Q: What are the year’s best Jewish (interest) films?
A: What is a Jewish (interest) film?
Alternative answer: It’s hard to say except that I know one when I see it. With the exception of two movies, this annual list could be drawn up in September but when in Rome: the year-end movie ranking frenzy is contagious. Here’s my contribution:
Not everything here is suited to follow the traditional Chinese Christmas dinner but (1) Phoenix, Christian Petzold’s ghostly (and not yet streamable) take on the myth of Orpheus—with a Eurydice who survived Auschwitz wandering through the rubble of postwar Berlin—is one such.
So too (2) Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary-portrait of the doomed jazz singer Amy Winehouse who, at one point leaves the phone message, “It’s your favorite North London Jewish girl…apart from your mum.” I had no idea until I saw Kapadia’s movie just how talented Winehouse was—or that she was something like the Jewish Janis Joplin. It’s out on disc from Lionsgate.
Proceed with caution with (3) Son of Saul, a movie set in Auschwitz that concerns a member of the Sonderkommando who goes mad, and go on to lighter fare, namely (4) The Kindergarten Teacher, a parable about the power of speech written and directed by the internationally acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid. Is Lapid’s pint-sized poet a prophet—or, no less miraculous, is he an angst-ridden, romantic adolescent in the body of a 5 year old? Out on disc from Kino Lorber.
Humorously feel-bad, (5) Maps to the Stars is a movie made by a Jewish writer (Bruce Wagner) and a Jewish director (David Cronenberg) about the most famously “Jewish” place in America: Hollywood. The only overtly Jewish character in this lurid horror comedy is the agent (Dawn Greenhalgh), unless they all are. Out on disc from Universal.
Michael Almereyda’s quasi-experimental docudrama (6) Experimenter reminds us that social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose famous “obedience tests” measured the human capacity to go along with authority, was driven by an obsession with the Holocaust. Out on disc in January from Magnolia.
Amy aside, the best documentary was (7) Forbidden Films from German filmmaker Felix Moeller who addresses the question of what to do with the hardcore propaganda films, including Jud Süss, made by the Nazi regime. Like most of the movies it concerns, it is not yet available on disc (in the U.S.).
Neither (8), Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu or (9), John Crowley’s Brooklyn, have any Jewish characters but there’s a sense in which any movie dealing with religious intolerance or immigration to New York is a Jewish interest film. They’re both a bit too sweet for my taste, but you can’t live on a diet of sour pickles like Maps to the Stars. Timbuktu is out on disc from Cohen Media; Brooklyn is actually in theaters!
Finally, I haven’t seen (10) A Christmas Horror Story, but I include this Canadian anthology film (which features William Shatner as a crazy deejay) for the title alone.
Related: Growing Up Absurd in Auschwitz
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.