Michael Stuhlberg as Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man."
Michael Stuhlberg as Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man."

8 great Jewish movies only a click away

In the streaming universe, as with all entertainment, there’s the stuff that everyone watches and talks about. But that’s just the tip of a vast catalog. A lot of what’s available at your fingertips is quite good but doesn’t get the hype and the buzz.

Even some of the new movies that are available to rent (or buy) and stream on demand can fly under the radar of the most diligent scout.

For example, did you know that “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog,” Lynn Roth’s adaptation of a bestselling Israeli novel set during World War II, is going to be available June 29 on video on demand?

The focus of this article, though, is accessible (as opposed to experimental) Jewish-themed movies that have been around for a little while.

So here’s a list of films that received hosannas on their initial release — and which you’ve likely heard of — that you now, finally, have time to catch up with.

“Campfire” (Amazon Prime): From his tense debut feature “Time of Favor” to the Oscar-nominated war film “Beaufort” through last year’s HBO series “Our Boys,” writer-director Joseph Cedar has made one great film after another. “Campfire” (2004) won five Israeli Ophir Awards, including best film, yet it’s probably his least-known film in the United States. 92 minutes, in Hebrew with subtitles.

“The Zigzag Kid” (Chai Flicks): Menemsha Films, the indispensable U.S. distributor of Jewish-themed films from around the world, has a free 30-day trial of its streaming platform, called Chai Flicks ($5.99 a month after that). Start with this irresistible, action-packed, family-friendly adventure about a precocious Dutch boy, adapted in 2011 by a Belgian director from Israeli author David Grossman’s novel. 95 minutes, in Dutch with subtitles.

“1945” (Amazon Prime): This extraordinary black-and-white Hungarian film parlays the enigmatic postwar arrival of two exhausted Jews at a small village into an exposé of guilt, betrayal, corruption and murder. One of the most acclaimed European films of 2017, “1945” is a gripping and haunting reckoning with dark history. 91 minutes, in Hungarian with subtitles.

“Mike Wallace Is Here” (Hulu): One of the smartest and best documentaries of 2019 examines, entirely through archival TV footage, the restlessly ambitious journalist who made “60 Minutes” essential viewing. Israeli director Avi Belkin doesn’t acknowledge his subject’s Jewishness, an unexpected choice that adds a layer of unspoken commentary about the assimilation of Jews into the American mainstream. All in all, a riveting and deceptively sophisticated one. 91 minutes, in English. Also for rent/purchase on Amazon Prime, iTunes.

“Disobedience” (Amazon Prime): Sebastián Lelio’s taut, understated 2017 drama, adapted from Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s novel, is a remarkably nonjudgmental story about a volatile, adrift woman (Rachel Weisz) who returns to London after the death of her estranged father, an Orthodox rabbi. Community, identity, responsibility, sexuality — everything is on the table. 114 minutes, in English. 

Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz” (Netflix): The last surviving U.S. attorney from the Nuremberg trials has an impeccable memory, a spotless moral compass and enormous gravitas. For a thumbnail sketch of the man, consider that he began every family dinner for years by asking his sons, “What have you done for mankind today?” If your fortitude in the face of current events is at a low ebb, Ben Ferencz will give you the strength to persevere. 83 minutes, in English.

“Tel Aviv on Fire” (Amazon Prime): Sameh Zoabi’s clever 2019 comedy about a Palestinian soap-opera writer trying to navigate the demands of both his bosses and an Israeli checkpoint commander will lift your spirits without insulting your IQ. Make a batch of hummus first. 140 minutes, in Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles.

“A Serious Man” (Netflix): The Coen brothers’ most personal and most Jewish film, shot in and around their childhood stomping grounds of Minneapolis–St. Paul, is a painfully hilarious moral fable guaranteed to provoke a cross-generational dinner table conversation. The tale centers on a college professor who, in the throes of late-1960s confusion and turmoil, seeks the counsel of local rabbis while his son grooves to Jefferson Airplane and reluctantly learns his haftarah. One among several politically incorrect questions that this devious 2009 movie poses: Are Jews our own worst enemies? 106 minutes, in English.

And when you’re looking for the next batch of gems, head to JFI on Demand. The online catalog of the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute includes titles screened at the S.F. Jewish Film Festival, providing a detailed description and, when available, a direct link to the film wherever it’s streaming.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He 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.