Archive for the ‘Soviet Union’ Category

1. BADLANDS (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK. USA, 1973)

There are filmmakers, and then there is Terrence Malick. On the surface this is a fairly conventional road movie following two young lovers on a crime spree. But Malick subverts the story of murderer Charles Starkweather for his own purposes; this is a dreamy, timeless film that hints at abstract emotions that transcend mere happiness or sadness. With his beautifully photographed Hopperesque landscapes and mute characters, Malick gives us something otherworldly and genuinely odd.

2. PARIS, TEXAS (DIR. WIM WENDERS, USA/GERMANY, 1984)

A letter of both love and hate to America, German auteur Wenders perfects the road movie with his tale of Travis, a loner who seeks to reunite his estranged family and rediscover the American Dream. A clever distortion of both the American road movie and the Westerns of John Ford, Paris, Texas really soars as a piece of melodrama. Harry Dean Stanton’s movingly hangdog central performance holds the film together, while the final monologue is both heart breaking and cathartic.

3. ANDREI RUBLEV (DIR. ANDREI TARKOVSKY, RUSSIA, 1966)

Alongside Kubrick, Russian director Tarkovsky is perhaps the only filmmaker to really push cinema to its limits on a large scale. This epic film follows the tribulations of painter Andrei Rublev through a period of religious strife and violence. While some of Tarkovsky’s other works veered too much towards introspective worthiness, this film utilises the director’s inventive technical vision to his greatest heights. The opening balloon sequence and the pagans on the river count as two of the most extraordinary set pieces committed to film. Existentialism and technical vision collide with aplomb.

4. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (DIR. PETER WEIR, AUSTRALIA, 1975)

Once voted the greatest Australian film of all time, this Peter Weir film is arguably one of the most curious and beguiling works in history. Based on the disappearance of several schoolgirls on a mountain in 1900, the film revels in it’s languid, strange atmosphere and sugar coated visuals. Bravely, Weir never seeks to solve the case- but in this case, it doesn’t matter. Weir challenges the audience to consider the idea that sometimes there are no easy answers, that not everything in this world can be categorised and put into boxes.

5. COME AND SEE (DIR. ELEM KLIMOV, SOVIET UNION, 1985)

Francois Truffaut once said that all war films end up glamourising war, despite their best intentions. Come and See is one of the few films which genuinely challenges this theory. Set in Nazi occupied Belarus during WW2, the film follows the young Flyora as he seeks to evade the army which has killed his family. While most war films tend to lend an air of nobility to the fighting (cough Saving Private Ryan cough), Come and See shows wartime as it really is; a nightmare-ish hell where confusion and inhumanity reign. The film is redeemed as a genuine piece of art by the frequent touches of poetry, both in the vivid imagery and striking sound design. The shot of Flyora lying shellshocked by a dead cow will stay with you forever.

6.  THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, MEXICO, 1973)

Once you’ve seen a Jodorowsky film, you’ll start to wonder how every other filmmaker is so bloody….mundane. Jodorowsky’s films touch on religion, sex and death, but it is the striking visuals and mind boggling set design which mark his work as cult gems. The baffling plot revolves around the ‘thief’ and his quest for immortality, leading to a series of wild adventures. If Dorothy had taken a tab of acid on her route down the Yellow Brick Road, this film would probably have been the result.

7. TRUST (DIR. HAL HARTLEY, USA, 1990)

Hal Hartley came to prominence in the late 80’s in US independent cinema, embarking on an inexplicably good run of films, like Scorsese/Coppola in the 70’s. His De Niro is Martin Donovan, a chiselled jawed, verbose actor who stars alongside the late, elfin-like Adrienne Shelly. The film follows Shelly as the brattish teenager who discovers she’s pregnant and homeless, and her chance meeting with Donovan, an older man undergoing his own existential crisis. Hal Hartley is extremely influenced by Godard and Bresson, even taking scenes wholesale, yet he is much warmer than Godard and funnier than Bresson. His films have often been compared to choreographed dance, where the characters waltz around each other in torment and lust, and in Trust we have his most defining film.

8. MAUVAIS SANG (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE, 1986)

Leos Carax is regarded as some kind of renegade in French cinema, with his films usually set around outsiders from society. Mauvais Sang, his second film revolves Alex (Denis Lavant), a prodigious lock picker who gets involved in a heist with Marc (Michel Piccoli) and his young lover Anna (Juliette Binoche). Tensions between the three of them grow as Alex begins to fall for Anna, and the film is essentially a romantic thriller. Denis Lavant is one of the most unusual actors around, his reptilian features and penchant for acrobatics and impromptu dance routines making him irresistible. Binoche has never been more radiant as Anna. Edited in a poetic, elliptical style, Mauvais Sang is a cult gem, full of vitality and life.

9. L’ HUMANITE (DIR. BRUNO DUMONT, FRANCE, 1999)

Bruno Dumont is another French filmmaker influenced by Bresson’s stark humanism and obsession with faith. Yet, Dumont has his own style influenced by his time as an industrial corporate film maker; static images of desolate Northern France and vivid cinematography give the impression of thereness. Pharaon De Winter is the detective of a small rural town where a young girl has been found murdered. A childlike man, De Winter struggles to solve the case, and all the time the audience is questioning his role in the film.  L’ Humanite deals with sex and violence in a non-judgemental, matter of fact way, and the film veers between tenderness and brutality with ease. A sinister, disquieting film yet strangely invigorating in it’s realness.

10. GUMMO (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA, 1997)

One of a handful of films that could have potentially hinted at a new direction for cinema. There is nothing quite like enfant terrible Korine’s debut, save perhaps his idol Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small,which has a similarly scant plot and improvisational feel. Set in the fictional town of Xenia in small town America, the multi stranded film meanders through a series of vignettes of the distinctly dysfunctional inhabitants. Mixing pop culture as diverse as Roy Orbison and Sleep, naturalistic performances and moments of poetry, Gummo is a singular oddity that lingers in the mind long after the end credits. While some have labelled it exploitative, there is a sense of compassion and genuine affection running through the film from Korine.

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Sergei Parajanov occupies a strange place in public perception; lauded to the high heavens by critics and cinephiles as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, yet seemingly unknown to 99% of the population. Perhaps it is his Armenian background, not exactly a hotbed of household figures. Or maybe it’s because of the censorship and imprisonment that hindered his career? Fortunately Parajanov seems to be gaining some more exposure in recent years; there has been an upswell in interest in lost filmic gems, signaled by Scorsese’s film restorations.

Parajanov certainly deserves his reputation, despite any qualms I might have with some of his work. His films have a visual style almost completely unique to any other; how many filmmakers could you say that about? The Colour of Pomegranates is his most famous film. It is an unconventional biopic of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova. Instead of telling a traditional story of Nova’s life, traipsing through his ups and downs, Parajanov uses an elliptic editing style, making use of static tableaux shots and poetic flights of fancy.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a distinctive story to grasp onto. We begin seeing through a child’s point of view, flashes of colourful daily life in a rustic town. It is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Mirror and the recent The Tree of Life, dwelling on moments of beauty and revelling in Nova’s childlike wonder. Parajanov has little interest in telling a classical story, but creating a piece of work that reflects Nova’s own poetry.

There is little dialogue, and the acting is fairly muted. Having seen a few of Parajanov’s films now, I would say that the performances are less about expressing themselves as human beings, more vessels for Parajanov’s overall vision. Parajanov was influenced by “Armenian illuminated miniatures”, which explains why each frame feels more like a intricate painting than a cinematic image. Costumes and mise en scene are lovingly handcrafted by Parajanov, creating some of the most beautiful frames in cinema.

I have to confess, although Pomegranates is visually stunning, I prefer the swashbuckling, roaming cinematography of Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors, an earlier film. The Kalatozov ( The Cranes Are Flying) style camera work coupled with the mise en scene in that film created some extraordinary sequences. Still, Pomegranates is one of the most distinctive and visually inventive films ever produced; young filmmakers would do well to get educated by it.

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