Is Israeli Cinema in Crisis? No, but It's Had Better Years

It wasn’t a particularly good year for local filmmakers and few movies left a real impression. But we can single out a few.

Itiel Zion

There have been years when I was asked to choose the best films of the year and had a hard time choosing. This year the decision was much easier – and that is not necessarily a good thing. I knew almost immediately that there was only one non-Israeli film I could choose and only one Israeli movie I could add to the top of the very short list of the best movies shown in Israel over this past Jewish year.

This doesn’t mean that these two films were so much better compared to the rest; it means that even if a few good movies were screened in Israel, Israeli films and non-Israeli ones, the cinematic year from last Rosh Hashanah to this one, 5776, was not a particularly good vintage and did not provide a great number of experiences that were engraved in my memory.

Does that mean that the cinema is in a crisis? Certainly not. As far as world cinema is concerned – and Israeli, too – there are such years and everyone who has been around for some time knows that is how things are in real life, too.

The official competition at the film festival in Cannes, the only international festival I usually visit regularly, did not produce more than one excellent film this year (in my opinion), and that was Todd Haynes “Carol,” which will be shown in Israel in the next few months. A few good directors whose movies participated in the competition disappointed this year with weaker films than those they made in previous years, including the Italian director Nanni Moretti, whose film “Mia Madre” (“My Mother”) was rather mediocre, though it opened the film festival in Jerusalem this year but has already disappeared from theaters; as well as directors Paolo Sorrentino and Matteo Garrone.

Even the film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Jacques Audiard’s "Dheepan" – despite its relative graces – was weaker than the previous films from this French director. The feeling was that Audiard won the prize because the time had come for him to win.

The best movie shown this year in Israel was that of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, “Winter Sleep,” which won the top prize at Cannes in 2014. This is a long movie, 196 minutes, packed with long scenes filled with conversations between the main character – a former actor who runs a small hotel in Anatolia – and the other characters. Ceylan’s film provided audiences who understand what cinema is and are willing to commit themselves to its demands a powerful experience that served as a lesson in the way it is possible to combine the personal story with that of society, culture and politics of the region in a film that still has a story line.

Yariv Fein and Guy Kushi

The exit from the private story to that where it is taking place also characterizes the best Israeli film of the year, Nadav Lapid’s “The Kindergarten Teacher.” Lapid’s second feature film is a surprising and complex work, whose plot describes the problematic, difficult and even tragic obsession that a kindergarten teacher develops for a 5-year-old child who occasionally enters a trance-like state and produces poetry much more mature than his biological age.

The movie deals with the search for poetry and beauty here, whose qualities have faded away. Despite the across-the-board critical praise for the film in Israel and the way the film was also received overseas, Israeli audiences did not turn out in masses to see it, making it the biggest missed opportunity of the cinematic year.

In the context of the Israeli cinema shown this year we must also mention Asaf Korman’s first film “Next to Her,” with the screenplay by Liron Ben-Shlush, who also played one of the two main roles alongside Dana Ivgy. The movie, which describes the relationship between two sisters, one of whom suffers from serious mental impairment, could have fallen into a number of dramatic and emotional traps, but it was a wonder of restraint, fairness and wisdom. If The Kindergarten Teacher was the best Israeli movie of the year, in my opinion, then Korman’s film was the runner-up.

Another film that deserves an honorable mention is Noam Kaplan’s “Manpower,” his first full-length feature film, which included one of the best scenes this year in Israeli cinema: Erez, a young man of Philippine ethnic origin but who was born in Israel and wants to enlist in the IDF, must prove his Israeliness to the committee examining him – and is forced to sing an Israeli song to them.

Kaplan’s movie spent too little time in the theaters here too, and that is just another missed opportunity that shows how the local audiences have a difficult time accepting cinema that is not in the regular popular fashion.

So it wasn’t a particularly good year for cinema here. So what? There is always next year. We are at the beginning of a season in which Hollywood puts out what it considers to be its best movies, in preparation for the end of the Christian year and its annual awards ceremonies; and they will be distributing a few films that have already aroused my curiosity. After all, what is more important than to continue to go out and watch the movies?

This year’s best films: Nadav Lapid’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” and Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep.”