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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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