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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. The economy may be dicey, but Hollywood still had a respectable year at the box office. It got some help from a quite a few troubled superheroes, and last week from a Labrador retriever named Marley. Naturally, in order to compile a list of the year's best films, our critic Bob Mondello looked not at box office winners, but at quality.

BOB MONDELLO: For the first time in ages, two of the year's most popular movies were also two of its best. Both were dark, though that didn't keep them from being exhilarating, and both relied heavily on digital effects. In one case, exclusively on digital effects, to tell a cautionary environmental tale through the eyes of a quirkily personable robot named "Wall-E."

(Soundbite of movie "Wall-E")

MONDELLO: The first half of Pixar's animated movie is hands-down the best silent comedy since Charlie Chaplin stopped making them. And if "Wall-E's" tale of environmental calamity drew big crowds, a tale of social calamity with a different kind of joker at its center proved even more popular. That Joker was played by Heath Ledger, a thorn in the side of Gotham's increasingly batty defender, "The Dark Knight."

(Soundbite of movie "The Dark Knight")

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Bruce Wayne/Batman) This city deserves a better class of criminal.

Mr. HEATH LEDGER: (As the Joker) And I'm going to give it to him.

Mr. BALE: (As Bruce Wayne/Batman) I've seen now what I have to become to stop men like him.

Mr. LEDGER: (As the Joker) Let's put a smile on that face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: Ledger, who died earlier this year, is an Oscar front-runner for best supporting actor. The front-runner for best actor is probably Sean Penn who plays activist Harvey Milk, laboring to make San Francisco a safe haven from the sort of prejudice and anti-gay rhetoric that Anita Bryant was spouting in the 1970s.

(Soundbite of movie "Milk")

Mr. SEAN PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK, first order of business to come out of this office is a citywide gay rights ordinance just like the one that Anita shut down in David(ph) County. What do you think about this, Pabich?

Mr. JOSEPH CROSS: (As Dick Pabich) I think it's good. It's not great.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK so make it brilliant. We want Anita's attention here in San Francisco. I wanted to bring her fight to us. We need an unanimous vote ...

MONDELLO: Penn is downright charismatic in "Milk" hence the Oscar talk. Similar talk surrounds Anne Hathaway's performance in "Rachel Getting Married." She plays the family's black sheep on a weekend pass from rehab to go to her sister's wedding.

(Soundbite of movie "Rachel Getting Married")

Ms. ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Kym) You know everyone in the house is looking at me like I'm visiting sociopath. I mean seriously.

Ms. ROSEMARIE DEWITT: (As Rachel) I wonder why.

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Kym) What do you expect me to do? Burn the house down?

(Soundbite of woman sighing)

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Kym) That was a mattress fire. That was not even at home. It was at a sleepover. OK, you know what? Fine, you win. I'm the...

MONDELLO: Jonathan Demme directed "Rachel Getting Married" as a sort of elaborate home movie using mostly hand-held cameras. British director Danny Boyle didn't have a choice about hand-held cameras. He had to use them in the teeming slums of Mumbai for the exuberant story of an uneducated kid, a slumdog as it were, who surprises all of India by getting answers right on TV's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

(Soundbite of movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Mr. RAJENDRANATH ZUTSHI: (As Raj Zutshi) Two of the musketeers are called Athos and Porthos. What was the name of the third musketeer?

Mr. DEV PATEL: (As Jamal Malik) I'd like to phone a friend.

(Soundbite of audience ahhing)

Mr. ZUTSHI: (As Raj Zutshi) Here we go.

MONDELLO: "Slumdog Millionaire" tells it's story, a love story, in flashbacks that reveal how and why he's managing to do so well. Speaking of flashbacks, this year's most astonishing documentary offers a zip back to 1974 and French tight rope walker Philippe Petit's stroll between the roofs of the World Trade Center towers. In "Man on Wire." even three decades later, the event is still alive for the folks who were up there with him.

(Soundbite of movie "Man on Wire")

Mr. JEAN-LOUIS BLONDEAU: I saw his face changing, he was very tense and all of a sudden, there was something like a relief in him. And from that time I thought, that's it. He's secure, it's good. And whoa, that's (crying)...

MONDELLO: "Man on Wire" literally breathtaking. That's six of the year's best, The next three are in foreign languages, a grim but stunning Romanian drama, "Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days" where the title refers to the length of time the desperate main character has been pregnant.

A French film, "The Class" Shot documentary style with a real teacher and middle school students playing approximations of themselves to startling effect, and even more startling, France's "A Christmas Tale" about a holiday gathering at which a mom played by still glamorous Catherine Deneuve tells the son who is her best hope for a bone marrow transplant that she never liked him, not one bit.

Rounding out the top 10, a seriously sexy American comedy set overseas, "Vicky Christina Barcelona," the story of two American tourists and a city where they both find romance with a charming stranger.

(Soundbite of clip from the movie "Vicky Cristina Barcelona")

Ms. REBECCA HALL: (As Vicky) Where's Obieto(ph)?

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM: (As Juan Antonio) A Very short flight.

Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Cristina) By plane.

Ms. HALL: (As Vicky) What's in Obieto?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan Antonio) A very beautiful sculpture. You'll love it.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Cristina) Oh right, you're asking us to fly to Obieto and back?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan Antonio) No, let's spend the weekend. We'll eat well, we'll drink good wine. We'll make love.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Cristina) Yeah, who exactly is going to make love?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan Antonio) Hopefully the three of us.

MONDELLO: "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" represents writer-director Woody Allen in top comic form. That's my Top 10, but 10 is arbitrary so I'm going to keep going. Some of the year's best performances were in low-budget independent pictures. Melissa Leo's struggling mom, making ends meet illegally in "Frozen River," for instance. Also Andrew Garfield's tentative, frightened ex-con in "Boy A." And no performer this year was bubblier than Sally Hawkins as the relentlessly cheerful character at the center of the aptly named "Happy-Go-Lucky."

(Suundbite of movie "Happy-Go-Lucky")

Ms. SALLY HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Oh, he's a bit frisky, isn't he?

Mr. EDDIE MARSAN: (As Scott) OK, Pauleen, please take your boot off the pedal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Nobody's called me Pauleen since I was two years old. It makes me laugh.

Mr. MARSAN: (As Scott) What am I supposed to call you?

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Oh, how about Poppy?

Mr. MARSAN: (As Scott) Poppy?

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Yeah.

MONDELLO: 3D glasses were the amazingly effective gimmick in the best concert film of the year, "U2-3D." In the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," African women band together to stop abuse and torture in Liberia. The Israeli documentary "Waltz with Bashir" uses animation to explore Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And two of the year's most compelling pictures looked specifically at how stories get told. A theater director builds a life-size replica of Manhattan to tell his life story in the weirder-than-weird "Synecdoche, New York," and skillful impersonators re-enact David Frost's 1977 interviews with Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon"

(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN: (As Frost Nixon) Just so I understand correctly, are you really saying that in certain situations, the president can decide whether it's in the best interest of the nation and then do something illegal?

Mr. FRANK LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) I'm saying that when the president does it that means it's not illegal.

MONDELLO: "Frost/Nixon" is an exploration of both political power and the power of television. Foreign directors made some striking detective stories this year. And two of the most haunting, "I've Loved You So Long" and "Tell No One," featured Kristin Scott Thomas. The "Edge of Heaven," links a half-dozen Turkish and German characters in a plot that feels like a metaphor for the expansion of the European Union.

And if all those sound too dark and complicated, "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" is a sweet enough teen comedy to brighten any outlook. That's 12 extras, a total of 22 reasons for cheer as we look forward to all these special recessionary treats Hollywood has in store for 2009, among the titles, "Real Men Cry," "My Life in Ruins," and "Confessions of a Shopaholic." I'm Bob Mondello.

BLOCK: If you couldn't scribble fast enough to keep up with Bob, you'll find his full list of the year's best movies at npr.org.

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