Saturday, February 16, 2013

Top 5 Movie Guide: Russian-Themed Films

For the latest edition of the Top 5 Movie Guide, we turn our attentions to this weekend's "A Good Day to Die Hard", and try to put together some of our favorite Russian-Themed Films! "A Good Day to Die Hard", the fifth installment in the Die Hard franchise, sees iconic New York cop, John McClane, traveling to Moscow, this time to help his wayward son, Jack. Jack, a CIA operative, is trying to stop a nuclear weapons heist, one that could propel the next World War. And even though they may get under each other's skin, they realize that together, combining their two contrasting styles, they're an unstoppable team.


As the film, the first in the franchise to be focused outside of America, takes place in Russia itself, that opened the discussions for this category. Off the top of our heads, we knew that there were a handful of notable films out there that called Russia their title location - a few James Bond and Cold War movies quickly came to mind - we just weren't sure if there would be enough to focus a whole category around the subject.

Those questions lingered, but we honestly never explored them further. We never agreed to what the specific parameters would be, and if the films had to stay within the country of Russia themselves, at least visit the country, or if they simply had to involve a Russian presence. Because of this, the title of the category simply became Russian-Themed Films. Some stuck with the very specific confinements that most closely resembled what "A Good Day to Die Hard" provided for inspiration, while others opened things up a bit.

Either way, there's a Russian presence in each of the selections below, so whether you're talking about the country specifically, or just a film with a few Russian bad guys, the films below should provide you some insight into that world.


Alex Schopp -
I'm not sure what everyone else is going to do below, but I found that sticking with films that took place in Russia led to incredibly boring selections. I generally like to be pretty liberal with my parameters anyway, so I ended up expanding my selections to just about anything that had a Russian element (the Cold War ended up dominating most of my picks). Regardless, the Russian ties are still noticeable in each of my selections.

     1. Miracle (2004)
I don't generally care much for hockey, but this movie makes me wish I was alive during these events just so I could cheer on our team as we took down the Soviets. I don't think there's another sports movie out there that gives me more pride for our country than this one. The film depicts the events of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, a ragtag group of no-names, who came together to take down the seemingly invincible Russian squad. The real event helped unite our nation and bring hope to so many who had lost it. The film does a great job of conveying all of those elements.
     2. X-Men: First Class (2011)
While so many other superhero movies continue to fall out of favor with me, this one is still hanging on. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I love the time period, but also that it took real historical events and wove them into a fantasy film. Even though I wasn't alive during these events, it definitely added an element that we could all look at and relate to. Re-writing history so that the X-Men saved us (without anyone ever knowing) from a Soviet nuclear attack was an awesome idea. Also, there are a couple of great scenes from the film that still hold up as being some of the best I've seen in the past few years, at least.
     3. Rocky IV (1985)
This is my...third favorite Rocky movie I think? Taking on a physical representation of a war that featured little physical force, Rocky, the American underdog, takes down the bigger and better Russian phenom, Ivan Drago. It's basically just "Miracle" with boxers, though this film drops a few spots because it's not based in reality. But at the same time, the film came out during the Cold War, while "Miracle" was released many years later. The theme is great for a sports movie regardless, but when you match it up with Cold War sentiments, it adds even more excitement and inspiration.
     4. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
I think this film shows up on so many of my lists simply due to my disdain for people who outwardly dislike the film so much. This is a fine entry for the franchise, and one that has a watchability factor higher than you'd expect. In this installment, focus is shifted from the Nazis to the Soviets as the antagonists.
     5. WarGames (1983)
It's a little silly, but it's a pretty neat concept for a kid - and I can only imagine how much gamers enjoy it. The film features a young Matthew Broderick who hacks into a military supercomputer, mistaking it for a new video game. Unfortunately, his tinkering accidentally kick-starts a possible World War III between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Classic mistake. Also, it's worth noting that the actual Soviet presence in this film is basically zero... But it still played off of our country's very real fears about Russia and the Cold War.

Ben Foutch -
This list was uninspiring due to a lack of Russian themed films in my memory bank. Anyone know of any good, authentic Russian horror flicks?

     1. Transsiberian (2008)
Nail biting suspense drenched in thick atmosphere. If you need a good thriller, look no further.
     2. Hellboy (2004)
I don't really know what the general consensus is, but to me, this is way more enjoyable than the sequel. Regardless, the third entry NEEDS to happen.
     3. Enemy at the Gates (2001)
If you're a history buff, it might be best to stay away from this one. Regardless of the inaccuracies, it's a tense and enjoyable flick.
     4. Night Watch (2004)
A dark, visually-striking horror/fantasy/action tale. It's often frustrating, and pretty corny, but immersive nonetheless.
     5. The Saint (1997)
A nice little action/suspense/romance that fell under the radar over the years, and took Val Kilmer's career with it.

Derek Clem -

     1. Enemy at the Gates (2001)
This movie has always been an easy watch for me. The idea of turning a soldier into a propaganda tool is pretty interesting territory.
     2. Miracle (2004)
The exciting story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team battling their way to victory against the favored-to-win Russia. We all know the history, but it's great to watch in dramatic form. One of my biggest regrets in life is not playing hockey in grade school and high school. This movie only fuels that regret.
     3. Anastasia (1997)
This is such a good cartoon that I can't believe it's not Disney. Meg Ryan, John Cusack, and Christopher Lloyd pull out some nice voice work, and the Epic "Russian" music gives me goosebumps every time. Fun/Lame Fact: I got my first kiss while watching this movie; when the girl broke up with me, it was years before I could bring myself to watch it again.
     4. An American Tail (1986)
A nice little tale of a little mouse who gets separated from his family during their immigration from Russia to the United States. Remember when Feivel was supposed to be the Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny of Amblimation? Didn't quite work out. I think they should have carried him over to DreamWorks Animation.
     5. Reds (1981)
This was a toss up with "Ivan The Terrible Part I" (1944). Both are interesting because of their editing and construction, but I tipped in favor of "Reds". It's interesting that it simultaneously exists as both drama and documentary. Where a film like "Frost/Nixon" also used documentary style interviews in its construction, it was all done by actors. In "Reds" we get interviews with actual witnesses and friends of the main characters, American journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, who cover the Russian Revolution. It's a very long and boring movie, but watch it anyway for the history and the film's unique construction. You'll still get something out of it.

Nathan Hinds -
There were no real guidelines I gave myself for this list. Films range from being entirely in Russia to just having Russians in them. Really I just went with the films that entertained me and felt right for this list. I realize that probably wasn't the least bit helpful.

     1. Rocky IV (1985)
This has shown up on so many of my lists, do I really need to say anymore about it?
     2. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Easily my favorite X-Men film, and a big part of that was the Cold War vibes it had going on. I love how they included that into the storyline.
     3. Air Force One (1997)
This is a film I feel like has shown up a lot on my lists recently, too. The only reason this doesn't sit one spot higher is because so little time is spent in Russia.
     4. GoldenEye (1995)
I had to include a James Bond film on here. If you look at my entire rankings of the James Bond films, I could have found a way to justify Bond films I like more, but this is the highest film on my list that I really associate Russia with as a main part of the plot.
     5. The Way Back (2010)
There are other movies set in Russia that I'm watching a lot more than this one, but this makes the cut because it's such an incredible story of survival. The journey these guys make is amazing.

Tracy Allison -

     1. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
What can I possibly say about this epic that hasn't already been said? Although watchability is low for me, that's due mostly to its extensive length – it’s like two movies in one. The romance aspect follows a damsel in distress archetype complicated by the fact that both parties are otherwise spoken for. With the Russian Bolshevik Revolution not so quietly simmering as the backdrop of this forbidden romance, all emotions are heightened in this classic film. I like the fact that a part of Russian history is blended seamlessly with a forbidden love story.
     2. The Last Station (2009)
The last year of classic author, Leo Tolstoy’s, life is the subject of this movie. Tolstoy has been described as a sort of Ghandi-esque figure for Russia. A strong cast featuring flawed, yet human characters is what makes this movie particularly interesting. It’s ultimately about the relationship between the War and Peace author and his wife as they disagree as the end draws near and they attempt to reconcile with his imminent death. Like I said before, these characters are all flawed, but ultimately good.
     3. Rocky IV (1985)
This particular movie isn't everyone’s favorite in the Rocky franchise, but it’s certainly notable on this Russian themed list. Tensions were running high between Soviet Russia and the United States for decades before and during this film’s release near the end of the Cold War. With a pro-American message and an American exacting revenge on a Russian, this was an interesting piece of propaganda to release during this particular time in history, especially from such a popular franchise. Even on the poster for "Rocky IV", the title character is beat up, but triumphant, with an American flag draped over him as he celebrates. Even if it’s not the best in the series, it’s still an important movie for the time.
     4. Anna Karenina (2012)
This movie may not have fully connected to itself entirely, but it’s a classic story told in an unconventional way and that was a risk that was taken. It’s up to the viewer if it worked or not. It gets away with its unreal theatricality by staging itself literally in an actual theater for most of the movie. Keira Knightly, as the title character, seems made for these types of roles and looks right at home in her stunning Russian period costumes. She shines in performances such as these and this movie marked her third time teaming up with this same director as they released their third period drama together.
     5. From Russia with Love (1963)
Although this movie doesn't take place in Russia itself, James Bond’s enemies in this film are the Russians. As Bond movies increased in popularity in the 1960’s, the Russians were a logical choice for an evil villain during this time in world history. The bond girl in this particular film also happens to be a Russian spy. The difference here is that these Russians had defected from the U.S.S.R. to other countries.

There we have it, folks! If you were ever looking for a week with some great variety, this was it. We really do need to figure out the records for these posts, but I believe that for the first time ever, 20 different films were listed. I know we've had weeks before with 19, but I think this might be the first post to break the 20's.

That being the case, there is less crossover than we've ever seen before. Not only was there a different film in each of the number one slots, but only four films received multiple picks. No film received five selections, and no film received even four. Only one appeared on three lists, and that was "Rocky
IV". This is the case of a film hitting with the right kind of message at the right time. We were in the midst of the Cold War with Russia, and Americans needed something they could believe in. The scrappy little boxer that took down an "unbeatable" Soviet machine was that story. Plenty of great Americana in this film, and more than enough epic montages to keep you coming back for more!

Outside of that, three different films hit on two lists: "Miracle", "X-Men: First Class", and "Enemy at the Gates". All three are well described above, the first two focusing again on events of the Cold War, while the second focuses on WW
II. Three very different films though, so there should be something there for everyone.

As always, we hope that each of the selections above helps to expand your knowledge and appreciation of some of the best films that this genre has to offer, and guides you to better and more enjoyable all-around viewing experiences.

Happy watching!