“I cannot draw a line between my films and my life. The films are part of my life… Filming isn’t a job for me – it’s my life. And every film is a fundamental act.” – Andrei Tarkovsky
When you have a director who thinks of filming in this way, it is really hard to choose five of his films and give them the title of “the best”. In order to make things a bit easier for me, I won’t make a list in any order, you’ll just get a list of five marvellous works of Tarkovsky and my short opinion on what makes each movie stand out.
Considering the fact that he made a “special kind” of movies and pretty much invented a new way of presenting the narrative, we can suppose that every single movie of his will be some sort of “fundamental act”, as he calls it.
In his films, the story is often presented through fragmented “parts”, which can be pretty hard – or at some points impossible – to decipher, or at least give an “objective” explanation on all the events in the movie.
I think Tarkovsky’s movies are more to be felt and experienced by every individual watcher for himself. The fragmented structure of his films is to be realised through feelings and emotions of the watcher more than through structured storyline that is typical for “regular and mainstream” cinema.
That is, of course, not to say that his movies are random sequences put together in a big pile. Every scene and every shot is completely ingeniously thought out and put in its place.
1 – The Mirror (1975)
The Mirror really shows the ingenuity of Tarkovsky as it is the most fragmented in structure and hard to decipher, but as a whole, it still makes a beautiful story about the human memory. The movie shows us the stream of consciousness of a dying man – his memories and his dreams.
Periods depicted in the movie are pre-WW2, during and after the war. It is a fairly good image of the USSR in those periods, especially those short recordings from the wartime. The scenes of the man’s life are often intertwined with pretty ethereal sequences representing his dreams. About that, Tarkovsky himself said that after making this movie, dreams about his old house stopped occurring.
This is the closest it gets to autobiographical in the work of Tarkovsky and also the most personal project as the childhood fragments are overlaid with narration of his father’s (Arseny Tarkovsky) poems.
And it really, really, really is a divine and cathartic experience to feel the synergy between the two.
2 – Nostalghia (1983)
Nostalghia is one of Tarkovsky’s films from exile. It was made in Italy and written by the Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra. It is a story about a writer named Andrei who is doing a research on Pavel Sosnovsky, a Russian composer who lived in Italy and committed suicide after his return to Russia.
While in Italy, Andrei starts feeling homesick, but things change after Andrei meets Domenico. Domenico is a local lunatic who kept his family locked in his house for 12 years, believing that he is protecting them from the apocalypse.
In my humble opinion, this is the most poetic and complex movie made by Tarkovsky. I really cannot say why is it still so underrated, and the least appraised among the others.
You will never find a dynamic plot in Tarkovsky’s films, and this one is no different. For me, it is literally what “poetic cinema” is – poetry turned pictures. It literally shows the poetic power of imagery in cinema; it’s rather the still shots of some particular things that build the narrative and not the dynamic scenes ever-moving people and objects.
3 – Solaris (1972)
This is a sci-fi adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name. While it is obviously sci-fi, it has more to do with more abstract and psychological aspects of the man himself then the regular sci-fi movie. However, it still has the sci-fi question of human nature and identity.
It is a story about love, self-identity and, reflection. It’s also about a life of a psychologist Kelvin and his emotional journey in the space station near the planet Solaris. His mission is to find out what is the cause of the crew going insane, but soon enough strange things start happening to him too.
Without ruining the movie for you I can just say that Kelvin’s late wife Hari starts appearing, which (of course) make him start questioning his own sanity.
4 – Stalker (1979)
This is another movie inspired by a sci-fi novel, this time written by the Strugatsky brothers. Similar to Solaris, the sci-fi element is here just to provide the background plot for the movie’s philosophical, psychological and existential questions.
Those themes and similar questions are explored through the journey of a writer and scientist to the “Zone”. It is a place in dystopian Russia which is bound by no physical laws and makes your innermost wishes come true. “The Zone” is guarded by the army, and the only way to get there is to be guided by the Stalker – a person with special mental possibilities (hence the name of the movie).
This work of art is widely praised and is considered to be the work of Tarkovsky as a fully developed artist.
5 – Andrei Rublev (1966)
For me, this is the peak of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film work and many agree with this opinion. With its three hour running time, divided into three episodes, the movie follows the life of Andrei Rublev, a Russian medieval icon painter.
It does really well in showing the position of the artist in relation to the society around him. Being made in the Soviet Union in 1966 it of course had big problems with censorship. It was published in 1971 as a cut-down version, and after 28 years Criterion Collection released the original version.
One of the great aspects of the film is the authentic depiction of the brutal reality of medieval Russia. So much effort was put into Andrei Rublev to make it as real possible. A horse was literally killed during the filming. Also, a cow was set on fire (although it was fine because of asbestos vest). You can read about the controversial animal cruelty here.
Let us know what you think are the best Andrei Tarkovsky films in the comments. And if you want more brilliant-director-related content, we’ve ranked all of Tarantino’s films from worst to best. Have a read here.