The best Jewish (and Jew-ish) films of 2021
The cinematic year of 2021 felt like a time warp.
Let’s put it this way. In March, the Grammys, a show known for its belated schedule, awarded Billie Eilish Best Song Written for Visual Media for the title track of the James Bond flick “No Time to Die,” a film that wouldn’t even be released until October. The releases of highly anticipated films like Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Scarlett Johansson’s MCU swan song, “Black Widow” faced long delays while the world waited for it to be safe to return to cinemas.
The good news is, many of these films were well worth the wait and, since many festivals hosted their offerings online, some were more accessible than ever. We’ve compiled a few of our favorites from this year, ranging from understated Israeli dramas to bombastic musical period pieces and a meditation on the artistic merits of Kenny G.
Here are the films we loved and where to watch them.
“Licorice Pizza” dir. P.T. Anderson
In select theaters now, everywhere on Dec. 25
While most discourse around Anderson’s latest involves its central romance — the male lead, a 15-year-old; the leading woman, 25 — the film itself is concerned with many other questions, among them: what makes a Jew Jewish? A Shabbat dinner sequence involving Alana Haim’s character, Alana Kane, and her boyfriend tersely encapsulates the nature of Jewish identity by way of — ahem — the sign of the covenant. The theme strikes again when a talent agent comments on Alana’s “fashionable” Jewish nose. With Haim — and her entire family — Anderson revels in one of his greatest gifts as a director, casting. The auteur who saw the nervy dramatic power in Adam Sandler has once again struck gold with Haim.
“Minyan” dir. Eric Steel
On Amazon Prime
If you’re going to watch one indie film of 2021, make it this one. Based on a David Bezmozgis short story and set on the moody gray boardwalk of 1980s Brighton Beach, “Minyan” follows David, a closeted gay teenager, as he attempts to navigate a hardscrabble Russian Jewish community hostile to boys like him. Bullied at school and awkward with girls, David takes refuge in his grandfather’s old-folks home, where he endears himself by showing up for Shabbat minyan and befriends Herschel and Itzik, an elderly gay couple whom the neighbors choose to consider roommates. In an unglamorous and often harsh world, director Eric Steel finds a lush cinematic experience that’s well worth your time.
“The French Dispatch” dir. Wes Anderson
In theaters now
Erudite, wry, meticulous. Each adjective slots neatly into any of Wes Anderson’s movies, “The French Dispatch” being no exception. But what the film, inspired by in-depth literary reportage from The New Yorker (and one “Talk of the Town”) gives us is a director at the top of his game. Juggling aspect ratios, black and white and color film, animation and impossible stagings, Anderson is showing off — but never for no reason. The true marvel, though, may be the script itself. Anderson and his co-writers, whose dialogue is typically laconic, here channels the gleefully finicky — if sometimes soaring — prose pioneered by Harold Ross and William Shawn. Anderson once invoked one of the New Yorkers’ short story contributors (some Jewish kid named Jerome). In “The French Dispatch” he’s delivered a whole magazine.
“200 Meters” dir. Ameen Nayfeh
Mustafa, a young Palestinian father, lives in Tulkarm, a city in the West Bank. Meanwhile, his wife and children are Israeli citizens on the other side of the separation wall. In a gesture of resistance against the occupation, Mustafa refuses to apply for Israeli residency, instead using work permits to travel and visit his family. It’s a situation that, Mustafa thinks, seems to work — until Israeli soldiers deny his permit on the same day his son is the victim of a car accident. Desperate to get to the hospital, Mustafa boards a smuggler’s minivan to cross the short but dangerous distance — 200 meters — between him and his family. Director Ameen Nayfeh drew on his own experience growing up in the West Bank for this impressive directorial debut.
“Pig” dir. Michael Sarnoski
On Amazon Prime
A treyf title, but a kosher cast with Adam Arkin and Alex Wolff. This gem was hidden like a truffle amid the dirt of theater-going anxiety when it came out in July. It deserves another look. Nicolas Cage plays an ex-celebrity chef who left the spotlight after the death of his wife to live in the woods. When his one companion — a truffle pig — is stolen, he’s forced to reenter society and the landmarks of his past life on a rescue mission. It’s kind of like an arthouse “John Wick” with way fewer guns and far more agonizing monologues. It’s a refreshing reminder that Nicolas Cage is a very strong actor when he chooses to be.
“Tahara” dir. Olivia Peace
Before there was Pen15’s bat mitzvah scene, there was “Tahara,” a deliciously awkward and disarmingly earnest coming-of-age drama that takes place in that most evocative of teenage refuges: the synagogue ladies’ lounge. The film follows two teenage friends — Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece), who is Black and queer, and Hannah (Rachel Sennott), who is white and straight — over the course of a single day, as they attend the funeral of a Hebrew school classmate who died by suicide. As Hannah concocts an ill-advised romance to boost her floundering self-esteem, Carrie grapples with the burden of being the only Black teen in their cohort. “Tahara” was filmed in the childhood synagogue of its writer, Jess Zeidman, lending it an extra layer of poignant realness.
“Asia” dir. Ruthy Pribar
Watch this moody Israeli drama when you’re in the mood to cry. The titular character (played by Alena Yiv) is a Russian immigrant to Jerusalem, struggling to make ends meet as a nurse while caring for her teenage daughter Vika (Shira Haas, of “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox” fame), who is slowly dying of an unnamed degenerative disease. A film like “Asia” could easily devolve into voyeurism, but first-time director Ruthy Pribar makes it a meditation on the labor of caring for others: labor Asia performs while ministering to the elderly people in her charge, labor she pays other people to do for her own daughter. What do we gain or lose when we pay others to do work that’s emotional as well as physical? This film asks questions without pretending to have all the answers.
“Listening to Kenny G” dir. Penny Lane
On HBO Max
A movie about Kenny G, the most reviled and successful instrumentalist of all time, was destined to inflame passions. (My review certainly ignited my inbox!) But what Penny Lane accomplished with her documentary is a miracle of dispassionate filmmaking, examining not just the springy-haired saxophonist but the intersections of art and subjectivity. Speaking not just to G — who I found obnoxious in his artlessness, and many other viewers found delightful — but fans, critics and his mentor, Lane arrives at a simple, but worthwhile conclusion: people like what they like and hate what they hate. Sometimes the reasons are cerebral and well-reasoned, sometimes emotional. Both are valid.
“West Side Story” dir. Steven Spielberg
In theaters now
With their “West Side Story,” Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and choreographer Justin Peck have found new life in timeless — if flawed — source material, deconstructing some of the most indelible images in movie musicals, creating new ones and paying deference wherever possible to the original. The task of deconstruction is literal. The world of the film takes its cue from the real-world rubble of 1957’s Upper West Side, when Robert Moses’ dream of an arts center evicted working class families by way of the eminent domain wrecking ball. The story’s life and death stakes, always bubbling with socio-structural subtext, become tangible as Sharks and Jets vie for an ever-dwindling territory. Under Spielberg, directing an incandescent cast — and a surprisingly capable Ansel Elgort — Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s magnum opus is a grimy, glorious and socially aware work that bespeaks the dual violence of ‘50s street gangs and gentrification — and doing it with more Spanish dialogue than “In the Heights.” Seeing it at the AMC near Lincoln Center leaves a queasy feeling, especially knowing Robbins’ archives are housed just down the road, on the graves of old tenements. I’m not an easy cry; I sobbed.