Navigate to News section

Forget the Oscars: These Are the Real Winners You Should Watch

Because some of the best Jewish movies in history never won any Academy Awards gold

Alexander Aciman
March 05, 2018
Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Laurence Olivier's crazed nazi in 'The Marathon Man' is one dentist you don't want to meetCourtesy Paramount Pictures
Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Laurence Olivier's crazed nazi in 'The Marathon Man' is one dentist you don't want to meetCourtesy Paramount Pictures

Oscar weekend is finally over, and now that we no longer have to wait to see which films or which performances will end up decorated with what is perhaps the highest honor in the world of film, we may breathe freely, take a moment, and look at some of the great movie milestones, not all of which took home a statue. These great Jewish performances and films, if you will, are history’s winners, Oscar or not:

To Be or Not To Be (1942)
Often when an older movie is funny, it’s only really funny in that dated way—a remote humor that elicits a sort of vague chuckle of appreciation. That is not the case with To Be or Not To Be, the story of a polish acting troupe trying desperately to subvert the Gestapo. Filmed in 1942 during the War, this film is so viscerally funny and so deeply human, a true work of cinematic genius that somehow was nominated for only one Oscar.

In this almost forgotten, underrated film directed by John Schlesinger, based on Thomas Hardy’s novel of the same title, Julie Christie and Terrence Stamp give two of the greatest acting performances of all time. And given that Schlesinger’s version was one of the best films made in a decade brimming with great films, why someone decided to remake this story in 2015 is beyond comprehension.

Known in Italian as Pasqualino Settebellezze, this film by Lina Wertmüller (whose family, legend has it, sheltered Jews during the war) tells the story of an Italian man, the women he loved, and his life through WWII, replete with the sort of irony that can come only from the Mediterranean parts of the world. In one scene, as Pasqualino finds himself in a concentration camp staring down the grim specter of death, he finally breaks down and belts out a traditional Neapolitan song. The opening credits are played over a kind of ironic, semi-nihilistic prose poem accompanied by Jazz music and footage of war scenes and Mussolini.

Fail Safe (1964)

I will stand and fight on this hill: Fail Safe is ten times the movie Dr. Strangelove is. Strangelove came out the same year, and as a result this film got totally ploughed in all the award circuits and has long-since been forgotten. But Fail Safe, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, is a gripping, heartbreaking cold-war story about what happens when a series of accidents edges America toward a global nuclear disaster. Most importantly, this film is not nearly as pleased with itself as Strangelove is.

A film whose title song is a million times more famous than the film itself, A Man and A Woman is so brilliantly emblematic of the French moviemaking tradition that it even feels almost emblematic of French culture itself. It’s a film about nothing by director Claude Lelouch, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée. It is one of the truest love stories ever to have made it on screen, free of sappiness, camp, or fake conflicts. It is nothing but warmth. Watching this movie is like the feeling of being in love.

Dustin Hoffman plays an overzealous history student and long-distance runner who gets roped into a noir-like series of calamities when a former Nazi doctor, played by Laurence Olivier, appears in New York City. This film is a master class in acting and storytelling. Gripping to the end, Marathon Man also happens to be a version of my nightmare: A short New York Jewish runner has to fight Nazis decades after the war.

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.