Best of the 21st Israel Film Festival
SPECIAL FOR FILMS FOR TWO®
by Alan Waldman
When the 21st annual Israel Film Festival arrives in New York (on February 23rd) and Miami (on March 22nd), it will include a number of outstanding films, a few average ones and a handful of stinkers. Last December,
FILMS FOR TWO sent me to cover the IFF in Los Angeles. I enjoyed quite a few of the new Israeli movies I saw there, so I’d like to shepherd you toward the good ‘uns and away from the time-wasters.
Over the past two decades, under the leadership of founder-director Meir Fenigstein, The Israel Film Festival has introduced more than 550 Israeli movies to an audience exceeding 700,000—in New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles. This year the festival will showcase more than 40 new features, documentaries, TV dramas and student films—including several Israeli and international award-winners.
I also covered last year’s IFF in Los Angeles, and I definitely believe that my top four picks among this year’s movies were better than anything I saw at the 2004 fest. There was much more sophisticated writing in the prime quartet, as well as generally richer production values. The acting was strong both years. Overall, I saw much less “schlemiel” humor this time than was hurled at us at the the 20th IFF.
My Seven Favorite Films of the 21st IFF
WHAT A WONDERFUL PLACE was Israel’s entry for the 2006 Academy Awards, won Best Feature Film at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, took Best Feature and Best Actor at the Israel Film Academy Awards and nabbed the Special Jury Prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Its gifted director, Eyal Halfon, won 1988 IFAA Best Picture and Best Screenplay awards for
CIRCUS PALESTINA and also wrote the 1991 international hit
CUP FINAL. I really loved WHAT A WONDERFUL PLACE! It was powerful, insightful, dramatic, rich in character and beautifully performed. At one point,
I thought there were too many story lines, but then they all resolved themselves beautifully in the final 10 minutes. The film offers a rich, full palette: drama, comedy, pathos, surprise and great irony. The final line of dialogue is frankly the most delightfully ironic I have ever heard at the end of a movie; it’s absolutely perfect. This fine film deals incisively with the hardships faced by foreign workers. The characters include a group of Russian women who’ve been smuggled illegally into Israel for prostitution, cruel Israeli gangsters, hapless gamblers, doggedly hopeful Thai laborers, a Filipino couple with an infertility problem, a suicidally depressed old man and an ex-cop main character who doesn’t know how to swim—but does know how to break the legs of slow-paying customers of his vicious loanshark/white slaver boss. When one of the miserable, horribly exploited young hookers teaches him to swim, he grows a conscience and stands up for the girls’ rights and his own dignity. Another character, a melancholic, overweight farmer, battles with a nasty ranger who persecutes his Thai workers while having an affair with the farmer’s wife. If you only see one film at this year’s IFF (and you really should see at least four!) this is the one. It is truly masterful.
SYRIAN BRIDE, ably directed and co-scripted by Eran Riklis (who helmed the global critical and audience hit
CUP FINAL) has won more foreign awards than any previous Israeli film, including Best Film and two other honors at the 2004 Montreal World Film Festival and the audience-choice award at the 2004 Locarno Festival. Shot on location in an exotic Druze village on the Golan Heights—and right on the Syrian-Israeli border—it is a moving, rich, darkly humorous family drama about a Druze woman in the Israeli-occupied Golan who is to marry a TV comic from Damascus—with the result that, due to her “undefined” nationality, she can never see her family again. If that weren’t tough enough, a ludicrous series of bureaucratic and political problems keep her stuck in a dusty no-man’s land between Israel and Syria, dressed in her wedding finery, suffering the worst day of her life. Several other interesting plot strands deal with intolerance, male chauvinism, marital crises and estranged parents and children. A large, talented, colorful professional and amateur cast performs beautifully, enhancing both the comedy and pathos in this well-crafted film. There is also fine insight into current Middle East political realities. Wit and subtlety set
BRIDE apart from other political films. It also has a terrific ending.
Click here to read Jan’s chat with BRIDE actress Hiam Abbass
OUT OF SIGHT is an excellent family drama that is also a good mystery. A blind young woman returns to Israel for her best friend/cousin’s funeral and begins to investigate what forced her to suicide. Lies and secrets are discovered, and she is forced to relive painful experiences—coming to see her deceased “twin spirit” (and their family members) in a startling new light. This movie is well crafted and performed, has excellent production values and is tautly paced throughout.
TURN LEFT AT THE END OF THE ROAD was Israel’s biggest box office and critical hit of the past two decades. Director Avi Nesher has written, directed and/or produced 17 Israeli and American films (including
THE TAXMAN, SHE and French fantasy film award nominee DOPPELGANGER). Set in a tiny immigrant community in the barren middle of nowhere, this smart, sexy, poignant and insightful picture deals with the conflicts between distrustful Moroccan and Indian immigrants who are forced to live side by side. There are plenty of interesting characters and subplots, lots of fascinating detail, several fine performances (most of them female), some nice surprises and much excellent attention to detail—which make a basically schmaltzy story quite interesting. On the other hand, a big cricket match-against-the- British sequence is carefully set up and then too-quickly resolved and dropped. And unfortunately, the movie’s pat ending leaves several plot elements hanging. While this is basically a multi-trauma melodrama, it has a lot of genuinely funny moments, a very dramatic setting and useful insights into two Israeli Mizrachi communities.
Click here to read Jan’s review of TURN LEFT
CAMPFIRE is a poky but decent drama about a widow who wants to drag her two teen daughters with her into a new West Bank religious settlement, whose leaders are dubious about having her as a member. Her 15-year-old daughter is molested at a campfire by a group of rude boys and then accused of having seduced them. In the course of the movie, the mother learns some truths about herself and her monomania—from her daughters and from her shy, virginal, middle-aged suitor (touchingly played by beloved Israeli character actor Moshe Ivgy). The performances are all very good, but the movie’s production values are nothing special. Nonetheless, this pic picked up six Israeli Offir Awards and got a Special Mention at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Click here to read
Jan’s review of CAMPFIRE
Click here to read Jan’s chat with director Joe Cedar
COMRADE is a nice little story about an adolescent boy who runs off to live with his sister, whom his dad turned out three years before. He befriends her nutso neighbor: an aging Commie who is determined to defend his hovel from the authorities. This offbeat story is well played, if a bit slow. The kid is not strong enough to drive the film, so it begins to seem somewhat contrived. This is an interesting movie, but it is not as engaging or compelling as the ones listed above.
DYNASTY could be titled “Two Gals and a Graveyard.” One is a Russian babe who is seeking rabbinic permission to bury her Jewish father in Israel, according to his last wishes. The other woman is fighting the same religious bureaucracy to be buried beside her husband, a former head of the council who committed suicide after a financial scandal. This melodrama is lightened by quite a bit of broad character comedy. Its production values are sub-standard and the acting is far from subtle.
Two to Avoid
I particularly disliked JOY and
DISTORTION and would strongly advise you to watch other, more enjoyable, better-made festival flicks instead.
JOY is highly manipulative, every character in it is pathetic and the tacked-on happy ending doesn’t work. Ham-fisted direction makes this “comedy” distinctly un-funny. The overweight lead actress, who won a prize somewhere, is pretty good, and there is a funny, likeable, very hairy little character who resembles a shrunken Robin Williams, but everyone else is truly unlikable and/or way over the top.
DISTORTION is a pretentious ego project: written, directed and starring self-important poseur Haim Bouzaglo. The editing (which won several prizes; go figure!) and photography are extremely annoying! The plot is unoriginal, bringing nothing new to the hoary old adultery triangle; the idea of basing the play within a movie on what happens to its blocked writer has been done to death (by people with greater talent); and the movie is so slow and dull that one yearns to re-encounter the cinema lobby. Did I mention that you will detest the gimmicky editing?
When and Where
2/23/06 – 3/9/06
Clearview, 62nd & B’way
3/22/06 – 3/29/06
3701 N.E. 163rd. St., N. Miami
This year the New York City segment of the 21st Israel Film Festival has scheduled special events including an Opening Night Gala, a Centerpiece Celebration Gala, a special program highlighting “Jewish Identity Through Israeli Film,” an Evening of Documentaries, and a Student Shorts Marathon at the JCC
Miami’s Opening Night Gala will be held at the Intracoastal Cinema, at 3701 N.E. 163rd Street, North Miami, on Wednesday, March 22.
The list of films to be presented in both cities had yet to be finalized at this writing. Further Festival details and updated information can be obtained at the IFF website:
© Alan Waldman (2/3/06)
To read Jan's two articles on the film CAMPFIRE, shown at the 2006 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema,
please click here
FF2 NOTE: All film photos above are courtesy of