Solaris” (1972)
Tarkovsky's follow-up to "Andrei Rublev" is rarely mentioned in a sentence without the word "2001" cropping up at the same time. But, aside from being a thoughtful, spiritual, meditatively paced science fiction film, based on a novel by one of the genre's greats (Polish writer Stanislaw Lem), they have little in common: as J. Hoberman once pointed out in The Village Voice, the film in fact bears more resemblance to another critical darling, Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." There are no gadgets or CGI to be found, just people, in the story of Kelvin, a psychologist sent to investigate bizarre happenings on a space station that orbits the ocean planet Solaris, only to be greeted there by a manifestation of his late wife, who killed herself years earlier. For all of its fearsome reputation and running time, it's a simple tale of grief and lost love, albeit one spiced up with sci-fi questions of identity, and the nature of humanity. Hari, Kelvin's wife, is constructed from neutrons, but has all the memories, thoughts, and feelings of her deceased counterpart -- does that not make her just as human? It's a devastating tale (Hari's second suicide attempt is truly wrenching), and arguably Tarkovsky's most deeply felt story. There's an argument to be made that Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake is the superior film -- at almost half the length, it's a tighter, more focused picture, that doesn’t lose anything truly essential -- but to cut down the original would be madness: as in all of his work, the best moments, like the languid, earth-bound opening, or the stunning zero gravity sequence, are near-transcendent. Soderbergh would later state he was adapting the novel, not remaking the film “Solaris,” and compared Tarkovsky’s picture to a “sequoia,” while his was “a little bonsai.” [A]

Mirror, Tarkovsky

Mirror” (1975)
Working in a deeply personal, stream-of-consciousness fashion (a distant ancestor of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" for sure, except without malicious dinosaurs), Tarkovsky's penultimate Soviet film eschews traditional plot and instead works at its own rhythm and logic, directly correlating with the filmmaker's sentimental beating heart. Shifting between three different periods (pre-war, war, and post-war) the film's narrator looks back on his life while on his deathbed, dreaming of everything including arguments with his ex-wife and a rather stressful moment involving his mother at her proof-reading day job. Deemed incomprehensible and unreleasable by Gosinko, Russia's state committee for cinematography, "Mirror" is an astonishingly affecting cinematic composition, a dense film surprisingly devoid of the difficulties that slow-moving minimalist narratives tend to require. This could be due to Tarkovsky's knack for honing in on the essence of a particular moment, be it an odd televised seance involving a stuttering boy being cured of his impairment (which also has to be one of the best openings on celluloid) or the simple act of a maternal figure washing her hair in a basin. Or it could simply be the sheer mastery of the medium on display, as his "sculpting in time" cinematography and aural sound design (both the selection of classical music and attention to nature's tunes) have never been better. This isn't just someone's soul captured on film stock, it's life at its purest; a certified masterpiece through and through. [A+]


Stalker” (1979)
While “Solaris” is probably Tarkovsky’s most well-known film because of its genre associations and its 2002 remake, the post-apocalyptic setting of “Stalker” holds just as many genre trappings, but is arguably more successful (the filmmaker himself asserted as much). Set in a world that appears to be a post-nuclear-Russia (but this is only loosely implied), the film chronicles two men’s journey into the Zone -- a strange, mystical, abandoned place guarded by barbed wire and soldiers, which houses a room which allegedly contains the opaque utopia of ones innermost hopes and dreams. Not bounded by the laws of physics and inexplicably and invisibly dangerous, the Zone can only be navigated with the help of a Stalker -- an individual with special mental gifts who risks government imprisonment for taking the desperate, or the curious, into this forbidden area. Against his wife's wishes, one particular Stalker accompanies a writer in an existential crisis and a quiet scientist into the zone, where, as the three men spiral down into the depths of the building each one of them faces moral, psychological, existential, philosophical and even physical questions and conflicts. As enigmatic and mysterious as any of Tarkovsky’s pictures, like in “Solaris,” the vague sci-fi-ish elements give it enough narrative to make it one of his most engaging pictures, yet it never compromises in grappling with the metaphysical and spiritual themes that haunt all of his work. Marked by tactile sound design, gorgeous brown monochrome sepia tones and a dilapidated atmosphere both decayed and waterlogged, it’s almost a miracle that “Stalker” came to pass, considering Tarkovsky worked for a full year shooting outdoor sequences with a different cinematographer, recording footage he eventually burned. One could argue the picture is a heart of darkness-like voyage into the unknown, albeit a much more surreal and metaphysical picture than Joseph Conrad’s story ever intended. [A]