Top 10 Israeli movies of the decade, and the 10 best movies of 2019

The last decade was great for Israeli cinema

A SCENE from ‘In Between.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
A SCENE from ‘In Between.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The past decade was a bumpy one for movies in general – dominated by superhero movies created by giant corporations while well-written, character-driven stories moved to the small screen – but a great one for Israeli cinema. More Israeli films than ever won critical acclaim both abroad and at home, were released around the world, and perhaps most important, connected with domestic audiences and became as diverse as Israeli society as a whole.
When Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation, a comedy about miserable female soldiers, was released in 2014, it won the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It was also the biggest moneymaker domestically in Israel, drawing more audiences (many of whom saw it multiple times) than any Hollywood blockbuster. It also marked the emergence of several female directors who shook up the movie industry with films so good no one could ignore them.
In addition to Lavie, these included other newcomers such as Maysaloun Hamoud, Elite Zexer, Alamork Davidian, Maha Haj, Rama Burshtein and other women from very diverse backgrounds who told stories no one had ever seen on film before. Ronit Elkabetz, Israel’s leading actress, who also directed three brilliant movies based on her Moroccan family, died too young in 2016.
Two Israeli filmmakers who seemed poised to dominate the decade chose to spend a significant part of it abroad. Joseph Cedar made only one Israeli film, Footnote, during this decade. He did make an American film, Norman, starring Richard Gere, which was concerned with a New York hustler’s relationship with an Israeli prime minister. Then, like many, he turned to the small screen to make a television miniseries, the HBO/Keshet production Our Boys.
Ari Folman, whose striking animated 2008 documentary about the first Lebanon War, Waltz with Bashir, was a huge hit both at home and abroad, made a second live-action, animated hybrid, The Congress, in the US that starred Robin Wright. He is currently working on an animated film about Anne Frank that does not yet have a release date.
The absence of these two filmmakers was offset by a quartet of extraordinary films by Avi NesherThe Matchmaker, The Wonders, Past Life and The Other Story – who did his Hollywood walkabout in the ‘80s and ‘90s and returned to Israel early in the 21st century. These films were quirky, moving, funny and told stories about young people’s coming-of-age journeys, religious awakenings, Holocaust secrets and family dramas that all had some factual basis. Interestingly, none of the four is set in Tel Aviv, which had always been the capital of the Israeli film industry. This represents a shift in the focus of Israeli filmmaking, in which more stories set in Jerusalem (thanks in large part to the newly established Jerusalem Film Fund) and in the periphery of country were told on screen.
This year, the film industry seems to have become more polarized than at any time in the past 20 years, between serious art-house films that typical audiences will find it excruciating to sit through, such as Yaron Shani’s Love Trilogy films and Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms (which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival), and popular, sentimental films, mostly comedies, such as Maktub and Forgiveness by Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon. More worrisome is the fact that while many directors have managed to make one or two good films, they go quiet after that, unable to continue to raise money and either go abroad or start working in television and advertising.
We’ll have to wait another 10 years to see which of them is able to keep on creating.
HERE ARE Israel’s 10 best of the decade:
1. The Matchmaker – Avi Nesher’s 2010 film was an unclassifiable mixture of drama and comedy that told a story about love, the Holocaust, a boy’s coming-of-age and seven dwarves who ran a movie theater. It marked Adir Miller’s brilliant debut as a serious actor.
2. Footnote – Joseph Cedar’s 2011 movie about a rivalry between father-and-son Talmud scholars was a unique Jerusalem story that connected with audiences around the world.
3. In Between – Maysaloun Hamoud’s 2016 movie told an audacious story about three female Arab roommates in Tel Aviv that showed their confidence and their conflicts, smashed stereotypes, but was also very entertaining.
4. Zero Motivation – Talya Lavie’s 2014 movie turned a story about depressed women soldiers into a comic epic of military malaise.
5. The Other Story – Avi Nesher’s most recent film tells the story of a troubled father-daughter relationship that weaves in religious conflict and a quirky tale of cults in the capital.
6. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem – The third and best in the trilogy of films by Ronit Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi about their Moroccan family, this one is set entirely inside the divorce courts and tells a gripping story about women’s powerlessness there.
7. The Wonders – Avi Nesher’s 2013 film looks at the clash between the hipster and religious cultures in Jerusalem.
8. Yossi – Eytan Fox’s 2012 sequel to Yossi & Jagger is about a gay doctor’s struggle to find redemption after a devastating loss.
9. Sand Storm – An incisive look at the Bedouin community by Elite Zexer, this 2016 film tells the story of how a mother copes when her husband takes a second wife.
10. Tel Aviv on Fire – Sameh Zoabi’s 2019 film is a funny and unpredictable look at a Palestinian soap-opera writer and an IDF officer who starts to dictate the soap’s storyline. The fact that it was Luxembourg’s official selection for Oscar consideration just sounds like a plot twist from the movie itself.
It’s no surprise that there are two Israeli movies on my international list this year of the best of 2019 (of movies that played in Israel during the past year):
1. Yesterday – Danny Boyle’s movie had a silly premise – the world forgets The Beatles, except for one struggling musician – but it managed to be a charming, romantic film.
2. Parasite – A darkly comic look at the dystopian present and income inequality in South Korea was strange and violent but always compelling.
3. Joker – When the hype fades, this will be remembered as a movie that eerily recreated the decadence and decay of New York City in the darkest days of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
4. Tel Aviv on Fire – See the Israeli end-of-the decade list, above.
5. Fig Tree – Alamork Davidian’s stunning debut film is a coming-of-age story about a Jewish girl in war-torn Ethiopia.
6. Can You Ever Forgive Me? – The true story of a literary scammer features an extraordinary performance by Melissa McCarthy as a woman at the end of her rope.
7. Booksmart – Olivia Wilde’s extraordinarily funny directorial debut tells the story of the revenge of two female nerds.
8. Us – Jordan Peele followed up his social-commentary-disguised-as-satire Get Out with the more violent and terrifying Us.
9. Skin – Israeli director Guy Nattiv went abroad to make this fact-based drama about a skinhead who repents, which has generated Oscar buzz for its star, Jamie Bell.
10. An Officer and a Spy – “Hate the jerk, love the work” – Roman Polanski’s tale of how Alfred Dreyfus was exonerated proves he is still one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, in spite of the scandal.