What to Watch at the 2018 Jerusalem International Film Festival

Politics aside, this year the festival is presenting a large number of films that justify making the trip to Jerusalem

A frame from Lukas Dhont's 'Girl.'
Jerusalem Film Festival / Netflix

This year, as usual, thousands of film buffs will make their way to Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem to celebrate the opening of the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev won’t be attending Thursday’s festive opening ceremony. She will be abroad, and like last year will make do with sending a filmed greeting. 

Thus we will be spared the obsessive coverage as in previous years of her confrontation with the audience, and in the absence of celebrity guests from abroad, the focus this time, for a refreshing change, can be on the artistic-cinematic aspect of the event.

That’s particularly welcome, because the festival organizers made the unusual decision this year to grant the honor of opening the festival to an Israeli film – “The Unorthodox,” by Eliran Malka, which is based on the establishment of the Shas movement. The film will be shown on a huge, open-air screen.

The poster of Lukas Dhont's 'Girl.'

At a time when the Israeli film industry is fighting for its future and the culture minister is trying to impose new restrictions on it, the decision to give the prestigious opening slot to an Israeli film makes an important statement.

But politics aside, in terms of cinematic value, this year the festival is presenting a large number of films that justify making the trip to Jerusalem. In order to make it easier to decide what to see, here are several recommendations for films that have already been sampled and found good, or have been screened abroad and garnered praise.

‘Girl’

Belgium 2018

Director: Lukas Dhont

The contemporary Belgian answer to Orson Welles and Xavier Dolan took the Cannes Film Festival by storm. Belgian director Lukas Dhont, only 26, arrived in May at the Riviera with his film “Girl,” and won the Camera D’Or award for the best first film at the festival. The film centers around the moving character of Lara, a girl who dreams of becoming a ballerina, injures her body and spirit for this dream, and at the same time deals with the problems typical of every teenager.

But Lara has an additional problem: She was born in the body of a boy, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to be extricated from it. There’s a story here that provides an endless source of drama, but Dhont’s film is lovely because of the great delicacy with which it was made (except for one scene towards the end, but we will avoid a spoiler here). 

The main character is introverted and closed, she doesn’t openly express the conflicts taking place within, and despite her supportive environment and her dreamy father, the moment comes when she loses her emotional stability.

‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

USA 2018

Director: Desiree Akhavan

Chloe Grace Moretz, left, Forrest Goodluck and Sasha Lane attend 2018 Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival Closing Night Gala Of 'The Miseducation Of Cameron Post.'
Presley Ann/Getty Images/AFP

The big winner at the Sundance Film Festival ties in well with the present LGBT protest, and reminds us how the situation is still liable to deteriorate. The films is about a girl living in a Catholic suburb in America in the 1990s, and the presentable boyfriend she takes on for the purpose of the high school prom, who catches her in the middle of stormy sex with her best girlfriend.

As a result she is sent to live in a conversion therapy center, where the counselors try to help the inmates “to see the light,” to understand that they have committed a terrible sin, and to help them to abandon their dubious sexual preferences in favor of a sweet and wonderful straight life.

The acting is excellent and this along with the avoidance of cliches, the right dose of drama and the smart use of humor turn this film by Desiree Akhavan into an enjoyable cinematic experience.

‘Summer’

Russia 2018

Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

The poster of 'Summer.'

Leningrad, the early 1980s, and the underground rock scene is tempestuous. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are trying to lash out at everything possible, to give the finger to the violent Soviet regime, and to prove that no regime, no matter how violent, can suppress music, art and freedom. The film by director Kirill Serebrennikov doesn’t bother with a real plot, but fills the screen (and the sound systems) with a smoky, stormy, wild and passionate atmosphere and an exciting rock soundtrack.

The lovely black-and-white cinematography is reminiscent of “Control,” but Ian Curtis of the Joy Division band is replaced here by Viktor Tsoi. The biographical film follows his attempt to pave a way for himself to the top of the local rock heap. The film’s 126 minutes are somewhat more than the film merits, but the exciting sensual experience and several wonderful scenes of performances, in which the audience is under the strict supervision of tough Soviet security guards, makes the viewing very worthwhile. 

‘Border’

Sweden 2018

Director: Ali Abbasi

Cast members Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff pose during a Photocall for the film Border at the 71st Cannes Film Festival.
REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

One of the most talked-about films at the last Cannes festival, which left none of its viewers indifferent. The plot is about a customs agent who excels at locating smugglers, and develops a strange obsession with a man she questions in the context of her job. But the plot is the less exciting aspect.

The audience loved the film thanks to its originality and unconventionality, the surprising combination of social realism with elements of horror and film noir, and its daring attempt to bend the boundaries of the genre and to create a dark, strange, exciting and totally unpredictable legend. The film was directed by Ali Abassi, a Swede of Iranian descent, and was awarded the prize for the best film in the Cannes “Un Certain Regard” (literally “A Certain Glance”) category, which includes off-beat films by young directors.

‘The Wild Pear Tree’

Turkey 2018

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

A scene from 'The Wild Pear Tree.'

The new film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Three Monkeys,” “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”) delivers the usual high quality of the admired Turkish director: A lyrical film that delves into the depth of human existence, illuminates painful human weaknesses but surrounds them with a great deal of compassion and understanding. He extracts fine performances from his actors, and the film is visually beautiful as well.

This time his caressing camera follows a young man who is about to finish his university studies, and is trying to raise money to publish his first novel. He returns to his parents’ home in the village, once again observes the tense relations between them, and renews his complex relationship with his father. As is usually the case with Ceylan, this film is not for those who prefer short, fast and concise films. (It runs for 188 minutes.)

‘Life According to Agfa’

Israel 1992

Director: Assi Dayan

Israeli actress Gila Almagor in 'Life According to Agfa.'

In recent years the Jerusalem Film Archive chooses one Israeli film masterpiece each year, which undergoes a process of restoration and preservation. This year they have decided to create a new digital copy of Assi Dayan’s 1992 film, the one that critics repeatedly decree to be among the most important cinematic works ever created in Israel. 

In this film, Dayan turned a gloomy Tel Aviv bar into a microcosm of the Israeli experience, compressed into it the most painful conflicts suffered here. The new copy, digitally restored in 4K, now considered the highest cinematic resolution, had its debut screening at the Berlin International Film Festival, and now local viewers can finally recall both Dayan’s talent and the despondency that this place induces – but at least in a very high quality restoration.

‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

USA 1968

Director: Stanley Kubrick 

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Keir Dullea in a scene from the 1968 film, "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Warner Bros. via AP

Already 50 years old, and still marvelous. This film by Stanley Kubrick is the subject of some beautiful 50th-anniversary celebrations, thanks to its unique restoration. Director Christopher Nolan is responsible for the restoration having been carried out entirely using analog rather than digital means, to provide viewers with an experience as similar as possible to that experienced in 1968 by the first audiences to see the film in movie theaters.

The plot takes place in a spaceship that sets out to search for signs of life on Saturn, and its three protagonists are a pair of astronauts and a super-computer with artificial intelligence. Kubrick used that as a starting point for a film that is wonderfully stylized and designed, and which arouses thoughts about human nature, particularly the relationship between man and technology. 

‘Isle of Dogs’

USA 2018

Director: Wes Anderson

Though the film arrives in movie theaters next month, fans of animation and fine films in general don’t have to wait, as Wes Anderson’s new film was picked to close the Jerusalem festival. The plot tells of a boy who goes to rescue his dog from an island used as a garbage dump, where all the dogs have been exiled. Captivating stop-motion animation, lovely design, an exciting plot and implied criticism of totalitarian and fascist regimes, which in today’s Israel arouses discomfort.

Politics aside, in terms of cinematic value, this year the festival is presenting a large number of films that justify making the trip to Jerusalem. 

‘Whitney’

USA 2018

director: Kevin Macdonald 

From the film 'Whitney.'

The documentary by Academy Award winning Kevin Macdonald (“One Day in September”), which reveals what took place behind the scenes in the life of one of the most successful American singers of all time, Whitney Houston, who died at the age of 48. Through interviews with people close to her and recordings from the past he draws an intimate portrait of the woman whose glorious voice and captivating smile were familiar to everyone, but only few people knew about the traumas she was forced to deal with throughout the years. 

The film discusses the sexual abuse she experienced as a child, tries to answer the question of her sexual preferences, and investigates the nature of Houston’s  relationship with her close girlfriend.

‘BlacKkKlansman’

USA 2018

Director: Spike Lee

Also from Cannes, the film that marked the return of Spike Lee after all the slander, eulogies and scorn he has suffered in recent years. Lee is back in his element, presenting a well-made mixture of politics, groove, an exciting pace and humor. Although the film is based on a true story that took place in the 1970s in Colorado, it is horrifically relevant for today’s racist and xenophobic America.

The main character is a black man (played by John David Washington) who enlists in the local police force, encounters hostility due to his skin color, but succeeds in doing the impossible: He joins the ranks of the local cell of the Ku Klux Klan, in order to conduct surveillance of the group members and incriminate them.  

His initial contact with them is by phone, but when the time comes to meet with them face to face, he finds a creative solution: So as not to reveal his skin color, he sends his colleague, a white Jewish police detective (Adam Driver), who agrees to visit the lion’s den and hang out with the cell members - who of course despise anything that isn’t American, white, Christian, racist and violent.