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The 10 Best Jewish-Themed Movies of 2016

The year’s can’t-miss releases, from Chantel Akerman’s ‘No Home Movie’ and Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann,’ to a wordless, cinematic graphic novel about fascism and war fever

J. Hoberman
December 12, 2016
Eva Hesse, Life + Work Documentary / Facebook
Eva Hesse, date unknown. Eva Hesse, Life + Work Documentary / Facebook
Eva Hesse, Life + Work Documentary / Facebook
Eva Hesse, date unknown. Eva Hesse, Life + Work Documentary / Facebook

It’s not just Jewish movies: All films are living in the cine diaspora. Motion pictures are where you find them—on disc, online, in museum galleries, between covers—as well as in film festivals and multiplex theaters. Herewith the best of those I saw this year.

1) No Home Movie, the late Chantal Akerman’s farewell to her mother—and tragically enough, her farewell to us—had a brief commercial release but is now out on DVD from Icarus. Other classics of the Akerman oeuvre were released this year as well. A four-disc box (also from Icarus) includes her magnificent documentary of recently liberated Eastern Europe, From the East (1991) and Down There (2006) film in which she spends a month in Tel Aviv pondering her identity.

2) Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse is another documentary about a Jewish artist, in this case a maker of sui generis post-minimalist objects, who was scarred by her parents’s survival of the Holocaust. Not yet on disc, the movie is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

3) Carl Reiner’s 1970 Where’s Poppa? more than matches The Producers, by his erstwhile partner Mel Brooks, as the most creatively offensive example of Hollywood’s brief late ’60s, early ’70s Jew Wave—but, so far as I can tell, nobody’s rushing to turn it into a Broadway musical. It did finally come out on Blu-ray (from Kino Lorber), however, with the original ultra-Oedipal punchline as an extra.

4) People’s Gala Concert, Russian documentarian Semyon Aranovich’s two-hour-and-23-minute essay, originally released in 1991, is another belated disc. Using rare archival footage and interviewing people who lived through the anti-Semitic hysteria of Stalin’s final year, the movie recounts one of the most horrific episodes in 20th Century Jewish history. So does 5) Austerlitz, a documentary by another Russian documentarian Sergei Loznitsa who plants his camera at the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, now a tourist site, and simply observes. No distributor, it’s been showing only at film festivals.

6) Marcin Wrona’s Demon, available for streaming, is a scarific gloss, made in Poland on the archetypal Jewish ghost story, Anski’s Dybbuk. Also streamable (and out on disc from Film Movement), is 7) Gastón Solnicki’s Papirosen, a family portrait fashioned from the Argentine filmmaker’s home movies. 8) Daniel Burman’s The Tenth Man, a more fanciful Argentine Jewish movie, uses the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Once as the setting for a fable that, were it a bit less schmaltzy might have been written by Bernard Malamud.

I could have made a case for the New York surgeon cum cabalist Steven Strange as a crypto Jew (born Stanley Fremderman in the Bronx) but then he would have had to have played in the movie by Jesse Eisenberg or Sacha Baron Cohen. Thus, the year’s best non-Jewish Jewish movie (and one of the year’s best any kind of movie) is 9) Toni Erdmannby German director Maren Ade. A crazy comedy about the battle between elderly parent and adult child, this hilarious and moving movie is the stuff of Yiddish theater. The fact that the movie is mainly set in Romania and is scheduled to open Christmas Day only proves my point.

It’s true that 10) Si Lewen’s Parade is a book. But this wordless graphic novel, unfolding accordion style on cinemascope-shaped pages is also an epic motion picture on fascism and war fever. Lewen, the Polish-born son of Yiddish novelist Samuel Lewin [sic], created his serial drawings in the early 1950s. Some six decades later, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman discovered them and sent Parade marching back into the world, courtesy of Abrams Books. This is a movie you can hold in your hands—and also give as a gift.

J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. 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.