The Arthouse Boom

IntercinemaGeorgian Mikhail Kalatozishvili's "Wild Field" wonderfully captures the bleakness of the steppe.
This year may well go down as a boom period for Russian cinema on both the commercial and, more importantly, on the creative front. The harvest of work makes marking out favorites harder than ever, so many categories are tied.

It's likely to be the year before the bust, since 2009 will be very different, both economically (for obvious reasons) and politically: state funding will be reined in, and likely applied increasingly according to ideological criteria. That means that many of the smaller, more arthouse films that flourished with critical and international festival acclaim will simply not be made -- their box office results at home remain miserly, and foreign sales are precarious. So, let's remember the calm before the storm . . .

Best film. Bakur Bakuradze's "Shultes" and Mikhail Kalatozishvili's "Wild Field," which won a clutch of prizes in 2008, but which will only go into wide release early next year. One of the better closing notes for the year is that both directors are Georgian by birth and working successfully in the Russian industry; cultural ties, it seems, are stronger than political ones.

Both films have strong central male roles and catch variations of bleakness -- in "Shultes" it is of urban alienation, in "Wild Field" the empty landscape of the steppe. Alexei Balabanov was back in strong form with "Morphine" as well.

Blockbusters. Once again, Channel One has shown it's far ahead of the competition in getting Russian viewers into the cinemas, and the generous advertising support that the station can offer its products is far from the only reason. More simply, they know how to catch the mood of the moment. Timur Bekmambetov's "Irony of Fate 2" opened the year, and the comedy topped the box office for 2008. Andrei Kravchuk's "Admiral" was a big-budget historical drama that came in at number two. Its sympathetic coverage of White Army general Alexander Kolchak wouldn't have been possible a decade or so ago.

Best Actor. This is a hard choice. Konstantin Khabensky in both "Irony" and "Admiral" showed that he's a strong screen presence, particularly so in the latter work, but neither were absolutely stand-out roles. Oleg Dolin in "Wild Field" and Gela Chitava in "Shultes" rate notice, as does Merab Ninidze (more Georgian talent) in Alexei German Jr.'s "Paper Soldier," itself a very accomplished film.

Best actress. Goes unanimously to Ksenia Rappaport in Kirill Serebrennikov's "Yuryev Day," the story of a world-class opera singer who makes a final journey back to her provincial roots that in a mysterious way absorbs her forever. Rappaport's performance carries the film.

Honorable mention goes to the three young leads in Valeria Gai Germanika's "Everyone Dies But Me."

Further afield. Hints in recent years that cinema is flourishing in Kazakhstan have been confirmed by, to name but two films, Guka Omarova's "Baksi" (shame indeed that its Russian release brought in a paltry $6,000) and Rustem Abdrashov's more mainstream "The Gift to Stalin." There's plenty more coming through as well, which because of the stories and themes, likely won't travel far beyond national borders. The fifth edition of the Eurasia film festival in Astana in September concentrated for the first time on Central Asia -- and showed growing talent not only in Kazakhstan but in the other "Stans" as well. You're more likely to catch what they produce in Paris or Berlin than in Moscow, though.

Encouraging tendency. The loosest category goes to emerging debut directors, or those bringing in a second film successfully. Sergei Mokritsky turned from working as a cinematographer to directing the sympathetic, low-key "Four Ages of Love"; Bakuradze's "Shultes" is also a feature-film debut; Igor Voloshin's "Nirvana" was a stylized if offbeat look at St. Petersburg's strangely decadent bohemian world; Vladimir Kott's "Mukha" took home the top prize at the Shanghai festival; and the list could easily be extended. If these kinds of directors don't get support in the future, then Russian cinema will be all the poorer for it.