It is always hard to choose the 10 “best” films out of many decades of filmmaking. As with any evolving national cinema, the number of movies made in Israel has grown steadily, with dozens now made each year. Their quality has continued to be stellar: Israel has been nominated for more Academy Awards for best foreign language film than any other country in the Middle East. At the Jewish Film Institute and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, we’ve screened many of them; these are just some of the standouts with enduring value.
These films, and many more selections from Israel and about Israel from around the world, are available to stream on JFI On Demand, the Jewish Film Institute’s curated streaming platform of Jewish film, at jfi.org/ondemand.
1. “Fill the Void”
This remarkable 2012 feature debut by Rama Burshtein — the first Orthodox woman to make a film meant for wide mainstream distribution — was picked up by Sony Picture Classics and was Israel’s official submission for best foreign language film. The story focuses on Shira, who is about to be married off to a young man when her sister suddenly dies in childbirth, leaving behind a husband and newborn. In order to keep her only grandchild close to her, Shira’s mother proposes that she marry her brother-in-law. The film advances an insider’s view of Orthodox life in Tel Aviv and offers a revolutionary portrayal of female sexuality and agency that counteracts stereotypes and posits that it is women who call the shots.
2. “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”
“Gett” is a landmark 2014 film, nominated for a Golden Globe, about a Sephardic Jewish woman from a Moroccan family who tries for years to obtain a gett (divorce) in an Israeli rabbinic court. The film stars and was directed by Ronit Elkabetz, who was an award-winning actress in both Israeli and French cinema. It is the final film in a trilogy she created with her brother Schlomi based on their mother’s life, sparking wide debate about religious marriage laws in Israel. It was her last film before she died of cancer in 2016.
3. “The Gatekeepers”
Directed by Dror Moreh, this 2012 film features unprecedented testimony by the six men who oversaw Israel’s internal-security intelligence operation from 1980 to 2011. It was groundbreaking for its surprising access to the leaders of Shin Bet, who speak openly about closely held state secrets. The film was nominated for a 2013 Academy Award in the best documentary feature category.
4. “Presenting Princess Shaw”
This crowd-pleasing 2015 documentary from Israeli director Ido Haar is about the touching partnership between YouTube artist Samantha Montgomery (Princess Shaw), and Israeli mashup artist Kutiman. More than your average music doc, this film tells the story of a cross-cultural, online collaboration between an African American YouTube singer who is navigating life challenges and an inspired, internationally famous composer and video artist who introduces Princess Shaw to a whole new global audience.
5. “Mr. Gaga”
Inspiring and tough, charismatic yet prickly, Ohad Naharin is Mr. Gaga, Israel’s rock star choreographer and the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. He is the subject of this 2015 documentary from acclaimed SFJFF alumni filmmaker Tomer Heymann. “Mr. Gaga” is a fascinating look at the life and work of one of the most unconventional figures in the contemporary world of dance and the film.
6. “A Matter of Size”
Poor Herzl is a big fish out of water. A 340-pound chef living with his mother, he’s been diving into a sea of perpetual diet groups and fitness regimes, and belly flopping. The relentless pursuit of slim is frustrating for him and for his three seriously overweight buddies in the working-class town of Ramle, Israel. In this endearing and poignant 2009 comedy, co-directors Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor (co-director of SFJFF’s 2008 opening-night film “Strangers”) find both wit and soul in their four big guys’ efforts to master the ancient sport of sumo wrestling and accept themselves as they are. With echoes of “The Full Monty” in both its blue-collar setting and its themes, “A Matter of Size” follows its own tender and funny (and Jewish) path from body shame to body celebration, and from loneliness to love.
7. “Waltz with Bashir”
This devastating 2008 animated documentary by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman is a kind of fictionalized documentary using rotoscope-animation techniques on live action footage to depict Folman’s search for the traumatic lost memories of his experiences as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War. The film garnered widespread critical acclaim upon its release, including a Golden Globe for best foreign language film and an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. It is officially banned in Lebanon to this day.
8. “Sand Storm”
Set in a Bedouin community in southern Israel, Elite Zexer’s mesmerizing 2016 debut feature portrays the emotionally layered relationship between mother and daughter, both bound by custom while struggling to adapt to a changing world. Zexer’s artful storytelling derives its authenticity — its complexity of character, rich detail and subtle humor — from the 10 years the Jewish Israeli filmmaker spent interacting with Bedouin women.
9. “The Band’s Visit”
This award-winning 2007 Israeli film, directed by Eran Kolerin, is now an award-winning Broadway musical, so this is a great time to revisit it. A band composed of Egyptian police officers arrives in the middle of the Israeli desert to play at the inaugural ceremony of an Arab arts center, only to discover they have taken the wrong bus to the wrong destination. The film stars Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz and was Israel’s entry for the foreign language Oscar, but it was disqualified from that category because its Arab and Israeli characters communicate mainly in English.
Joseph Cedar’s carefully crafted 2011 film is about a complex father-son relationship between two scholars. The father has labored for years without much recognition. For the son, everything comes easily. The father takes great pride in once having been mentioned in a footnote of a book by a legendary academic. One day, he receives a phone call congratulating him on being selected as a recipient of the Israel Prize, one of the country’s highest honors. But his son is summoned to the university where the award is given and quietly told the truth: A secretary called the wrong number — in fact, the award was meant for the son.