Thursday, 23 May 2019

50 Essential Iranian Films

Kako (Shapur Gharib, 1971)

Few years back, I asked Houshang Golmakani, the editor-in-chief of the Iranian Film Monthly, to produce a list of his 50 favourite Iranian films to be published on Keyframe. It was published around 2014 but later Keyframe went through some design and organisational changes, and the original posting, as well as some of my other contributions, vanished without any explanation. So I decided to re-post here with some minor alterations and more stills.

As I said, Golmakani edit the Film Monthly, the longest-running film magazine in Iran and one of the first to be established after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Aside from his full-time presence in the office of Film Monthly in downtown Tehran, he has written books on Iranian cinema and directed Stardust Stricken (1996), on Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

This is not a standard listing of Iranian arthouse classics but more of a personal map of Iranian cinema -- both commercial and arthouse -- sketched for those curious people who want to explore beyond what the English film literature on Iranian cinema manages to offer, reminding the reader that Iranian cinema is not limited to names like Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf or Panahi. Aside from the work of great filmmakers with artistic ambitions since 1960s -- often dubbed as Iranian New Wave -- there are certain kinds of commercial films that deserve attention, especially those working within the confines of “national genres". This list is rather good at that. Nearly 5 years have passed since this was first compiled by Golmakani and I'm sure now his take on the subject, especially concerning recent years, would be something very different.

Ehsan Khoshbakht

Fifty films essential to understanding Iranian cinema

By Houshang Golmakani
(Additional notes by Ehsan Khoshbakht)

Haji Agha, the Cinema Actor

Haji Agha, the Cinema Actor (Ovanes Oanian, 1933)
Ironically, the earliest surviving Iranian film is a witty commentary on Muslims made by an Iranian Armenian. This Iranian answer to The Jazz Singer also foresees the future problems and misunderstandings faced by Iranian cinema.

The Lor Girl
The Lor Girl (Ardeshir Irani, 1933)
The first Iranian talkie is moody propaganda with a cliffhanger.

The Stumble

The Stumble (Mehdi Rais-Firouz, 1953)
A popular melodrama with a clear moral message, a model to be followed by hundreds of other films.

The Swallows Return to their Nest. Original poster

The Swallows Return to their Nest (Majid Mohseni, 1964)
The most successful film of a national genre, Village Films. As the title suggests, it's about returning to the village and keeping the farms alive, leaving the city for bad people.

Brick and Mirror (Ebrahim Golestan, 1964)
Iran's first proper arthouse film, and definitely the first serious attempt to use the medium of cinema as an expressive tool. One of the few films of its period that has remained worthy of attention and rediscovery. [READ MORE]

The Strike (Samuel Khachikian, 1964)
A western-influenced crime film made by the Iranian Hitchcock and one of so many ethnically Armenians involved in Iran’s film industry. [READ MORE]

The Night of the Hunchback. Newspaper ad.

The Night of the Hunchback (Farokh Ghafari, 1965)
A burlesque and a lively, modern adaptation of 1001 Nights by one of the founders of the Iranian cinematheque who had close friendship with Henri Langlois. [READ MORE]

Croesus' Treasure

Croesus' Treasure (Syamak Yasami, 1965)
Offers an extremely popular message of reconciliation between social classes while bringing escapist entertainment to the impoverished. The film also brings the popular song and dance of the Tehran's cabarets to the screen.

Amir Arsalan-e Namdar

Amir Arsalan-e Namdar (Esmail Kushan, 1966)
A historical costume drama based on a piece of famous folklore whose paperboard sets, awful make up and campy costumes turn it into a parody of the 1001 Nights' fad. [READ MORE]

The Night It Rained (Kamran Shirdel, 1967)
The best documentary in the history of Iranian cinema with virulent humor about a documentary that was never made. Echoes of Rashomon. [READ MORE]


Gheysar (Massud Kimiai, 1969)
A turning point in the history of Iranian cinema and one which anticipates the political changes of the following decade through a tale of vengeance. [READ MORE]

The Cow. Newspaper ad

The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969)
The first serious attempt to bring Iranian modern literature to the screen and a major example of the Iranian New Wave. [READ MORE]

From right: Cameraman Mansour Yazdi, author Gholamhosein Sa'edi and director Taghvai on the set of Tranquility
Tranquility in the Presence of Others (Naser Taghvai, 1969)
This film, along with Gheysar and The Cow, changed the course of Iranian cinema in the new decade, 70s, whose last year ended in a revolution. The film was banned until 1971.

Dancer of the City on the cover of Setareh Cinema magazine

Dancer of the City (Shapur Gharib, 1970)
Another popular pre-revolution genre was the “Jaheli film,” about the tough guys, hoodlums and the thugs in the neighborhood who usually fall in love with prostitutes and save them at the end, though it never comes easy and splashing some blood on screen seems inevitable.

Reza Chelcheleh

Reza Chelcheleh (Mehdi Mirsamadzadeh, 1971)
A vaudeville variety show with the kind of happy-go-lucky people still present in Iranian films to this day. The fact that it was made by an Institut des Hautes Études Cinematographiques graduate only adds to the many surprises to be found in Iranian films.

The Carriage Driver

The Carriage Driver (Nosratallah Karimi, 1971)
Neo-realism, Iranian style.

Kako (Shapur Gharib, 1971)
Features old-time heroes who have no place in the changing society. Sounds like Peckinpah, but it’s very Iranian indeed.

The Morning of the Fourth Day

The Morning of the Fourth Day (Kamran Shirdel, 1972)
Remake of À bout de soufflé. [READ MORE]

Detail of original poster for Mehdi Meshki and Hot Pants

Mehdi Meshki and Hot Pants (Nesame Fatemi, 1972)
Another comic entry to the "Jaheli films" genre, only this time the focus is on the conflict between tradition and modernity—the traditional, Muslim hero meets a western woman in hot pants and the tension arises!

Amir Naderi (right) on the set of Deadlock

Deadlock (Amir Naderi, 1973)
Iranian social drama with a noir flair.

The Mongols

The Mongols (Parviz Kimiavi, 1973)
Iran embraces the avant-garde.

The Deer (Massud Kimiai, 1976)
The greatest artistic achievement of one of the pioneers of the Iranian New Wave and a monument in Iranian cinema. Often picked by Iranian film critics as the greatest film in the history of Iranian cinema.

Samad Becomes Artist

Samad Becomes Artist (Parviz Sayyad, 1974)
A Mr. Simpleton from a small village offers vulgar jokes that are not devoid of social and political critique.

Stranger and the Fog

Stranger and the Fog (Bahram Beizai, 1976)
Heavy political symbolism, wrapped in complex mythical symbolism.

Still Life. Original poster

Still Life (Sohrab Shahid-Saless, 1974)
Shahid-Saless, a master of depicting daily life in its plain, unadorned form, gives haunting, sad beauty to the dead moments of life.

Beehive (Fereydun Gole, 1975)
Hell is the city; reminiscent of The Swimmer, while the idea of pool has changed into bar and swimming with drinking!


Desiderium (Ali Hatami, 1978)
A poetic piece about the past, told as a love story between a mentally impaired man and a prostitute, the latter performed by Shohreh Aghdashloo who later got nominated for an Oscar in House of Sand and Fog.

Hajji Washington (Ali Hatami, 1982)
Another nostalgic reminiscence of the past which its lyrical aspects were never understood at the time of the initial release. Probably because everybody was too busy with “more important things” in the revolutionary country.

Bashu, the Little Stranger

Bashu, the Little Stranger (Bahram Beizai, 1990)
War, peace and metaphoric cinema.


Hamoun (Dariush Mehrjui, 1990)
Mehrjui sends the Iranian male intellectual on a journey of doubt and despair during which he nods to Fellini and Woody Allen.

Nassereddin Shah, the Cinema Actor (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1992)
A compassionate tale, told by a rebel from Iranian cinema, and loaded with political allusions.

Life and Nothing More… (Abbas Kiarostami, 1992)
A new look at something that everybody thought didn’t deserve a new look. The result? Rediscovering reality with a touch of poetry.

Redhat and Cousin (Iraj Tahmasb, 1994)
A puppet movie with two sweet and popular characters that broke all box-office records.

The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995)
Discovering and masterfully depicting the drama of everyday life. The birth of a new auteur.

Journey to Chazabeh (Rasool Mollagholi Poor, 1995)
A good example of another specifically Iranian genre: the Mystical War Film aka Sacred Defense Cinema!

Taste of Cherry. Original Iranian poster.

Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)
A film about suspense in everyday life, which brought a Palme d’Or to its genuine auteur.

Children of Heaven (Majid Majidi, 1997)
Isn't it amazing that Majidi uses "poverty" to en"rich" his filmic aesthetics?

To Be or Not to Be

To Be or Not to Be (Kianoush Ayari, 1998)
The essence of reality, both in content and style.

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
A revolution in narrative, done entirely in a moving car in the streets of Tehran, but by no means done simply or hastily.

Color Purple (Ebrahim Hatamikia, 2004)
An Iranian political thriller; Sidney Lumet style.

The Lizard (Kamal Tabrizi, 2004)
A transgressive comedy that crossed one of the red lines of the Islamic Republic: joking about mullahs. The story is a remake, more or less, of We're No Angels.

The Fish Fall in Love (Ali Rafie, 2006)
The Iranian theater master fulfills an old dream and makes his first feature film. For Iranians, it was like when Peter Brook went behind the camera for the first time.

Ashkan, the Charmed Ring and Other Stories (Shahram Mokri, 2009)
If you want to see an example of how the films of young, contemporary Iranian filmmakers look like, watch this one.

About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009)
A giant is born. You can't find a better representation of the lives of the young Iranian middle class than what Farhadi does here.

Salve (Alireza Davoudnejad, 2010)
This film proves that Iranian cinema's most powerful weapon is still realism.

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
This masterpiece divided Iranian cinema into two periods: before and after A Separation.

A Cube of Sugar (Reza Mir-Karimi, 2011)
Longing for an Iranian belle epoque.

Absolutely Tame Is a Horse (Abdolreza Kahani, 2011)
Purely absurd and utterly insane film from a new director.

Here Without Me (Bahram Tavakoli, 2011)
A lively Tennessee Williams adaptation, set in contemporary Iran.


Tales (Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, 2012)
Bani-Etemad, one of the best women d in directors he country, follows the story of her previous films’ leading characters after nearly two decades. Socially conscious and bitter, the pieces of a cinematic and social past come together movingly.

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