This week The Times of Israel Podcast asked our New York-based film writer Jordan Hoffman to speak about a few of his favorite things that came out in 2020. The following is his list, which accompanies our fun, chatty episode.
NEW YORK — If I had to summarize 2020 in a single phrase, I’d choose an old reliable: oy vey iz mir.
The coronavirus, the immature politicians, and the elevated cholesterol levels (I’m assuming you spent five straight months eating blondies, too) made it some rough going. Covering the entertainment field was a bit of a challenge, with release dates constantly shifting and most movie theaters shut down. Limited festival screenings still happened, and I championed relevant movies wherever I could, but it always felt weird to say “during this brief window of time, so long as you aren’t geoblocked, you can rent this movie on your laptop.” Normalcy can’t come soon enough.
There was a stretch in April and May in New York where the COVID fatalities were so numerous that the only thing I could focus on were old Grateful Dead concerts on YouTube. We all cope in our own ways. So if my “best Jewish entertainment” picks have some unexpected choices, well, this was an unusual year. (This is my way of explaining the lack of “Unorthodox” on this list. I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Do not judge me, and I shall not judge you.)
With that, let’s look back, not just at the top 10 in Jewish movies and shows, but some books and music, too. There are no rules for 2020.
11. “An American Pickle”
Clearly, a Jewish top 10 should have 11, right? The Yiddish time traveling Seth Rogen-led comedy “An American Pickle” wasn’t quite the slam dunk I was expecting (more half-sour than full) but this silly little movie brims with warmth. The magical realist saga of a turn-of-the-century shtetl Jew thrust into in modern Brooklyn gets a little sidetracked by social media satire that doesn’t quite land, but then it comes around with an unexpected emotional conclusion. What’s more salty, the brine that pickles our lead character for a century, or the tears welling up in your eyes?
10. “High Maintenance, Soup”
The HBO series “High Maintenance” is a bold exercise in pointillist filmmaking, introducing a snapshot of new characters each week, the only connection being their “connection,” e.g. The Guy who delivers them pot. The last episode of this season — and possibly the series — takes a rare look at the seldom spotlit central character, snowed in on Christmas Eve with his niece. The two have a charming, lo-fi Hanukkah, singing the blessing over the candles in a familiar, tune-resistant key. (Show co-creator and star Ben Sinclair’s mother is a cantor, making this even funnier.) As with everything on this show, it is both funny and downbeat, but seeing some of New York’s most effortlessly cool characters recharge with Jewish rituals is quite touching.
9. Leigh Stein, “Self Care”
There are no shortage of books about people working in “new media” getting in over their heads, but few are as consistently funny — and painfully real — as this one. Stein, whose prose is laugh-out-loud clever, creates sympathetic characters, but is also brutal with them when they screw up, which is often.
This satire of girl bosses, Instagram feminism, and the wellness-industrial-complex will hopefully feel dated once Trump is far in our rear-view and people wise up and stop tweeting, but for now the struggles of Maren Gelb, whose intentions were always good before success got in her way, still offer some valuable life lessons.
8. “Spaceship Earth”
There isn’t much that is explicitly Jewish in this documentary (unless you want to go a whole Old Testament Genesis route) but this look back at the early ‘90s go-live-in-a-bio-dome “Biosphere 2” experiment is one of the best movies of the year. The sharp Jewish filmmaker Matt Wolf has made four feature length films (and many shorts) in which he sinks his teeth into a cache of pre-existing footage to explore, as he terms it, hidden histories. At first the “biospherians” just look like attention-seeking nuts, but their story of scientific and environmental activism is weirdly inspiring. Half hippies, half raging capitalists, and always with an eye toward design, the humans of “Spaceship Earth” are a testament to people who “don’t dream it, be it.”
7. “Harley Quinn”
There are a lot of animated superhero shows out there, so it took me a while to get on board with this one. This is less “Teen Titans” and more “Rick and Morty,” an explosively witty riff on the DC Comics Universe. It is astoundingly foul-mouthed and violent, but somehow, through some sort of metahuman trickery, it manages to be sweet. Two of the three show creators are Jewish, and though the specifics are hazy, most comic book fans have interpreted Dr. Harlene Quinzel (the psychiatrist turned psycho heroine) to be a Jewish character. More importantly, the show is just drenched in schtick. An early episode features a huge showdown at a bar mitzvah, and then there’s the robo-enhanced evil landlord voiced by Jason Alexander named Sy Borgman. This show has it all!
6. “The Plot Against America”
David Simon’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate reality novel is a rich, complex and engrossing story of a Jewish family adjusting in real time to the fabric of society getting ripped out from under their feet. As war breaks out in Europe, an isolationist and not-entirely-anti-Nazi Charles Lindbergh ends up in the White House. Thinly-veiled anti-Semitic social programs (under the cover of helpful assimilation) start tearing communities apart. Roth uses familiar touchstones to his other memoir-fiction works, but envisions a childhood where animosity and creeping fascism is around every corner.
5. Haim, “Women in Music Pt. III”
All hail the third album by the triple-shot of naches (tough word to translate, but let’s say it’s Yiddish for “pride”) that is Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim. Though delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, the wait was worth it, as this is their most experimental and groundbreaking work yet. Blending a kitchen sink attitude of pop, rock, funk, folk, electronica, and other genres, the catchy tunes are paired with more serious subject matter like illness and institutional misogyny. The cover was shot at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, and the four associated videos were directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose longtime companion is half-Jewish actress Maya Rudolf. Warning: you play some of these songs you run the risk of having them echo in your head all day.
4. Rebecca Zlotowski, “An Easy Girl”
The French-Jewish director Rebecca Zlotowski continues her peerless streak of making magical, sensual films. “An Easy Girl,” has one foot in reality, focusing on a 16-year old working class girl as her gorgeous older cousin breezes in from Paris to the vacation setting in Cannes. Zlotowski plays with the push-pull of adulthood and difficult decisions, never passing judgement, but always with a fine eye for detail. Not everyone’s first relationships involve million dollar yachts, but that’s what the movies are for. Without losing focus of the drama, Zlotowski indulges in beauty, pleasure, and fun because that’s what turning a corner in life feels like — or at least it should.
3. Woody Allen, “Apropos of Nothing”
Woody Allen, age 85, is such a foundational Jewish character that we sometimes forget he is an actual human being. His long awaited memoir is a story told in simple language, directly from him to you. With a “well, since you asked” attitude he starts at the beginning, with barbed descriptions of his low-life father and unappealing mother. His childhood is a collection of obsessions (mainly magic tricks and New Orleans jazz) until suddenly he’s a highly sought-after screenwriter. Packing in a minimum of three jokes per paragraph, he barrels through his career and personal life, pulling few punches and dispelling some myths. (The late night poker with Hollywood titans on the set “Casino Royale” make the mind reel.) An extended section dedicated to his current Josef K.-like persecution is addressed with honesty. No, he’s not happy being a pariah based on 25-year-old accusations that prosecutors declined to pursue (and for which he was never charged) but one gets the sense that if it wasn’t this, there’d be something else to cause just as much tsuris. Even if you don’t like the guy, you have to respect the writing. This is the funniest book of the year.
2. Bob Dylan, “Rough and Rowdy Ways”
Bob Dylan’s first album of original material since winning a Nobel Prize in Literature was every bit the event fans wanted it to be. Eleven tracks totaling 70 minutes, Dylan’s ghostlike voice and evocative lyrics dances just on the side of “wait, is he kidding?” The opening track, “I Contain Multitudes,” replete with echoey steel guitars crying all over the place, has couplets like “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones/And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones.” This is strange music that is equal parts triumphant and melancholy. In this very heavy year, it also felt important, even if it was difficult to express just why. There’s a nine-minute song about a pirate that for whatever reason reduces me to a puddle of tears, but, as with some of the best art, it would be fruitless and foolish to try to explain it.
1. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
A little less respectable than Bob Dylan, perhaps, but also highly anticipated was the return of Borat Sagdiyev. Sacha Baron Cohen’s unusual and unsubtle tool for disarming ignorance, Kazakhstan’s finest reporter returned to the scene and, like any disruptive class clown, he caused an absolute mess. It took about 30 minutes from the press’s first look for the headlines to appear about the great prankster catching Rudy Giuliani in a compromising position. (Forget what his hands were doing down his pants – he outright declared that “China manufactured the virus.”) In addition to roasting America’s Mayor, Cohen weaponized Borat’s stone age attitudes toward women and Jews in important ways, particularly taking aim at giant tech companies like Facebook who profit off of Holocaust denial. Some might find Borat’s scorched earth methods crude, but the scene at the synagogue where he enters covered in anti-Semitic tropes but exits with a hug from a kind Holocaust survivor and educator is the happy ending this year so desperately needed.