It’s just over a week into the new year, a perfect time to replace the by now broken resolutions with the new ones. Let’s совместить приятное с полезным (combine the pleasant with the useful) and make a resolution to watch at least one Russian movie each month.
With so many terrific Russian movies to watch, we have narrowed the list down for you. We based our selection on the following criteria:
1. Комедии и приключения (Comedies and adventure movies) – Russian кинематограф (cinema) produced such internationally-acclaimed “serious” movies as The Battleship Potemkin, War and Peace, Stalker, and Burnt by the Sun. But comedies, especially slapstick, and action adventure movies might be an easier-to-understand and definitely more light-hearted way to start.
2. Самые популярные фильмы (The most popular films) – in Russia, there are movies that are popular and that are very popular. We chose only from the latter, with iconic dialogues that long ago became крылатые выражения (catchphrases) widely used in Russian popular culture and everyday Russian.
3. Бесплатные фильмы (Free films) – all the movies on this list are available for free on YouTube. While most have been digitally remastered, only a few have English subtitles. If you are just beginning to learn Russian, you might find it helpful to read plot summaries of each movie on IMDB and Wikipedia.
So here are the 12 best Russian movies to watch this year:
Карнавальная ночь (Carnival Night)
The big holidays are over, but do you know that Russians keep their Christmas trees until an unofficial holiday known as старый Новый Год (the old New Year)? And until this day comes on January 14th, it’s totally ok to watch holiday movies over and over. So let’s start the year with the wonderful old musical comedy Карнавальная ночь (Carnival Night). A group of young workers is trying to organize a fun New Year party at a workers’ club (yes, it’s an old movie). But the club’s stogie director is hell-bent on making the night a serious affair. He has the authority, they have the youthful energy. Who will win this tag of war?
It’s still winter, but with the Valentine’s Day right in the middle of the month, romance takes the center stage. So let’s watch a romantic-action-fantasy-musical-comedy Чародеи (Enchanters). It’s a story about a boy and a girl, deeply in love and about to get married. Except, the girl is a ведьма (witch) at a magical research institute that is about to reveal its latest invention, волшебная палочка (a magic wand). To make matters even more complicated, there’s a коварный (scheming) rival for the girl’s affection, who understands little about magic and a ревнивая (jealous) head of the institute who, on the other hand, is a very powerful witch.
Служебный роман (Office Romance)
Do you celebrate March 8th, the International Women’s Day? It is an official holiday in Russia and a day when men поют дифирамбы (heap praises) to all the women around them, from mothers, wives, and daughters to co-workers and bosses. This month, let’s watch Служебный роман (Office Romance), a 1978 complicated, but funny love story between an insecure and brow-beaten statistician and his self-assured, domineering and seemingly devoid of feminine charms начальница (superior).
Белое солнце пустыни (White Sun of the Desert)
Every year on April 12th Russians celebrate День космонавтики (Cosmonautics day). That’s why this month’s selection is the traditional pre-launch movie, Белое солнце пустыни (White Sun of the Desert). It’s one of the most popular Russian movies of all times, a perfect blend of comedy, drama, adventure and music. Reportedly, American astronauts watch it alongside their Russian crew mates pre-flight as a sort of language proficiency test.
Операция “Ы” и другие приключения Шурика (Operation “Y” and Other Shurik’s Adventures)
May in Russia is traditionally the month of the final exams, both in secondary schools and at colleges and universities. So there’s a lot of last-minute cramming going on. That’s why we choose Операция “Ы” и другие приключения Шурика (Operation “Y” and Other Shurik’s Adventures). Interestingly, “ы” is one of the hardest sounds in the Russian language for non-Russian speakers to master. You can watch just the first of the three shorts that make up the movie. In it, the young engineering student, Shurik, prepares for the final exams and, let’s just say, he’s totally absorbed in the process. There is very little dialogue in the movie, so it’s perfect for beginner Russian learners.
Бриллиантовая рука (Diamond Arm)
Finally, it’s summer! Summer in Russia means month-long vacations, frequently to destinations all around the world. But years ago, going зарубеж (abroad) was the rarest of opportunities. Most Russians would never be allowed to travel even to the Eastern Bloc countries. Maybe that’s why the movie Бриллиантовая рука (Diamond Arm) was so wildly successful. In the story, простой советский гражданин (a regular Soviet citizen) gets to go abroad. There, he unwittingly and quite literally falls into the middle of a diamond smuggling scheme. One of the smugglers befriends him in order to retrieve the diamonds all the while the authorities enlist the citizen’s help in bringing down the entire gang.
Добро пожаловать, или посторонним вход воспрещён (Welcome, or No Trespassing)
While adults get their summer vacations, children enjoy the long break from school. In Russia, summer break lasts the full three months. Having kids out of school for three months in the summer is a challenge, both logistically and emotionally, particularly if grandparents aren’t readily available to babysit. That’s why many Russian parents try to arrange летние лагеря (summer camps) for their children. So let’s watch a story, Добро пожаловать, или посторонним вход воспрещён (Welcome, or No Trespassing), about one such camp where kids go to spend the summer and parents visit only a couple of times.
Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (Ivan Vasilievich Changes Occupation)
The dog days of summer are usually too hot and lazy for anything but a poolside read. Russian movies about romance tend to be on a serious side. So let’s resort to another purely escapist genre, science fiction, and watch Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (Ivan Vasilievich Changes Occupation). This is another still hugely popular movie from 1970s. A plot revolves around a young engineer (you will recognize Shurik), who builds a time machine in his tiny apartment. While his wife is at work, the engineer tests his invention and, inadvertently, sends the building’s superintendent and a petty thief to the times of Ivan the Terrible while bringing the tzar himself into the present-day Moscow. It doesn’t help that both the superintendent and the tzar have the same first names and patronymics and even look alike.
Двенадцать стульев (Twelve Chairs)
It’s back to school time. Here’s a trick question. What Russian comedy novel was turned into movies by American, Polish, German, Cuban and, of course, Russian directors? Hint: It’s about мебель (furniture) and сокровище (treasure) and features a charismatic con-man as the protagonist. Yes, it’s Двенадцать стульев (Twelve Chairs). Think of it as Treasure Island, the book meeting with Amazing Race, the reality show, and bringing all the action to the early heady days of the Soviet Union. Our favorite is the 1976 version, although with 4 episodes, it is also the longest.
Вий (Viy or Spirit of Evil)
It’s not like Russians don’t have страшные истории (scary stories) to tell each other. Which makes an almost total absence of domestic фильмы ужасов (horror movies) strange. That’s why we’re going to break the “comedies-only” rule and include Вий (Viy or Spirit of Evil) in our list. It is based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, the famous Russian 19th century writer. If you want something more funny than scary, but still with some devilry in it, we recommend another of Gogol’s classics made into a movie, Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka).
Особенности национальной охоты (Peculiarities of the National Hunt)
For many Russian poets and writers осень (autumn), particularly поздняя осень (late autumn) provided the most inspiration. The season’s прощальная краса (partying beauty) of deep autumnal colors gives way to winter’s monochromatic first frosts. Let’s watch an instant classic Особенности национальной охоты (Peculiarities of the National Hunt), a movie that captures both the classical beauty of the Russian nature with the classic enigma of the Russian soul. It is a story of a young Finn who tries to learn first-hand the traditions of a Russian hunt in a company of an Army general, a police detective, a forest ranger, some big shots from the city and, of course, lots of vodka.
Джентельмены удачи (Gentlemen of Fortune)
It’s almost time to greet the New Year 2014. It will be the year of the Winter Olympics 2014 which will be held in the Russian resort town of Sochi. The traditional Russian New Year’s movie is Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! (Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!) It’s a great movie, but a bit too long and slow-going in the second half. So let’s break with the tradition and watch another winter comedy classic, Джентельмены удачи (Gentlemen of Fortune). In it, a ruthless criminal, by the street name Доцент (Dotzent, lit. assistant professor), steals a priceless artifact. In order to recover the treasure, authorities enlist the help of a preschool director, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Dotzent himself. His first, seemingly impossible, task is to persuade Dotzent’s gang that he is, in fact, Dotzent, but suffering from partial amnesia and to spring them out of a jail. There is a happy ending, but not until after the gang takes a ride inside a truck full of cement, burns down an apartment building and runs around, first almost naked and then disguised as women, in the snow.
Have you seen any of these movies before? What are your favorite Russian movies?