Justin Chang

The year 2008 saw the publication of Aravind Adiga's novel The White Tiger and the release of the film Slumdog Millionaire, two stories about young men escaping poverty and defying the odds against the backdrop of a rapidly globalizing India.

If you didn't know what they were about, you'd be forgiven for confusing the striking new movies Promising Young Woman and Pieces of a Woman. They do have similarities that go beyond their titles: Each is an intense but uneven film about the lingering effects of trauma and tragedy. And each one centers on an American woman played by an English actor doing her strongest work in some time.

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:

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Farewell Amor begins with a scene at JFK Airport, where a man greets the wife and teenage daughter he hasn't seen in years.

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Steve McQueen has made searingly powerful films about historical injustice, from slavery in the American South to a 1981 hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison. But only now has he dramatized the experiences of Black women and men in the U.K., specifically the West Indian neighborhoods of London where he grew up. He clearly has a lot to say: His anthology Small Axe, which he directed and co-wrote, consists of five dramatic films, each one telling a different story set between the 1960s and the 1980s.

Back in 2017, the English writer and director Francis Lee made a wrenching drama, called God's Own Country, that I wish more people had seen. It told the story of two isolated young men on the rugged moors of North Yorkshire, tending a flock of sheep and falling passionately in love — sort of like a British Brokeback Mountain, only a lot more explicit and with a much happier ending.

Frederick Wiseman's new documentary, City Hall, was shot in 2018 and 2019, which means that it already plays like a pre-COVID-19 time capsule.

Although it's not as widely known in the U.S. as his adventure tales like White Fang and The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden is now regarded as one of Jack London's greatest achievements.

I doubt I'm alone when I say that this year has been a blur: Sometimes it feels like only yesterday that I was going to the office or heading outside without a mask, and sometimes it feels as though an eternity has passed. This past week I watched two absorbing new documentaries that both seem to bend and distort our sense of the passage of time.

One of them, which is actually called Time, spans more than two decades. The other one, titled Totally Under Control, focuses on the very moment we're living in.

While the American film industry still has a long way to go in nurturing movies made by women and people of color, the Sundance Film Festival has long provided an important platform for marginalized voices.

The Devil All the Time, now streaming on Netflix, has enough awful characters, festering secrets and dead bodies to furnish a whole TV series, though I'm not sure I'd want to see a longer version of this story. The movie is based on a densely plotted 2011 novel by the Ohio-born author Donald Ray Pollock, and it's grim in ways that can be both exciting and a little wearying: so many twists and betrayals, so many horrific acts of violence.

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The writer and director Michael Almereyda is making some of the most thoughtful and inventive biographical dramas of any filmmaker working today.

Since they were founded in the 1930s by the American Legion, the Boys State and Girls State programs have been giving high schoolers a practical education in how government works. Students in every state are chosen to take part in a week-long summer experiment in which they must form their own representative democracy. As we learn from the opening credits of the terrific new documentary Boys State, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Cory Booker are just a few of the program's famous alums.

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Given how much time some of us are spending at home these days, there might be something a little perverse about watching a movie that takes place in a haunted house. That's especially true of two terrific thrillers, Amulet and Relic, in which the characters' living spaces are infected with dark spirits and become inescapable prisons.

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Welcome to Chechnya is a grimly ironic title for a documentary that plays like a chilling undercover thriller. The camerawork is rough and ragged; the sense of menace is palpable.

The movie opens on a dark street in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, where a man smokes a cigarette and arranges secret meetings and transports by phone. This is David Isteev, a crisis intervention coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network, and he spends his days helping gay and transgender Chechens flee a place where they are no longer safe.

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Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods was supposed to open in select theaters, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced Netflix to change its plans. You could call that unfortunate timing, except that amid nationwide protests against racism and police violence, the movie could hardly be timelier.

I first saw Shirley months ago, back in January. It's strange to be revisiting it now. Like a lot of very good movies, it doesn't speak to this extraordinarily fraught moment, and it doesn't offer a mindless escape from it, either. What it does offer is a smart, fascinating glimpse into an artist's mind, and I hope you'll seek it out now or in the future.

At a time when many of us are staying home, with no plans to travel farther than the nearest grocery store, watching The Trip to Greece might seem like either a lovely escape or an exquisite form of torture.

When I first saw the lovely independent film Driveways last fall, I didn't know that I was watching one of Brian Dennehy's final performances. I remember thinking he was wonderful in the movie, which in itself was no surprise. I also remember wishing that this great American actor, so acclaimed for his work on stage and television, had been given more of his due in movies.

What kind of movie watcher are you in the age of coronavirus? While sheltering at home, do you seek out joyous Hollywood classics like Singin' in the Rain? Or do you lean into tales of terror, madness and social breakdown, like all those viewers who have made Contagion one of the year's hottest rentals?

I'm reluctant to explain why Eliza Hittman's new movie is called Never Rarely Sometimes Always. It's a mouthful, to be sure; few people I talked to at this year's Sundance Film Festival could remember it correctly. But then we saw the movie — and after that, a lot of us knew the title would stay with us forever.

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