It is an understatement to say that 2021 was not the easiest year for movie going. In Israel, most theaters were shuttered until late May due to the pandemic and distributors were hesitant to release movies, afraid that there would be another lockdown or enough of an increase in cases to dissuade audiences. Parents who wanted to take children to the movies had a particularly tough time, having to commit to testing their children before heading for the theater. Many chose to stay home and nobody could blame them.
Blockbusters, especially superhero and comic-book-based films, were the genre that dominated theaters as many lower-profile movies went unreleased. During two periods of relative normalcy, the Jerusalem Film Festival and the Haifa International Film Festival took place and I was able to see a number of terrific movies that are likely to be nominated for Oscars but still do not have a release date here.
Among those that I most enjoyed were Flee, a Danish animated documentary – clearly inspired by Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir – by Jonas Poher Rasmussen that is expected to be nominated for Oscars in both the Best International Feature and Best Documentary categories. It is about a young Afghan refugee who tries to make it to Europe, and it tells more than a thousand articles about what is happening in Afghanistan now and the difficulties asylum seekers and migrants face.
The Worst Person in the World, a movie by Norwegian director Joachim Trier, is an engaging dramedy about a 20-something woman confused by all her choices. Compartment No. 6 is a Russian/Finnish road movie, about an unlikely friendship between two strangers on a train. Look out for those when they open here in 2022 – if all goes well.
Ideally, there would be a 10-Best List of Israeli movies and another one from abroad, but there just weren’t enough movies released this year to do this, so here is the 10 best of what played in Israel and some of these movies are also available on streaming services as well as having been shown in theaters.
A final note: I worked as a script editor on Eytan Fox’s Sublet, which is now playing on the Yes Israeli Movie Channel and which played in theaters all over Israel and the US this year. While I am obviously not objective about the film, The Hollywood Reporter just named it as one of their “10 Underseen Gems of 2021.”
- Image of Victory – Avi Nesher’s movie was released just last week and it is unquestionably the film of the year. A fact-based drama about the War of Independence, seen from the points of view of young Jews in a kibbutz near the Egyptian border and a director from Cairo embedded with Egyptian troops, the movie is the culmination of Nesher’s more than 40-year career. It’s an antiwar epic that acknowledges war’s realities and mixes comedy, romance and politics in a movie that is gripping and heartbreaking. I predict it will join Nesher’s first film, The Troupe, as an Israeli classic that will be watched by entire families every year on Independence Day.
- Don’t Look Up – A very, very dark comedy by Adam McKay who skewered the 2008 financial crisis and the career of Dick Cheney in previous films, this movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as two astronomers who are the first people to realize a planet-destroying comet is headed toward earth. Their struggle to get a world that is scrolling through Instagram to take their discovery seriously is hilarious and very scary when you think about it. It also stars Meryl Streep as the US president and Mark Rylance as Carl Sagan-like billionaire entrepreneur whose decisions may bring an end to human history.
- The French Dispatch – You either love Wes Anderson’s movies or you hate them, and his fans will enjoy his latest, a love letter to print journalism about the foibles of the staff of a New Yorker-like American expat newspaper in France.
- Minari – Steve Yeun, who was always the best thing about The Walking Dead, gives a quietly compelling performance in this story of a Korean family trying to make it in America in the 80s, which was directed by Lee Isaac Chung. It features a show-stopping turn by Yuh-Jung Youn as a not-very-traditional grandmother, who won an Oscar.
- Shiva Baby – It would never have occurred to me that Rachel Sennott, the actress who plays the troubled 20-something in this movie by Emma Seligman, was not Jewish if all those articles about gentiles playing Jews had not mentioned it. This movie combines a comic premise with a horror-movie score in one of the quirkiest, funniest movies of the year.
- Respect – Jennifer Hudson gives a credible performance as Aretha Franklin in a movie that is eerily similar to Genius, the National Geographic series about the Queen of Soul. Marc Maron is great fun as producer Jerry Wexler and Forest Whitaker does a good job as her charming, but often, manipulative preacher father. The real star here is Franklin’s life story and her music and this movie tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the diva.
- Asia – Shira Haas and Alena Yiv give wonderful performances as an ailing teen and a single mother from Russia respectively in this slice-of-life drama by Ruthy Pribar. In spite of the pandemic, it won nearly 20 awards around the world, including Best Actress for Haas at the Tribeca Film Festival.
- West Side Story – Some have hailed the new West Side Story as the greatest movie of Steven Spielberg’s career, while others have found it a flawed and superfluous remake. I fall somewhere in between the two camps; I missed the Jerome Robbins choreography in the opening and nothing in it can compare to Rita Moreno singing America in the original. But a grittier West Side Story makes some sense and Rachel Zegler, an unknown who got her big break when Spielberg cast her as Maria, is a lovely screen presence and credible as a young Puerto Rican teen in a way that Natalie Wood, a movie star who didn’t sing her own songs, just couldn’t be.
- The Perfect Candidate – A young Saudi Arabian doctor gets angry at bureaucratic bungling and decides to run for public office, but the twist is that the doctor is a woman and her candidacy creates all kinds of risks for her and breaks many barriers. It is a well-made film by Haifaa al-Mansour, one of the few directors managing to work in Saudi Arabia, and stars Mila Al Zahrani as the doctor who refuses to accept a traditional woman’s role.
- Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis – Normally, I don’t include short films on this list, but this one is so good I decided to break the tradition. The movie, by Israeli directors Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan, is a partly animated documentary (currently available on Netflix), which was just shortlisted for the Best Documentary (Short Subject) Oscar. It tells a true story that defies all logic about young German-Jewish refugees, pressed into service in the US military at a kind of luxury compound for high-ranking Nazi scientists, among them Wernher von Braun, near Washington, DC.