In its 10th year, the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival proved a worthy successor to CineVegas as the state’s biggest and longest-running film festival, with a program highlighting the diversity of Jewish films curated by festival director Joshua Abbey. Sure, there were some predictable entries—the LVJFF is never complete without several Holocaust-related movies, and some of the documentary selections can be quite dry. But Abbey made room this year for a Sundance-approved indie biopic (Howl), an outrageous French comedy (Coco) and a crowd-pleasing American rom-com (Adam). Not all of those unexpected selections were successful (Coco is like the French version of a lame Adam Sandler movie; Adam is treacly and heavy-handed), but they broadened the horizons of the festival while sticking to its core mission of showcasing Jewish culture. Attendance was once again strong, with several screenings completely full, and some of the post-screening discussions were lively (although some were painfully awkward). Abbey has effectively mobilized support from the Jewish community, and this year’s festival once again demonstrated that it deserves a much wider audience.
The best movies were relatively serious, character-driven dramas, and even the Holocaust films managed to extract some interesting dynamics from that well-worn subject. My favorite of the 13 movies I saw was The Matchmaker, a low-key but often powerful Israeli coming-of-age story set in 1968. Although it uses post-Holocaust Jewish immigration to Israel, the changing mores of the 1960s and the looming specter of terrorist attacks as background elements, at its heart it’s a moving story of a teenager’s friendship with a local matchmaker and small-time criminal. Seven Minutes in Heaven, another Israeli movie that explores personal drama against the backdrop of political issues, also impressed me with its melancholy tone and somber hopefulness. It even manages to throw in one of the most clichéd plot twists around and just about pull it off.
On the documentary side, there was at least one requisite PBS-style WWII history (the dull Walking With Destiny, about Winston Churchill), but Abbey brought in a range of nonfiction films that included the charming first-person documentary The Beetle, along with movies about baseball and early sitcoms. The festival closed with Howl, a docudrama about poet Allen Ginsberg and his controversial epic. Its mix of courtroom re-enactments, animated illustrations of the poem and snippets from Ginsberg’s life (with the poet played by James Franco) is uneven but often compelling, and the perfect illustration of how wide-ranging films about Jewish life can really be.