Helen Mirren at the Moët British Independent Film Awards in December 2014. Mirren starred in two 2015 films with Jewish characters or themes. (photo by See Li via commons.wikimedia.org)
Jewish characters and themes popped up everywhere in movies in 2015, from high-profile Hollywood ensemble pieces to overlooked indies to popular documentaries. If this comes as news, you have a lot of catch-up viewing in store.
Just among recent releases, Trumbo exposed the persecution of Jews and the antisemitism of Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren) in its depiction of the Hollywood blacklist, while Spotlight portrayed Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) as a pivotal, principled figure in exposing the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexually abusive priests. The Big Short painted Jewish fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) as an obnoxious enemy of injustice who is conflicted about making out like a bandit in the 2008 economic crash.
That entertaining trio of movies is primed for Oscar gold, but two fall films with stubbornly brilliant Jewish protagonists were essentially ignored. Veteran director Ed Zwick (Defiance) and Tobey Maguire recreated chess maestro Bobby Fischer’s 1972 peak and valley in Pawn Sacrifice (jewishindependent.ca/chess-masters-decline), while indie filmmaker Michael Almereyda and Peter Sarsgaard revisited Dr. Stanley Milgram’s still-resonant 1961 obedience study and its fraught aftermath in Experimenter.
Yet another movie based on real events, Woman in Gold, traced the efforts of elderly Maria Altmann (Mirren, again) to recover the Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis. The unusual Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy, included a villainous portrayal of the Beach Boy’s controlling therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
This is the perfect place to segue to documentaries, but first let’s acknowledge Son of Saul, which opens at Fifth Avenue Cinemas today (Jan. 15). The breathless concentration camp drama from Hungary is a lock to be nominated in the foreign language film category and is the favorite to win the Academy Award. (Another Eastern European film, Ida, the stark Polish saga of a young nun who discovers she’s Jewish, received the Oscar last year.)
The same prediction applies in the documentary feature category to Amy, Asif Kapadia’s dispiriting doc about singer Amy Winehouse’s messy life (jewishindependent.ca/amy-doc-a-dismal-portrayal). In the documentary short category, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah made the shortlist (jewishindependent.ca/filmmaker-as-subject).
As usual, a slew of docs with a Jewish hero or heroine received theatrical releases in 2015. Above and Beyond, about the Jewish airmen who defended the new Jewish state in 1948 (jewishindependent.ca/spielberg-opens-film-festival); Deli Man, about the past, present and future of Jewish delis; Seymour: An Introduction, about New York classical pianist-turned-teacher Seymour Bernstein (jewishindependent.ca/ hard-earned-wisdom); Iris, about N.Y. fashion icon Iris Apfel; The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (jewishindependent.ca/enjoy-an-afternoon-movie-with-jsa-vjfc); Rosenwald, about Sears chief executive officer and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald; and Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict are all worth seeking out on Netflix or DVD.
I note in passing that Michael Moore invoked the Holocaust during a Berlin stopover in Where to Invade Next, while a Jewish grandmother popped up briefly in Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog.
In the world of fiction, Sarah Silverman won kudos for her dramatic performance as an addicted (non-Jewish) suburban housewife in I Smile Back, but Jonah Hill (as reporter Michael Finkel) and James Franco earned brickbats for True Story. Seth Rogen did his part to set Jewish-Christian relations back a century with a ludicrously unfunny scene in a church in The Night Before. (Presuming anyone in his stoned audience remembers.)
The titular female protagonist in the indie dramedy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is identified as Jewish by her name (Rachel Kushner) and a menorah on the living room table – and that’s all.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (jewishindependent.ca/the-three-trials-of-gett), Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s blistering courtroom finale to their trilogy about a frustrated Sephardi wife and her family, was the most successful Israeli release of the year in the United States. Eran Riklis’ warm and witty A Borrowed Identity, adapted from Sayed Kashua’s memoir and now on Netflix, deserved a wider audience (jewishindependent.ca/dancing-arabs-screens), as did Nadav Lapid’s austere and unsettling The Kindergarten Teacher (jewishindependent.ca/small-sample-of-viff).
Arthouse movie-goers turned out for Christian Petzold’s restrained German thriller Phoenix, starring Nina Hoss as a survivor looking for her husband in postwar Berlin. Another German film, Labyrinth of Lies, inspired by the prosecutors who pierced the late-1950s veneer of secrecy, ignorance and denial and revealed the truth about Nazi war crimes, didn’t sell many tickets but did make the Oscar shortlist for foreign language film.
We lost several giants in 2015, notably the gifted performers and tireless social activists Theodore Bikel and Leonard Nimoy. Documentary master Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Iris) was 88 and Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Bound for Glory) was 94.
Lia Van Leer, a Romanian émigré who founded the Jerusalem Cinémathèque (including the Israel Film Archive) and the Jerusalem Film Festival, and was so instrumental in the development and quality of the country’s movie output that she was dubbed the queen of Israeli cinema, was 90.
Pioneering Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman) left us, along with indie filmmaker Richard Glatzer (Still Alice) and documentary maker Bruce Sinofsky (Brother’s Keeper). Gene Saks, who directed many of the hit plays and movies penned by Neil Simon, was 93.
The marvelous actors Ron Moody (The Twelve Chairs) and Anne Meara (who converted to Judaism before she married Jerry Stiller in 1954) also passed away in 2015. So did Omar Sharif, the Egyptian leading man who was vilified at home for playing Jewish gambler Nicky Arnstein opposite Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. In his memory, and as an antidote to the ongoing political discord, seek out a copy of Monsieur Ibrahim (2003), the poignant story of the friendship between a Jewish teenager and a Muslim shop owner (Sharif) in late-1950s Paris.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.