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

Dec 24, 2020

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.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's been months since I've been in a movie theater. And I miss theaters so much. COVID has changed where and how we see movies and has left us with fewer new movies to see. Our film critic, Justin Chang, who is also film critic for the LA Times, is with us to talk about the year in film and to share his 10 best list.

Justin, it's good to talk with you again. What a year it's been. Must have been quite a year for you. Like, your whole job has probably changed (laughter).


GROSS: But we'll get to that a little bit later. So you've been well, I hope?

CHANG: I have, Terry. And I hope you have, too And it's a pleasure to be back with you at the end of this - yes - very crazy year for all of us, I know.

GROSS: My standard answer to how are you is, good - dot, dot, dot - under the circumstances (laughter). So...

CHANG: (Laughter) Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, let's start with your 10 best list. Do you want to run through it?

CHANG: Yeah. I'm going to read my list, which is, as usual, a series of themed pairings. So No. 10 and No. 9 go together, for example. And I'm going to start from 10 and work my way back to one.

So at No. 10 on my list is "Beanpole," Kantemir Balagov's stark harrowing drama about two women in post-World War II Leningrad. I've paired that with my No. 9, "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," Eliza Hittman's film about two teenage girls traveling to New York so that one of them can procure an abortion. Both those films can be found on a variety of streaming platforms.

At No. 8 is "Collective," Alexander Nanau's explosive documentary about the political corruption of Romania's health care system. It's a portrait of institutions in crisis that was clearly inspired by another great documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, who directed my No. 7 movie, "City Hall," a sweeping panorama of Boston's municipal government. That stands among his best recent work. "Collective" is playing on various streaming platforms, and "City Hall" is in virtual cinemas nationwide.

Up next on my list are the two boldest and most inventive literary adaptations I saw all year. And both of them happen to be about the self-destructive tendencies and intellectual vanities of men. And for all that, they could hardly be more different films. No. 6 is "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things," Charlie Kaufman's darkly funny psychological thriller based on Iain Reid's novel. That movie is available on Netflix. No. 5 is "Martin Eden," Pietro Marcello's inspired Italian-language adaptation of a Jack London classic. It can be streamed via the Kino Marquee virtual cinema.

The next pairing on my list is devoted to two perfectly crafted dramas set in the American wilderness, but also play like requiems for the American dream. No. 4 is "First Cow," Kelly Reichardt's gripping crime story about two entrepreneurs and their bovine companion in 1820s Oregon. That can be found on streaming platforms. No. 3 is "Nomadland," Chloe Zhao's achingly beautiful drama starring a never-better Frances McDormand as a woman driven by grief, poverty and wanderlust to hit the road and never look back. You can actually see that film in early 2021, when it will be more widely released.

And finally, my two very favorite movies of 2020. No. 2 is "Time," Garrett Bradley's wrenching documentary about a woman who fought for two decades to release her husband from an excessive prison sentence. And No. 1 is "Vitalina Varela," a work of both fiction and nonfiction from the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, which follows a Cape Verdean widow on her solitary journey to bury her husband in a Lisbon shantytown. Both of these movies are portraits of Black women living worlds apart, yet both possessed of extraordinary determination and courage as they confront personal loss while refusing to let it have the last word. "Time" can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, and "Vitalina Varela" can be found on the website of its distributor, Grasshopper Film.

GROSS: Justin, I'm wondering if living during the pandemic affected the kinds of movies you wanted to see and how you responded to movies that were shot before the pandemic?

CHANG: It definitely affected the movies I was able to see and, of course, just the movies that were available. I mean, this was not a big year for studio movies, as we know. For all that, though, in terms of independent films, in terms of documentaries, films made in other countries released here, films that I saw at festivals last year and also at, say, the Sundance Film Festival this year - which was one of the last festivals to happen before the pandemic shut everything down - there was an abundance - the usual abundance - of films.

And so in that respect, there's actually been something liberating, I would say. I mean, that seems like such an odd thing to say in a time when none of us feel (laughter) liberated, but - and the implications for, you know, the movie industry and for Hollywood are dire and grim, but I've been heartened by the renewed focus on some of those movies that would not have maybe gotten the same attention and that are always in danger of being sort of crowded out and pushed to the margins. You just have to look a little harder. And it was just as hard for me to make a top 10 list this year as it was in any year because I saw and loved so many movies.

That being said, just the way I do my job - as the way everyone has done their job - has changed, of course. It's hard not being in theaters. I miss them terribly, just as much as you do. And I'm grateful for streaming. I'm grateful for the safety of my living room, but it's harder to focus. It's harder to give the movie the undivided attention that it deserves. And just, you know, all the usual things of working from home. I have a small child at home, too. It hasn't been - that part of it has definitely been a challenge.

GROSS: So there's holiday movies opening and - not in theaters necessarily, but, you know, available on streaming services. Of the holiday movies that are coming up now, are there ones that you'd particularly recommend?

CHANG: Yes. I would recommend that audiences see "Wonder Woman 1984," which is going to be released in theaters on Christmas Day, but is also opening simultaneously on the HBO Max streaming. So I would recommend people subscribe to HBO Max. They can watch it that way. The movie is just a really enjoyable throwback to '80s superhero movies, or even late '70s superhero movies, like Richard Donner's "Superman," for example. It has some of that playful, very innocent spirit in a way that I think is very refreshing for some of us who are maybe tired of the more brooding, oppressive, self-serious kinds of superhero movies we've been seeing lately.

And it's funny. One of the weird effects of this year is that I don't have the usual blockbuster fatigue. I don't have the usual superhero fatigue that I normally do. And so something like "Wonder Woman 1984" is actually kind of refreshing in this context.

GROSS: So you're the film critic for the LA Times. Have there been fights between you and the TV critic over who gets to review what since the line has blurred so much between what's a movie and what's TV since so many movies are opening in TV platforms?

CHANG: The truth is, Terry - you know, it's funny. Even before this year, my wonderful LA Times colleagues, Lorraine Ali and Robert Lloyd, the TV critics at the Times - we never fight about stuff like that because we all have so much on our plate that it's like - actually, it's more the other way around. Can you do this, or can you do this, please? But, absolutely, this year there have been - the blurring of the lines have become even more pronounced.

This year, nothing has encapsulated that so much, I think, as "Small Axe," the anthology of films - five films directed by Steve McQueen. They are five different stories about life in London's West Indian community set between the 1960s and 1980s. Steve McQueen is primarily known as a film director, of course, with films like the Oscar-winning "12 Years A Slave," "Hunger" and "Shame." This is him working in television, working in - you know, doing a multipart TV work. He made them specifically for British television, and they're being shown on Amazon. But, you know, those are movies, and three of them played at the New York Film Festival. Two of them were selected for Cannes.

So the whole is this a movie, is this a TV series question has inspired furious debate. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, a group that I'm a member of - we voted "Small Axe," the whole anthology, as our best film of the year. And that delighted some and infuriated a lot more. I don't get too tied up with these distinctions myself. To me, I think cinema can absolutely be television and vice versa. I'm not so obsessed with the classifications as some people are. But it's been really interesting to see the debate that has erupted out of that decision in particular.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, we're talking to our film critic, Justin Chang, who's also a film critic for the LA Times. We'll talk more about the year in film after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our look at the year in film with our film critic, Justin Chang.

So do you think COVID has affected the kind of movie that you are most receptive to, how it's affected the kind of mood you want from a movie and what your - what makes you impatient and what makes you really engaged? I mean, most people have been so on edge, and I think that's being reflected in the choices that they make for listening and viewing.

CHANG: I'm kind of weird in that my mood is maybe less determined than most by just the overall general mood in terms of what I'm in the mood for. Like, I was just having a conversation with a friend the other day. They said, oh, I can't watch anything depressing right now. And it's like, I'm sort of the mind, really, I actually like leaning into depressing stuff.


CHANG: It actually provides a bit of perspective in a way. Don't get me wrong. I mean, I also, in the early days of the pandemic, I was watching "The Shop Around The Corner." I was watching "Singin' In The Rain." Yes, I love my escapist Hollywood entertainment as much as anyone. But there's something to be said for leaning into stories about people who are even worse off than you are just for a bit of perspective.

It's actually really funny. The movie that I was talking with with a friend was "Beanpole," which is the No. 10 movie on my list, which I do recommend people. And I would warn them, if you can't handle anything depressing right now, I would say, yeah, maybe skip that. But at the end of the day, I'm reminded of something Roger Ebert said. To paraphrase him, it's that great art is never depressing.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. I know. It's so true. Like, depressing - I always think of "Cold War" - the movie "Cold War."

CHANG: Yes. Yeah. Beautiful film.

GROSS: You know, it's a very depressing film in a lot of ways, but it's so exhilarating 'cause it's just so good. Well, but along those themes, you're saying you like to lean into the depression and despair (laughter), but what movies this year have given you, like, the most comfort and joy?

CHANG: (Laughter) Comfort and joy - what a concept.

GROSS: Two seasonal words, yeah.

CHANG: I know. Well, you know, I will say that as far as movies that were really comforting, I would single out "Lovers Rock," which is one of those five "Small Axe" films directed by Steve McQueen. This is a movie set at a 1980s house party in London - in Notting Hill, actually. And it is just sheer bliss. It's a great party movie, and it's a great anti-social distancing movie because you are - there are just heart-stoppingly beautiful moments in this film where the camera is grooving along with the dancers. And it's sensual. It's sexy. It's romantic. It is completely transporting, really hypnotic filmmaking by McQueen. And it's unlike anything he's done, I think, because most of his movies tend to be colder and more severe. So I think that there was something really liberating about that one in particular. And it just - it absolutely will lift your spirits and, I think, give you hope for, you know, for the future.

Another one kind of along those lines is David Byrne's "American Utopia," directed by Spike Lee, a - just a great concert film, just a burst of joy. I mean, "American Utopia" expresses so much hope despite the darkness. And I think those two movies - "Lovers Rock," "American Utopia" - you know, we miss house parties. We miss concerts. We miss being together. And those movies will allow you to experience some of that safely.

GROSS: What are you going to be doing over the holidays?

CHANG: (Laughter) Watching movies, as usual, but also - and hopefully taking a break and not writing about them, but also just staying at home, hunkering in the bunker with my wife and daughter and, you know...

GROSS: What are you going to watch on the holidays if you're watching movies?

CHANG: I don't know yet. And I'm so bad at answering that because I just have this huge stack of things I need to watch. I want - I always want to watch older films as well. One of the pleasures of this year has been actually getting to watch more older movies than I typically get to in a busier year, so - but also my holidays never feel complete if I do not watch "Meet Me In St. Louis," which is one of my all-time favorite movies, that wonderful 1944 Judy Garland musical, which is a great Christmas movie, but it's also just a great seasonal year-round movie because it's - takes place over a whole year. And that is something that I think will soothe my soul and I hope many others as well.

GROSS: I love that movie very much.

CHANG: It's so great.

GROSS: And it's the movie that the song "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" was written for.


GROSS: And that's such a wonderful song that's so perfect for this year because it's all about not being able to be with the people who you love.

CHANG: It is.

GROSS: And they're looking ahead to when they have to move and they won't be with the people who they love next Christmas, and the song says that soon, faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more. And then it later says, until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow. And I think that so describes how people are feeling, so we should probably end with that song. And I'm sure we both love the Judy Garland version from the film, but I think maybe we'll end with the Hugh Martin version. He wrote the song, and toward the end of his life, he recorded it. And it's a - I think, just a beautiful version of it. Sound good?

CHANG: Sounds great, yeah. And I love the song, too, for all those reasons. And sometimes the most melancholy Christmases and holidays in general are the most meaningful ones.

GROSS: Well, Justin, it's been a pleasure to talk with you again, and I wish you a 2021 that's better than 2020 has been and with plenty of not only good movies, but hopefully a chance to gather with people who you love and go back to film festivals and be able to argue in person with - about movies with people.

CHANG: I miss that so much. And thank you so much, Terry, and I wish the same for you. Happy holidays and happy new year to you.


HUGH MARTIN: (Singing) Here we are, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we go into our archive for a concert of Christmas and winter songs, some classics and some obscure ones, performed by singer Rebecca Kilgore. And we'll stay in our archive for an excerpt of our onstage interview with and performance by Rosemary Clooney, who starred in the film "White Christmas." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer this week is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

No matter how you're spending your Christmas, even if you're away from the friends and family you hoped to be with, we wish you a good holiday, and we wish you and those who are dear to you good health.

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