From Beach Boys to Iranian Vampires: What to Watch at the Jerusalem Film Festival

The capital’s 32nd annual film festival promises 10 days of the best of local and international cinema. Here are some recommendations that even Israel’s culture minister might enjoy.

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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From 'Amy.'
From 'Amy.'
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

The controversy that arose last month over the screening of Herz Frank and Maria Kravchenko’s documentary “Beyond the Fear” – about Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir – placed the Jerusalem Film Festival squarely in the middle of the raging debate over “freedom of expression” versus “freedom of funding.” That film will now be screened a few days prior to the festival and not as an official entry. Even so, there will be a wealth of Israeli documentaries and other films on show.

Six local films will participate in the competition for best Israeli feature, including Haifa police drama “Wounded Land,” by “A Matter of Size” codirector Erez Tadmor; and Tova Ascher’s “A.K.A. Nadia,” about a Muslim woman who spent the past 20 years passing herself off as a Jewish career woman. All of the Israeli features are screened with English subtitles.

The festival’s international program promises to be a rich cinematic event, with a number of films that were hits at Cannes, Sundance and the New York Film Festival receiving local premieres. Here are some of the most noteworthy foreign offerings to look out for:

‘Love & Mercy’

From 'Love & Mercy.'

This biopic on The Beach Boys’ iconic leader Brian Wilson is based on an excellent script by Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There”) and is Hollywood producer Bill Pohlad’s second film as director. The collaboration between the two men yielded an unconventional biopic that flips between two axes: the decision of the young Wilson (Paul Dano) to take a time out from touring, to create the songs for the group’s “Pet Sounds” album in 1965; and the ongoing struggles Wilson (John Cusack) has with mental illness and addiction to psychotropic drugs, as he falls under the spell of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, superb as always) in the 1980s.

The result is a musical biopic that successfully defies the formulaic structure of the genre (think Clint Eastwood’s uninspired Four Seasons biopic “Jersey Boys”). Considering the fact that The Beach Boys entered the pantheon of popular culture thanks to a slew of catchy hit tunes, the melancholy that pervades the film may come as a surprise. On the other hand, as films like “This Must Be the Place” and “Frank” have illustrated so well, good music often comes from the depths of pain and torment.

Another musical film worth seeking out: “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s documentary that drew lots of praise at the recent Cannes Film Festival. The film traces Jewish singer Amy Winehouse’s short and turbulent life (she died at age 27, in 2011), using previously unseen archival material. Kapadia’s previous film was the acclaimed documentary “Senna.”

‘Land of Plenty’

Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s surreal, unusual film checks off every cliché of a “festival film”: it’s long, challenging and dull in stretches. However, it does offer a unique opportunity to savor some virtuosic cinematography that recalls the games of light and shadow from Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.”

The story is about a 19th-century Danish general (Viggo Mortensen), searching for his 15-year-old daughter who has run off with a young soldier in the wilds of South America. The long, hypnotic shots reminded me of arthouse legends Bela Tarr and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. In other words, if you survived “The Turin Horse” and “Winter Sleep” and are looking for a new cinephile challenge – you just may have found it here.

Roy Andersson trilogy

Two years ago, the festival included a documentary about Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson’s creative process. Now we get a chance to see the result of his obsession for details and decision to film all of his movies in the vast studio he runs in Stockholm. The Andersson trilogy – comprised of “Songs from the Second Floor” (2000), “You, the Living” (2007) and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (2014) – presents a cinematic vision unlike any other. Andersson combines morbid subjects like an execution by electric chair with dry Scandinavian humor, in the best tradition of Danish director Lars von Trier – particularly his film “The Idiots” and his hospital-set television miniseries “The Kingdom.”

Andersson’s characters sport white makeup and live inside meticulously arranged artificial sets, which look like theatrical rather than film sets. Watching the entire trilogy might invoke a feeling of repetitiveness, but each one of these movies is an invitation into the dark and wild mind of one of Scandinavia’s greatest directors. (And if you must pick only one, go for “Pigeon,” which received rave reviews and won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival.)

‘The Lobster’

From 'The Lobster.'

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos always manages to surprise: 2009’s “Dogtooth,” with its disturbing and well-told tale of a family run like a cult, in which the children never leave the house, changed him from an anonymous filmmaker into a familiar name on the festival and indie scene. After that big success, he returned in 2011 with “Alps,” which didn’t quite rise to the level of its predecessor. But now he’s back with “The Lobster” – an English-language, comic drama starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, which won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the plot and the fact Lanthimos is known as a director capable of anything makes it one of the festival’s most intriguing films.

Here’s the synopsis: Sometime in the not-too-distant future, the laws dictate that single people must be rounded up and moved into a special hotel, where they have 45 days to find a mate; otherwise, they will be forced to turn into animals and leave the human world.

‘Ned Rifle’

The third film in Hal Hartley’s indie trilogy (Hartley recently visited Israel and took selfies with at least half the local movie community) is more successful than his 2007’s “Fay Grim.” To close the circle that began with “Henry Fool” (1998), Hartley goes back to the witty dialogue and surreal scenes that typify his best work. It doesn’t always work, but when it does (especially in the film’s second half), the result is inspired and well worth seeing. If you haven’t seen the earlier films, it would help to do a little homework first in order to really enjoy “Ned Rifle,” which returns to the main characters from the previous films – Ned, Henry and Fay.

Some other noteworthy films

“The Assassin” – Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest earned rave reviews at Cannes and is touted as one of the most beautiful martial arts films ever made.

From 'Assassin.'

“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” – Another ambitious television documentary series from Ken Burns, chronicling the presidential family.

“When Marnie Was There” – the latest animated film from the superb Studio Ghibli (“Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle”). Not just for children.

“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” – This first feature by Ana Lily Amirpour is an Iranian vampire movie that’s out to take apart every vampire movie cliché. It’s a continually surprising comic drama, with great cinematography and impressive acting.

From 'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.'

“Grandma” – After all this festival-going, if you’re in the mood for something a bit more mainstream, this new comedy by Paul Weitz (“American Pie”), starring Lily Tomlin as a grandmother trying to help her granddaughter (Julia Garner) raise money for an abortion, should do the trick.

The Jerusalem Film Festival runs from July 9-19 and is centered around the Jerusalem Cinematheque. For tickets call *9377 or visit the website at

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