Andrei Tarkovksy was a director’s director. Ingmar Bergman called him “the greatest.” Lars von Trier dedicated a movie to his honor. Claire Denis said Stalker made her heart feel like it was going to stop. Suffice to say, Tarkovsky earned the respect of his colleagues. But despite his enormous impact, Tarkovsky only directed seven feature films. Today, we’re going to tackle the indomitable task of ranking Andrei Tarkovsky movies by way of three criteria: filmmaking, story, and theme. Why theme? Because theme – or the inferred stance taken on a subject of a story – plays an important role in all of Tarkovsky’s works. It’s hard to separate Tarkovsky’s themes from his films; as such, we’re going to incorporate their success into our ranking.
Best Tarkovsky Films
7. Mirror (1975)
There’s dense and then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror dense. There are those who’ll disagree with me, but I’ll argue that this seminal work from the Russian maestro opens the viewing angle too obtuse; constantly changing imagery and mirror-image characters remove the necessary context that the viewer needs to make sense of what’s happening.
Perhaps that’s the point – and it is a beautiful point to be made. There’s no denying that Mirror is a deeply introspective work; but Tarkovsky rarely commits to the crux of the drama. Is this the dream Tarkovsky envisions when he falls asleep? Or is it his waking nightmare? Maybe it’s both… maybe it’s the lens through which Tarkovsky sees the world. If cinema is supposed to be a reflection of its practitioner, then there’s few greater examples than Mirror.
Best Movies of Andrei Tarkovsky
6. The Sacrifice (1986)
Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film The Sacrifice was released shortly after his death. The picture follows the story of a retired actor who’s thrown upside down when he learns of an impending nuclear disaster.
The Sacrifice is an arduous watch. The film is slow…so slow that one could liken it to watching paint dry. Some critics loved The Sacrifice – heck it won the Grand Prix at Cannes – but I’d argue that it’s proof of a time when Tarkovsky was never less sure of himself as a director. Many of the director’s stylistic flourishes were simplified to a skeleton’s degree. Of course, it’s hard to criticize the film too harshly – it’s still a beautiful picture, and its ending is still an all-time great.
Andrei Tarkovsky Films Ranked
5. Nostalghia (1983)
Tarkovsky’s Bergman-esque Nostalghia is a deeply moving picture about faith, folly, and the relationship between cultures. Oleg Yankovsky stars in the film in the stead of frequent Tarkovsky collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn; who died from cancer shortly before production.
Nostalghia is a portrait of a man stuck at a moral and epistemological crossroad: caught between pursuing love and lust, faith and reason. Its thematic premise states: which road leads to salvation? Tarkovsky doesn’t tell us the answer. He just shows where each road leads.
Best Tarkovsky Films
4. Solaris (1972)
The intellectual quarry between faith and reason is at the heart of Solaris – and the unknowable answer to its winner is what drives the story forward. Solaris asks big questions but gives little answers; which has cited some critics to draw parallels between it and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Is Solaris a commentary on the limits of science? Or a treatise on the human condition? Perhaps it’s both. Whatever it is: it’s signature Tarkovsky. For at the end of it all, when one is left to their own devices, they’ll always yearn to go back home.
Ranking The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky
3. Ivan’s Childhood (1962)
Tarkovsky’s first feature film, Ivan’s Childhood, is one of his best. The film follows a young boy named Ivan during World War II, chronicling his journey from wayward youth to tormented soldier.
Ivan’s Childhood is widely considered Tarkovsky’s most accessible feature. Why? Because it’s more concise; and arguably more effective than Tarkovsky’s other work. The great auteurs of cinema have a tendency to get lost in the minutia of their own works – Tarkovsky is no exception.
Ivan’s Childhood benefits from some grounded storytelling, which keeps the focus on its characters.
Great Tarkovsky Movies
2. Stalker (1979)
Tarkovsky’s most complete picture, Stalker, tells the story of three men – each with their own desires – and the bond they make in pursuit of them. Stalker is cinematic poetry done right; intoxicating, enrapturing, and disarming all in equal measure.
Anatoly Solonitsyn gives a world-class performance in the film as The Writer, a man who covets divine inspiration but fears what it will do to him. Alexander Kaidanovsky and Nikolai Grinko are no slouches either – both delivering deeply physical and emotional performances.
Best Tarkovsky Films
1. Andrei Rublev (1966)
Tarkovsky’s portrait of Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev is a creative, contemplative, and technical masterpiece. From muck and mire to silt-turned skies, his camera persists; special credit to cinematographer Vadim Yusov for his work on the film.
Andrei Rublev is perhaps Tarkovsky’s most put-together film. By this, I mean that its arc is clear, its characters dynamic, and its scenery stunning. Would the film have benefitted from some more generous cutting? Almost certainly – but that wasn’t Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky let his pictures linger, and we’re all the more patient for it.
Master Tarkovsky’s Film Techniques
There’s no doubt about it: Andrei Tarkovsky was one of the most talented directors of the 20th century. Want to learn more about his filmmaking process? Check out our article on his filmmaking techniques to see how he mastered long takes, abstract ideas, and quiet action sequences. By the end, you’ll know a thing or two about Tarkovsky’s technical mastery of cinema.