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A banner year for blue-and-white on the silver screen At home and abroad, Israeli films made a fine showing in 2013

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A banner year for blue-and-white on the silver screen At home and abroad, Israeli films made a fine showing in 2013

By HANNAH BROWN, jpost.com, Dec. 31, 2014

But Oscar nods are only one sign of the health of the movie industry, and by any other measure, it’s been a banner year for Israeli film.

Normally, at this time of year, Oscar buzz is the soundtrack of the Israeli movie industry.

After all, Israeli films – features, documentaries and shorts – have received seven Oscar nominations in the last six years, and chalked up one win, for the documentary short, Strangers No More, in 2011. But this year, no Israeli films made it onto the Oscar short list for either Best Foreign Language Film or Best Documentary. So when the Oscar nominations are announced in Hollywood on January 16, there won’t be any big suspense here.

But Oscar nods are only one sign of the health of the movie industry, and by any other measure, it’s been a banner year for Israeli film.

While Joseph Cedar, Israel’s two-time Foreign Language Oscar nominee (for Beaufort and Footnote) did not make a film this year and is reportedly going to make his next movie in New York, several of Israel’s other top directors released films this year.

Avi Nesher’s The Wonders, which received rave reviews here and got an American distributor after it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, is an extraordinarily original and enjoyable film that was a hit with Israeli audiences. Following a trend of having more movies made in Jerusalem, The Wonders is a contemporary film noir blend of thriller and comedy, with just a little bit of animation, that illuminates the soul of the Holy City.

Ari Folman, the director whose Waltz with Bashir, the 2008 genre-bending animated documentary about the Lebanon War, was an international sensation, released his follow-up this year, the mixed live-action/animated feature film, The Congress, based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem. Starring Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel and Jon Hamm, the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. In early December, it won the Best Animated Feature prize at the European Film Academy awards, where Asaf Sudri also took home the prize for Best Cinematography for Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void. Once again, in spite of the BDS movement, Israeli movies have triumphed again and again in Europe, and are more widely shown there than in the US.

Bethlehem, the stunning directorial debut of Yuval Adler, won the Ophir Best Picture Award – the prize of the Israel Academy for Film and Television – for this gripping drama about an Israeli Shin Bet agent and his complex relationship with his young informant, a Palestinian terrorist’s brother. The suspenseful film was the first Israeli movie to take a hard look at the complex and shifting loyalties in the West Bank.

Bethlehem is slated for release in several European cities this winter, and also has a US distributor. Interestingly, Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad’s Omar, a movie which did make the Oscar Best Foreign Film shortlist, has a strikingly similar plot.

Like Bethlehem, many of the most successful Israeli movies this year were dark. Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, who made history with the first Israeli horror film, Rabies, a few years ago, followed it up with the extremely gory psychological thriller Big Bad Wolves.

The film tells the story of a bereaved father who tortures the man he thinks raped and killed his daughter. Big Bad Wolves drew standing ovations at horror film festivals around the world, as well as praise from none other than Quentin Tarantino, who called the movie “the best film of the year.”

Tom Shoval’s Youth was the big winner at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer, taking the top prize. The film is about two sociopathic brothers who, in a misguided attempt to help their financially strapped parents, kidnap a girl and hold her for ransom.

Johnathan Gurfinkel’s S#x Acts, written by Rona Segal, is a painful drama about a teenage girl in the Tel Aviv who uses sex to try to gain acceptance at her new school. It may sound like a familiar story, but the film’s quasi-documentary style and strong performance by Sivan Levy in the lead give it a memorable intensity.

When the film was screened for the Knesset to show the dangers of peer pressure and sexual abuse, several MKs walked out, calling the film offensive.

But not all of the movies that made headlines this year were hard-hitting dramas. Eytan Fox, a director best known for his dramas about gay life in the army and in Tel Aviv, made a movie, Cupcakes (Bananot in Hebrew), that bucked the trend of serious dramas.

The film tells the story of a group of friends in Tel Aviv who compose a song that becomes Israel’s entry in a Eurovision-like song contest, and features lavish production numbers and good-natured banter.

What’s coming up in 2014? Two Israeli documentaries will be competing at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince is a look at a Palestinian informant and his relationship with his handler, a film that sounds much like a reallife version of Bethlehem. Web Junkie, directed by Hilla Medalia, is about a rehab for Internet addicts in China.

Recently, Ari Folman announced that his next film would be an animated version of The Diary of Anne Frank. Eytan Fox is in pre-production for his next film, a biopic of the Israeli singer Mike Brant, who became a huge pop star in France and then committed suicide.

So here’s to a 2014 that will be filled with as many blue-white cinematic gems as this past year.

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