Best of times, shmest of times. It was terrible year for American politics but a great one for Jewish movies—so much so that we can forget the rote rumination on what makes a Jewish film Jewish. The movies speak for themselves.
1. The year’s top Jewish film (and one of the best in general) was Joseph Cedar’s neo-Malamudian fable, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. An American-born Israeli, Cedar’s previous films include Footnote (2011), in my opinion the most resonant Jewish father-son movie since The Jazz Singer (Jerry Lewis version of course) and possibly the funniest movie ever to depict Jewish intellectuals. Cedar’s first English-language feature stars Richard Gere—stooped, silver-haired and totally astonishing as a latter-day Menachem Mendl. A warm-hearted nudnik cum handler, Norman is the operator of his own mitzvah bank, unwittingly facilitating a political miracle. One of Cedar’s best jokes is his casting Gentile actors as American Jews (Steve Buscemi is a sensational rabbi) while having Israeli performers—plus Charlotte Gainsbourg—play Israelis.
2. Perhaps I’m rating Alexandra Dean’s vastly entertaining documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story too highly but even as a kid, learning about the bible from TV, I preferred Lamarr’s smart Delilah to Victor Mature’s doofus Samson, let alone Charlton Heston’s uber goyish Moses or Gregory Peck’s cornfed David. Dean’s documentary not only outs the impossibly beautiful Lamarr as a Viennese Jew but gives credence to the notion that she was the most brilliant star in Hollywood—an amateur inventor who collaborated with avant-garde composer George Anteill on a frequency-hopping radio guidance system whose utility was only fully recognized in the age of smart phones and wi-fi.
3. Another miracle. Sixty odd years after the never stable Yiddish film industry collapsed, documentary filmmaker Jonathan Z. Weinstein succeeded in make a Yiddish-language neo-realist dramatic feature on the streets of Borough Park: Menashe. How did he do it? Freg nisht. All the actors are non-professionals except the star, Menashe Lustig, the King of Yiddish-language YouTube comedy. His hapless, loveable character could be Norman’s second cousin, at least in the world of Sholom Aleichem.
4. Israel’s candidate for Best Foreign-language Film, Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot is no less harrowing than was his 2010 debut Lebanon—a claustrophobic tour-de-force shot almost entirely inside a tank in the 1982 war which became an unmistakable metaphor for the state of Israel. The allegory here is more diffused; the narrative, which has a generic relationship to the Sufi tale best-known to us as “Appointment in Samarra” concerns the apparent death of a young soldier at a remote outpost. His distraught parents are played by two terrific actors, Sarah Adler and the great Lior Ashkenazi—also seen this year in Norman as the prime minister of Israel (if only).
5. The Settlers, Shimon Dotan’s rich metaphoric, beautifully shot, and deeply disturbing documentary, ventures deep beyond the green line to illuminate the lives and thinking of the men and women building their quanset hut Masadas throughout the West Bank. Dotan, who is clearly sympathetic to the Israeli left, doesn’t argue with his subjects but rather allows them to hold forth. Although specific to Israel, their religious certitude is also one more symptom of a worldwide anti-Enlightenment that threatens to become universal.
6. Can I say that if 2016 was a terrible year for US politics but a great one for Jewish film, the same (mutatis mutandis) holds true for Israel and Israeli cinema. Rama Burshtein’s second feature The Wedding Plan is a Haredi rom-com with Kierkegaardian overtones, designed to instruct and illuminate, that tells the tale of a devout woman, unmarried at 32, who challenges God to find her a husband in one month, by the eighth night of Hanukkah. I understand that Saudi Arabia to start showing movies. Eventually perhaps they may even allow women to make some. If so, they should be so lucky.
7. Noah Baumbach is one of several American independent filmmakers who can be seen as sons of Woody Allen—not least in their satiric view of extended Jewish families. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is one of the best movies that Allen never made (as is Louis C.K.’s effectively banned shonde I Love You Daddy). Playing a frustrated sculptor and self-absorbed Jewish father from Hell, Dustin Hoffman gives his funniest performance in the 20 years since Wag the Dog.
8. And now to Europe. Essentially a ghost story, Hungarian director Ferenc Török’s beautifully wrought 1945 treats a tumultuous subject with powerful restraint. A few months after the nation’s liberation by the Red Army, a small village is driven mad by the sudden appearance—or is it re-appearance?—of two orthodox Jews who are perhaps emissaries from Auschwitz.
9. The word “Jew” only turns up once in The Other Side of Hope, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s latest paean—at once good-natured and sardonic—to international underdog solidarity. It’s hurled by a murderous skinhead at a beleaguered (and undocumented) Syrian refugee trying to get by the Helsinki winter. The point is made.
10. And finally, Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman. I was often bored silly but I cannot fail to salute the existence of the first Jewish Amazon Princess played Gal Gadot, the former Miss Israel whom, providing some producer with a bankable scenario, was imagined by the Lebanese government to be a secret agent of Mossad.
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.