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Chosen Films

Five best Jewish moments in movies of 2014

From particle physics to cheerfully idiotic action pictures, this blockbuster year also includes an Oscar nod

2014 was the year of Scarlett Johansson. Here, she's devastatingly intelligent in the action film 'Lucy.' (Universal Pictures)
2014 was the year of Scarlett Johansson. Here, she's devastatingly intelligent in the action film 'Lucy.' (Universal Pictures)

As the Gregorian Calendar readies to end, it is time to look back at the year’s cinematic output and determine, with authority, what were the Five Best Jewish Moments In Movies.

Alas, not every year can be as great as 2013 in which CIA bigshots shouted “Go to Israel!” (“World War Z”) and a nice Jewish doctor played by Natalie Portman slapped her Space Goy boyfriend and said “you didn’t call!” (“Thor: The Dark World”). Still, we had some victories. And, for better or worse, I’m leaving both “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Noah” out of it.

But before we get to the list, we must award Special Jury Prize to the most disruptive Jews in class, which would be Seth Rogen, his writing/directing partner Evan Goldberg and their handsome chum James Franco. These three caused an unprecedented fuss with their entertaining-though-idiotic picture “The Interview.” So much so that even the President of The United States (!) had to interrupt his Hawaii vacation to excuse them from detention.

The impish silliness of “The Interview” isn’t explicitly Jewish — save for one moment. James Franco (whose mother is Jewish) wants to prevent Seth Rogen (whose ancestors back to the primordial swamp were as Jewish as Tevye) from touching Kim Jong-un. “Don’t shake his hand!” Franco shouts to the Supreme Leader, played quite amusingly by Randall Park. “Why not?” he asks. “Because Aaron’s a Jew…”

“Ew, gross,” the murderous dictator of North Korea responds.

Okay, it may not seem funny the way I type it out, but it works better when you see it.

5 – David E. Kaplan Plays Ping-Pong With The Universe

My favorite documentary of 2014 was “Particle Fever,” an insightful (and humanistic) look at theoretical physics and the (not theoretical) work being done with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Before watching this movie all I knew about the LHC was that it was a giant tube in Switzerland that will one day kill us all with a Black Hole. It’s still going to do that, but before it does we’ll have made great strides in understanding the fabric of our spatial universe.

'Particle Fever,' an insightful (and humanistic) look at theoretical physics and the (not theoretical) work being done with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. (courtesy Bond)
‘Particle Fever,’ an insightful (and humanistic) look at theoretical physics and the (not theoretical) work being done with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. (courtesy Bond)

The heart of the picture (and one of its producers) is Johns Hopkins University professor David E. Kaplan. He’s like the cool, smart older cousin who wants to turn you on to great old records you never heard – but in this case it isn’t Jethro Tull, it’s particle physics. He represents a theory known as “supersymmetry,” but his chum, the Princeton-based longhair Nima Arkani-Hamed, is boosting the “multiverse” theory.

While the pair wait for the engineers in Europe to finish tinkering with their giant beam, they walk the grounds of the Institute of Advanced Study schmoozing, but take a moment from indecipherable equations for a game of table tennis. Kaplan (whom I interviewed earlier this year) is a strong contender for coolest Jew of the year.

4 – Jenny Slate is the Menorah On Top

Comedian Jenny Slate never quite popped during her one season on Saturday Night Live, but she conquered the world of indie film this year in “Obvious Child.” By the film’s two minute mark she’s already referred to herself as a “bagel salesgirl” and, later, when she starts dating a gentile (“he’s so Christian it’s like he knows Santa personally!”) she compares their relationship to a Christmas tree with a menorah on top.

'Obvious Child' is a somewhat raunchy but extremely funny look at 21st Century dating in Brooklyn. (courtesy A24)
‘Obvious Child’ is a somewhat raunchy but extremely funny look at 21st Century dating in Brooklyn. (courtesy A24)

“Obvious Child” is a somewhat raunchy but extremely funny look at 21st Century dating in Brooklyn (where else?) but has some serious issues at play, too. The “ticking clock” is the waiting period before Slate can get an abortion for her unwanted pregnancy after a one night stand. But what happens when she starts liking the guy who put her in a family way? It’s a somewhat topsy-turvey romance, but tender, especially during a heart-to-heart with her mother who discusses her own terminated pregnancy. What sets “Obvious Child” apart from typical romantic comedies is its roving, questioning (and very Jewish) spirit.

3 – Aunt May’s Laundry

We already landed the scoop from Spider-Man producer Avi Arad that Peter Parker and his family are “shtetl Jews” so how did that play out in the latest installment, “Amazing Spider-Man 2”?

Well, apart from Peter being such a smart boy at science and math, he’s also so nice to his Aunt. He doesn’t even want her fussing over his laundry. Sure, he’s hiding his superpowered alter ego in that hamper, but, also, I think he’d like for her to put her feet up, relax and do a Sudoku or something.

2 – Ida’s Identity

The Polish language film “Ida” is atop many critics’ best of the year polls and it is on the shortlist for a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. (And since Israel’s selection, “Gett,” didn’t make it past the first round, it’s an absolute shonda if it doesn’t win.)

The Polish language film 'Ida,' the story of a young woman on the verge of becoming a nun who discovers she is Jewish, is atop many critics' best of the year polls. (courtsey Music Box Films)
The Polish language film ‘Ida,’ the story of a young woman on the verge of becoming a nun who discovers she is Jewish, is atop many critics’ best of the year polls. (courtsey Music Box Films)

It’s a serious and beautiful film set in 1962, in which a young woman living in a convent and about to take her vows discovers that she is, in fact, Jewish. Her investigation into her past leads to tragedy and enlightenment, and also introduces us to her aunt, the former Partisan Red Wanda, one of the most fascinating film characters in years. (Read my interview with director Pawel Pawlikowski from late April.)

1 – ScarJo Uses Her Noggin

2014 was the year of Scarlett Johansson. Not only did her SodaStream ad bubble up all over the Internet, she appeared in four terrific movies. (Five, if you want to count “Her” which didn’t come out until late December 2013.)

Scarlett Johansson in SodaStream's Superbowl ad (screen capture: YouTube)
Scarlett Johansson in SodaStream’s Superbowl ad (screen capture: YouTube)

She was the supportive hostess/girlfriend in “Chef” and was back once more to beat up crypto-Nazi bad guys in “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” In the hallucinatory sci-fi mind-trip “Under the Skin,” which you absolutely have to see, she played a sexually voracious space alien leading men to their blissful doom. But let’s award her the top prize this year for her part in the dazzlingly designed and cheerfully idiotic action picture “Lucy.”

You see, in “Lucy,” ScarJo’s superpowers come when she’s “using her mind.” You can even track it on the screen. At 10% of her brain, she’s just a quick-witted damsel, but by 100% she’s transcending space and time and collapsing her consciousness (which fuses with all potential thought!) into a singularity.

Hey, maybe she’ll meet Professor David E. Kaplan there! I bet they’d be great friends.

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