10 Best Movies to Watch From Russia

Staff & contributors

Based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando is a fitting adaptation for a groundbreaking story. Changing from man to woman, the titular time traveler is portrayed by the incomparable Tilda Swinton, breaking the fourth wall as if daring anyone to question her casting. But Swinton’s androgynous look and stellar acting make her the perfect choice for this. Her gaze is the anchor that we hold on to as the film glides through the novel’s multiple themes with ease. Through director Grace Potter’s indescribable vision, they create a fantastic film that blurs gender, sex, identity, and time together with the original novel itself.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Andrew Watts, Anna Farnworth, Anna Healy, Barbara Hicks, Billy Zane, Charlotte Valandrey, Cyril Lecomte, Dudley Sutton, George Antoni, Giles Taylor, Heathcote Williams, Hugh Munro, Jerome Willis, Jessica Swinton, Jimmy Somerville, John Grillo, John Wood, Kathryn Hunter, Lothaire Bluteau, Martin Wimbush, Mary MacLeod, Matthew Sim, Ned Sherrin, Oleg Pogodin, Olivia Lancelot, Peter Eyre, Quentin Crisp, Robert Demeger, Roger Hammond, Sara Mair-Thomas, Sarah Crowden, Simon Russell Beale, Terence Soall, Thom Hoffman, Tilda Swinton, Toby Jones, Toby Stephens, Viktor Stepanov

Director: Sally Potter

Rating: PG-13

This is an excellent Russian movie about an ambulance unit and the paramedic that leads it. 

His long-time relationship starts suffering from a combination of alcoholism and his devotion to his work, which are also linked together. This is set in a country where ambulances are underfunded and the health-care system is frail. 

As a consequence, the story of Arrhythmia is one of a worker dedicated to saving their patients' lives in a system that seems not to care. This is portrayed in the ambulance's everyday missions, but also in the paramedic's decaying relationship. It's Blue Valentine meets an Andrey Zvyagintsev movie like Elena. Sadly, it might be more realistic than both those movies, and added to the fact that it's Russian, it has stayed severely under-watched since it came out.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Albina Tikhanova, Aleksandr Samoylenko, Aleksandr Yatsenko, Anna Ichetovkina, Anna Kotova, Anton Figurovsky, Boris Dergachev, Eduard Chekmazov, Ekaterina Stulova, Elena Drobysheva, Evgeny Muravich, Igor Brovin, Iliya Kovrizhnykh, Irina Gorbacheva, Konstantin Adaev, Konstantin Zheldin, Maksim Lagashkin, Nadezhda Markina, Nicholay Kovbas, Nikolay Shrayber, Polina Ilyukhina, Polina Volkova, Sergey Nasedkin, Sergey Udovik, Tatyana Rasskazova, Valentina Mazunina, Vladimir Kapustin, Yevgeni Syty

Director: Boris Khlebnikov

A nostalgic look at '90s Belarus brings to bear a sharp generational divide. Evalina is a young DJ living in Minsk with her mother, but dreaming of Chicago, the birthplace of House music. Her attempts to gain a US visa land her in a small factory town, where the tensions between her modern lifestyle and old-time traditions boil over.

This promising debut from director Darya Zhuk features a mesmerizing palette of saturated colors and some striking shots calling to mind the work of Douglas Sirk, a star-making turn from lead actress Alina Nasibullina, and a dry wit that keeps the film lithe. At times, the somewhat heavy-handed script gets in the way, but Zhuk’s vivacious filmmaking is a pleasure.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alina Nasibullina, Anatasiya Garvey, Artem Kuren, Ivan Mulin, Yuriy Borisov

Director: Darya Zhuk

Alexander Sokurov might best be known for Russian Ark, his grand single-take jaw-dropper featuring over 2,000 actors. In a way, Mother and Son is the exact opposite, featuring only two, and instead of traversing hundreds of years of history, it wades through a singular moment in time. This intimate and hypnotic piece of slow cinema trails a son taking care of his dying mother out in the beautiful countryside.

Sokurov’s frames mirror impressionist paintings, while the mix of slow movement and sparse dialogue creates heartbreaking poetry. So many films casually employ death like a light-switch - on and off and out of mind. Sokurov instead confronts it as a corrosive force that bends time to its will and pulls both the dying and the grieving into its grasp.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aleksei Ananishnov

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

When Russian director Vitaly Mansky is commissioned by the North Korean government to make a documentary about an average Pyongyang child, he follows their every guideline. Except the end result, Under The Sun, is the complete opposite of what they had intended. For example starting every take earlier than they thought, he makes the documentary about the watchdogs around the child and other mechanisms of propaganda. He uses quiet storytelling to expose how brainwashing in a fascist regime takes place, and how the people caught in it function. May just be the smartest, most important film you can watch on North Korea.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Hye-Yong, Kim Jong-un, Lee Zin-Mi, Oh-Gyong, Yu-Yong

Director: Vitaliy Manskiy, Vitaly Mansky

Rating: Not Rated

, 2011

Realistic, intimate, and compelling, Elena is a movie that makes you think a lot after you finish watching it. It is an inherently Russian movie, however there is something about how the story is told that makes it a universal family drama. A woman from a modest background to which she still has a lot of attachement is married to an old wealthy business man. Upon learning that the man might write her off his will, she feels pushed to get her hands dirty to honor her responsibilities towards her original family. The question of right and wrong when faced with extreme situations is at the heart of this aesthetically slow-burning family drama.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Aleksandr Kazakov, Aleksandr Slastin, Aleksey Maslodudov, Aleksey Rozin, Anastasiya Sapozhnikova, Andrey Smirnov, Anna Gulyarenko, Dmitry Pavlenko, Ekaterina Tarkovskaya, Elena Lyadova, Igor Ogurtsov, Ivan Dobronravov, Ivan Mulin, Larisa Khalafova, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Nadezhda Markina, Oksana Semenova, Olga Lapshina, Vasily Michkov, Vasily Zotov, Yana Lvova, Yaroslav Zhalnin, Yuriy Borisov

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Rating: Not Rated

In Compartment Number 6, two different people strike an unlikely friendship during a train ride from Moscow to Murmansk. One is Laura, a Finnish student looking to observe ancient rock carvings at their destination, and the other is Ljoha, a gruff miner who hopes to secure a job once there. While the pair are initially unable to get on the same page, their friction eventually lends way to curiosity and empathy, especially as they learn more about each other and life itself.

It’s a great film to put on if you’re a fan of smart but subdued movies like the Before trilogy and Lost in Translation, and there is a lot to mine beyond their already-rich conversations, especially in terms of class and romance. It’s little wonder then that this delightful two-hander shares the 2021 Grand Prix award with another brilliant piece of art, Asghar Farhadi's A Hero.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Denis Pyanov, Dinara Drukarova, Galina Petrova, Konstantin Murzenko, Natalia Drozd, Polina Aug, Seidi Haarla, Sergey Agafonov, Tomi Alatalo, Valeriy Nikolaev, Yuliya Aug, Yuriy Borisov

Director: Juho Kuosmanen

Rating: R

This heartbreaking Russian drama takes place in Leningrad six months after the end of the war. A boy is asked to do an impression of an animal, any animal, but the boy stands still. "Just do a dog then", one person says, to which another remarks "he's never seen one, they've all been eaten."

In this bleak context, two friends meet again and try to restart their lives. Masha is a soldier who has just come back from the war in Berlin, and Iya, a tall woman nicknamed "Beanpole", is a nurse who suffers from PTSD episodes that freeze her body. Both characters, so brilliantly acted, personify the thin line between desperation and hopefulness in this difficult but incredibly well-made drama.

Genre: Drama, War

Actor: Alyona Kuchkova, Andrey Bykov, Galina Mochalova, Igor Shirokov, Konstantin Balakirev, Kseniya Kutepova, Olga Dragunova, Timofey Glazkov, Vasilisa Perelygina, Veniamin Kac, Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Viktoriya Miroshnichenko

Director: Kantemir Balagov

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

This new Russian thriller show has an immaculate production value that can rival the biggest Hollywood shows.

It’s about a deadlier flu pandemic than the one we’re living through; one that kills anyone who becomes infected. It strikes Moscow first, quickly throwing the city into chaos as criminal gangs take over.

The show follows two families who live in a wealthy Moscow suburb as they try to reach a safe haven. Based on the famous book by Yana Vagner.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Aleksandr Robak, Aleksandr Yatsenko, Anton Krasovskiy, Kirill Käro, Mariya Petrova, Maryana Spivak, Natalya Zemtsova, Viktoriya Isakova, Vladimir Ageyev, Yuriy Kuznetsov

Director: Pavel Kostomarov

Rating: TV-MA

James Norton plays a Russian-British banker who has stayed away from his family’s links to organized crime. When his fund is threatened, he accepts a shady investor recommended by his uncle, which introduces him to the world of international crime as a money launderer.

It’s very well-made, and successfully juggles many stories at once. However, its weakness might ironically be that the main storyline, as well as Norton’s character, are less interesting than a lot of the other stories that are going on.

The series is written by Hossein Amini, who also wrote the script for Drive.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Aleksandr Dyachenko, Aleksey Serebryakov, Anna Levanova, Atul Kale, Caio Blat, David Dencik, David Strathairn, Faye Marsay, James Norton, Juliet Rylance, Kemi-Bo Jacobs, Kirill Pirogov, Maria Mashkova, Mariya Shukshina, Merab Ninidze, Oshri Cohen, Sofia Lebedeva, Yuval Scharf

Director: James H. Watkins, James Watkins