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The 21 best Jewish movies of the decade

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With the rise of streaming platforms in the 2010s, niche films that wouldn’t normally get a wide release – foreign movies, documentaries, religious examinations, among others – are now easily accessible. This has been a boon for Jewish filmmakers, whose work can now move from indie festivals to Netflix in just a few months.

But contemporary Jewish film is much more diverse than just documentaries and Israeli dramas. When reflecting on the best Jewish films of the decade, we wanted to balance art-house hits with mainstream flicks, adding in as many as we could cram into these pages.

Each movie had to meet two simple requirements. First, they needed distinctly Jewish themes that were central to the plot. (Simply having a Jewish director or characters wasn’t good enough.)

Second, they had to be great – fun, fascinating and engaging on a level that extends beyond their Jewish milieu. Non-Jews should love these films, but at the same time, the stories will resonate more deeply with Jewish audiences. We hope you agree.

One of Us (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2017): This documentary, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now available on Netflix, captures the dark side of Orthodox Jewish life. It explores the lives of three Jews whose decision to leave their religious community has deeply affected their personal lives. One of Us could have been a simplistic vilification of Hasidic Jews, but Ewing and Grady are smart filmmakers and superb interviewers who transform their exposé into a riveting portrait of courage. – Jordan Adler

Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz, 2017): With stunning absurdity and heart-wrenching performances, a simple story fuels this emotional roller coaster: an Israeli couple is informed that their son, a soldier, has died. But details come slowly and opaquely, as the film oozes with black comedy spliced between harrowing moments of drama. Foxtrot does not, generally speaking, portray the Israeli Defence Forces in a kind light. After it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival, Israel’s minister of culture denounced it as “the result of self-flagellation and co-operation with the anti-Israel narrative.” When the government attacks it, you know it’s good. – Michael Fraiman

Denial (Mick Jackson, 2016): Is it worth putting Holocaust deniers on trial? That’s the question Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt had to ask herself when denier David Irving sued her for libel. Lipstadt and her team knew that anything other than a decisive victory could open the door to validating deniers of all stripes, so they had to do whatever it took to ensure that victory – even if it meant preventing survivors from taking the stand. In her role as Lipstadt, Rachel Weisz perfectly captures the tensions and triumphs of the high-stakes trial. – Alex Rose

Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017): Like the peaches that Elio (Timothée Chalamet) devours daily, this fervid love story is delicate and sweet – yet also seasonal. This heartbreaking, timeless film, based on André Aciman’s beloved novel and written by a master scribe of love stories, James Ivory, takes place in northern Italy in the summer of 1983 and beautifully captures the passionate sexual awakening (and subsequent coming of age) of 17-year-old Elio. He’s entranced by graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer), whose brazen Jewishness matches the pride of his sexuality. – Leora Heilbronn

Leona (Isaac Cherem, 2018): If you haven’t seen this quiet Mexican film, which made the rounds at Jewish film festivals and is currently available on a highbrow streaming service called Kanopy, it’s worth seeking out. Lead actress Naian Gonzalez Norvind, who co-wrote the film, gives a pitch-perfect performance in subtlety as a young, naive, self-centred street artist whose life and romantic dreams don’t align with those of her tight-knit Jewish community. Many films have tackled the familial anxiety of interfaith relationships, but rarely do they feel as realistic and profound as this one. – MF

Policeman (Nadav Lapid, 2011): Before debates swirled around The Kindergarten Teacher (2014) and Synonyms (2019), Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid broke onto the international film scene with his equally fiery (and provocative) Policeman. The thriller jumps between the story of a boastful Israeli officer and a troupe of left-wing radicals planning a possibly perilous act. It’s an unnerving, multi-angled political critique that doubles as a tense and stylish introduction to one of Israel’s finest directors. – JA

Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019): With a new generation that’s susceptible to neo-Nazi propaganda, Holocaust awareness has evolved from a requisite part of Jewish education into an urgent societal need. The most effective education, however, is the kind that actually resonates with young people. Enter Taika Waititi, the irreverent Jewish-Maori writer and director who plays Hitler in this fantastical, hilarious coming-of-age story that juxtaposes the shattering of a young boy’s childhood with a crumbling Nazi regime. As the eponymous Jojo, Roman Griffin Davis steals the show with pathos, wit and innocence. – MF

Zero Motivation (Talya Lavie, 2015): This sly Israeli comedy brings the style and cringe content of a single-camera sitcom to the front lines of army life, following the agony and apathy of three women struggling to find purpose in office monotony during their administrative army service. The feature debut by writer and director Talya Lavie sizzles with deadpan wit, while confronting many social issues – such as sexism and harassment – that are frequently left out of war films. – JA

Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, 2019): Adam Sandler playing an adulterous, self-involved gambling addict schmuck of a man doesn’t sound like much of a stretch, but in the hands of the Safdie brothers, he’s finally portraying someone viewers can’t help but root for. Produced by Martin Scorsese and landing on Netflix in January (following a successful festival run this past fall), Uncut Gems takes place in New York’s diamond district as jewelry-store owner Howard Ratner (Sandler) keeps betting more and more money on everything from basketball games to an Ethiopian opal with questionable value. It’s an adrenaline rush of a film. – LH

A Film Unfinished (Yael Hersonski, 2010): An award-winner at the Hot Docs and Sundance film festivals, this Holocaust documentary examines the making of a Nazi propaganda film, Das Ghetto, that was never shown publicly but aimed to deceive the masses about what was happening behind the Warsaw Ghetto walls. A Film Unfinished is a fascinating documentary that’s elevated further by the presence of ghetto survivors. – JA

Incitement (Yaron Zilberman, 2019): Blending biopic drama with real historical footage, Incitement tells the story of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s final days from the perspective of his assassin, a radical Yemenite Jew named Yigal Amir. That we know the ending makes it all the more horrifying to watch real-life news clips of rabbis and extremists calling for Rabin’s death. Director Yaron Zilberman fairly portrays Amir with humanity – alienated, at times, by racism, classism and his religious fanaticism – and delivers a deeply researched, accurate portrayal of one of the most significant moments in Israeli history. – MF

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2015): A haunting blend of Hitchcockian themes and postwar malaise, Christian Petzold’s noir follows Nelly (Nina Hoss), a disfigured Holocaust survivor coming to terms with the feeling that her husband may have betrayed her to the Nazis. In this entrancing suspense-thriller, Hoss is a silent revelation as a woman aching to feel human again, while trying to adjust to a new face, a new Germany and a new life. – JA

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, 2017): This is not Noah Baumbach’s best film, but it is his most Jewish, and is an engrossing story in its own right. Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller, in sobering dramatic roles, play half-brothers under the patriarch of Dustin Hoffman, an aging sculpture artist whose work is being forgotten. Elizabeth Marvel plays their sister, whose revelatory private trauma predates the #MeToo movement with startling unease. The plot meanders as the family fights and argues, but the dialogue – both snappy and passive aggressive – will make any Jewish audience member cringe in empathy. – MF

Little White Lie (Lacey Schwartz, 2014): Many films explore Jewish identity, but few approach the intersection of Judaism and blackness as acutely as Little White Lie. This gem of a documentary, which is available on various streaming services and runs just 65 minutes, is best seen with as little knowledge of the story as possible. What you can expect, though, is a rich and surprising journey of self-discovery, filled with unforgettable characters and deep insights about what it means to be Jewish. – JA

Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, 2015): Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes and an Academy Award, Son of Saul is a claustrophobic view of Auschwitz from Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes. This haunting and unforgettable masterpiece closely follows 36 hours in the life of Saul (played by Orthodox Jewish actor Geza Roehrig), a Hungarian Jewish prisoner. There, among the gas chambers, he discovers a dead boy he believes to be his son. In a race against time and certain death, he tries to find a rabbi to perform a Jewish burial for the boy. – LH

Sand Storm (Elite Zexer, 2016): Few features focus on Israel’s Bedouin community, but Elite Zexer’s debut – a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 – is an especially good one. Zexer tackles the thorny relationship between a mother and her daughter, as the latter pines to move away from their village. Beyond its powerful critique of gender dynamics and first-rate performances, the drama is textured with the rituals of Bedouin life, while offering subtle twists on the conventional tale of agitated teens with stern parents. – JA

Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz, 2014): How much drama can one extract from a tiny rabbinical court in Israel? A ton, apparently. Mostly confined to that one setting, the film chronicles the title character’s journey to be granted a divorce. But that’s easier said than done. This protracted legal drama is, in fact, a compelling and darkly funny dive into Israel’s judicial patriarchy. In her final big screen role before her death in 2016, Ronit Elkabetz gives a searing performance that cemented her place in Israeli cinematic history. – JA

Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, 2014): Six compelling vignettes comprise this feature-length film, and not all are Jewish-themed – but the best one is. It’s a jaw-dropping wedding scene about a couple rocked by the husband’s infidelity. Frenzied and kinetic, swirling with hatred, envy, love and lust, the finale gushes with Latin emotion and Jewish anxiety. Directed by Argentine Jew Damian Szifron, Wild Tales became the most successful film in Argentinian history – and for good reason. – MF

1945 (Ferenc Torok, 2017): This gripping drama – a hit at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which it opened – feels both solemn and brisk. When two Orthodox Jews, a father and his young adult son, arrive in a small Hungarian town carrying a mysterious trunk, nearby villagers are naturally suspicious. Set weeks after the end of the Second World War and shot in stark black and white, 1945 is an engaging, endlessly surprising slow burn. – JA

Footnote (Joseph Cedar, 2011): Brimming with dry Jewish humour and absurdist comedy set pieces that would make Larry David envious, Footnote is an intelligent gem. Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) and his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) are both professors of Talmud at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When Uriel wins a prestigious scholarly prize instead of his father, long-festering jealousy and wounded pride threaten to upend their familial bond. You’ll never look at talmudic scholars the same way again. – LH

P.S. Jerusalem (Danae Elon, 2015): This poignant documentary fuses the personal and political. Director Danae Elon returns to her Israeli hometown after years abroad. Unsurprisingly, moving to Israel with her husband and sons turns out to be both gruelling and illuminating. Elon dares to point her camera at her family members, capturing their conflicted reactions to living in the Middle East, while also reflecting upon her Jewish and Israeli identity. – JA

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