By JE Staff
If you’re anything like us, the last eight or so weeks of quarantine have been an opportunity to become intimately acquainted with boredom and a low-decibel hum of dread. Also sourdough starters, we gather.
But there’s something about the feeling of plopping down on the couch, turning the lights low and experiencing the joys of cinema that serves as the perfect escape.
So here are some of our favorite flicks, for your viewing pleasure.
Jesse Bernstein, staff writer and books editor: “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” (2016)
“Norman” is a truly weird and wonderful movie starring Richard Gere as New York Jewish community fixer Norman Oppenheimer. He’s a small-timer, content to serve as a liaison between the political world and the Jewish institutions to which he belongs, securing favors and funding where he can.
Three years after Norman befriends a visiting Israeli politician who later becomes prime minister (Lior Ashkenazi), a harsher light is cast on some of his activities. Come for Steve Buscemi as a rabbi, stay for an AIPAC Policy Conference scene that is startling in its verisimilitude.
Andy Gotlieb, managing editor: “School Ties” (1992)
“School Ties” didn’t make much of a splash when it was released and it’s a bit formulaic, but there’s a lot going for it, even today, since as a period piece it doesn’t feel dated.
The film stars Brendan Fraser and three then-fledgling actors who hit it really big: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris O’Donnell. And Dick Wolf, the guy behind the “Law & Order” franchise, developed the story and screenplay based on childhood experiences.
Fraser plays David Greene, a blue-collar Jewish kid from Scranton in the 1950s who gets a football scholarship to a snooty New England prep school. Things start out well, even though he suppresses his background when he realizes some of his teammates are anti-Semitic. David becomes a football star, makes friends and starts seeing a débutante.
Tensions arise, however, because teammate Charlie Dillon (Damon) becomes jealous, claiming the débutante is his girlfriend. When Dillon discovers David is Jewish, our hero loses the girl and most of his teammates turn against him, often viciously. Dillon cheats on a test, but David (who saw him cheat) is blamed when a crib sheet is discovered. The rest of the class must decide who’s telling the truth — a classic morality play.
Sophie Panzer, staff writer: “Obvious Child” (2014)
If you find yourself missing the good old days when you could sit in a crowded bar and listen to a comedian tell poop jokes without fearing for everyone’s lives, Gillian Robespierre’s rom-com “Obvious Child” provides a welcome — and very Jewish — distraction from quarantine.
Jenny Slate charms as Donna Stern, an aspiring comedian in her late 20s who asks her audience, “Who here just saw my face and thought that they were at a bagel store in a synagogue?,” and tells her roommate (Gaby Hoffman) she looks like a “lez who just got back from Birthright.” Critics deemed the film revolutionary because Donna gets an abortion when she finds herself pregnant and utterly unprepared for parenthood, and the film never loses its funny, foul-mouthed tenderness.
Eric Schucht, digital editor: “Blazing Saddles” (1974)
The world is stupid. The world sucks. And when the world is stupid and sucks, it’s nice to watch a world that’s even stupider and suckier to take your mind off things. Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” is a perfect distraction.
The 1974 satirical Western follows Bart (Cleavon Little) as he goes from railroad worker to the first black sheriff of Rock Ridge. With the help of a drunkard gunslinger (Gene Wilder), the two protect an 1874 frontier town from those who wish to destroy it.
Kathryn Bernheimer ranked it at No. 18 in her top 50 Jewish films of all time. And while that list was compiled in 1998, “Blazing Saddles” is still worthy today.
Matt Silver, staff writer: “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984)
Few films have been declared both the best and worst movie in a given year, but that’s what happened with Sergio Leone’s final film. His romantic and unsparing portrait of the early 20th-century American dream has everything: violence, love, lust, loyalty, betrayal and Lower East Side Jewish gangsters. When it premiered at Cannes, running nearly 4½ hours, the audience stood in applause for 20 minutes.
American distributors, without Leone’s involvement, bastardized the sweeping epic into an incoherent, artless travesty for the sake of brevity and a linear narrative, resulting in a domestic release that was a critical and commercial flop. The good news is that the American cut has been consigned to oblivion; it’s universally regarded as such a disgrace it’s nearly impossible to track down. A restored 251-minute version that played at Cannes in 2012 is available on Blu-ray, but the 229-minute “European cut” can be streamed via YouTube and iTunes for $3.99 and does Leone’s vision justice. At less than 2 cents/minute, there’s no better recession value.
Liz Spikol, editor-in-chief: “Diner” (1982)
Written and directed by Barry Levinson, “Diner” focuses on six twentysomething friends — Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser, Steve Gutenberg and Mickey Rourke — who reconnect in 1959 as they’re figuring out next steps in their lives: Should they go to grad school? Get married and have kids?
There’s a lot that’s up in the air, but their longtime friendship and epic all-night hangouts at the diner — talking about sex, arguing over sandwiches — are the anchor that keeps them steady. The film has some cheesy moments, and it’s hard to watch Gutenberg’s and Rourke’s fine work without wondering what happened. But the funny, warm-hearted tribute to friendship, ritual and neighborhood hangouts is perfect for right now.