30 Russian film directors ranging from genius to mind-bendingly brilliant

Slava Petrakina
Here’s a list of the greatest Russian film directors of all time, at least according to us here at Russia Beyond. Please feel free to disagree, tear apart our selection, or shout at the computer screen - and if you happen to agree that’s also great. Write your thoughts in the comments section below.

1. Ilya Naishuller

The 34-year-old Naishuller started his career as a musician, playing in the band, Biting Elbows, and directing that group’s music video, “Bad Motherfucker,” which went viral with over 20 million views and was even praised by Darren Aronofsky. That was the turning point when Naishuller decided to start his career as a director, making the film, “Hardcore Henry” (2015).

2. Anna Melikian

As a prizewinner of many international film festivals, Melikian is one of the most exciting contemporary directors. Among her best-known films are “Mermaid” (2007), “About Love” (2015), and “Star” (2014). In 2008, Melikian won the Fipresci Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and Best Foreign Director at the Sundance Film Festival for “Mermaid,” after which Variety Magazine included her in the list of top 10 film directors to watch.

3. Kirill Serebrennikov

As one of the most famous modern Russian theater and film directors, Serebrennikov is the head of Moscow’s popular avant-garde theater, the Gogol Center. Among his critically acclaimed films are “Playing the Victim” (2006), “Yuri's Day” (2008), “Betrayal” (2012), and “The Student” (2016), which was chosen for Cannes' Prix un Certain Regard and whose musical score earned a prize from the European Film Academy.

4. Nikolay Lebedev

Lebedev earned success and fame with “Legend № 17” (2013) that tells the story of the Soviet hockey team’s victory over the Canadians in 1972. Lebedev’s next film, “Air Crew,” is a remake of the Soviet airplane disaster film of the same name made by Alexander Mitta in 1979.

5. Alexey Uchitel

An acclaimed director, Uchitel caused a deep division in Russia in 2017 with “Mathilde,” which incited much scandal for its depiction of the romantic love story between Emperor Nicholas II and prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska. While official historical documents don’t clarify the exact nature of their relationship - whether it was a platonic friendship or a passionate love story - Uchitel chose the latter version. Orthodox believers, however, are incensed with his interpretation.

In 2000, the Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas and his family as saintly martyrs for their execution by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg in 1918. The film, however, shows a less saintly Nicholas as the young Crown Prince before ascending the Russian throne.

6. Timur Bekmambetov

An internationally commercially successful film director, Bekmambetov is also active as a screenwriter and producer. Among his best known works are the Russian blockbusters, “Night Watch” (2004), and its sequel “Day Watch” (2006); as well as the American films, “Wanted” (2008), and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012).

Bekmambetov was chosen as the Best Foreign Director at CinemaCon in Las Vegas in 2012, and he made the music video, “Powerless,” for the rock group, Linkin Park.

7. Vladimir Menshov

Menshov is one of the few Russian directors who won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, in 1981 for “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears.” The movie is the story of a woman abandoned by her boyfriend after learning she’s pregnant. Some relief from her hard life is found in her professional success, working her way up to be head of a large industrial enterprise, as well as a good mother to her teenage daughter. In the end, she finally finds true love.

Before his historic meeting in 1985 with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a former actor, several times watched “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” in order to better understand the Russian soul.

8. Eldar Ryazanov

For decades Russia’s celebrations of New Year’s could not have been be imagined without Ryazanov’s film, “The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!” (1975). Watching this film is a New Year’s tradition and it has had tremendous influence on Russia’s popular culture.

That film was not Ryazanov’s only success, and in fact, he made many fine Soviet-era comedies. Among the most popular are “Beware of the Car,” “The Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia,” and “Office Romance.”

The director’s first feature film, “Carnival Night” (1956), quickly gained cult status, and was also awarded a special distinction at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

9. Sergei Solovyov

A critically acclaimed film and theater director, producer and actor, Solovyov’s most famous films are: “Assa” (1987), and its sequel, “Assa 2” (2007); “Black Rose Is an Emblem of Sorrow, Red Rose Is an Emblem of Love” (1989); and others.

With “Assa,” the director made a major contribution to the promotion of the underground Perestroika era rock movement by inviting well-known musicians such as Viktor Tsoi to star in the film, and by using Soviet rock music in soundtracks, for example, Boris Grebenshchikov and his band Akvarium.

Solovyov won the Silver Bear as Best Director at the 25th Berlin International Film Festival in 1975 for “One Hundred Days After Childhood.

10. Leonid Gaidai

Gaidai could be called the ‘King of Soviet comedy’ because his simple-minded and charming heroes earned the acknowledgement and love of the Soviet people. He boosts the most popular Soviet comedy ever made, “Diamond Arm” (1968), as well as hits such as “Operation Y and Other Adventures of Shurik” (1965), “Kidnapping, Caucasian Style” (1966), “Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future” (1973), “The Twelve Chairs” (1971), and many others.

11. Alexander Drankov

The history of Russian cinema began in the early 20th century, a decade before the 1917 Revolution, when Alexander Drankov opened his own film production company that specialized in making newsreel footage that captured many important events, even featuring Leo Tolstoy and Imperial Russia’s last ruler, Tsar Nicolas II.

Drankov was also director of the first Russian-made film, “Stenka Razin,” which premiered on Oct. 28, 1908; a date that is traditionally celebrated as the birthday of Russian cinema. Starting from this day, the national film industry has had a long history of ups and downs.

12. Sergei Bondarchuk

Bondarchuk earned an Oscar for his screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel,  “War and Peace.” This four-part film is considered the best screen adaptation of the great novel, and was the most expensive film ever made in the Soviet Union. A special cavalry regiment of 1,500 riders was formed by the Soviet Defense Ministry to make the film’s battle scenes, and the regiment participated in the production of many subsequent films.

Production of “War and Peace” took six years, and required items from the collections of 58 museums throughout the country. In addition, more than 40 Soviet state companies made period weapons and equipment: 9,000 suits; 12,000 shakos; 200,000 buttons; as well as exact replicas of Russian and French medals and weapons.

13. Nikita Mikhalkov

Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun” (1994) won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. His other international awards include a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for “Close to Eden” (1991), a Special Lion at the 2007 Venice Film Festival for his contribution to cinematography, and several more Oscar nominations and many other prizes. Today, Mikhalkov is one of Russia’s most influential film directors and producers.

14. Tatyana Lioznova

This Soviet film director is best known for her TV series, “Seventeen Moments of Spring” (1973), which is about Maxim Isaev, a secret Soviet agent deeply embedded in Nazi Germany, and known by the name of Stierlitz. Based on the novel by Yulian Semyonov, this series became one of the most successful Soviet espionage thrillers ever made, and is still very popular.

Lioznova’s other successes include “Three Poplars in Plyushcikha” (1967), which tells the love story of a Moscow taxi driver and a married village woman who occasionally visits the capital. With a touching soundtrack by Alexandra Pakhmutova, the film is a legend in Soviet cinema.

15. Fyodor Bondarchuk

This director has made several blockbusters and was twice nominated for an Oscar. Fyodor clearly inherited his talent from his father, Oscar-winning film director Sergey Bondarchuk. Fyodor’s films have set records at the Russian box-office: “9th Company” (2005), “Inhabited Island” (2009), and “Stalingrad” (2013) all topped the domestic box office. Fyodor is one of the most influential directors in modern Russian cinema, and he’s also a producer and actor.

16. Alexander Rou

This Soviet-era director specialized in the fairy-tale genre, making three documentaries and 16 feature films, 14 of which are fairy tales. Some of Rou’s finest films include: “Jack Frost” (1964), “Cinderella” (1960), “Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors” (1963), “Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair” (1969), and “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka” (1961). An entire generation of Soviet children was raised on these films.

17. Grigori Aleksandrov

This legendary Soviet director is best known for “Volga-Volga” (1938), “Circus” (1936), and “October” (1928), and he was also a co-director of “Battleship Potemkin” (1925) with Sergei Eisenstein. Some of Aleksandrov’s most popular films were made with his wife, the famous Soviet actress and sex symbol, Lyubov Orlova; such as “Jolly Fellows” (1934), which made her an instant celebrity.

18. Aleksei Balabanov

The legendary cult classic, “Brother” (1997), catapulted Balabanov to national fame. This criminal drama was emblematic of the post-Soviet 1990s, and young people of that era embraced it as capturing their reality – when banditry, racketeering and other crime overwhelmed Russia following the USSR’s collapse. The film tells the story of Danil Bagrov, a young veteran of the first Chechen war who is searching for his place in post-Soviet society.

With only a small budget, the film was shot in 31 days, but instantly became a smash hit. The sequel, “Brother 2” (2000), was equally successful, but this time the hero goes to the U.S. where he finds similar lawlessness.

19. Stanislav Rostotsky

White Bim Black Ear” (1977), “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” (1972), “We'll Live Until Monday” (1968), and “It Happened in Penkovo” (1957) are among the best-known films by this Soviet director. “The Dawns Here Are Quiet,” and “White Bim Black Ear” were nominated for Oscars as Best Foreign Language Films, while “White Bim” won the Crystal Globe at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

20. Igor Maslennikov

Best-known for his screen adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Maslennikov has been honored both at home and in the U.K. In 2006, Queen Elizabeth II granted actor Vasily Livanov with the Order of the British Empire for creating a faithful image of the legendary detective.

21. Pavel Lungin

Awarded Best Director at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival for “Taxi Blues,” which starred Pyotr Mamonov, Lungin continued to work with the actor on “The Island” (2006) that closed the 63rd Venice International Film Festival. They also collaborated in 2009 on the film “Tsar,” which competed in the Prix un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

22. Andrei Zvyagintsev

A favorite of contemporary European cineastes since the release of his first film, “The Return,” which received a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2003, Zvyagintsev’s subsequent films have all received honors and awards at major European and U.S. festivals — “The Banishment” (2007) was nominated for a Cannes’ Palme d’Or; “Elena” (2011) won the Cannes Jury Prize; and “Leviathan” (2014) won for best screenplay at Cannes and was a recipient of the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.

23. Mark Zakharov

Already a famous theater director at Lenkom Theater in Moscow, Zakharov also had a great career in cinema. Among his best-known movies are “An Ordinary Miracle” (1978), “Twelve Chairs” (1976), “That Very Same Munchhausen” (1979), “Formula of Love” (1984), and more.

24. Andrei Konchalovsky

Widely recognized as one of Russia’s most distinguished film directors, Konchalovsky has earned numerous prizes and nominations at European and U.S. film festivals. Early in his career he worked with Andrei Tarkovsky, and even co-scripted “Andrei Rublev” (1966).

Konchalovsky is also known for his work in Hollywood, where he made “Tango and Cash” (1989), “Maria's Lovers” (1984), and “Runaway Train” (1985). Konchalovsky’s recent films - “The Postman's White Nights,” and “Paradise” - both won the Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 2014, and 2016, respectively. Konchalovsky is the older brother of film director, Nikita Mikhalkov.

25. Alexey Fedorchenko

Fedorchenko won several prizes at the Venice Film Festival in different years with his mockumentary, “First on the Moon” (2005), and his feature film, “Silent Souls” (2010). “Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari” (2012) was screened at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and the international premiere of his latest film, “Anna's War” (2018), appeared in the main competition of the Rotterdam Film Festival in January.

26. Boris Khlebnikov

While he started making documentaries, Khlebnikov switched to feature films, such as “A Long and Happy Life” (2013), and “Till Night Do Us Part” (2012). His latest films have already earned him the Grand Prix, the Audience Award and the Best Actor prize at Russia’s leading film festival, Kinotavr, not to mention the Best Actor prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. “Arrhythmia” (2017) is the story of the complex marriage of two doctors in the city of Yaroslavl, depicting the challenges that Russian hospital workers face every day.

27. Alexander Sokurov

One of the most recognized Russian film directors at home and abroad, and author of numerous documentaries and films, in 1995 the European Film Academy recognized Sokurov as one of the top 100 directors of world cinema.

In 2011, he received the Golden Lion and the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the 68th Venice Film Festival for “Faust.” Other critically-acclaimed films include “Francofonia,” “Russian Ark,” “Taurus,” and “Father and Son.”

28. Dziga Vertov

A founder and theoretician of documentary filmmaking, Vertov enriched cinema with a variety of camera techniques, including the ‘hidden camera’ shooting style. His plotless and silent “Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is considered one of cinema’s greatest documentaries. The experimental film is made of short fragments that capture the chaos of modern city life, and it’s a veritable encyclopedia of camera and editing techniques that includes beveled corners, shooting in reflection, frame-by-frame shooting, accelerated shooting, combining two or more images in one frame, and etc.

29. Andrei Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky is probably the most famous Russian director in history, and many young directors, both at home and abroad, dreamed of becoming the second Tarkovsky. His student graduation film, “The Steamroller and the Violin,” earned young Tarkovsky first prize at the New York Student Film Festival in 1961. During his lifetime the director created only seven films (“Ivan's Childhood,” “Andrei Rublev,” “Solaris,” “Mirror,” “Stalker,” “Nostalghia,” and “The Sacrifice”). Each is a true masterpiece.

30. Sergei Eisenstein

One of the first geniuses of Soviet cinema, Eisenstein is most famous for dramatizing the 1905 mutiny of sailors against their officers onboard an imperial battleship on the Black Sea. His legendary “Battleship Potemkin” (1925) is considered a classic of world cinema, having a tremendous influence on subsequent generations of directors and cinematographers. For example, the iconic scene of soldiers coming down the Odessa steps was re-imagined in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” in Peter Segal’s “Naked Gun 33⅓,” and more.

Eisenstein directed other masterpieces, including “October,” “Alexander Nevsky,” and “Ivanthe Terrible.” He’s also famous for creating the ‘intellectual montage’ style of film editing.

Now that you've got familiar with the best Russian directors of all time, you might be interested to discover how Russia's Hollywood looks like.

Photo credits: Global Look Press; Ekaterina Chesnokova, Vladimir Trefilov, Ramil Sitdikov, Evgenya Novozhenina, Vasily Malyshev, Max Alpert, V. Kozlov, Yakov Berliner, Galina Kmit, Ruslan Krivobok, Alexander Galperin, Vladimir Trefilov, Grigoriy Sisoev, Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik

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