Jerusalem Film Festival: Our Top Seven Picks, Plus a Bonus

Cannes winners, intriguing debuts, surprising documentaries and animated films are featured at 2019's Jerusalem Film Festival

Natalie Portman in "Vox Lux."
IMDb

There are goodies galore at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, which runs from July 25 to August 4. Many of the standout movies that will be screened at the capital’s Cinematheque and other venues have already made the rounds of festivals worldwide. A case in point is the festival’s opening film, “Parasite,” directed by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year. Following tradition, it will be shown on a giant screen outdoors at Sultan’s Pool, below the Old City walls. Other prize winners at Cannes that you can catch in Jerusalem are Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” “Young Ahmed” by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, “Les Miserables,” the big surprise at Cannes, and the prizewinning films of directors Jessica Hausner and Celine Schiamma, “Little Joe” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” respectively.

As those pictures haven’t yet been screened in other frameworks locally, the recommendations in their cases are based on the reputation of the Cannes Film Festival itself. The recommendations that follow are based on viewings, and are listed by ascending level of difficulty: from commercial sweeteners to sour candies for cineastes.

‘Wild Rose’

A country singer who lives in Glasgow, Scotland, is not exactly a natural combination. Indeed, Nashville is as distant from the movie’s protagonist as she is from taking responsibility. The picture, directed by Tom Harper, opens with the release from prison of Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley, the fireman’s wife from the “Chernobyl” series). She returns to her children, who in her absence were raised by their grandmother (Julie Walters). As part of her effort to return to the straight and narrow, she gets a job as a cleaner for an affluent woman (Sophie Okenedo) who hears her sing and wants to help her realize her dream. The directness and warmth of the country music interweave with the tough Scots and their thick accents. The result is a story that is out to please the audience while offering thoughts about a late adolescence and the price of fulfilling your dreams.

‘Dreamland’

First screened at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, “Dreamland” is not exactly a western or a gangster movie but flirts with the myths of both genres. Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, the film is set in early 1930s Texas, which is mired in the Depression and reeling under dust storms that wreak havoc on farm production. One day, Eugene, a young man with a highly developed imagination (Finn Cole), finds a notorious female bank robber (Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”) hiding in the family barn, wounded. Naturally, the robber steals a few hearts, not to mention the whole show, in a sweeping movie about America’s fascination with crime and criminals.

‘Mid90s’

The directorial debut of the actor Jonah Hill (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), “Mid90s” was screened at the festivals in Toronto and New York. The title gives away the period in which this coming-of-age drama takes place and also shapes its atmosphere, which sometimes overshadows the plot. The chief character is a kid named Steve from the suburbs of Los Angeles (Sunny Suljic, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), who tries to join an older group of skaters as a way to get out of the house. Recalling the movies in which Hill appeared early in his career, “Mid90s” mixes the comic with the dramatic, and the obscenities never cease. As a director, Hill finds what’s lyrical in the situation and creates a somewhat nostalgic and very pointed time capsule for another era, which will make millennials feel grown up.

‘The Swallows of Kabul’

Like other top movies in the festival’s program this year, this work of animation – a genre that’s always featured in the Jerusalem festival – also premiered at Cannes. And like another recent animated movie, “The Breadwinner,” “The Swallows of Kabul,” a French production directed by Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, is set in Afghanistan during the period of Taliban rule. The country’s capital is drawn in a romantic style, and the characters are portrayed in simple lines, but only seemingly. The volatile, surprising plot is divided between two couples: young intellectuals who aspire to freedom of thought, and adults coping with illness and unwillingly assisting the authorities. The two adults are dubbed by actors with a connection to Israel: Hiam Abbass (“Lemon Tree”) and Simon Abkarian (“Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem”). This is a movie about the beauty residing in love and sacrifice within a world of cruelty in the name of god.

‘The Chambermaid’

This debut feature by the Mexican director Lila Aviles was launched on its global trajectory at the Toronto International Film Festival. Gabriela Cartol plays a chambermaid in a luxury hotel in Mexico City, which we learn about through the prism of her grinding routine. The hotel guests are off-the-wall world-class pests, including one who turns the chambermaid into a babysitter and another who wants her to be a Shabbat goy; but they are her doorway to another and better life. Aviles, who espouses a cinema of observation, locks the viewer into rooms that are a gilded cage, until the chief character opens up and breathing can relax. “The Chambermaid” is not only a plaintive, humane picture, it’s also more effective than any investigative report about hotel maids – you won’t believe what the staff do when they’re outside the room.

‘Vox Lux’

The Venice International Film festival is another source of noteworthy productions for its Jerusalem counterpart. The second film directed by Brady Corbet (“The Childhood of a Leader”), “Vox Lux” moves between masterly and dastardly, and has divided audiences wherever it’s been screened. The film’s first part is devoted to a trauma that shapes the young protagonist. In the second part she emerges as a dark pop star who causes misery to everyone she comes into contact with in her personal life, while making millions happy with her songs. Natalie Portman plays the pop star in the second part, while Raffey Cassidy (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) plays her as a youth and returns in a different role in the concluding segment. Imagine “A Star Is Born” in a nightmare version, or as the bitter cure for the wave of saccharine musical bios.

‘Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound’

Documentaries about the art of filmmaking can always be found under the Cinemania rubric. Most attention will be focused – and rightly so – on the intriguing “Memory: The Origins of Alien,” but “Making Waves,” directed by Midge Costin, is worth a look, too – it’s a movie that makes the art of sound editing look fascinating. Amid glorifying legendary film composers, it shows how movies like “Star Wars,” “Apocalypse Now” or “Titanic” simply would not have been the same without the music and sound effects. The film was screened at Tribeca and Cannes.

Bonus: ‘Veil’

Much will be written about the feature films of the Israeli competition in the festival, but some of the best Israeli movies you’ll see this year are tucked away in the Short Films category. Many of them will premiere in the festival, though one, Adi Mishnayot’s acclaimed “Image of Victory,” grabbed prizes in last month’s Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival. Another decisive winner that can be added to the list already now is “Veil,” directed by Orit Fouks Rotem (“And You Are Silent”), which was produced within the “Short in the Desert” framework of the Arava International Film Festival. With surgical precision and an approach manifesting expertise in the minutiae of filmmaking, “Veil” (21 minutes) depicts a bachelorette party that lurches out of control. It’s funny, tragic and unnerving.