Grab your rugelach and check out this year’s must-watch Israeli films

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NEW YORK — After 30 seconds of pleasantries, Isaac Zablocki and I are already arguing.

“Wait, you think ‘Concerned Citizen’ is a comedy?” I say.

“Well, a satire, a dark satire. It’s certainly a very artistic film, but there’s humor,” he counters.

Zablocki is the senior director of film programs at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and founder of the Israel Film Center Festival. And while we don’t agree on how we’d categorize writer-director Idan Haguel’s new film — one of nine that was screened as part of this year’s program — we both agree that it’s a terrific picture. Moreover, we agree that cordially disagreeing about movies is our birthright as engaged film-lovers. To do so over rugelach, as one does at the JCC, is even better.

Since its inaugural year back in 2013, the annual Israel Film Center Festival has emerged as one of the highlights of my movie-going calendar. It serves as a snapshot of Israeli film for the year, with some of the movies ending their festival and theatrical runs, and others just beginning. This year’s was the strongest selection I can recall. Of the nine movies, I’d strongly recommend eight of them. That’s a high ratio I’ve rarely experienced at Cannes or Sundance.

“My job is to create community. The films are just a tool,” Zablocki once told me in a previous interview. On closing night, for a screening of Eitan Anner’s “The Good Person,” that was evident during the pre-screening nosh. I approached two mature women (who I later learned were Israelis who work as educators in New York City), and they said tonight’s was their third visit in a week.

They enjoyed the opening night picture, Shemi Zarhin’s “Silent,” though one muttered “too much symbolism.” Both gushed, however, about Moshe Rosenthal’s “Karaoke,” a comedy-melodrama about an older couple whose lives are turned around when a slick, charming neighbor moves into their building.

Funnily enough, at the time I spoke to them, “Karaoke” was one of the two remaining titles I had yet to watch. (All had been made available to me via link.) “You must watch it!” they ordered me. It was non-negotiable! “Not just for the story and the beautiful way it is photographed, but for the performances.”

As I vowed to get to it the moment I got home (which I did), I heard a young man behind me say to his date, “Oh my God, that’s my junior year Hebrew teacher,” as he made his way over.

Turns out these women were right. (How could I doubt them?) “Karaoke” is a fascinating character piece starring Sasson Gabay and Rita Shukrun as empty nest parents that have let some resentments build up. Lior Ashkenazi is the wealthy, charismatic penthouse-dweller whose mere presence creates an unpredictable ripple effect. Gabay, specifically, is mesmerizing as the soft-spoken man who conveys whole stories in a single glance. It’s a truly great film.

Another outstanding performance is found in Ma’ayan Rypp’s “The Other Widow.” It stars the ubiquitous Dana Ivgy playing against type as an unglamorous and awkward costume designer. The central creative force at a theater company she works at, with whom she has been having an affair, dies in an accident, and she finds herself returning time and again to the weeklong shiva. Though her encounters with her lover’s widow could go in any number of soap opera directions, the narrative keeps you guessing. This is not a film with a lot of histrionics; instead, it’s actually probably a lot more like real life. It’s a remarkable piece of work.

Ofir Raul Grazier’s “America,” however, leans a little more into the melodrama. The director’s follow-up to 2018’s “The Cakemaker,” which was a bit of a hit in the US, is what you’d definitely call a weepie. A quick summarization will make it sound absurd, so I’ll just say it involves forbidden romance, people falling in and out of comas, an Ethiopian florist, and some absolutely gorgeous location photography. (I’d very much like to visit the White Waterfall at Nahal El Al in the Golan Heights; the Horvat Midras columbarium at Adullam Caves park, which I have been lucky enough to see myself, also gets some screen time.)

The movie is engrossing, but maybe a little ridiculous. “That was the best two-hour episode of ‘The Young and the Restless’ I ever saw,” I said to my wife when it was over. She told me I was being mean as she reached for a Kleenex, then later admitted, “Okay, it was a little over-the-top at times.”

JCC’s Isaac Zablocki, left, and director Shemi Zarhin at the Israel Film Center Festival opening in New York City, June 1, 2023. (Ohad Kab)

More subtle is the aforementioned “Concerned Citizen,” a skewering of liberal guilt. It follows an upwardly-mobile gay couple who move into a rapidly gentrifying section of Tel Aviv. While one of the two is ready to employ the services of a surrogate to bear a child, the other has a momentary “Karen”-like episode with an African migrant that may or may not lead to someone’s death. There’s a lot in the film that is open to interpretation, which, I think, is part of what makes it special.

The “biggest” production of this year’s selection is “June Zero,” a Hebrew language film directed by Jake Paltrow. (Yes, that is Gwyneth’s brother.) It is a meditation on the execution of Adolph Eichmann, told from three very unique perspectives: one of his guards in prison, someone who testified against him, and a young boy who is instrumental in building the oven in which his body was cremated.

For better or worse, the Eichmann trial is one of the most important developments in the State of Israel, and what is brilliant about “June Zero” is its way of grappling with it from these bizarre and specific angles. If one is coming to this looking for a typical historical movie, it is a disappointment. But as a strange piece of storytelling, based on true accounts, it is riveting and unsettling. With any luck it will find a wider, more mainstream audience when it is released in the US later this year.

If there was a thread through the entire program — even the “When Harry Met Sally”-esque Tel Aviv-set romantic comedy “Elik and Jimmy” (which is also known in some markets by the title “The Fat Guy”) — I would say it was one of deep melancholy. Perhaps it is because these are all movies that were written or produced during the coronavirus pandemic. We’ll get a sense if there’s any change in the national cinema’s vibe next year.

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