Chosen films

The five best Jewish moments in movies for 2013

How Members of the Tribe were represented on — and off — screen made for some of last year’s cinematic highs

Natalie Portman and Rene Russo in 'Thor' (photo credit: Walt Disney Company)
Natalie Portman and Rene Russo in 'Thor' (photo credit: Walt Disney Company)

NEW YORK — Not a lot of news out of Hollywood this past week, what with the end of the calendar year and all. Yours truly spent four hours trying to recapture his twenties at Madison Square Garden listening to the jam-based experimental funk-rock-fusion of two-fourths Jewish hippie band Phish. (Didn’t find my lost youth either, but did need to reach for my asthma inhaler after all that second-hand smoke.)

But before we dive into 2014 perhaps we have an opportunity to reflect on how Members of the Tribe were represented on screen. Let’s take one last look at the year that was with the Five Best Jewish Moments in Movies from 2013.

First, a recap of the movie getting all the Jewish buzz these days, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

A depraved and disgusting deep look into the maw of unfettered Capitalism, director Martin Scorsese and his amped-up camera pummel the senses for three straight hours. It is glorious filmmaking that will leave you rattled and depressed.

The movie is also extremely funny (in a gross way) and dazzles with its conspicuous consumption to the point that, with your guard down for a moment, you may find yourself seduced by convicted felon Jordan Belfort in his pursuit of greed. (Much of which is legal!)

Alas, like the greatest shonda of them all, Bernie Madoff, Belfort (on whose autobiography this film is based) is a member of the Hebraic faith. But this movie downplays that. (Leonardo DiCaprio lays a lot of things in this film, but not tefillin.)

Even so, coming in at number five on our list is Rob Reiner, with a small role in the big film.

#5 – Rob Reiner in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

The jury is still out on whether this film is ultimately damaging to Jewish PR. It is, however, an undeniably excellent work of art – a frenetically paced fever dream about the lure of wealth and its loosening of morals.

Rob Reiner on the phone in 'The Wolf of Wall Street' (photo credit: Paramount Pictures)
Rob Reiner on the phone in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (photo credit: Paramount Pictures)

The film plays down Belfort’s Jewish roots – that is until we meet his father, Max, played by Reiner. He is introduced as a lunatic, one who screams towards the heavens at the top of his voice whenever a phone rings (interrupting, say, his viewing of “The Equilizer”) but answers the receiver with a genteel, faux-British accent. It’s a weird moment that has more than a hint of truth to it.

#4 – Natalie Portman in ‘Thor: The Dark World’

The brilliant astrophysicist portrayed by Jerusalem-born Portman has her head in gravitational fields, but her heart is with the musclebound blonde hammer-swinger of Asgard, Thor. His father, Odin, doesn’t approve of their relationship.

It’s a mixed marriage, you see – she’s mortal, he’s a god. But when she visits the ethereal realm of golden cities and rainbow bridges, she does the smart thing: she immediately goes in and makes nice with Thor’s mother, played by Rene Russo. Within moments they’re both wearing flowing robes and chatting with one another.

Of course it’s only a few moments until Malekith the Accursed Dark Elf of Svartalheim zooms in on an invisible spaceship to blow the place up. Still, the bond is formed.

#3 – Esther Stermer in ‘No Place On Earth’

On a much more serious note, 2013 brought us one of the more striking survival stories of the Shoah I’ve ever seen. A mix of recreation and documentary, “No Place On Earth” details the lives of Jews who hid in Ukrainian caves until the war was over.

'No Place on Earth' (photo credit: Magnolia Pictures)
‘No Place on Earth’ (photo credit: Magnolia Pictures)

They scavenged and persevered and overcame incredible odds. Among their leaders, a determined woman named Esther who knew no fear and protected her extended family.

The most emotional part of the film, for me, was seeing the nonagenarian Saul Stermer think back upon her actions, take a moment’s pause and say, only with joy, “Wow, what a mother.”

#2 – The Voice of the Jewish Mother in ‘Big Bad Wolves’

Annnnnd speaking of Jewish mothers, let’s stand up and cheer for the unexpected comedy that drops in the middle of the tense and dark interrogation police revenge drama “Big Bad Wolves.”

The cast of 'Big Bad Wolves' (photo credit: Magnolia Pictures)
The cast of ‘Big Bad Wolves’ (photo credit: Magnolia Pictures)

Just as the see-saw of audience sympathies is moving from captor to captured, the nagging-via-cell phone is the perfect way to take the tension out of the film’s doomed dungeon fraught with ethical dilemma and cinematic symbolism.

#1 — ‘Go To Israel!’ in ‘World War Z’

The battle-worn CIA man played by David Morse has but one piece of advice for Brad Pitt in this dopey-but-fun apocalypse blockbuster. “Go to Israel!” he intones from behind bars.

Brad Pitt in 'Israel' in 'World War Z' (photo credit: Paramount Pictures)
Brad Pitt in ‘Israel’ in ‘World War Z’ (photo credit: Paramount Pictures)

The Holy City’s readymade defenses (and crack intelligence) make it the only place on Earth truly secure from the ravenous hordes of undead flesh-eaters.

For about five minutes of screen time the Jewish State shimmers in Hollywood’s lens, the Israeli flag photographed as strong, virtuous and true. Of course, it’s only an instant until it all comes crumbling down – and in ironic fashion. The happy citizens and their singing act as bait to the enemies at the gate.

Currently in Theaters

American Hustle: Half-Jewish director David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”) delivers his slickest picture yet, a Scorsese-like treatment of the “Abscam” FBI sting of the early 1980s. Christian Bale stars as a sympathetic crook names Irving Rosenfeld. He wears a Star of David necklace, a fair amount of belly fat and an absurd toupee. After he and his cohort (Amy Adams) are nabbed for making fake bank loans, they are pressed into service by the FBI to take down corrupt politicians. This is a fun movie that’s also just smart enough – focusing on themes of identity and the allure of theft – to make it a must-see.

The Wolf of Wall Street: I was worried that Martin Scoresese’s newest picture would be Not Good For the Jews, but that was keeping my sights low. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is Not Good For Humanity.

Rob Reiner plays his shout-y old man and Jonah Hill (absolutely fantastic in his best film role) is his lascivious right-hand man. Another of his cronies wears a prominent Chai.

Maybe it’s just my admiration for Scorsese, but I give this movie a pass for perpetuation stereotypes. Even with Jonah Hill’s over-the-top buffoonery, it doesn’t come across as mean spirited about those people. If anyone should be offended it’s the Swiss.

Stories We Tell: The Canadian child actress-turned-teen-actress-turned-director Sarah Polley tries her hand at the personal essay film and delivers a rather accomplished and fascinating documentary. What begins as self-inquiry about her family (her mother died when she was quite young) turns into something quite extraordinary. The man she thought was her father turns out not to be – something she and her siblings always somehow knew without really knowing. “Stories We Tell” recreates the steps she took to meet her biological progenitor, who turns out to be a Jewish film producer from Montreal.

Saving Mr. Banks: The Walt Disney Company has produced a movie about how awesome the Walt Disney Company is. Emma Thompson is the sharply-tongued P.L. Travers, author of “Mary Poppins,” and Tom Hanks is Uncle Walt. Travers is a woman in emotional turmoil who needs a lot of “mansplaining” to convince her to sign over the rights to her book – and thus open her heart to growth or forgiveness or something.

'Saving Mr. Banks' (photo credit: courtesy the Walt Disney Company)
‘Saving Mr. Banks’ (photo credit: courtesy the Walt Disney Company)

Frankly, this movie is pretty vile and ought to enrage just about anyone who thinks about it too long. However, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, two of the finer Jewish character actors out there, are marvelous as the Sherman Brothers – the celebrated songwriting team in Disney’s factory. Their scenes are terrific.

Europa, Europa: Agnieszka Holland‘s remarkable film based on the true story of Shlomo Perel, a Jewish boy in Poland who survives the war by masquerading as a Hitler Youth. Co-starring a young Julie Delpy, “Europa, Europa” is a stranger-than-fiction look at identity and the Third Reich’s brainwashing methods of propaganda. Screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on January 6 at 19:00.

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