Jewish actors and filmmakers are mainly out to give us laughs in 2016. The Coen brothers return, on February 26, with Hail Caesar!, which promises to be one of their great screwball-style shaggy dog comedies, this time set in 1950s Hollywood, where a handsome actor (George Clooney) from a sword ’n’ sandals epic, is kidnapped, sending the studio into chaos. Scarlett Johansson plays a swimming starlet; Tilda Swinton, a gossip columnist; Jonah Hill, a mogul (think Michael Lerner’s Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink); and Ralph Fiennes, a shouting director. In Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming comedy Grimsby, Cohen plays a football hooligan whose brother (Mark Strong) is a ruthless SAS commando. Watch the trailer and dare to not go to see it. And a real treat is in store from the neurotic, depressed genius of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) in Anomalisa, a stop-motion animation that has had people in tears.
And if you want to see something at the cinema before 2016? Experimenter and Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict are both good bets. Experimenter is a fascinating, highly stylised film about the life and work of sociologist Stanley Milgram, best known for his 1960s Yale “Shock Experiment” study into mass obedience. Milgram’s findings— that 65 per cent of people will, despite obvious misgivings about doing so, carry on inflicting pain if politely and firmly told to— – had many obvious parallels with the behaviour of ordinary citizens in Nazi Germany.
As played by Peter Sarsgaard, with dartingly determined eyes and smirking mischief, Stanley Milgram is not motivated by any kind of Jewish revenge, merely a calculating and scientific curiosity into human behaviour. Unfolding more like a stage play, Michael Almereyda’s film has Milgram frequently address the audience to tell us his inner thoughts and often bits of Wikipedia-style biography.
Art Addict is about art collector Peggy Guggenheim, who wasn’t your typical Jewish girl. Although her stock was from immigrant families peddling door-to-door on New York’s Lower East Side, by the time she was born, in 1898, it was into enormous wealth and a Park Avenue palace, forged by the merging of mining and banking families. She went on to carve herself a niche in the art world to become one of the most famous and influential collectors of 20th century works. She slept with most of the artists, too. Chiefly, the documentary delights in ringing off the names of the artists she nurtured. Rothko, Pollock, Miro, Max Ernst (whom she married, unhappily), Giacometti, Clyfford Still, Man Ray and the French surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton and Yves Tanguy. We see a lot of paintings and get cute little anecdotes of the type: “He was a tiny little man” or “I only slept with him once, hardly worth mentioning,” or “On the day Hitler invaded Norway, I bought a picture from Fernand Léeger for a very good price.” The film glories in Peggy’s time in 1920s Paris, when bohemian artists abounded. But it also reveals how she helped many artists— and art works— escape the Nazis in Paris and set up in New York, founding the crucial avant-garde gallery Art of This Century in 1942. It was there that she first exhibited work by Robert De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, something to which the actor himself here gives gruff acknowledgement.
With a slew of films that will take you back to the 1920’s, the 1950’s, and the 1960’s, there’s something for everyone looking to escape this day and age for a few hours.