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The year at the movies - 10 top Russian films of 2010

by at 03/01/2011 01:59

 

Reinvention was the order of the day as Russia went to the movies in 2010 - with many of the year’s biggest releases focussing on the war years.

But the 65th anniversary of the great victory inspired directors to more than empty tub-thumping, even if nobody told Nikita Mikhalkov that was the plan.

Mikhalkov's improbable sequel to his Oscar-winning Burnt by the Sun was perhaps the most talked about film of the year.

Paying little heed to the small detail that the heroes had largely been killed off at the end of part one, the follow-up was billed “A great film about a great war” and instantly became both a critical flop and a part of the curriculum at some schools.

The Moscow News’ Mark Teeter looked beyond the hype to find a flawed but fascinating film.

“If ‘Burnt by the Sun – 2’ fails as a coherent epic (or even the first half of one), consider it as a series of set-piece sequences – some of which are very effective and affecting,” he wrote.

 

Trains and tanks

Brestskaya Krepost

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Brestskaya Krepost

Two other big war films also packed out cinemas as they dealt with different ends of the war and different ends of the country.

Brestskaya Krepost returned to the terrifying days of 1941 as the Third Reich launched its blitzkrieg on the USSR.

And it divided opinion at MN, with Teeter enjoying a fresh look at a murkier moment of history while colleague Tom Washington was less impressed with a sentimental attempt to tug the heartstrings in the cause of Russian national pride.

Deep in Siberia, Krai (The Edge) tackled the complex aftermath of a nation victorious yet split in two by the human, social and political costs of the war.

But while Teeter waxed lyrical about a “remarkably candid” reassessment of recent history, he conceded that the lasting memory of the film is a thrilling race between two huge, steaming, snorting Soviet-era trains.

 

The birth of Russia

Yaroslav

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Yaroslav

It wasn’t just recent history that got a lookover – historical blockbuster Yaroslav went back to the time of ancient Rus to preach a message of unity and tolerance.

Shot by a team which had clearly watched the Kevin Costner Robin Hood film more than once it told the story of bear-slaying legend Yaroslav Mudry (the wise) and his triumph over treachery to found what is now the city of Yaroslavl.

As a historical romp it’s amusing enough, but the awkwardly tacked-on ending where Yaroslav delivers his wisdom to an assembled crowd of good honest peasants rather spoils the effect.

It’s not that his message of unity for Slav and Varengian alike is anything less than irreproachable; it’s the way the script makes him sound uncomfortably like a United Russia slogan.

 

Blockbuster

Yolki

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Yolki

Yaroslav was big box office, and as New Year approached the inevitable attempt to lure festive hearts and minds away from the Soviet classic Ironiya Sudby (The Irony of Fate) threw up Yolka (Fir Tree).

Directed by Timur “Nightwatch” Bekmambetov, it proved more satisfying than the extended cellphone commercial that was Ironiya Sudby 2.

The tale of a girl at a Kaliningrad orphanage who is saved from a fate worse than social death by the 11th hour intervention of the President’s New Year address is pure fluff.

And with its string of tortured coincidences and airport misunderstandings it draws directly on the Ironiya Sudby heritage.

But it’s not without charm, even allowing for some stark product placement and cliched characterisation. Don’t expect produndity and let the festive spirit sweep you along.

The same attitude might enhance viewings of the critically derided Moskva, ya tebya lyublyu (Moscow, I Love You), a string of vignettes in the spirit of Paris, je t’aime and New York I love you.

If the prospect of Russian short stories has you hoping for Chekhov, this will disappoint. But if it’s a bit of cinematic fun you’re after, this will do just fine.

 

Art house

Ovsyanki

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Ovsyanki

The spectre of Andrei Tarkovsky still looms large over Russian independent cinema, with an apparently unbreakable rule of slow-paced, dialogue-free dramas.

Ideally these can involve slow tracking shots over bleak weather-beaten landscapes while presenting human relationships which leave viewers stroking their chins and saying “Hmm”.

And all that was present and correct in Ovsyanki (Oatmeal), a bizarre tale of a man taking his dead wife to a riverbank for a final ritual.

The Moscow News’ Natalia Antonova warned that this elegiac effort could easily haunt viewers’ dream.

The same almost wordless style underpinned the psychological drama of Drugoye Nebo (Another Sky), the tense tale of a Central Asian migrant coming to Moscow in search of his wife.

Acclaimed on the Euro festival circuit, this portrait of urban alienation deserves a bigger audience – and said far more about Russia’s need for unity, in far fewer words, than Yaroslav managed.

 

Anniversaries

The Last Station

© kinogallery.com

The Last Station

Among the many anniversaries marked in 2010, the deaths of Leo Tolstoy and Viktor Tsoi made their cinematic mark.

Both figures, though vastly different, acquired cult status within their lifetimes - and retain it to this day.

But if the international co-production The Last Station, an account of Tolstoy’s final days illuminated by the impressive Helen Mirren played it fairly straight as a historic drama, the re-release of the Tsoi vehicle Igla (Needle) was a child of its time.

Semi-biographical, Igla casts Tsoi as a lone voice battling against an ever-changing ‘them’ at the end of the Soviet era.

And while Kino’s music pumping out in surround-sound is worth the ticket price, the film itself is already dated barely 20 years after its release.

Meanwhile, the Tolstoy biopic rather smoothed over the more interesting wrinkles of the original novel by Jay Parini.

For international productions, it seems, capturing Russia on screen remains an elusive ambition.

 

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