Ivan the Terrible was apparently quite the riot.

Москва слезам не верит (Moscow doesn’t Believe in Tears): Two college girls are house sitting for a family friend. They invite two gentlemen callers over, one thing leads to another, and Katya gets pregnant and becomes a single mother. Fast forward 15 years and she meets a nice man. Trouble is, he thinks that he’s the provider. What he doesn’t know is that, as a glavnii engineer, Katya is more than capable of taking care of herself.

Я шагаю по Москве (Walking around Moscow): I saw this only a few weeks ago, but it has quickly become one of my favourites. It depicts one day in Moscow, walking around, going to the shops, getting married, meeting a pretty girl. What can I say, it’s delightful, and at 75 minutes, goes down easy.

A Few of my Favourite Food Movies

I like to think that when you have only 90-120 minutes of screen time, every frame has to count. There’s no point in showing someone peeling potatoes, or sitting down to a steak dinner, if it doesn’t also serve the plot or characters in some way. That’s why I like these–they’re all enjoyable and don’t waste any details. It helps that a couple of these, like In the Mood for Love and I am Love, are also very beautifully shot.


Bonnie and Clyde: Just looking at this still, it’s easy to see the connection between passion, physicality and violence in this movie. Gangsters and food are made for each other; someone has even written a dissertation on the subject.



Estomago: Things are looking good for drifter Nonato when he gets himself a place to stay, a job as a cook and a girlfriend…of sorts. But his passion turns sour, the knives come out, and you don’t even want to know what he ends up cooking for dinner.



I am Love: Emma, a Russian housewife living in Milan, longs to leave her dull husband for her restauranteur lover. Ukha, the traditional fish soup, plays a role.


In the Mood for Love: Every day would-be lovers Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan meet at the noodle shop, forever crossing paths but never to be together.


Sideways: Remember this one? In short: two mid-life crises, a road trip through Napa Valley, and many bottles of Pinot noir. “I am not drinking any fucking merlot.



Waitress: Jenna is pregnant, poor, and living in the South with her dreadful husband. But every time things get really bad, she thinks up a new pie to bake.


Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Awesome Movies Which Feature (Though are not Actually About) Halloween


There are some Halloween movies which I absolutely adore. Classics like Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Casper come to mind. But the creepy stop-motion of Nightmare is about as “scary” as I can handle. Slasher movies like Halloween? Or worse, torture porn like Saw? Painful–to sit through.

So instead I’d like to offer up some plain old enjoyable movies that feature Halloween as a plot point, even though they’re really about other stuff. And need I reiterate? None of them are scary.

Beginners (2010):

-One beep means yes?
-I’ve always wanted to have a phone conversation with someone who doesn’t talk…

Oliver and Anna meet at a Halloween party–she is Charlie Chaplin, he is Freud. She’s got laryngitis and can’t speak. Cuteness ensues.

Brick (2005):

-“You’d better be sure you wanna know…what you wanna know”

In a film best described as high school noir, Joseph Gordon-Levitt tries to figure out the mystery of his ex-girlfriend’s death. Things start to unravel when he goes to a super-secretive Halloween party, with an even more mysterious host.

In America (2002): 


Christy and Ariel aren’t having much success trick-or-treating in their run-down apartment building. Mateo, their cranky, sickly neighbour doesn’t have any candy, nor does he particularly like children. But he ends up giving these little girls his jar of coins, which he’d been saving for ages. They are just too cute. It makes me cry every time!

The Karate Kid (1984): 

-“Hey, there’s Daniel!”
-“The shower!”
-“How do you know?”
-“I just know.”

Daniel Larusso goes to the Halloween dance dressed as…a shower. It’s too perfect! He tries to play a prank on the popular kids (he gets a pretty savage beating as a result) but is then saved by Mr. Miyage. After Halloween Daniel starts to train in earnest to defeat the evil karate master/rich kid Johnny.

Mean Girls (2004):

-“And you are…a zombie bride?”
-“An ex-wife”

HAH, love it! Although Aaron Samuels “loves it” too, Regina George does not. She backstabs Cady and gets back together with her dreamboat ex-boyfriend. After Halloween Cady vows to infiltrate the most popular clique in school and crush its queen bee once and for all.

Zodiac (2007): 

-“From your secret pal: ‘I feel it in my bones/you ache to know my name/and so I’ll clue you in . . .But why spoil the game?'”

This movie, about the infamous serial killer, is a little scary. But in the end it’s mostly just a massively engrossing mystery. Halloween is when Paul Avery, intrepid reporter and part-time alcoholic receives a card from the killer himself. This movie is 162 minutes long, but goes by like nothing.