Small screen only

The great films that skipped Chico theaters in 2015

<i>Far From Men</i>

Far From Men

Some of the best films I saw in 2015 never made it into local movie theaters, but most of them are now on DVD. The following items deserve special recognition and—except for The Wonders—are available for streaming via Amazon Prime as well as other online outlets.

Far From Men, a French/Algerian adaptation of an Albert Camus short story, is about a Frenchman, a schoolteacher in a remote part of Algeria in the 1950s, who is ordered by a patrolling gendarme to escort an Arab prisoner into the town where he will be jailed.

Writer/director David Oelhoffen is faithful to the Camus original while making (with co-writer Antoine Lacomblez) apposite additions of character (a posse of angry French cattlemen, an old comrade from WWII) and incident (a visit to a bordello, a hostage situation with a band of Algerian rebels). Viggo Mortensen delivers an outstanding performance as the teacher, a conflicted man of action, whose deepest roots are both European and North African. Reda Kateb makes a strong and moving impression as the prisoner, especially when the film is evoking the stages of his mostly silent partnership with the teacher. Especially in film form, the story’s resemblances to Elmore Leonard’s twice-filmed story, Three-Ten to Yuma, become strikingly evident.

By my lights, Bone Tomahawk, a combination Western/horror film, is an overlooked gem and one of the best American films of 2015. It’s the directorial debut of novelist/screenwriter S. Craig Zahler, and it features Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox as an Old West posse that ventures into uncharted territory with the aim of rescuing a kidnapped woman. The woman (Lili Simmons) is the town doctor, and the kidnappers are cannibalistic troglodytes who are both ferocious and mute. Russell is back in something like his Wyatt Earp mode in the role of the sheriff, but with a touch or two of his character in The Hateful Eight. Jenkins is superb as Chicory, the elderly deputy and sidekick, and Matthew Fox is very good as a gunfighter/womanizer/Southern gentleman.

The horror elements emerge mainly in the very grisly encounters with the troglodytes, but the film remains primarily a darkly comical, “revisionist” Western, pungent and rough-hewn, a mashup of myth and realism that insists on the proximity of gallantry and atrocity, in legend as well as history.

In The Wonders, director Alice Rohrwacher, the younger sister of actress Alba Rohrwacher, has made another friskily impressionistic family drama and coming-of-age tale based at least in part on her own German-Italian family’s story. Here the crankily counter-cultural father (Sam Louwyck) is a beekeeper trying to raise a family outside the crassly commercial boundaries of post-war Italy. Sister Alba plays the free-spirited mother, but the central figures are the two eldest children, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) and Marinella (Agnese Graziani), both of whom are growing into more central roles in the family. Monica Bellucci has a fine semi-satirical role as a beauty queen and reality TV star.

The first portions of About Elly are a little like an Iranian The Big Chill as couples and old friends gather for a festive seaside reunion. Much of the rest of the film, however, might seem a variation on Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic L’Avventura, as the sudden disappearance of one of the guests becomes a perplexing mystery that affects the other characters in unexpected and revealing ways. This subtle, engaging 2009 drama by Asghar Farhadi didn’t get an American release until 2015, after the success of his more recent films (A Separation, The Past).

In Timbuktu, the distinguished Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako builds the tale of what happens to the lives of ordinary people living in and around the Malian city of Timbuktu during its occupation by Islamic fundamentalists. A cattle herder (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his wife (Toulou Kiki) are particularly significant, as the effects of social breakdown spread outward. The political message is clear, but not simplistic, thanks in particular to the intimate, multifaceted realism of Sissako’s approach.