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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Pillaging pirates and tap dancing penguins, Superman battling X-Men all summer, Bond going up against Borat in the fall. This year, North American movie theaters chucked up $9.2 billion in ticket sales. That's not quite a record, but it is enough to pull Hollywood out of a two year slump.

And our film critic says if you look at quality rather than numbers, the picture's not bad either. Here's Bob Mondello with his annual 10 best list.

BOB MONDELLO: At the Multiplex in 2006, if you walk past all the auditoriums featuring special effects epics, you'd often find something that was actually special in the other theaters, like Helen Mirren's regal performance in “The Queen” as a British monarch resisting her prime minister's call to react more publicly to the death of Lady Di.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Queen”)

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actress): (As Queen Elizabeth II) I doubt there is anyone who knew the British people more than I knew, Mr. Blair, nor who has a greater faith in their wisdom and judgment. And it is my belief that they will any moment reject this - this mood which is being stirred up by the press in favor of a period of restrained grief and sober, private morning.

MONDELLO: “The Queen” has Helen Mirren and all but disappearing into her real-world character she's playing.

While in another of my favorite films, “The Departed,” Jack Nicholson's fictional gangster is deliciously outsized, sneaking an informant onto the police force while the cops sneak one into his gang.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Departed”)

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON (Actor): (As Frank Costello) When I was your age, they would say we could become cops or criminals. Today, what I'm saying is this, when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?

MONDELLO: “The Departed” is bravura filmmaking, as was Clint Eastwood's double whammy of a war epic - the very good “Flags of Our Fathers” and the really superb “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which Eastwood filmed almost entirely in Japanese.

(Soundbite of movie, “Letters from Iwo Jima”)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

(Soundbite of bomb exploding)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language).

(Soundbite of bomb exploding)

MONDELLO: With honor and duty foremost, Eastwood's double feature offers a wrenching portrait of soldiers on both sides of a ferocious World War II battle. Let's give the films one slot among the best, while noting that they are separately impressive.

Smaller in scope are a pair of tiny independent films. One is a riveting drama called “Half Nelson,” which seems a typical crusading teacher movie until you realize that the caring, protective middle school teacher at its center is a crack addict.

And the other is a road comedy called “Little Miss Sunshine” about a family nearly as dysfunctional as the van it's traveling in.

(Soundbite of movie, “Little Miss Sunshine”)

Mr. ALAN ARKIN (Actor): (As Grandpa) Wait. Wait.

Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (As Frank) Okay. I just want everyone here to know that I am the preeminent, fruit staller in the United States.

Mr. ARKIN: Here we go.

(Soundbite of vehicle engine)

Ms. TONI COLLETTE (Actress): (As Sheryl) (Unintelligible)

MONDELLO: “Little Miss Sunshine” makes an unusually poignant case for family values.

That's five. For the next three on my list, let's look overseas. First to Europe, where Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's bright, bouncy “Volver” put the melody back in melodrama, quite literally in a scene where Penelope Cruz sings her heart out.

(Soundbite of movie, “Volver”)

Ms. PENELOPE CRUZ (Actress): (As Raimunda) (Singing) Volver.

MONDELLO: “Volver” means to return, and the film marks Almodovar's return to a favorite theme - women nurturing other women.

Harder to watch, but enormously involving, are two films about children - the French picture “L'Enfant,” about a young thief who makes a terrifying error in judgment and then frantically tries to recover, and the Indian Film “Water,” about a lively seven-year-old whose family marries her to an older man only to watch him die. The problem is that widows in India are expected to live the rest of their lives in mourning, renouncing the world, and this widow is awfully young. Her father asks her if she even remembers being married.

(Soundbite of movie, “L'Enfant”)

Unidentified Woman: No.

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language).

MONDELLO: You're a widow now, he tells her. And she wonders, for how long?

(Soundbite of movie, “L'Enfant”)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language).

MONDELLO: And he looks at her with the saddest eyes.

“Water” brings the total to eight. The other two films on my list are by Mexican moviemakers working in Hollywood. Horror director Guillermo Del Toro scored by mixing politics with his nightmares in “Pan's Labyrinth.” It's the tale of an 11-year-old girl who withdraws into an elaborately visualized fantasy world to escape the horrors of fascism after the Spanish Civil War. “Pan's Labyrinth” is just opening in major cities, and so is “Children of Men,” a breathtaking futuristic fable by Alfonzo Cuaron in which women have inexplicably stopped giving birth and the youngest person on Earth, who is not all that young, has died.

(Soundbite of movie, “Children of Men”)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible) the youngest person on the planet with 18 years, four months, 20 days, 16 hours and eight minutes old.

MONDELLO: “Children of Men” imagines a world without hope or a future, where Britain is the only spot on the planet where the rule of law still holds sway and even if it looks like a war zone.

(Soundbite of bomb exploding)

So naturally, the film opened on Christmas Day.

Now, ten is an arbitrary number and because I combined the two Eastwood films, I'm already cheating, so let's just keep going. I also liked “Babel,” in which another Mexican director brilliantly communicates how impossible it is to communicate. And the harrowing 9/11 drama “United 93.” And the snappy Dixie Chicks documentary “Shut Up and Sing.”

And speaking of singing, there is that number in “Dreamgirls” that audiences won't shut up for. They're cheering it.

(Soundbite of movie, “Dreamgirls”)

Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Actress): (As Effie Melody White) (Singing) And I am telling you I'm not going.

MONDELLO: “Dreamgirls” is mainstream Hollywood reinventing the movie musical. And the high-school detective flick “Brick” is indie Hollywood reinventing film noir. “Brick” had such complicated team dialogue that even its leading man needed a glossary.

(Soundbite of movie, “Brick”)

Unidentified Man #5: Emily said four words I didn't know. Somebody said catch. Brick?

Unidentified Man #6: No.

Unidentified Man #5: Or bad brick?

Unidentified Man #6: No.

Unidentified Man #5: Tug.

Unidentified Man #6: Tug.

Unidentified Man #5: Tug might be a drink, like milk and vodka or something.

Unidentified Man #6: Poor fresco?

Unidentified Man #5: Fresco. Fresco Fall was a freshman last year, real trash. Maybe had a class a week. (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #6: The pin.

Unidentified Man #5: The pin?

Unidentified Man #6: The pin? Yeah.

Unidentified Man #5: Pin's kind of a local spook story. You know, the king pin.

MONDELLO: High school noir in “Brick.”

Okay, running out of time. Also great fun was a spoof of literary moviemaking called “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” Brazil's mother/daughter drama “House of Sand” was austere and elegant. And an absurdist tragedy called “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” felt like modern day Kafka, which makes 19 reasons for cheer as we start a new year in which Hollywood will no doubt shower us with fresh invention.

Why, in the month of May alone, there'll be “Spiderman 3,” “Pirates of Caribbean 3,” and the “Shrek The Third.”

Who says they don't make them like they used to?

I'm Bob Mondello.

BLOCK: And if you couldn't scribble fast enough to keep up with Bob, you'll find his complete 19 film 10 best list at npr.org.

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