At the time I'm writing this, there is lots of talk about the just-released movie version of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, the acclaimed young adult book set in Germany during World War II. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson play the parents of the book thief of the title. I loved the book and haven't seen the film, which is getting reviews that are intriguingly all over the spectrum. (To illustrate the range, AP critic Jessica Herndon called it "a triumph" while the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips was decidedly less enthusiastic.)
But that's not really the point of this post. The point is that the movie release of The Book Thief represents two ways that Jewish books - and Jews - come together at the movies. It is both a Jewish book adapted to the screen, and it's a holiday movie. In film-biz lexicon, holiday movies, released in the last months of the calendar year, are generally those with Oscar possibilities (so they are fresh in Oscar-voters' memories at nomination time) or those most geared toward groups of family members and friends more likely to see films the old-fashioned way (in a theater) when they have time off at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's.
But to me - and many Jews - the term "holiday movies" means something else. They are the movies available to see on Christmas day, when we celebrate with the traditional pairing of a movie and Chinese food. In fact, the tradition of Jews, Christmas, and Chinese food is so much a part of the America Jewish experience that it played a role in the Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings of Justice Elena Kagan. Senator Lindsey Graham, in questioning Ms. Kagan about her views on the war on terror, inquired about where she was on Christmas day 2009, the date of the failed attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by a passenger with explosives sewn to his underwear. Kagan responded, to well-deserved applause, "Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant." You should watch the clip. It's hilarious. Senator Patrick Leahy needed the joke explained to him by New York Senator - and Jew - Chuck Schumer. But I digress.
This year, in advance of holiday Jewish-movie watching, here are suggestions for a few upcoming new releases - one book-based, the others not - that touch on the Jewish experience. In December, I'll share some movies made from Jewish books available for watching at home in your living room.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Opens in Chicago December 20.
Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, this Grand Prix winner at Cannes follows a young folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961. In Variety, film critic Scott Foundas says, "In keeping with the Coens' interest in matters of Jewish cultural identity, the pic also touches - but never dwells - on the folk scene's abiding spirit of self-reinvention, which allowed a Jewish doctor's son from Queens to become the singing cowboy Ramblin' Jack Elliott."
Six by Sondheim
Debuts on HBO December 9.
Directed by James Lapin and told primarily in Sondheim's own words, this feature documentary reveals how art and life have been intertwined for Sondheim since childhood, when his mother's friendship with the family of legendary librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II introduced the young Sondheim to his artistic mentor and his musical path. Interspersed with archival performances by stars including Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin.
The Monuments Men
Scheduled to open February 7, 2014.
Technically no longer a holiday release (unless the holiday is Purim) because the release date has been pushed back to early 2014, but sounds like it will be well worth the wait.
Directed by George Clooney, the film tells the story of an unlikely World War II platoon tasked with saving precious works of art and architecture from the clutches of the Nazis. Based on Robert Edsel's nonfiction book "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History." All-star cast includes Clooney along with Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, and Bill Murray.
For more about films with Jewish connections, see Jan Lisa Huttner's excellent Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight.