From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. How do you judge a year's worth of movies? By box office standards, not even an army of wizards, Transformers and vampires could make 2011 a record breaking year. Despite all the 3D and IMAX showings, movie receipts sagged by half a billion dollars compared with last year.

But in terms of quality - well, that's another story. Bob Mondello's 10 best list for 2011 positively overflows.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Last year's most celebrated movies were talk-fests, "Social Network," "The King's Speech," everybody yammering away. This year, some of the movies that most deserve to be celebrated barely talk at all.


MONDELLO: The year's single happiest surprise, "The Artist," is a silent black and white comedy, the ideal way to deal with 1920s Hollywood, when silent film was giving way to talkies. There's a big film star on his way out, a pretty dancer on her way up and enough cleverness about movie form to convince even determined skeptics that film silence can still be golden.


MONDELLO: "The Artist" is having fun being nonverbal while a pair of art-house films this year make a more serious case for largely visual storytelling. Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" makes a point of dealing with abstractions abstractly.


JESSICA CHASTAIN: (as Mrs. O'Brien) There are two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace.

MONDELLO: Jessica Chastain expressing the film's point.


CHASTAIN: (as Mrs. O'Brien) You have to choose which one you will follow.

MONDELLO: "The Tree of Life" conjures everything from clouds of DDT to clouds of galaxies at the dawn of creation.

Another gorgeously abstract epic, "Melancholia," conjures not creation, but the end of things. Two sisters contemplate a universe without humanity as the Earth and another planet swirl in a tragic, slow motion dance of death.


KIRSTEN DUNST: The earth is evil. We don't need to grieve for it.


DUNST: Nobody will miss it.

MONDELLO: If those three pictures tell their stories largely with images, others of the year's stand-outs stand out in their use of dialogue. You're not going to get a movie from Woody Allen that doesn't have everyone chattering away, for instance. In "Midnight in Paris," the fun is in who's chattering when a writer walks into a Parisian bar in the year 2011 and meets Scott and Zelda - the Scott and Zelda.


TOM HIDDLESTON: (as F. Scott Fitzgerald) Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the Fitzgeralds. Isn't she beautiful?

OWEN WILSON: (as Gil) Yeah, yes. Yeah. That's a coincidence.

MONDELLO: Also, both talkie and uproarious is "The Trip," which is just what the title describes - two actors on a road trip, annoying each other in various ways, but most hilariously with dueling impressions.


ROB BRYDON: (as Rob) I've not heard your Michael Caine, but I assume it would be something along the lines of, my name's Michael Caine.

STEVE COOGAN: (as Steve) That is where you're so wrong because that's the very thing I don't do.

BRYDON: (as Rob) Do your Michael Caine.

COOGAN: (as Steve) Okay. I say, Michael Caine used to talk like this in the 1960s, right? But that has changed. And I say that, over the years, Michael's voice has come down several octave - let me finish - and all of the cigars and the brandy - don't. Let me finish.

MONDELLO: Wait 'til you hear their Sean Connerys. Having just as much fun with movie references is a terrific animated western about an out-of-his-element chameleon named Rango. Voiced by Johnny Depp, he's a terrarium-based tenderfoot who pins on a sheriff's badge, saves the town of Dirt and even cozies up to a lady lizard.


JOHNNY DEPP: (as Rango) So what's your name?

ISLA FISHER: (as Beans) Beans.

DEPP: (as Rango) That's a funny kind of name.

FISHER: (as Beans) What can I say? My daddy plum loved baked beans.

DEPP: (as Rango) Well, you're lucky he didn't plum love asparagus.

FISHER: (as Beans) What are you saying?

DEPP: (as Rango) I mean, you know, I enjoy a hearty puttanesca myself, but I'm not sure that a child would appreciate the moniker.

MONDELLO: I'm not sure a child will understand most of that exchange, nor the references to "Chinatown" and "Apocalypse Now," but they make "Rango" a real treat for the older set.

That's six of the year's best. The next two are foreign films set in the Middle East. "Incendies" - the title, in French, means scorched. Think incendiary. A good description of a world where Christians and Muslims slaughter each other in revenge for past murders.


MONDELLO: "Incendies" is a family saga with the power of classical tragedy. The Iranian drama "A Separation" is more quietly devastating, a tale of moral and religious quandaries that complicate matters for a wife who wants to leave Iran to give her daughter a better life and a husband who won't go because he's caring for his father, who has Alzheimer's.


MONDELLO: You'll note that, in the year of 3D, I've not mentioned anything involving glasses yet. 3D has mostly surfaced as a gimmick to jack up prices on thousands of screens, but a pair of documentaries this year found artful directors using 3D to illuminate art. In "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," when Werner Herzog plunges into France's Chauvet Cavern, you feel you can reach out and touch the 35,000-year-old paintings. It's a tactile tour that brings prehistoric mastodon hunts alive.


WERNER HERZOG: (as himself) The artist painted this bison with eight legs, suggesting movement, almost a form of proto-cinema.

MONDELLO: And director Wim Wendors uses 3D to take you into the middle of Pina Bausch's choreography in the dance documentary "Pina."


MONDELLO: Because the film can give you a sense that dancers are all around you, there's an intensity to Bausch's work that may even surpass watching it on stage.

That's 10, but I've still got another minute, so let's keep going. Gender lines got blurred to spectacular effect in Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In," and to farcical effect in the anything guys can do, gals can do rowdier comedy, "Bridesmaids."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Annie Walker) You got food poisoning from that restaurant, didn't you?

KRISTIN WIIG: Oh, my. Okay.


ELLIE KEMPER: Why is this happening?

WENDI MCLENDON-COVEY: You know, I don't really care which dress we get. It doesn't matter to me. I just need to get off this white carpet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Okay. No, not the bathroom.

MONDELLO: There's also director Martin Scorsese being playful in "Hugo," a 3D kid flick that celebrates Georges Melies and the dawn of cinema, while David Cronenberg represses his darker side in a period drama celebrating Freud and Jung and the dawn of psychoanalysis.


VIGGO MORTENSON: (as Sigmund Freud) There's a rumor running around Vienna that you've taken one of your patients as a mistress.

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (as Carl Jung) That's absolutely untrue.

MORTENSON: (as Sigmund Freud) Well, of course, it is.

FASSBENDER: (as Carl Jung) What's being said?

MORTENSON: (as Sigmund Freud) The usual sort of thing. Bound to happen sooner or later. It's an occupational hazard.

MONDELLO: Family dynamics are intriguingly examined in Alexander Payne's George Clooney in mourning comedy, "The Descendents," and in the indie dramedy "Beginners," about a man whose 75-year-old father is exploring his sexuality late in life.


EWAN MCGREGOR: (as Oliver Fields) Hello.

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (as Hal Fields) Oliver.

MCGREGOR: (as Oliver Fields) Yeah.

PLUMMER: (as Hal Fields) We had some wonderfully loud music in the club tonight.

MCGREGOR: (as Oliver Fields) Did you meet anyone?

PLUMMER: (as Hal Fields) Huh?

MCGREGOR: (as Oliver Fields) Did you meet anyone?

PLUMMER: (as Hal Fields) No. Young gay men don't go for older gay men. You have it easy.

MONDELLO: The son in "Beginners" is an art director, so the film's director filled the screen with startling images. So did Raul Ruiz in his exquisite four-hour costume epic, "Mysteries of Lisbon." The covered-wagon saga "Meek's Cutoff," seemed ready to take this year's prize for beautifully wrought moral ambiguity until "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" came along.

And for anyone feeling unsettled about the state of the world - and isn't that everybody? - 2011 had the perfect movie stand-in, the anguished, possibly delusional building contractor in "Take Shelter."


MICHAEL SHANNON: (as Curtis) I've been having these dreams. They always start with a kind of storm. I'm going to build out the tornado shelter in my backyard. I can use some help.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What the hell you want to do that for?

SHANNON: (as Curtis) Just needs to be done.

MONDELLO: Unsettling by design, "Take Shelter" rounds out an entirely worthy second 10. Not bad for a year that stumbled at the box office. I'm Bob Mondello.

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