Adam Sandler as a N.Y. jeweler in “Uncut Gems.” (Courtesy A24)
Adam Sandler as a N.Y. jeweler in “Uncut Gems.” (Courtesy A24)

The 10 best Jewish films of 2019, from Holocaust satire to ‘Fiddler’ documentary

2019 was a busy year, but not a great year, for movies with Jewish interest. There was plenty to see, but only a couple of films (“Jojo Rabbit,” “Uncut Gems”) broke through the clutter to make an impact.

While Jewish characters were front and center in high-profile TV shows (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Kominsky Method,” “Broad City”), in movies they were largely relegated to glorified cameos (Al Pacino as old-school agent Marvin Schwarz in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Alan Alda as menschy divorce attorney Bert Spitz in “Marriage Story”).

Jewish artists and celebrities were, as always, exceedingly popular among documentary makers. “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” (televised on PBS’ “American Masters”) and “Ask Dr. Ruth” led the parade, which included less widely seen portraits of Leonard Cohen (“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love”) and the late actor Anton Yelchin (“Love, Antosha”).

So picking a Top 10 was a bit of a challenge for 2019. Here are the films that left a mark.

1. Jojo Rabbit

The most ambitious and audacious film of the year was made by a Maori Jew from New Zealand. Taika Waititi, the director of Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” radically adapted Christine Leunens’ novel into a sharp satire of Nazi racism and groupthink that garnered the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle award for best screenplay.

2. Who Will Write Our History

My only criticism of “Jojo Rabbit” was that it didn’t convey the depth of the Holocaust’s horror. Roberta Grossman’s compelling documentary about the men and women in the Warsaw Ghetto who secretly amassed an archive of documents and diaries that would survive (if they didn’t) fills in a missing historical chapter for people of all ages.

3. Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz

The last surviving U.S. attorney from the Nuremberg trials has an impeccable memory, a spotless moral compass and enormous gravitas. This terrific doc (now on Netflix) serves as an inspiring counterpoint to Matt Tyrnauer’s slick biography of another Jewish lawyer from New York, who had not an iota of integrity, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”

4. Uncut Gems

What makes Howard run? Jewelry hustler and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler, impressively manic) races around New York City to keep his increasingly angry debtors at bay. En route, Benny and Josh Safdie’s nerve-jangling drama (opening Dec. 20 locally) rips the bandage off black-Jewish relations.

5. Mike Wallace Is Here

Avi Belkin examines the penetrating TV journalist, who made “60 Minutes” essential viewing, entirely through archival TV footage. This is one of the smartest and best documentaries of 2019, though it is not Jewish-focused.

6. Synonyms

Nadav Lapid’s abrasive, semiautobiographical drama about a self-loathing young Israeli army veteran’s effort to shed his identity in Paris won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival. Painful and revealing, with some flashes of humor.

7. Tel Aviv on Fire

Sameh Zoabi’s clever comedy about a Palestinian soap-opera writer trying to navigate the demands of his bosses and an Israeli checkpoint commander is one of nine (!) films with Jewish themes among the official submissions for the best international film Oscar.

8. Transit

German director Christian Petzold transposed Jewish novelist Anna Seghers’ 1944 story of refugees trying to flee France to an enigmatic time and place that has echoes of both the past and the present. Now streaming on Amazon Prime.

9. To Dust

Shawn Snyder’s debut feature explores the grief process through a Hasidic cantor (Géza Röhrig of “Son of Saul”) who recruits a community college science professor (Matthew Broderick) to accompany his obsessive investigation into how his wife’s body will return to dust. Meanwhile, his sons worry that he’s swallowed a dybbuk. Also streaming on Amazon Prime.

10. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

A crowd-pleasing, by-the-numbers doc about the historical (shtetl life) and literary (Sholem Aleichem) roots, creative development and enduring cross-cultural popularity of the Broadway musical “Fiddler of the Roof.” Formulaic, but enjoyable and Jewish through and through.

Some of the best films of the year won’t open in the U.S. until 2020. The Ophir Award-winner “Incitement” powerfully dramatizes the life of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin leading up to his irreparable act. Roman Polanski’s well-reviewed portrayal of the Dreyfus affair, “An Officer and a Spy,” has opened across Europe but awaits a U.S. distributor (a long shot given the likelihood of protests and boycotts of the director).

Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s harrowing adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s World War II-set novel “The Painted Bird” made the Academy Awards short list in the international features category. Already on European screens, a U.S. release is likely. In that eventuality, look for it during its brief run — and on next year’s Top 10 list.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.