The Wandering Review: Top 10 Jewish Movies of 2013

By Laurie Baron

Lawrence (Laurie) Baron

Lawrence (Laurie) Baron

SAN DIEGO-With the New Year practically upon us, the 11th commandment demands that movie critics compile a list of their favorite films from the past year.  Rather than incur the wrath of Rex Reed and Gene Shalit, I will comply with two caveats.  Even though I have the opportunity see many movies in the theatres as the author of this column and as a member of two film festival committees, I know that there are others that have premiered this year which I haven’t had a chance to view.  Moreover, as a retired university professor, I have developed an aversion to grading and can’t bring myself to ranking the films on my list.  Instead, I have presented them in alphabetical order.

Aftermath, Directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski (Poland, Russia, Netherlands: 2013). Franek, a Polish American from Chicago visits his brother Jozef in Poland to find out why his wife and child have left him.  He gradually learns that Jozef has been ostracized by his fellow villagers for salvaging the Jewish tombstones used to pave a local road.  This prompts Franek to investigate about what happened to these Jews during the Holocaust.  Aftermath received five Polish Eagle Awards, including the one for Best Film, and the Yad Vashem Chairman Award from the Jerusalem Film Festival.  It will be screened as part of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival on February 11th and 13th.

The Attack, Directed by Ziad Doueiri (Lebanon, France, Qatar, Belgium: 2012).  Amin is an Israeli Arab who is a respected surgeon at an Israeli hospital. While treating the victims of a terrorist attack, the police ask him to identify the body of his wife whom they suspect was the suicide bomber.  Amin journeys to the West Bank to find out why his wife committed this act and how she hid her secret involvement with terrorists from him. In the process his Israeli colleagues from the hospital start to question his true loyalties.  The Attack garnered two San Sebastian International Film Festival Awards.

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, Directed by Michael Kantor (US: 2013).  Narrated by Joel Grey, this fascinating documentary examines the disproportionate roles Jews have played as composers of Broadway musicals and how Jewish music and themes have influenced the music and plot lines of this vibrant genre of theatre.  If you didn’t catch this film when it was broadcast on PBS, you’ll have a second chance when it plays on February 11th and 12th at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival.

Fill the Void, Directed by Rama Burshtein (Israel: 2012)  Fill the Void provides an insider’s perspective on the ultra-orthodox in Israel.  The plot revolves around a family’s pressure on their daughter Shira to forsake her engagement to a suitor she has met and marry the husband of her recently deceased sister.  The cinematography and performances of the lead characters beautifully capture the intimacy and insulation of the heredi community.  Fill the Void won 7 Israeli Ophir Awards in 2012.

The Gatekeepers, Directed by Dror Moreh (Israel, France, Germany, Belgium: 2012).  Six former Shin Bet leaders talk about the security policies they implemented to foil and punish Palestinian terrorists and Israeli extremists.  Acutely aware that counter-terrorism is a tactic and not a strategy for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict or the polarization of Israeli society, these hardened veterans do not mince words when it comes to criticizing failure of the leadership among Israeli Prime Ministers with the exception of Rabin.  Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, it was named one of the five top documentaries of 2012 by the National Board of Review.

Hannah Arendt, Directed by Margarethe von Trotta (Germany, Luxemburg, and France: 2012). Controversy still swirls over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.  Whether you agree or disagree with her concept of the “banality of evil” and her indictment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils for administering German policies in the ghettos, Arendt emerges as a compelling figure in von Trotta’s dramatization of Arendt’s life and the controversy her book provoked.  Actress Barbara Sukowa manages to endow Arendt with both aloofness and affability. The film was honored with three major German film awards.

Hava Negila, Directed by Roberta Grossman (US: 2012). Grossman has fashioned a humorous but informative history of what is probably the most widely known Jewish song.  What began as a niggun in a Ukrainian shtetl evolved into a folk dance and song to celebrate the solidarity of Zionist pioneers in Palestine,  It subsequently migrated to America and morphed into the anthem of suburban Jewish bar-mitzvahs and weddings as well as a pop song sung by Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, and the Weavers.  Although it continues to get guests doing the Hora at special occasions, it has entered the repertoire of singers around the world while antagonizing klezmer musicians who often resent this Americanized tune that was not part of the canon they have revived from Eastern Europe.

The Jewish Cardinal, Directed by Ilan Duran Cohen (France: 2013).  Jean-Marie Lustiger converted to Catholicism in 1940.  His mother perished in Auschwitz and his father never forgave his son for abandoning Judaism   When John Paul II appointed him as the Bishop of Orleans and then Archbishop of Paris, the elevation of a Jew to those posts outraged conservative French Catholics. Lustiger defiantly declared his identification as a Catholic and a Jew.  The Jewish Cardinal sensitively traces his rise to prominence with a focus on his role in negotiating the settlement between Jewish groups and the Carmelite nuns who established a convent at Auschwitz.  It will be screened at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival on February 15th and 16th.

Lore,  Directed by Cate Shortland (Germany, Australia, and the United Kingdom: 2012).  Instead of going to see The Book Thief’s innocuous portrayal of the experience of ordinary Germans during World War Two and their response to the Holocaust, watch Cate Shortland’s visually stunning and intellectually honest portrayal of an elder sister, her brother, and an infant trekking across defeated Germany to grandmother’s house after their SS father and pro-Nazi mother have been arrested by Allied soldiers. The odyssey of the namesake of the film is as much moral and political as it is geographical.  Lore collected major film awards in Australia, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Sukkah City, Directed by Jason Hutt (US: 2013).  Adhering to the halachic guidelines for building a sukkah, architects from around the world submitted designs for contemporary-looking sukkah.  The winning proposals were eventually built and displayed at Union Square in New York.  Hutt, an appropriate name if ever there was one, chronicles the competition and the construction of these temporary dwellings and demonstrates how a traditional form can be modernized.  Sukkah City will be screened at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival on February 10th and 16th.

Baron is professor emeritus of history at San Diego State University.  He may be contacted via   [email protected]


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One Response to “The Wandering Review: Top 10 Jewish Movies of 2013”

  1. margie rozman says:

    I’ve seen 5 of the 10 films…
    of these I highly recommend Fill the Void, The Attack, and The Jewish Cardinal…
    Hava Nagila was painful to watch, The Gatekeepers was regrettably more fodder for the NYTimes…


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