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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Penguins, lions and gorillas battled for Hollywood supremacy. "Star Wars" ended, "Batman" began, weddings were crashed. And despite all of that, 2005 will go into the record books as a box office disappointment. In fact, movie attendance dropped to its lowest level since 1997. But our critic Bob Mondello says if you look at quality rather than numbers, the picture is brighter. Here's his 10 best list for the year.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

Audiences stayed away, but the films got better. Go figure. I have to say if you avoided the cineplex this year, you missed more interesting pictures than usual, at least partly because smart directors were tackling difficult topics. Ang Lee, for instance, who stumbled last year bringing a comic book hero to life, found a kind of majesty this year with a tragic gay love story atop a Wyoming peak known as Brokeback Mountain.

(Soundbite of "Brokeback Mountain")

Unidentified Man #1: What if you and me had a little ranch somewhere, a little cow-and-calf operation? It'd be a sweet life.

Unidentified Man #2: I told you it ain't gonna be that way. We're around each other and this thing grabs hold of us again in the wrong place and the wrong time and we're dead.

MONDELLO: "Brokeback Mountain" combines spare dialogue, terrific performances and breathtaking vistas in exploring a 20-year relationship between two ranch hands that proves stronger than either of their marriages.

If that was a change of pace, not just for the director but for Hollywood itself, it was no more startling than having Woody Allen turn abruptly serious. We know him for his comedies, but "Match Point," which opened two days ago, is a Hitchcock-like exploration of how life can be a balance of moral choice and fate.

(Soundbite of "Match Point")

Unidentified Man #3: I think everybody's afraid to admit what a big part luck plays. I mean, it seems scientists are confirming more and more that all existence is here by blind chance; no purpose, no design.

MONDELLO: "Match Point" is designed to a purpose.

Another director who tackled serious issues with enormous force this year is Steven Spielberg. In his film "Munich," he starts with the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and explores the moral challenges that liberal democracies face when they confront terrorism.

(Soundbite of "Munich")

Unidentified Man #4: I mean, that's the job. Right? We're here to kill the guy who planned Munich.

Unidentified Man #5: It's strange--Isn't it?--to think of oneself as an assassin.

Unidentified Man #6: Think of yourself as something else then.

Unidentified Man #7: A soldier in a war.

MONDELLO: Not all of the year's best films were so serious. Two soldiers in a far more lighthearted war, against rampaging bunny rabbits, were the animated odd couple Wallace and Gromit. Their feature film debut was a spoof of mad inventor movies, "Curse of the Were-Rabbit."

(Soundbite of "Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit")

Mr. PETER SALLIS: (As Wallace) Simply by connecting the Bun-Vac..

(Soundbite of item dropping to floor)

Mr. SALLIS: (As Wallace) ...to the Mind-Manipulation-O-Matic...

(Soundbite of clanging noise)

Mr. SALLIS: (As Wallace) ...we can brainwash the bunnies. Ha, ha. Rabbit rehabilitation.

MONDELLO: Wallace and Gromit were definitely the year's most appealing family film stars, while it was broken families that inspired the smartest work by independent filmmakers. Noel Baumbach dipped into his own childhood in "The Squid and the Whale," a brilliantly dark comedy about divorce.

(Soundbite of "The Squid and the Whale")

Mr. JEFF DANIELS: I've got you Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and every other Thursday.

Unidentified Child #1: Every other?

Mr. DANIELS: That's how we each have you equally.

Unidentified Woman #1: That was your father's idea.

Unidentified Child #1: Don't do this.

Unidentified Child #2: How will I get to school?

Mr. DANIELS: There's a subway four blocks from the house, four or five. No more than six blocks.

Unidentified Child #2: And what about the cat?

MONDELLO: "Squid and the Whale" almost seemed a best-case scenario next to Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin," a haunting story of two differently damaged teen-agers who discover that they shared a trauma early in life. If "Mysterious Skin" were a higher-profile picture, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the onetime kid on "3rd Rock from the Sun," would almost certainly be among this year's Oscar nominees.

And Italy produced what is definitely the year's most epic look at the loss of innocence. "The Best of Youth" spends six glorious hours following two Italian brothers through some 40 years of European history. A six-hour movie proved way too hard a sell at the box office, but trust me on this: Rent "The Best of Youth" and as the ending approaches, I promise it'll be the one film this year you'll be sorry to let go.

Far shorter but an equally tough sell at the box office was the year's most raucous documentary, "Murderball," about the US Paralympic Rugby Team.

(Soundbite of "Murderball")

Unidentified Man #8: Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack!

(Soundbite of music; crashing noises)

MONDELLO: You know those bumper stickers that say `Rugby players eat their dead'? Well, that's apparently no less true when the players are in wheelchairs. "Murderball" is a blast.

That's eight films. My remaining two have Southern roots: first, "Junebug," a really terrific independent comedy that gets at the human aspects of the red state-blue state divide.

(Soundbite of "Junebug")

Unidentified Woman #2: Were you born in Chicago? I was born right here. I've lived here my whole life. My favorite animal is the meerkat. Do you know what they are? They're so cute. Oh, they're--I've got this little charm bracelet with meerkats on it.

Unidentified Woman #3: I was born in Japan.

Unidentified Woman #2: You were not.

MONDELLO: And if "Junebug" was what independent filmmakers can do when they're loose, "Capote" shows what they can do when they're disciplined, a terrific script illuminated by perfect performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) You know, I've decided on a title for my book. I think you'll like it. It's "In Cold Blood." Isn't that good?

Unidentified Man #9: And that refers to the crime or the fact that you're still talking to the criminals?

MONDELLO: Now that's 10, but as I said at the top, there were a lot of interesting films this year, so let's keep going. To winnow down to 10, I had to leave out "Kung Fu Hustle," which spends 95 hilarious minutes honoring every trend in the history of Hong Kong action films, and the new "King Kong," which takes about twice the time to do much the same thing for the history of Hollywood blockbusters.

(Soundbite of "King Kong"; roaring; fighting sounds)

Ms. NAOMI WATTS: (As Ann Darrow) (Screaming)

MONDELLO: There's also--and I'm going to go fast here, so sharpen pencils--"Crash," which deals intriguingly with race; the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," which turns corporate greed into a riveting whodunit; "Paradise Now," a revealing Palestinian look at terrorism; "A History of Violence," David Cronenberg's creeped-out look at an American family; and "The Constant Gardener," in which Ralph Fiennes investigates pharmaceutical research abuses in Africa.

(Soundbite of "The Constant Gardener")

Mr. RALPH FIENNES: (As Justin Quayle) If they don't give consent, then they lose the right to medical care.

Unidentified Man #10: That's not much of a choice, is it? I suppose they're not even informed that they're testing a new drug.

Unidentified Woman #4: I don't make the rules, Mr. Quayle.

Unidentified Man #11: Mr. Quayle.

Mr. FIENNES: (As Quayle) Yes?

Unidentified Man #11: Will you please come with us?

MONDELLO: OK, time's running short, but let's squeeze in four foreign films that centered on women: the haunting French domestic drama "Gilles' Wife"; the weird Hong Kong futurist fantasy "2046"; "My Summer of Love," a British drama about a too-trusting teen-ager; and "The White Countess," the star-studded epic that will be the final chapter in the partnership known as Merchant-Ivory.

That is 21 excellent reasons that audiences should have gone to the cineplex this year. Did you not go? Well, careful what messages you send Hollywood with your attendance patterns. If no one shows up when they make good films, this time next year we'll be looking at "Cheaper by the Dozen 3." I'm Bob Mondello.

BLOCK: You can find the list of Bob Mondello's film picks for 2005 and hear his full reviews at our Web site, npr.org.

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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