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A Terrific Year For Smaller Films: Critic Justin Chang Pairs 10 Favorites From 2020

(Clockwise from upper left) Vitalina Varela plays the title character in <em>Vitalina Varela,</em> Jessica Cressy and Luca Marinelli in<em><em><em><em><em> Martin Eden, </em></em></em></em></em>Marty Walsh in <em><em><em>City Hall</em></em></em> and two men try to start a business in the Oregon Territory in<em><em><em> <em><em>First Cow.</em></em></em></em></em>
Courtesy of Grasshopper Film, Francesca Errichiello/Kino Lorber, Zipporah Films, Allyson Riggs/A24
(Clockwise from upper left) Vitalina Varela plays the title character in Vitalina Varela, Jessica Cressy and Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden, Marty Walsh in City Hall and two men try to start a business in the Oregon Territory in First Cow.

It was a year when most of us stayed away from movie theaters, but it wasn't a year without movies. While the major studios largely set their sights on 2021 (and a few released their big titles on streaming services), it was an unsurprisingly terrific year for independent narrative films, feature-length documentaries and pictures of all types and genres from overseas. Here are the 10 that meant the most to me, arranged, per my annual tradition, as a series of themed pairings:

Vitalina Varela and Time

Pedro Costa's Vitalina Varela, an austere yet ravishing work that straddles fiction and nonfiction, tells the story a Cape Verdean widow adrift in a Lisbon shantytown. Garrett Bradley's wrenching documentary Time traces a Louisiana woman's decades-long fight to free her husband from an excessive prison sentence. I saw both these movies in January at the Sundance Film Festival, a couple of weeks before the pandemic forced theaters to close. The tough intervening months have done nothing to dissipate their visual poetry and emotional power.

Nomadland and First Cow

Chloé Zhao's achingly lyrical road movie, Nomadland, and Kelly Reichardt's wistful 19th-century buddy picture, First Cow, are set nearly 200 years apart. But they both tell exquisite stories about itinerant workers in the wilderness, trying to make the most of their hard-scrabble lives even as they expose the cracks and fissures in the American Dream.

Martin Eden and I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Pietro Marcello's Martin Eden, a gorgeous Italian-language reworking of Jack London's classic novel, and I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman's darkly unsettling take on Iain Reid's book, both skewer the intellectual vanities of men with mordant humor and a mounting sense of tragedy. Structurally and formally, they were the two boldest, most inventive literary adaptations I saw all year.

City Hall and Collective

Frederick Wiseman is among the greatest and most prolific of documentary filmmakers, and City Hall, a sweeping panorama of Boston's municipal government, stands with his finest work. The ever-influential Wiseman touch can be felt in the Romanian nonfiction thriller Collective, Alexander Nanau's gripping, infuriating film about journalistic acumen, government malfeasance and a criminally negligent health-care system.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Beanpole

The quiet resilience of female friendships: Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows two teenagers (Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder) on a harrowing trek through contemporary New York, while Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole follows two women (Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina) trying to survive post-war Leningrad. Both films probe their bleak circumstances with sobering artistry and unshakable humanity.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.

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