What should you watch at the Jerusalem Film Festival?

What are the best films to see and what are the ways to see the films you want?

 A SCENE from ‘Past Lives.’  (photo credit: JERUSALEM FILM FESTIVAL)
A SCENE from ‘Past Lives.’

The 40th Jerusalem Film Festival, which will run from July 13-23 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and other venues around the city (including, for the first time, the Museum of Tolerance), offers a great treat for movie lovers: 200 movies from 45 countries in just 10 days. 

The question, as always, is how do you choose what to watch? 

There are different theories around “how to festival,” and what I recommend is seeing different types of movies. It’s always a good plan to balance serious dramas with lighter fare and to mix the latest movies with some rarely seen classics, and movies by veteran directors with those by newcomers. For those who love Israeli cinema, it’s a great chance to see some of the latest movies made here before they hit theaters. 

The opening night movie, Golda, by Guy Nattiv, which will be shown at the Sultan’s Pool amphitheater, features Helen Mirren giving a great performance in a story that shows Golda Meir coping with the toughest crisis she ever faced, the Yom Kippur War. The festival will close with Anatomy of a Fall by Justine Triet, a courtroom drama that won Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. 

Another highlight this year will be an outdoor screening of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, in an event featuring live musical accompaniment by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

 SASSON GABY in ‘My Daughter, My Love’  (credit: DANIEL MILLER)
SASSON GABY in ‘My Daughter, My Love’ (credit: DANIEL MILLER)

There are more classics showing at the festival than ever this year. As part of a program celebrating the festival’s 40-year anniversary, the Jerusalem Cinematheque has been showing 40 films, one from each previous festival, for several months, and is presenting a selection of these at the festival. These include Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, the 1984 epic about Jewish gangsters in New York, with music by the great Ennio Morricone. It stars Robert De Niro, James Woods, and Jennifer Connelly. Fun fact: it was produced by one of the star witnesses in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, Arnon Milchan. 

More Artsy films 

Interested in something a bit more artsy? Try Orlando, Sally Potter’s 1992, gender-bending, genre-bending film starring Tilda Swinton as a young nobleman commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to stay forever young. Another option in the classics section is Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film, Stranger Than Paradise, a laid-back, black-and-white celebration of American hipsters, which jumpstarted the whole American indie film movement. 

Film festival movies tend to be on the somber side, so keep that in mind when choosing what to see. A cynical friend once told me that the description of a typical film festival movie would be, “After X happens, people in a miserable small town located in [fill in the name of the country] become more miserable.” That’s a little harsh, but if you are looking for something on the light side, you might want to try Molly Mann Walker’s How to Have Sex, a movie about three hard-partying British teens on vacation that won the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, and which is in the International Competition here. Also in this competition, Anthony Shim’s Riceboy Sleeps continues the trend of movies about Korean immigrants to North America, with the story of a single mother and her son. 

One of the veteran directors whose latest film will be shown in the Masters Section of the festival is Nanni Moretti, best known for his drama about a grieving family, The Son’s Room. The director, who often acts in his films, knows how to make you care about his characters. His latest, A Brighter Tomorrow, tells the story of a director struggling with tensions in his family as he makes a movie about feuds in the Italian Communist Party in the 1950s. Based on the light touch he showed with serious issues in his other movies and the response this film got at Cannes, this is one of the movies I am looking forward to most this year. Also in the Masters Section, Ira Sachs’ latest film, Passages, focuses on tensions between a gay couple in Paris and stars Ben Wishaw and Franz Rogowski.

Past Lives by Celine Song is another movie that has gotten great buzz following showings at Berlin and the Sundance Film. It tells the story of a romance between two children that is rekindled when they meet as adults in America.

There will be tributes to several of the festival guests. Oliver Stone has turned out to be a controversial honoree due to support he has expressed for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and statements he has made about Jewish influence in the US and the Holocaust, but there will be a program of some of his best-loved films, among them Platoon and Natural Born Killers. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian directing duo, will present a number of their arthouse favorite films, including last year’s Tori and Lokita, and The Child, Rosetta, and The Son. Their movies look at the pressure a cruel world puts on individuals and shows how people sometimes find redemption in love. Marion Cotillard stars in what is arguably their most accessible film, Two Days, One Night, about a mentally fragile woman who must convince her co-workers to give up a bonus so she can keep her job. All their films feature unforgettably vivid storytelling.

The Haggiag Competition for Israeli Feature Films is probably the most anticipated of all the sections of the festival. This year there will be a total of nine films taking part (back to pre-pandemic levels). I saw Asaf Saban’s Delegation, a drama about a high-school trip to Auschwitz when it had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival this year. I was especially impressed by Ezra Dagan’s performance as the survivor grandfather of one of the students, who can’t fit into the neat victim mold laid out for him by the organizers. 

Noam Kaplan’s The Future, about a criminal profiler, who thinks she has developed a model to predict terror attacks, and her relationship with a young Arab prisoner, just had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Kaplan made a wonderful feature film, Manpower, about Israelis and foreign workers in Tel Aviv a few years ago that was both thought-provoking and funny. 

The Taste of Apples is Red, another entry in the Haggiag Competition is one of very few films about the Druze community ever made, which is intriguing. Directed by Ehab Tarabieh, it tells the story of a sheikh whose brother returns to their village after many years abroad, and it stars Makram Khoury, one of Israel’s best actors and a winner of the Israel Prize. 

Sasson Gabay is one of Israel’s most popular actors and he stars in Eitan Green’s latest film, My Daughter, My Love, about a widower who reconnects with his daughter in Paris. 

As is usually the case, the Diamond Competition for Israeli Documentaries is an embarrassment of riches and the judges will likely have a hard time voting this year. Among the varied films are Henya Brodbeker’s The Three of Us, about an Orthodox couple trying to find the best way to raise their autistic child. Avida Livny’s Murder of a Land Dealer looks into the mystery of an Arab killed after selling land bought from Arabs, to Jews. I’m especially looking forward to Assaf Lapid’s Return from the Other Planet, the story of an Auschwitz survivor who wrote novels such as House of Dolls about brothels at Auschwitz under a pseudonym and whose work spawned a genre of controversial pulp fiction.

For the full program and details of the special events, go to the festival website at https://jff.org.il/en