50 films from eight countries, with Israel in the limelight

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Spanning the cinematic spectrum from light comedy to an edge-of-your-seat horror movie, Israeli films are taking center stage at the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival.

The 19th annual festival lineup will feature several acclaimed Israeli films from the drama “Bethlehem,” Israel’s nominee for this year’s Oscars, to “Big Bad Wolves,” a chilling horror flick that created buzz at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and others.

In fact, of the 50 films to be shown at this year’s festival, nearly half are from Israel. “We found the Israeli films some of the best films we are showing this year,” festival director Riva Gambert said. Nine countries will be represented in all. The festival is presented by the Jewish Federation of the East Bay.

Screenings take place March 7-23 at the Century 16 in Pleasant Hill, Vine Cinema in Livermore and Orinda Theatre in Orinda.

Opening night March 8 in Pleasant Hill will feature two Israeli films, “The Wonders” and “Cupcakes.”

“The Wonders,” making its Bay Area debut, weaves the tale of a graffiti artist and a modern-day prophet held prisoner in a Jerusalem apartment.

“Cupcakes,” described by Gambert as a “frothy cinematic treat,” is a musical comedy about a group of friends in Tel Aviv who get together and write a song for a national competition.

Other movies making their Bay Area premiere include Israel’s “Hunting Elephants,” the haunting French-Israeli “Epilogue,” “Wagner’s Jews” and “Big Bad Wolves.”

The latter is an intense Israeli thriller that looks at the lives of three men after a string of children’s murders — the father of a victim, a police detective and the main suspect.

“It’s not over the top and it’s very restrained,” Gambert said. “It’s not a slasher movie and begs the question, ‘What would you do in a similar situation?’ ”

Should you want lighter fare, the festival will not only screen comedies but three documentaries about comedy.

“There is always a challenge to get comedic films for adults, but the audience requests them, and this year we have them,” Gambert said.

The three documentaries delve into the lives of Jewish entertainers Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mort Sahl and others who made an impact on comedy, especially in the mid-20th century.

Baby boomers who remember seeing David Steinberg on Johnny Carson may want to check out “David Steinberg Has Quality Balls,” which looks at his career from his standup days in the ‘60s to his most recent work on Showtime’s “Inside Comedy.”

Making its festival debut is “Short Bites,” a group of features ranging from five to 15 minutes each, presented between morning and afternoon film screenings on March 10 and 11. The lunchtime offering came in response to audience requests for a longer mid-day break, but also accomodates hardcore movie-watchers.

Another first for the festival: the Century 16 venue, necessitated by the demolition last May of Pleasant Hill’s iconic domed CinéArts. However, festival organizers are confident moviegoers will appreciate their new digs — where 33 screenings will take place.

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arts, culture & judaica |  East Bay International Jewish Film Festival