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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And it's time now to look back at the year in movies, and what a year it has been. We've seen wild things and raining meatballs, an old man, his house and a Boy Scout headed up with the help of a few thousand balloons, and George Clooney lost himself �Up in the Air.� This month alone we've seen the strangest of spectacles from the digital forest of "Avatar" to Sherlock Holmes reinvented as a wisecracking martial arts master.

Well, our film critic Bob Mondello has dutifully seen them all. As always, he's put together an annual top 10 list for us, and as always, he's cheated.

BOB MONDELLO: Sometimes Hollywood finally gets it right after getting it wrong for quite a while. The war in Iraq, for instance, which has stymied filmmakers for years suddenly inspired not one but three of the year's best films: a drama, a comedy and an action flick.

Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" was the actioner, following a bomb squad a lot closer than any moviegoer could possibly find comfortable.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Twenty-five.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Twenty-five meters, roger that.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Butcher shop, 2 o'clock, dude has a phone.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Why is Eldridge running? Come on, guys, talk to me.

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) Get off the phone.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) I can't get a shot.

(Soundbite of explosions)

MONDELLO: Audiences got a close-up view of the home front in the sharply acted drama "The Messenger," where a decorated war hero who must learn to deal with the most difficult task of his military career: informing families that their loved ones have died.

(Soundbite of film, "The Messenger")

Mr. WOODY HARRELSON (Actor): (As Captain Tony Stone) You do not speak with anybody other than the next of kin, no friend, no neighbor or mistress. Avoid physical contact. In case you feel like offering a hug or something, don't.

Mr. BEN FOSTER (Actor): (As Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery) I'm not going to be offering any hugs, sir.

MONDELLO: Where "The Messenger" looks at war's effects, war's causes are the subject of the British comedy called "In the Loop," about idiot bureaucrats screwing up in public and taking heat from their sometimes profane handlers.

(Soundbite of film, "In the Loop")

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) I was going to say I don't think war is unforeseeable.

Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (As character) What is it, then?

Unidentified Man #5: (As character) I don't know, foreseeable?

Unidentified Man #6: (As character) No.

Unidentified Man #7 (Actor): (As character) No, not foresee - (BEEP). Write this stuff. It's neither foreseeable nor unforeseeable.

Unidentified Man #5: (As character) Right, so not inevitable but not...

Unidentified Man #8 (Actor): (As character) You better walk on this line.

Unidentified Man #5: (As character) Evitable.

MONDELLO: "In the Loop" prompts plenty of laughs while leaving you with the sinking feeling that this may actually be how global decisions get made. If there were still theaters that played triple features, these three � "Hurt Locker," " Messenger" and "In the Loop" � would be a scarily potent trio.

Also potent is "Precious," with an unexpectedly moving performance by comedian Mo'Nique as the abusive mother of a Harlem teenager.

(Soundbite of film, "Precious")

Ms. MO'NIQUE (Actor): (As Mary) Those things that she told you I did to her, who else was going to love me? Who was going to make me feel good?

MONDELLO: "Precious" prompted much talk in the media about child abuse. And midway through the summer a documentary called "The Cove" made a splash by exposing animal abuse involving the capture and killing of dolphins. The filmmakers assembled what they called an "Oceans 11" team of Hollywood technicians to get footage of what Japanese authorities would not let them see.

(Soundbite of film, "The Cove")

Unidentified Man #9: Simon(ph) created all these weird ways to hide hi-def cameras and hydrophones, you know, he's a mad genius. We had a military-grade thermal camera which, of course, you're not allowed to bring out of the country. If it has a pulse, the thermal camera picks it up.

MONDELLO: "The Cove's" release was timed to help stop this year's dolphin slaughter, and at least in the cove it covered seems actually to have accomplished that.

That's five of the year's best. Now let's head into smilier territory with an elderly widower whose house gets lifted by thousands of balloons in the Pixar film "Up." Only after he's up does he discover there's a stowaway on his porch.

(Soundbite of film, "Up")

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. JORDAN NAGAI (Actor): (As Russell) Please, let me in.

Mr. ED ASNER (Actor): (As Carl Fredricksen) No. Oh, all right.

MONDELLO: Also airborne this year is frequent flier George Clooney in the comedy "Up In The Air." Clooney jets all over the country firing people and qualifies as a pretty chilly customer until he meets someone who's attracted to his mileage.

Ms. VERA FARMIGA: (As Alex Goran) I put up pretty pedestrian numbers: 60-thou a year domestic.

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Ryan Bingham) That's not bad.

Ms. FARMIGA: (As Alex Goran) Don't patronize me. What's your total?

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Ryan Bingham) That's a personal question.

Ms. FARMIGA: (As Alex Goran) Oh, please.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Ryan Bingham) And we hardly know each other.

Ms. FARMIGA: (As Alex Goran) Oh come on, show some hubris. Come on, impress me. I bet it's huge.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Ryan Bingham) You have no idea.

MONDELLO: Hollywood has no idea how to make art come alive in the cinema, but French films do, and two this year were uncommonly artful. "Seraphine," the true story of a maid whose gift for naive painting was only discovered in 1912 because an art critic stayed in rooms she was cleaning; and the Chekhov-like drama "Summer Hours," a sort of French "Cherry Orchard" about a family of grown-up kids weighing what to do with the museum-quality paintings and furniture that clutter their mother's estate.

Not art, but art-direction is what animates "A Single Man," in which Colin Firth plays a closeted '60s professor grieving the death of his lover.

(Soundbite of film, "A Single Man")

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (As George) It takes time in the morning for me to become George, time to adjust to what is expected of George and how he is to behave. By the time I'm dressed and put the final layer of polish on the now slightly stiff but quite perfect George, I know fully what part I'm supposed to play.

MONDELLO: "A Single Man" rounds out my Top 10, but 10's an arbitrary number, so I'm going to keep going.

2009 was a great year for turning classic children's stories into movies with enough heft for adults. Spike Jonze made a visually exquisite "Where The Wild Things Are."

(Soundbite of film, "Where The Wild Things Are")

MONDELLO: 3-D animation enhanced a trip through the looking glass in "Coraline."

(Soundbite of film, "Coraline")

Ms. DAKOTA FANNING (Actor): (As Coraline Jones) You're not my mother. My mother doesn't have buttons.

MONDELLO: Clever screenwriting spiced up "Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs."

(Soundbite of film, "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Falafel.

Unidentified Child #1 (Actor): (As character) Jellybeans.

Unidentified Man #10 (Actor): (As character) Avocado.

Unidentified Man #11 (Actor): (As character) Coming right up.

MONDELLO: And Wes Anderson's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" was the very image of hip.

(Soundbite of film, "The Fantastic Mr. Fox")

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Why is he wearing that bandit hat?

Mr. CLOONEY (Actor): (As Mr. Fox) His ears were cold. Go back to bed.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) If what I think is happening is happening, it better not be.

MONDELLO: Striking acting graced a number of 2009's best foreign films, including Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces," about a filmmaker and his muse; and Japan's "Departures," about a man who thinks he's taking a travel job when he signs on with a funeral parlor.

MONDELLO: Those bachelor partiers who lost their groom in "The Hangover" were a hoot and a half. And a pair of terrific independent movies gave audiences a taste of Broadway this year: the documentary "Every Little Step," chronicling tryouts for a revival of "A Chorus Line"; and Spike Lee's electrifying filmed-onstage version of the musical "Passing Strange."

(Soundbite of film, "Passing Strange")

Unidentified Man #12 (Singer): (Singing) You don't know me, and I don't know you. So let's cut to the chase, the name is Stu(ph).

MONDELLO: 2009 was also marked by some remarkable science fiction, first with the rebirth of the Star Trek franchise and then with the birth of two new franchises, both centering on huge corporations that run into trouble when they try to relocate alien villagers: "District 9," set in South Africa; and "Avatar," extravagantly visualized by James Cameron on the planet Pandora.

(Soundbite of film, "Avatar")

Mr. STEPHEN LANG (Actor): (As Colonel Miles Quatrich) Out there beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes.

(Soundbite of alien)

Mr. LANG: (As Colonel Miles Quatrich) As head of security, it is my job to keep you alive. I will not succeed.

MONDELLO: That is an additional 12 films to add to the top 10. Not bad, 2009.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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