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Best of 2017: our pick of the top movies, literature and music this year

Best of 2017: our pick of the top movies, literature and music this year
Matvey Novikov in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s award-winning fifth film Loveless

2017 saw the return of cinematic heavy-hitters like Andrey Zvyagintsev, the celebration of old and new voices in literature and the rise of fresh musicians, from rap to Instagram-pop. Here are our highlights of another bumper year for New East artists

18 December 2017

Loveless (dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s dark new film Loveless was hailed at this year’s Cannes and London film festivals and the European Film Awards among other, and has been submitted as Russia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. The focus is on a couple in the midst of a divorce who must come together to search for their son who has suddenly gone missing. Loveless marks a step away from the grandeur of Zvyaginstev’s previous picture Leviathan, and is closer to the director’s earlier film Elena, which also spotlights domestic drama.

Closeness (dir. Kantemir Balagov)

Closeness is the debut feature from 26-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov, which has been lauded with the prestigious FIPRESCI award and branded “discovery of the year” by numerous Russian film critics. The film is set in the 1990s in the director’s hometown of Nalchik in Kabardino-Balkaria, a small republic in the Russian North Caucasus; the protagonist is a young Jewish woman whose brother is kidnapped for ransom which the family can’t afford to pay. The name of the film in Russian can be translated as “closeness” but also “tightness” or “overcrowding”: a reference both to the close family ties onscreen, but also, according to Balagov, to the narrow formatting of the film and the amount of close-ups.

Ana, mon amour (dir. Călin Peter Netzer)

Ana, mon amour is the new film by famed Romanian director Călin Peter Netzer. It looks at love and mental illness as it tells a story of a toxic long-term relationship between main characters Ana and Toma. The film’s structure is based on Toma’s conversations with his therapist and non-chronological flashbacks to different eras of his life and relationship with Ana. The story is interspersed with references to modern life in Romania, but the director stresses that the story is a psychological one which is ultimately universal and could happen to anyone, anywhere.

Arrhythmia (dir. Boris Khlebnikov)

Another film from 2017 that centres around difficulties in romantic relationships. This time at the heart of the story are Oleg and Katya, both doctors, whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. Critics have noted that despite the similarities between the film and the likes of Loveless and Ana, mon amour, the tone of the Arrhythmia is starkly different. Russian film critic Anton Dolin called it a “kind” film and labelled director Khlebnikov an “optimist”. Khlebnikov, Dolin notes, is himself an antipode of Zvyagintsev in more than one sense: he is almost unknown outside of Russia but is respected and applauded in the country.

Spoor (dir. Agnieszka Holland)

Spoor is the latest film from one of Poland’s biggest directors, Agnieszka Holland. It is based on Olga Togarczuk’s so-called “metaphysical thriller” Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, which questions the state of a world in which humans arrogantly grant themselves primacy over animals. It is set in Poland’s Sudeten Mountains, where a retired engineer stumbles upon a deer poacher’s dead body. Before too longmore dead hunters are found, with animal tracks at their crime scenes, and the engineer — a staunch vegetarian — becomes the police’s main suspect before deciding to launch her own investigation. The film has been described as excellently witty and its atmosphere has been compared to David Lunch’s cult series Twin Peaks.

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci

My Cat Yugoslavia is the debut novel by Kosovo-born writer Pajtim Statovici, and has been praised as a fascinating and surreal study of queerness, alienation and Balkan identity. Most importantly, it also features a talking cat that the main character, the young Kosovar Albanian Bekim, meets in a gay nightclub in Finland, where his family had fled in the 90s. The novel explores the life of Bekim side by side with that of his mother Emine, who grew up in a village near Pristina and was married off to an abusive man. The book was originally published in Finnish in 2014 and received the prestigious Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize, before being translated into English in 2017.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

Teffi, known in Russia as Nadezhda Teffi, has been dubbed the early 20th century “queen of Russian humour” for her satirical poems, plays and work in the popular magazine Satiricon; she was reportedly admired by both Vladimir Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II. Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea focuses on the journey the writer took through Russia to Ukraine just after the revolution, in 1918, which ultimately ended up being her last journey through the country as she emigrated to Paris. The account of her travels is understood to be a slightly fictionalised but ultimately an accurate depiction of the turbulent post-revolutionary countries. It is Teffi’s humour that makes the novel unique: at one point she marvels at not being shot at a train station, and in another asks a shoal of fish if they can trust their leaders to be honest, and odd but razor-sharp jab at the emerging Soviet leadership.

The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil

The Last Bell is the first English-language collection of short stories from Prague-born author Johannes Urzidil, who was a friend of Franz Kafka and was unjustly overlooked as a writer in his own right. Their friendship also partially explains the surreal fairytale atmosphere of the short stories, in which people fall in love with portraits and villages start civil wars over missing cheesecake. Urzidil, born to a German father and Jewish mother, had to flee Prague in 1939 at the age of 43 after Czechoslovakia was invaded by Nazi Germany. After that he lived in UK, USA and Italy, and several of his later works are set in America. Interestingly, Urzidil also worked for Voice of America in the early 1950s and was persecuted under McCarthyism.

Other Russias by Victoria Lomasko

Artist, writer and activist Victoria Lomasko is a household name in Russian activism, well-known for her comic-strip style drawings and reports from the most marginalised and alienated communities in Russia — from cities to remote rural villages. In Other Russias Lomasko combines her skills as an artist and a writer, with the book divided between text and cartoons in which Lomasko depicts the heroes of the book: from modern slaves working in small grocery stores in Moscow to sex workers in Nizhny Novgorod and truck drivers protesting toll roads all over Russia. These Russians take centre stage in the book as they narrate their lives and experiences, with the author’s voice chiming in rarely to pose sharp questions aimed at Russian society and those in power. The book is divided into two sections, which, it could be argued, summarise the real Russia in just two words: “Invisible” and “Angry”.

Kedr Livanskiy — Your Name

Kedr Livanskiy is often hailed as the queen of Russian underground electronica and Your Name is the second release from her latest album. The video, which was premiered on The Calvert Journal in November, follows two best friends in rural Russia in an exploration of youth. Behind the project is Yana Kedrina, who first emerged in the music world as Kedr Livanskiy as part of Moscow-based underground label and community John’s Kingdom, and is now signed onto New York-based 2MR records.

Luna — Ogonyok

Ogonyok, which means “little light” in Russian, was the second track that Luna, real name Kristina Bardash, released in advance of her new album Island of Freedom. The song follows the dreamy line of Luna’s trademark melancholy pop and is packed with references to war and loneliness. Luna has commented that the song “raises acute social matters of being lonely in a society, of war and unrequited love during war.”

Manizha — Sometimes

Dushanbe-born singer-songwriter Manizha redefines what it means to be an “Instagram celebrity”: she claims to have released the first Instagram music album in the world. Beginning early last year, Manizha released one song per week on her Instagram account, accompanied by a DIY-style video. The video for Sometimes, a slow, folk-inspired soul track, is the first full-length video that the Moscow-based Tajik singer has released. She has also opened for Lana Del Rey in St Petersburg, recorded a stunning cover of Cher’s Believe (available as a demo on VK here), and has announced that she’s started working on her second album.

Poly Chain — Hazelnut

Warsaw-based Ukrainian artist Poly Chain released her first EP, Music for Candy Shops earlier this year on electronic label Transatlantyk, and Hazelnut is just one in the list of deliciously-named tracks like Salty Caramel and Peanut Butter. The person behind the analogue synthy sounds of Poly Chain is Sasha Zakrevska, who now takes the project to techno parties run by DJ RRRKRTA across Poland, and Unsound festival in Kraków, as well as appearances in Kiev, Minsk and elsewhere.

Maria Teriaeva — Merinos

Maria Teriaeva is a guitarist in several well-known Russian indie bands like InWhite and Naadia, as well as a solo artist. Merinos is the first single from Teriaeva’s debut album Focus, which came out earlier this year. The song, made in collaboration with Vadik Korolev, is a combination of electronic sounds and short, looped phrases. It was recorded using an instrument called the Buchla Easel — a synthesizer designed to function as a portable music studio, with the addition of modular synths like the Doepfer.

Husky — Panelka

Panelka by Russian rapper Husky takes its name from a colloquial word for a type of panelled building ubiquitous in the suburbs of Russian towns; the song serves as a reflection on inequality, depression, consumerism, poverty and everyday life in these buildings. In the video, Husky raps in front of several tower blocks, highlighting a reality for a majority of Russians, who spend their entire lives in these buildings, from birth to death. The string of subtitles that runs across the video are not actually the lyrics for the song, but an addendum of sorts that further explores the depression, poverty and consumerism that thrives in the suburbs.

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