Israel may have had its fair share of diplomatic bloopers and blunders in 2013, ranging from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's absence at Nelson Mandela's funeral to increasing international boycotts of settlement goods and Israeli academia. Despite these misfortunes, Israel did succeed in getting a particularly warm welcome in at least one place this past year: Hollywood.
Sure, recent years have seen "Homeland" and "In Treatment" (both Israeli creations) get adapted for American TV, and more and more Israeli films garner critical acclaim both in Tinseltown and at home, but 2013 seemed like an especially successful year for Israeli entertainment – which generated good news for the country and offered up just what showbiz is supposed to: a healthy dose of escapism from the daily grind. Here's our rundown of the Israeli film and TV industry's stellar year (and a look at some of what's to come in 2014).
Double duty at the Oscars
It all started in January with the announcement that two controversial Israeli documentaries would go head-to-head at the Oscars. “The Gatekeepers” and Israeli-Palestinian co-production “5 Broken Cameras” were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. There was some debate as to whether these films, which shed a less-than-positive light on the occupation, best represented the Jewish state – but in the end it didn’t really matter: They both lost out to Swedish-U.K. coproduction “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Despite the dashed Oscar hopes, "The Gatekeepers" and "5 Broken Cameras" raked in other prestigious awards. The former picked up the Ophir Award – commonly referred to as the “Israeli Oscar” – for Best Documentary and the Cinema for Peace Award for Most Valuable Documentary, while "5 Broken Cameras" clinched the International Emmy Award for Best Documentary.
From 'Bethlehem' to badass
“Bethlehem,” about the complex relationship between an Israeli Shin Bet agent and a Palestinian teenager who serves as his informant, went home with six Ophir Awards and it was also Israel's submission for best foreign film at next year's Oscars. Sadly, it failed to make the shortlist, but don't feel too bad: It did win Best Film at the Venice Days Film Festival and score a big distribution deal with Adopt Films, which promised to screen "Bethlehem" in at least 35 cities across the United States.
Meanwhile, “Big Bad Wolves,” a thriller about a rogue cop and other colorful characters, also did well at the Ophir Awards, taking home five of them – but some film buffs might think that honor pales in comparison to the killer endorsement it got across the pond: None other than director Quentin Tarantino – who knows a thing or two about successful (and violent) flicks – called it “the best film of the year” during a Q&A session at the 18th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.
Natalie Portman and Gal Gadot: Trading places?
Awards aside, 2013 also brought some exciting news from Israelis working in Hollywood. The first was about Jerusalem-born Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman coming to town: She reportedly has already rented an apartment in Tel Aviv and is set to make her directing debut with an adaptation of Amos Oz's novel "A Tale of Love and Darkness.” (Naturally, she also stars in it.) On her first trip to the Holy Land after the project was announced, the good Jewish girl - who promised to act in Hebrew - kept a low profile, but that hasn't stopped the Israeli paparazzi from hounding her while she's here.
More recently, news broke that Hollywood finally found its Wonder Woman – and she is Israeli. Gal Gadot, who has starred in the "Fast and Furious" film franchise in recent years, apparently used her super powers (or super sex appeal), to land the coveted role of the female superhero. She'll be starring alongside Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in the tentatively titled "Batman vs. Superman," scheduled for release in July 2015.
Animated Anne Frank
Moving on to off-screen heroines, director Ari Folman announced he would write and direct an animated feature based on the diary of Anne Frank. (Folman also made other news this year with his latest release, "The Congress," starring Robin Wright, which was named best animated feature film at the 26th European Film Awards.)
The director, who used the Sabra and Chatila massacres as the starting point for his award-winning “Waltz with Bashir,” said he plans on making the Anne Frank picture a family-oriented film. Whatever his approach to the Holocaust victim's story, it is sure to be more tasteful than that of pop singer Justin Bieber, who visited the Anne Frank House this year and wrote in its guestbook, "Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber."
Clearly no roundup of Israeli showbiz would be complete without a mention of Bar Refaeli, so here is a mention of Bar Refaeli: After much anticipation – and even an attempt to block the film’s distribution – “Kidon,” based on the assassination of a Hamas bigwig in Dubai, premiered this year. In it, Refaeli plays a sexy Mossad agent-honey trap, who seduces a senior Hamas operative. We didn’t see the film, but we're guessing she didn't need Method acting lessons to be convincing.
And now to the small screen…
The successes of 2013 were not limited to Israeli film, as international producers picked up several more Israeli television shows, ranging from weighty dramas to a new twist on the "American Idol"-type singing competition.
Timberman-Beverly Productions bought the rights to “Yaldei Rosh Hamemshala” (“The Prime Minister's Children”), co-created by Noa Rotman, the granddaughter of late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, while NBCUniversal took on a project based in Jerusalem: a six-episode series called “Dig.” Co-written by the man behind “Homeland,” Gideon Raff, "Dig" is about an FBI agent investigating the murder of a female archaeologist. Initial reports said it would be set entirely in the Holy City – included East Jerusalem – but after pressure from Palestinians, NBCUniversal denied it had plans to shoot in the City of David National Park or the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. Sadly, even entertainment can’t avoid clashing with politics when it comes to Jerusalem.
On the reality front, “Rising Star,” the singing competition, was sold to France’s M6 Group shortly after its local debut, and broadcasters in other countries like ABC in the U.S. and ITV in Britain also snatched it up. Why is it so popular? Well, it lets at-home audiences vote for contestants using their smartphone or tablet during live broadcasts. In other words, the interactive TV we’ve all been waiting for is finally here.
Finally, lest you think this is a one-way street, an American show adapted for Israeli TV has been doing well here this year, too: "The X Factor." It's got an all-star panel of judges, high production quality and – you guessed it – Bar Refaeli. She not only hosts the popular show, but promoted it with a steamy clip in which she toys with notoriously grumpy American reality show judge Simon Cowell.
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