Justin Chang | KUNR

Justin Chang

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

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

Before I saw The Disciple, I knew nothing about Hindustani, or northern Indian, classical music. By the end of the movie, I knew a little bit more, though I'd still be hard-pressed to follow the different intonations that singers bring to their performances, or to explain how a raga works. (That's the musical framework that allows performers to improvise.) Fortunately, no expertise is needed to appreciate The Disciple, which is both a welcome introduction to a kind of music we rarely hear onscreen and a richly layered story of a young man's artistic struggle.

About Endlessness is a fitting title for a movie about the futility of the human condition, but happily, the movie itself is anything but a slog. For one thing, it's only 76 minutes long. And in every one of those minutes, it strikes an exquisite balance between deadpan humor and acute despair, offset by the faintest glimmer of hope.

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

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

When a violent ethnic conflict broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the writer-director Jasmila Zbanic was a teenager in Sarajevo, where she would spend the next three years living under siege.

The instability and violence of that era would indelibly shape Zbanic's later work as a filmmaker: In movies like Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams and For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, she explored the aftermath of the war and the deep scars it left in her country's psyche.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a lovely, moving surprise. Its big selling point is that it's the first Disney animated film to feature Southeast Asian characters, but like so many movies that break ground in terms of representation, it tells a story that's actually woven from reassuringly familiar parts. I didn't mind that in the slightest.

Chloé Zhao's amazing new movie, Nomadland, begins with an elegy for Empire, Nev., one of those old-fashioned company towns that thrived during America's post-World War II manufacturing boom. But in 2011, in the wake of a devastating global recession, the local gypsum mine shut down and Empire became a ghost town, displacing hundreds of residents in the process.

There have been many strong documentaries over the years about the history of the Black Panther Party, but Judas and the Black Messiah is the first major Hollywood drama I've seen that puts the organization and its activism front and center.

While it remains to be seen what this year's COVID-19-impacted Academy Awards ceremony will look like, my guess is that there will be an Oscar winner for best international feature, the category that until recently was known as best foreign-language film. I haven't come close to seeing the 93 films that have been accepted — a record for the Academy — but I'm happy to recommend two of them, both dramatic thrillers that demonstrate the power and persistence of love.

It's been awhile since I've seen a new studio picture like The Little Things — a big, meaty, slickly made crime drama featuring a trio of Academy Award winners. That's partly because of COVID-19, which caused theaters to close 10 months ago and led the studios to postpone some of their biggest titles. But even if there wasn't a pandemic and The Little Things had been widely released in theaters as planned, it might still have played like a relic from an earlier moviemaking decade.

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:

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

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

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

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.

Pages