The year in film wraps with panache


A surprising number of films with Jewish themes and from Israel made their St. Louis debut in 2008. There were new releases and some lauded films of the previous year appearing on local movie screens. Many films looked back at the Shoah but a few looked at other wars that Israel faced or the on-going geopolitical situation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Every year, the Jewish Film Festival brings a bevy of Israeli and Jewish-themed films to St. Louis. There were so many good Israeli and Jewish interest films at the annual St. Louis International Film Festival that the festival organizers created two programs, the Israeli Sidebar and the Jewish Sidebar.

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That is a lot of films but there are still some 2008 films to come, released elsewhere in the U. S. in 2008 to qualify for awards but trickling into “flyover” land through out the year.

Let’s take a look back at the year in film.

Award season winners and Oscar hopefuls

These are the films garnering awards at festivals and among critics groups and positioned for Oscars.

Waltz With Bashir — The film that is running away with festival awards and critical acclaim is an innovative Israeli documentary, which uses an animated format to recount an Israeli veteran’s attempt to reconstruct his memories of a battle in the first Lebanon war in the 1982. Director Ari Folman tries to uncover his own buried memories and interviews his fellow war veterans, with the war time memories springing to animated life as they are recounted. Visually stunning and cinematically ground breaking, it is a must see documentary that debuted at the local International Film Fest but is set to return for a longer run in January. The film won two nominations from the St. Louis Film Critics and acclaim at countless other festivals and from critics groups.

The Reader — Kate Winslet stars as a hard-edged German woman with a secret past who has an affair with a teenaged boy in this tale of post-war Germany. Ralph Fiennes plays the adult version of the boy and Lena Olin appears as both mother and daughter Shoah survivors. The strong acting and well-directed story is getting lots of award nominations, including from the local St. Louis Film Critics professional association. The twisting plot comes to a satisfyingly resolution in an unexpected way.

Milk — This award winner and Oscar contender about the first openly gay elected official is not a specifically Jewish film but Harvey Milk was Jewish, a fact mentioned in the film. It is however, a tour-de-force performance by Sean Penn, a worthy, well-made film that frames gay rights in terms of civil and human rights. This is another top Oscar contender that had garnered numerous critics’ awards, including from the St. Louis Film Critics.

Defiance — Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber star as brother Jewish partisans hiding out in the forests of Belarus near the border of Nazi-occupied Poland. Based on true facts, this fictionalized version, directed by Edward Zwick, is heroic and inspiring, more action film than history lesson. The drama is taut, the action strong, production polished and acting effective, and it makes an inspiring story, even if the plot might have strayed from reality. Set to appear here in January 2009.

Adam Resurrected — Jeff Goldblum delivers the performance of a lifetime in this film directed by Paul Schrader. Based on Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, Goldblum plays Adam Stein, once successful vaudeville entertainer whose experiences during the Shoah have landed him in an Israeli mental hospital in the 1960s. Goldblum infuses Adam with charm and touching complexity as the story unfolds from the entertainers’ shattered version of reality. Debuted at SLIFF, set to return early in 2009.

Last Chance Harvey –Dustin Hoffman stars as Harvey Shine, a sad-sack loser in London for his daughter’s wedding, who unexpectedly gets a second chance at love, with Emma Thompson. This one has already gotten awards season attention with Golden Globes nominations and Oscar buzz. Set to appear here in early 2009.

Other big 2008 releases of interest in theaters now or coming soon:

The Boy In the Striped Pajamas — A good cast and good intentions mark this flawed British film adaptation of a beloved children’s book. Directed by Mark Herman, it stars Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis, Rupert Friend and young Asa Butterfield, from the wonderful indie British comedy Son of Rambow, in a tale of friendship between two 8-year-old boys, one the son of a German officer and the other an inmate of a concentration camp. While the book tells its tale of innocence and ignorance entirely through the eyes of a child, the film introduces an adult viewpoint, which stretches some credibility and the film is definitely not for children. It makes good points about the power of propaganda and the consequences of willful ignorance of unpleasant facts, but some may find it too emotionally manipulative.

Valkyrie — Based on a real 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler by German officers, this Bryan Singer-directed Tom Cruise vehicle is more action film and star ego that uses history as a backdrop than anything. It opens with a highly unlikely scene of the German officer von Stauffenberg (Cruise) writing in his diary about his disgust with the Nazis treatment of Jews but then returns to more believable turf.

It more accurately makes clear that the attempted coup was an effort to wrest control of a losing war with hopes of appeasing Allied victors and securing better peace terms. The film maintains surprising suspense and features a great supporting cast that includes Kenneth Branaugh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkerson, Terence Stamp ad Eddie Izzard, but in the end it is basically offensive, especially when it tries to re-cast the failed assassins, who were only concerned with saving themselves and German patriotism, as Resistance fighters battling Nazi evil. For a real version of that story, rent last year’s Sophie Scholl.

Brothers Bloom –Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz co-star in this globe-trotting absurd comedy about two brothers trying to pull a last con job. Debuted at SLIFF, set to return early in 2009.

Good — This narrative film, directed by Vicente Amorim and based on C.P. Taylor’s 1981 play, stars Viggo Mortensen as a professor who, rather than stand up for his ideals, takes the easier path of going along with the Nazis’ plans. However, Nazi Germany is more a backdrop for a moral lesson on passive behavior in the face of evil than an essential part of the story. We may not see it at a theater here but it should eventually appear on DVD.