There are many reasons why there are not a bevy of Hanukkah-themed holiday movies. Based on my experience as a Jew in America, we just are a bit more low key in how we celebrate. If people ask we share the information, but we really don't put it out there for mass consumption. So the marketing people at the studios have probably been clued into this, and they figure that making an overtly Chanukah-themed movie just isn't worth the expenditure. This is just a theory, though.
As a result we get a Hanukkah list that goes in many directions but one one way or another is uniquely Jewish. How so you may ask? Well, look at Eight Crazy Nights. This animated story about an alcoholic trying to change his ways may not seem like a holiday film but it is. Annie Hall may not scream "Hanukkah movie!", however, it too is very appropriate for this special time. I could go down the list but the point I am trying to make is that Judaism (like all religions) is many different things, so that makes it the perfect foil for a holiday movie list.
This list is truly a mixed bag in that none of the films address Hanukkah directly. The story of Chanukah is very inspirational. It shows how the Jews revolted against the Greeks and the Syrians who were trying to make them worship in a way to that went against their beliefs. This isn't really on display in this list. What readers will find are stories of triumph, heartache, love, hate, disbelief and everything else that bares reflecting around every holiday season.
As we mentioned above this animated story features Adam Sandler voicing the role of Davey Stone. He runs afoul of the law and is sentenced to doing his community service during "the most wonderful time of the year." Along the way he meets a grumpy referee (also voiced by Sandler) and it is here that Davey eventually does the right thing because, lets face it, he really doesn't have any other choice. Eight Crazy Nights may not be your standard holiday fare but it's really good for what it is. Sure, it may not be a Jewish film in the way tha The Chosen is but it has its heart is in the right place, and it shows that no matter who you are or what you've done you can always be redeemed.
Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is a lovelorn type who just can't seem to make his relationships work. When he meets Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) all of this appears to change, but the brilliance of Annie Hall is that we see that, ultimately, it never does. Unlike so many films that offer up fake, plastic, superficial ideas of what a relationship should be, Annie Hall actually celebrates that they can be difficult, amazing, brutal, and every other adjective used to describe both heaven and hell. While this might not seem like something you want to think about during the holidays, Hanukkah is anything but a typical holiday. Judaism, in my personal experience practicing the religion, constantly questions everything that goes into the human experience. This isn't to say that other religions don't. The main thrust of this list is to show how a Hanukkah themed, holiday movie list is different from your standard Christmas one. Annie Hall perfectly exemplifies this!
The Producers is a beautiful film that showcases the brilliance of an imperfect business relationship. The film follows a producer and his financial advisor who discover that if they make a crummy play they can actually make a bundle of cash. So, with those marching orders in place that is exactly what they set out to do in this comic farce. The Producers is a fun film any time of year, but there's something about a theater-centric movie for the holidays that makes it even more so. With characters who have names like Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick), this movie (which as you know is also a hit Broadway play) has a lot of fun with Jewish stereotypes (turning them on their head and also supporting them), as well saying something about modern day capitalism in this country. As you know this list doesn't feature many films that are actually about Hanukkah, mainly because there aren't many films that are actually about Hanukkah, but as you peruse this list you will hopefully see that none of that matters. This is a special time of year and these films will make it more special for you regardless of your faith.
There's the term "soft Jews" and "hard Jews." Okay, I am not sure if these are actual terms but I have come across them in my readings about the film industry. The "soft Jews" are the ones that are easy to get along with and generally don't want to make too much trouble (I would fall into this category). The "hard Jews" would be the tough deal makers and bosses who simply want results and don't care much how they are achieved. Inglorious Bastards is a film filled with hard Jews. An image on the big screen that most of us rarely see... at least not as overtly Jewish. Also, when I say "hard Jews" I mean BRUTALLY HARD JEWS. Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds has a fairly simple set up. A bunch of Jewish soldiers have been employed to kill a band of Nazi leaders during World War II. Of course, Tarantino has never been one for simplicity and the layered characterizations soon become the driving narrative of the story. Most of you probably know this but it also bares repeating, Inglorious Basterds isn't really appropriate for the holidays. At the same time this list is filled with enough "soft" films, that your Hanukkah might be well served to incorporate this "hard" one.
I had actually not heard of this basketball gem until I put this list together. Full Court Miracle is about a former basketball player finding work as a coach at a Yeshiva in Philadelphia. If you don't know what a Yeshiva is it is basically high school for Jewish boys. Yours truly almost went to one and Full Court Miracle reminded him of what could've been. Based on the career of former pro player Lamont Carr, Full Court Miracle makes for a nice Hanukkah offering. It may not be Hanukkah-centric per se, but the idea of overcoming adversity to become your best self is replete in the story of the holiday. Also, it's nice to see all the culture clashes that ensue throughout this film as we see Lamont Carr (Richard T. Jones) navigate this foreign world. That is something that everyone (Jewish or not) can certainly relate to.
This mid-80s classic tells the story of Fievel Mouskewitz. He is a mouse immigrating to America from Russia. Sadly, he gets separated from his family, has to dodge cats, and tries to find and settle his family all on his own. Chanukah stories don't get much better than this one. With its strong characters and excellent voice cast (Don DeLuise and Christopher Plummer just to name a few), An American Tail is that rare holiday film that crosses race, religion and creed. This story has a real sense of place. It unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve and that is what makes An American Tail special. The fact that the mouse is Russian, and so many Russian Jews came to America during the period when this film was set, only further bolsters its credentials. An American Tale shows that determination, faith, and love can overcome any situation. On a different note, this tale and its employment of mice to represent humans, makes me wonder if Art Spiegelman's 1996 book "Maus" was somehow inspired by the tale of Fievel Mouskewitz? It seems that mice were chosen in both instances to represent the terrible conditions faced by the immigrants and those who unfortunately imprisoned in concentration camps.
There are Jewish films and then there are JEWISH films. Sadly, in today's film marketplace, Jewish films seem to fall into two camps. Holocaust movies and then Jewish films that are homogenized to the point that there's really nothing "Jewish" in the movie. Now, I am not denigrating Holocaust films. They are necessary and more often than not quite well done. The issue is that as a people the Holocaust certainly isn't all that Jews are. This is where a film like The Hebrew Hammer comes in. With its devil may care attitude and in your face style, this film is a blaxploitation-themed romp about a fellow named Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg) who is attempting to save Hanukkah from the nefarious Damien Claus (Andy Dick). This whole affair is over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek, and has the kind of humor that takes the idea of a "nice Jewish boy" and completely obliterate its. Trust me, this is a good thing and this is just the film you need to turn up the brightness on your Festival of Lights!
The Prince of Egypt, the eighth film in this series, brings us back to familiar terrain as the proceedings are animated and they deal with one of the most monumental events in Jewish history: the exile in Egypt and the Jews eventual descent, led by Moses, into the holy land. I could go into this even more, I could break down the merits of the animation, but none of that is really necessary. Everybody, in one way or another, knows this powerful story. Whether you believe it or think it's fairy tales, The Prince of Egypt is a fantastic film that will add a sense of gravitas to your Hanukkah journey. There is a richness to this tale as we see characters at odds for no other reasons than their beliefs. At a time in this country when our family time is often marred by such things, it's nice to know that there are still movies out there that show us just how special we can be.
Bonus Chanukah Gift: Schusterman Levine: A Boxing Fable
A menorah displays a candle for each night of Hanukkah. In the middle, there is a candle called the shamash (helper), that lights all of the other candles. That is what Schusterman Levine: A Boxing Fable is on this. This tale, written and directed by yours truly, documents the amateur boxing career of Schusterman Levine. He is the worst fighter ever. Now, this film is filled with humor that is sometimes milquetoast and other times might be deemed as offensive. It is somewhere between The Hebrew Hammer and Zelig. Hopefully, you will stream it online (or seek out a DVD) and decide for yourself. Schusterman Levine: A Boxing Fable is a very low budget romp that, in addition to documenting a certain time in boxing and the late 90s Indy film scene, also attempts to show that if you have a dream you've got to follow it. Is there anything more Hanukkah than that?