Tarkovsky. The soviet’s answer to Kubrick until he defected in 1979 amid controversy surrounding The First Day (an unmade movie with allegories critical of the USSR (apparently more overt than the others throughout his career)). Tarkovsky joins (and perhaps leads) the list of great auteurs to die way too young (54)—maybe from radiation exposure while shooting Stalker. Tarkvosky completed 7 feature fiction films.  He went MS, MP, MS, MS, MP, MP, MS so I’m sorry Kubrick, Malick or PT Anderson he has the best per-film average. 3 of those 7 are many intelligent people’s choice for the best film of all time (The Mirror, Stalker, Andrei Rublev) and one of the 4 remaining is the “soviet sci-fi answer to 2001” (Solaris) and yet another has one of the greatest shots and set pieces I’ve ever seen to close a film (The Sacrifice). Tarkovsky had some of Bergman’s theological and philosophical depth but moved the camera like really nobody else in cinema history (certainly Murnau, Tarr, Antonioni’s The Passenger, Kubrick, Ophuls are all close relatives but different in their own way). If you haven’t approached his work yet then prepare yourself to be patient as these aren’t the easiest films or surely most accessible. I’d never recommend any to someone who wasn’t in or attended film school or had an unbelievable appetite for cinema.

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from Andrei Rublev –beautiful photography

Extremely meditative in both style and content. He’s a wonderful director who, like a few others (Malick (ok, not late Malick), Kubrick, Dreyer, Herzog, Coppola (for a while from 1972 until the mid-80’s)), seems like he set out to make the best film of all-time just about every time he made a film.

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wall art quality shot in Ivan’s Childhood
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Nostalghia– doorways, drab coloring, shadows, symmetry

Best film:  Stalker.  Whether you call it a sci-fi film, a religious film, parable, allegorical, philosophical, it doesn’t really matter—it’s controlling, potent– and the visual rendering by Tarkovsky is his strongest- which puts it up there with the rest of cinema history as the strongest. The camera is constantly moving- framing with doorways (amongst other things) constantly. Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy gives a tour-de-force lead performance. Tarkovsky is credited with his own art direction production design (only time he did that) here- and it might be the best in cinema history (yes, this is a top 10 of all-time film that I recently moved past The Godfather—every set is meticulously crafted,  dirt and decay and detail—it would go on to influence everyone from Jarmusch to Cuaron’s Children of Men—it is damp—broken glass, standing water, dogs, grass, cracked walls).  Bela Tarr would essentially make movies very similar to the opening “pre zone” portion of the film his entire career. The “zone” section is a Wizard of Oz-like color reveal—it’s also when the magnetic synthesizer score starts. The tunnel sequence set design is ridiculous—such rigor and then we arrive—and we have a showcase of the ground as mise-en-scene. You can see this in Cuaron’s Roma.

the ground as mise-en-scene in Stalker

total archiveable films: 7

top 100 films: 2 (Stalker, Nostalghia)

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beautification of grime in the tunnel sequence in Stalker

top 500 films:  7 (Stalker, Nostalghia Andrei Rublev, The Sacrifice, Solaris, The Mirror, Ivan’s Childhood)

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ceiling of the house creating a frame for a set piece in The Mirror

top 100 films of the decade: 7 (Stalker, Nostalghia Andrei Rublev, The Sacrifice, Solaris, The Mirror, Ivan’s Childhood)

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Ivan’s Childhood– the arrival of a great talent in the 1962 debut feature
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a master of the mise-en-scene– this one again from Andrei Rublev

most overrated:  The Mirror. If I ever have The Mirror where the TSPDT consensus does Tarkovsky will be in my top 5 directors of all-time. I have it at #237 and they have it at #30 and as Tarkovsky’s #2 (I have it as his #6). There are some gorgeous shots features rain or water dripping- a reoccurring visual trait for Tarkovsky- there’s a stunning one featured here with rain dripping from the roof in the foreground with a log cabin burning in the background. A very personal stream of consciousness film about memory- great imagery, some bold formal elements (blending colors, storytellers, reality/surrealism, time frames)…. and also minutes of them flicking through a book and reading aloud.

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doorways, fire, memory and artful imagery in The Mirror

most underrated:  Nostalghia – TSPDT has it as #367 and the dead last ranking on Tarkovsky’s filmography (think about that- his dead-last film is #367 all-time—- and wrong—haha- wow) and that’s ridiculous. It was hated (hilariously) by Vincent Camby at the Times so maybe that’s why it’s still so underrated (it is also the hardest to find). I have it as #26 overall on my top 500 list. It’s simply, like Stalker, one of the most beautiful films ever made. Much of the film is museum quality photography as art shots (usually with water running somewhere and a German Shepard in the mix). Tarkovsky is constantly moving the camera, often imperceptibly, via tracking shot. Several “oners” – one along a rustic Tuscan rock wall when introducing Erland Josephson.  Tarkovsky loves shooting in open hallways with doors open and the wall at the end there is a painting or lighted piece of art. I can see Tarkovsky’s influence on Peter Greenaway with his framing, rigorously mirroring in his images and layered mise-en-scene. The tracking shot lighter carrying shot prior to final image is wonderful as well. Very dramatic and stylistically loud– 9 minute tracking shot ending in a wonderful shot of the flame in hand.  Incontestably exquisite camera movements.  A rapturous portrait for the ending—truly one of cinema’s great images to close a film

one of cinema’s great images, symmetry, and the ground as mise-en-scene in Nostalghia
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perfection in set design in Nostalghia

gem I want to spotlight:  The Sacrifice. If you haven’t seen anything I’d go in order of my list below but at some point check out The Sacrifice. It’s one of the two films Tarkovsky shot in the west and his dp here is the Bergman/Allen longtime collaborator Sven Nykvist. It has the great final shot/set piece I describe earlier.

the epic set piece and long take in The Sacrifice

stylistic innovations/traits: A Genius of  camera movement (Bordwell’s cinematography) and mise-en-scene. The camera movement traces all the way back to Murnau and Tarkvosky is his own production designer, in a top 10 film of all-time (Stalker). Perhaps along with Kubrick and Dreyer he’s one of cinema’s great perfectionists. ASL (Average Shot Length) and duration may be another trait most often associated with Tarkovsky. He made personal and political films at the same time often blending film stock, color with b/w, reading poetry (often of his father’s), dipping into surrealism, the mother Oedipus complex. There’s levitation in his film.  There’s a hazy mist/steam/fog in much of his work, trees, and water either on the ground, in the air, or dripping (even sometimes just on the soundtrack). Unlike Fincher or Welles Pakula or Soderbergh who, so fantastically, use the ceiling as mise-en-scene through low-angles, Tarkovsky here uses the ground and all of its design texture as mise-en-scene—it’s so smart- not just having open air as a background.  I don’t mind it but there’s an odd bit of unbelievable ego here with Tarkovsky’s work. In Mirror he had a poster of Solaris (if Spielberg did this he’d get crushed for it). In other films there are characters talking about Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry with great reverence. There are fires in his films—the statue ablaze in Nostalghia, the house in The Sacrifice and The Mirror. With the production design we not only get dazzling décor (often run down or dilapidated), never bright (those who think mise-en-scene or production design have to be flashy like Wes Anderson)– Tarkovsky favors washed out colors. We get some great Wellesian foreground/background depth of field work and staging brilliance as well. His films are truly meditations on memory, dreams, and faith.

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the trademark Tarkovsky levitation in The Mirror

top 10

  1. Stalker
  2. Nostalghia
  3. Andrei Rublev
  4. The Sacrifice
  5. Solaris
  6. The Mirror
  7. Ivan’s Childhood
another one from Ivan’s Childhood – incredible work

By year and grades

1962- Ivan’s Childhood MS
1966- Andrei Rublev MP
1972- Solaris MS
1975- Mirror MS
1979- Stalker MP
1983- Nostalghia MP
1986- Sacrifice MS

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives