Justin Chang

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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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.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

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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.

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