Jewish Filmmakers Go for the Gold

Natalie Portman in “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (Ran Mendelson)

2016 was a bountiful year when it came to cinematic output by those a part of or exploring themes integral to the Jewish community.

With the Golden Globe Award ceremony — which many still believe to be an early glimpse into Academy Award possibilities — taking place Sunday, it’s time to spotlight which films were nominated and which ones were left in the darkness.

Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, the Hebrew-language period piece “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” is an example of films noticeably left off of the heralded roster this year.

“Portman crafts a tale of loss, memory, life and death, juxtaposed with the astringent triumph of an oppressed people over the forces that would  destroy them,” Christopher Llewellyn Reed, chair/professor in the film and moving image program at Stevenson University, wrote in his review for popular website “Hammer & Nail.” The local film critic is a regular speaker at cinema events through various area Jewish organizations such as the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival.

Although she and her film received no nominations for “Love and Darkness,” Jerusalem- born Portman was nominated in the category of best actress, drama for her role as Jacqueline Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s biopic of the former first lady, “Jackie.”

“It seems that every other critic liked it, and I would like to sing her praises, but I found the film — which was lovely to look at — unbearable to watch,” Reed said in an interview with the JT. “I love [Natalie Portman], and I’m a big fan. I loved her in ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness.’ But I found [‘Jackie’] really hard to sit through because it was all ‘performance.’

“Yes, I think [Larrain] was trying to make a statement about how these people in wealthy society have to put on a persona,” Reed went on to say. “But they’re also real people, and I don’t believe there was ever a time in the film when that was shown.”

An actress nominated by the Golden Globes that Reed said he can “sing the praises of from here to kingdom come” is French femme fatale Isabelle Huppert for her role in Paul Verhoeven’s taut erotic thriller “Elle.”

“She can do no wrong,” Reed said about the Jewish actress who has been a mainstay in films produced by some of Europe’s most masterful directors since her early teens.

“[‘Elle’] was exploitive like so many of [Verhoeven’s] films,” Reed said about the filmmaker, whose body of work includes such contentious “exploitation” films as “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” as well as modern sci-fi classics “RoboCop” (1987) and “Total Recall” (1990).

“But I will say that in ‘Elle,’ [Verhoeven] examines that  exploitation in a more complex way than he has in the past,” Reed said. “[Huppert] plays both prey and predator. I’m more of a fan of hers here than I am of the film, which I’m still making up my mind about. I wonder how much of what I liked [about ‘Elle’] was her performance.”

Though he had a few problems, as he put it, with the slightly “improbable” third act, Reed greatly enjoyed Todd Phillips’ “War Dogs,” featuring Jonah Hill who was nominated for best actor, comedy.

“I feel [Hill is] an actor who brings quality to everything he does,” Reed said about the Jewish actor/writer who emerged from the realm of Judd Apatow’s regular ensemble over the last few years.

Another film that was notably left off of the Golden Globe nom list this year is Nate Parker’s antebellum slave drama “The Birth of a Nation,” which Reed called “a worthy first feature,” despite the fact that “I didn’t like everything about it.”

In Reed’s opinion, the film, produced by Jewish Baltimore native and Jemicy graduate Jason Berman, suffers from two important factors working against it for Golden Globe nominations.

He believes that the massive amount of accolades that “Nation” received when it first premiered at Sundance this past year, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards as well as selling for a record-breaking amount to distributor Fox Searchlight, made for a picture that was just waiting to be knocked down a peg or two by the critical consortium.

This turned out to be especially true when the film’s  director/co-writer and lead actor Parker was wrangled into a very different kind of spotlight as past allegations of sexual misconduct emerged later in 2016, casting a dark cloud of controversy over the film.

“When a movie is snubbed even from the ‘snub list,’ you have an idea where it’s at,” Berman, who was an artist-in-residence at Reed’s Stevenson University in 2015, said. “People don’t even want to have a conversation about it.”

It’s difficult for Berman to believe that a film so recognized during its first few months of screenings has so abruptly dropped off the critical radar for reasons aside from its extra-cinematic controversy.

“The entertainment media was not nice to our movie,” Berman said. “Our movie was definitely shied away from. We’ll see what happens with the Oscars.”

Reed offers Mel Gibson (excoriated for anti-Semitic remarks made during an inebriated police stop in 2006) and his return to the big screen as featured actor in 2016’s “Blood Father” as well  as Golden Globe nominated director of “Hacksaw Ridge” (nominated for best picture, drama) as proof that “with time, people are willing to forgive.”

Berman’s “Nation” has in fact received six nominations for the upcoming NAACP Image Awards, much to its producer’s gratitude.

“They were able to separate the film and the 400 people working on it versus the past history of its filmmaker,” Berman said. “Everyone involved in the film was very happy that happened. It was a positive thing.”

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