The Arty Semite

Debating the Best Israeli Films

By Isaac Zablocki and Nathan Abrams

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Tank and Sunflowers A moment of relief in the otherwise claustrophobic “Lebanon.”

With “Footnote” the fourth Israeli film in five years to make it to the shortlist nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film Israel’s recent cinematic prowess is indisputable. Though none of Israel’s total of ten nominations actually won an Oscar there have been many more excellent films to come out of that country and we asked two experts to give us their list of favorites of recent years.

Director of film and literary programs at The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, Isaac Zablocki grew up in Israel and served in the IDF as an educational filmmaker. He is one of the pre-eminent presenters of Israeli film in America and a driving force behind the Other Israel Film Festival.

Film historian Nathan Abrams is the Director of Graduate Studies and Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Bangor University, Wales. He recently reviewed a collection of essays about global Jewish cinema for the Forward, and is the author of “The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema” (Rutgers University Press), which is published on February 28.

Isaac’s Top 10

This is the first decade where one can really rate the top 10 Israeli films and feel that there is worthy competition. There is no doubt that the last decade has been the finest for Israeli films. What I find the top films have in common is a comfort that Israel is developing with its own culture and telling its own universal stories from within.

  1. “Nina’s Tragedies”
    Beautiful short stories woven together to capture modern Israeli life in a stylistic, bizarre and yet realistic form.

  2. “The Band’s Visit” Little Miss Sunshine meets Cafe Baghdad… a small story filled with humor and love about a forgotten event, and forgotten people. NA: I agree, see my comments on my list!

  3. “The Syrian Bride” A touching and subtle film about overcoming boundaries, whose cinematic expression stands out as fresh and brave. NA: I agree, see below.

  4. “Metallic Blues” A unique perspective on Israeli-German relations in the modern state.

  5. “All I’ve Got” A small forgotten film with a perfect story full of creativity and resolution.

  6. “Aviva My Love” Israel’s most perfect film on the topic of family drama, as a mother wrestles between her passion for art and her love for her family.

  7. “Lebanon” The best of the recent films about Lebanon, with a masterful level of suspense and cinematic language, and even some redemption. NA: I agree, see below, but not “Waltz With Bashir”?

  8. “Victim #17” One of the best documentaries I have ever seen. A truth more amazing than fiction that allows us to look into many levels of Israeli society.

  9. “Ushpizin” A beautiful film celebrating the Orthodox culture in Israel. NA: But it shows the peril of stringency bordering on OCD . At the same time, though, good to see an Israeli film reach beyond national issues which aren’t inherently Jewish to deal with ‘Jewish’ issues.

  10. “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” The ultimate perspective on Israeli life from the outside.

Nathan’s Top Ten

  1. “Kadosh” A penetrating look at the private lives of haredim: realistic or otherwise, it’s challenging and troubling stuff. IZ: As opposed to “Ushpizin” and “Srugim” which give an insiders’ look at religious society, this comes from the provocateur Amos Gitai. All of his films start strongly but ultimately are manipulations that fall flat. Still, provocative stuff, including a lapsed but still Orthodox haredi.

  2. “Waltz with Bashir” May not have worked as a conventional documentary, but a stunning piece of visual artistry exploring a problematic subject. IZ: A fabulous film, but I felt with all the genre breaking, and creative potential, it did not live up to my expectations of what can be done with a film about animation and memory that uses documentary. But a film which showed the world what Israel can do — in cinematic terms.

  3. “Lebanon” A film set almost entirely inside a tank. What more needs to be said? IZ: The fact that this film kept me at the edge of my seat the entire time was amazing. It is also the first Lebanon film in a long time with some redemption!

  4. “Ushpizin” ‘Ha chipsim shel Moshe.’ Shows the perils of etrog-fetishes. IZ: A great sweet film, that as apposed to most films made about the haredi community, speaks in its own language and uses its own culture to express itself, not made from the outside looking in. This is the key to the success of the Israeli film industry.

  5. “The Band’s Visit” A skeletal plot but so well acted and scripted who cares?

  6. “Yossi & Jagger” The bird’s-eyeshot of the soldiers’ packs in the snow is one of the most beautiful cinematic images I’ve ever seen. And which Jewish mother would let her son out in the snow wearing so little? It’s shocking! IZ: I used to love director Eytan Fox but this film is better than “Walk on Water” and “The Bubble” which both had poor endings.

  7. “Beaufort” Does for Lebanon what Apocalypse Now did for Vietnam. Sort of. IZ: I think this film was more suspenseful at moments than “The Hurt Locker,” but then came the moment when a soldier plays a song and the mood becomes very campy — which took me completely out of the film.

  8. “The Lemon Tree” A tale of dispossession. And lemons. IZ: I felt this one was so heavy handed and over the top with clichéd and simplistic metaphors. An Arab woman’s lemon grove being taken by the Israeli minister of defense. Every character in the film speaks in slogans. Way too over the top.

  9. “The Syrian Bride” The tsoris, checkpoints and bureaucracy a Druze bride has to go through to get married. IZ: Somehow Riklis manages to do the opposite of what he did in “The Lemon Tree,” and make a subtle and simple film, filled with beauty and depth.

  10. “Paradise Now” A journey into the suicide bomber’s heart of darkness. IZ: I have a moral issue with making suicide bombers look in any way cool. As a film, it is a bit contrived, and the characters change too quickly with minimal motivation.

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