The Israeli film industry has continued its growth over the last decade, from once a small and struggling industry into a major force to be reckoned with, producing films that go on to be featured in most major film festivals as well as many theatrical releases around the world. There were not as many Oscar nominations in the last decade for Israeli films, but the industry overall has expanded and flourished within Israel and outside of it. Of course, its success has more than trickled over into TV production and in the last few years has become one of Israel’s strongest exports. From Shitsel and Fauda to When Heroes Fly and Mossad 101, Israeli TV has become the tail that wags the dog for the entire filmmaking industry.
But none of it would be possible without its cinematic roots. The last decade has brought many feature films to the American Box office with some success including Rama Burnstien’s ultra orthodox drama Fill the Void (2012), Joseph Cedar’s political-social satire Footnote (2011) Yuval Adler’s agent-thriller Bethlehem (2013) and Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014). But the true power of the Israeli film industry is when it looks beyond its founding themes of military, politics and religion and takes the audience into the nuanced human stories of normal Israeli life. These films show the universality of Israel and the complexities of everyday existence, rich with details of a clearly defined culture that make up Israel of today.
I have seen almost every noteworthy Israeli film of the last decade and compiled below a list of my top ten films of the last decade which stand out with an independent spirit and artistic merit. Many of these films are some of the smaller movies that sometimes could fall between the cracks and get forgotten in the end of decade summaries. (In order by year of release)
S#x Acts (Jonathan Gurfinkal, 2013)
One of the freshest films I have seen in years, giving an inside look at sexual misconduct of Israeli privileged youth. The story follows a teenage girl from Herzelia whose physical relations with the boys in her school escalate through six stories of her attempts to be accepted. Rebellious teens and sex are a theme we have seen in films from around the world. But this film touches on this topic with a unique harsh realism and a perspective of a new generation of Israelis who have access to wealth and some of the other negative influences of the modern world like no generation before in Israel. The irony of the city where this take place being named for the founding father of Zionism who dreamt of Israel being a modern country, says it all.
A Place in Heaven (Yossi Madmoni, 2013)
Yossi Madmoni is one of Israel’s most prolific filmmakers often bridging gaps between American and European style of storytelling. In this film, he takes on the classic epic genre and tells the story of three generations of an Israeli family throughout over 50 years. The core of the conflict is the religious and secular divide. The film is rich with biblical references fused with modern stylistic cinematic choices. Despite feeling like a Hollywood production, the film is told from a deeply Israeli perspective and captures sides of Israel that have never before been seen on film.
The Farewell Party (Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, 2014)
This unlikely comedy takes place in a retirement home and follows a man who invents a euthanizing machine – which makes him surprisingly popular. The story follows his group of friends and his personal loved ones who shake up the sleepy home where they live as aging and end-of-life decisions play out. This creative theme and witty playout is the strongest weapon of an emerging film industry. One does not need special-effects to tell a good story and make it universal.
Beyond the Mountains and the Hills (Eran Kolirin, 2015)
From the director of The Band’s Visit comes a visual masterpiece that follows the story of a typical Israeli family living in a suburban community. This family drama turns into a poignant social critic and a metaphor for modern Israeli society as each member of the family carries a secret. Ultimately the film asks the question of “are we the good people we think we are?”
Saving Neta (Nir Bergmann, 2016)
Four stories of women threaded together by a drifter, Neta, who impacts their lives and ultimately drive his evolution. Each chapter is a stand-alone story about separate individuals. The connecting theme of Neta who is a man gradually detaching himself from society as a result of his own trauma, slowly unfolds through his mostly passive part in these tales. The film plays with a strong literary sensibility and is based on a novel.
In Between (Maysaloun Hamoud, 2016)
Maysaloun Hamoud’s energizing take on a modern Arab life in Tel Aviv. The film captures the complexities of modern Palestinian-Israeli life through the story of three Arab women roommates. This provocative film surpases the politics and dives deep into the social issues concerning Arab society in Israel for a generation of those caught in-between modernity and tradition.
Scaffolding (Matan Yair, 2017)
Annually, Israel produces stories of the divide between the mainstream and “the periphery” of Israeli society. Often the story follows a group of kids from a tough town and a teacher from the big city who comes to teach them, but learns a lesson about himself. Scaffolding visits this world but avoids all the cliches. Like many of these productions, the film uses non-actors to tell the story. In this case, we follow Asher, whose father owns a scaffolding company and wants his son to take over the family business. Asher, who has learning differences, meets a teacher with whom he connects and for a moment, can see beyond his planned path to a dead end.
The Cakemaker (Ofir Raul Graytzer, 2017)
This small but beautiful drama actually won the top award from the Israeli Academy (Ofir Award) despite being the underdog. It focuses on modern German-Jewish relations through the story of a tragic love triangle between a German man, a Jewish man and his wife. The influx of young Israelis travelling the world and moving specifically to Berlin allow for a newfound relationship between these societies. The film hardly, if even at all, mentions the Holocaust and instead focuses the drama on the shades of gray that exist in religious life of Jerusalem.
Outdoors (Asaf Saban, 2018)
This independent production is told through the unique format of the building of a house. It follows a young couple with a growing family who is seeking to leave the city and move to the Galilee. This film could take place anywhere in the world as families debate city life vs. country life. The uniqueness of the film is its structure, as it tells its story of the couple’s evolving relationship through the process of the construction of their home. Each scene takes place at another stage of the real estate development creating personal drama through the evolving space.
Working Woman (Michal Aviad, 2018)
Precogniting the #MeToo movement, this timely film shows the unraveling of the inappropriate advances made by a boss in the workplace on a young married woman. In the backdrop of a real estate development project – a sign of Israel’s changing skyline, this film takes us into the realities of sexual misconduct towards Israeli women and this universal issue. Through great performances and no dramatic manipulation, this film resonates and creates deep impact that is crucial both for Israel and the world.
One might question what makes these films Israeli? Most of the films listed are on universal themes and could take place anywhere in the world. The answer is that “God is in the details.” All of these films are deeply filled with specifics of Israeli culture and could not be more truly local. These films capture what Israel looked like from 2010-2020 and I hope someday will be looked back on and studied as films that defined an era.