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Mondello: For Movie Lovers, It Was A Very Good Year

Even with the help of wizards, vampires and premium 3-D prices, Hollywood's year will not make the record books. North American box offices took in about $10.5 billion in 2010 -- a bit less than last year.

But if the numbers don't impress, the product did often enough. When I sat down to put together a Top 10 list, I realized there was no way I'd be able to stop at just 10. And as I thought about ranking the best of the best, a few patterns seemed to emerge.

So let me start with a line that's not from one of this year's films, but that perfectly describes what some of the best movies this year are about. It's from Cool Hand Luke, and who knows what it says about Hollywood, or the state of the world, but it kept resonating this year at the multiplex: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

The difficulty of getting through to other people is absolutely central in three of the films that nearly everyone agrees are among the year's best. The Social Network, about the creation of an online communications tool by a guy who's depicted as barely capable of having a conversation; The King's Speech, about a stuttering monarch so tongue-tied he cannot hope to inspire his nation in a time of war; and 127 Hours, about a rock climber who gets pinned down in a remote wilderness with no cell phone -- just a video camera, on which he records a farewell for his folks.

All three films have gifted actors communicating the hell out of how difficult communication can be -- Jesse Eisenberg peering skeptically through slitted eyes in Social Network, Colin Firth stammering out his frustration in The King's Speech, James Franco holding the screen alone for most of 127 Hours. All three films are also blessed with extraordinarily resourceful directors -- something that's also true of the year's most surprising comedy, The Kids Are All Right, in which Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are lesbian moms who try to be both supportive and protective with their teenagers.

The kids areall right in The Kids Are All Right, something you cannot say with confidence about the kids in Winter's Bone,a nerve-racking drama about a 17-year-old Ozarks girl who must care for her mother and younger siblings when her drug-cooking father disappears after posting their house as bail. The film was largely and unjustly overlooked when it came out earlier this year -- a nomination or two may help it earn some attention in the next few weeks -- and meanwhile crowds are flocking to see another teenage girl on a father-related quest in True Grit.The Coen Brothers' quirky Western places its 14-year-old heroine between two very competitive lawmen -- a one-eyed U.S. marshal and a Texas Ranger -- as the three of them, for different reasons, track the man who killed the young woman's father.

Confronting bad guys was also the task director Charles Ferguson set himself in a rousing, infuriating documentary about the causes of the current economic crisis. The Great Recession was, as the film's title argues, an Inside Job that went down at some of Wall Street's biggest banks.

That's seven of the year's 10 best films. The next two are crime stories so big they wouldn't fit into single movies -- multipart French epics chronicling the life stories of '70s gangsters. One of them, Jacques Mesrine in Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, styled himself a revolutionary, but was basically in it for the money. The other was a real revolutionary who founded a worldwide terrorist organization and became known as The Jackal. The film Carlos breaks his story into three parts, with one entire section concentrating on 1975, the year he took a whole oil conference hostage at OPEC headquarters.

A crisis of a significantly less perilous nature rounds out the Top 10. But for millions of kids (and many a big-hearted adult) it was a big deal: Woody, Buzz and the gang realizing Andy is about to head off to college in Toy Story 3.

Ten is an arbitrary number, so let's keep going. This was a year of terrific documentaries. Among the best: Restrepo, a harrowing look at an isolated American outpost in Afghanistan. The Tillman Story, guaranteed to make you furious about the lies and cover-ups that surrounded the death of football star Pat Tillman, and Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work, which offers a complicated portrait of a boundary-pushing comedian as she rummages around in her life

Women so rarely dominate mainstream Hollywood pictures that it was gratifying to see them central to some of the best foreign films, from the Korean mom who'll do anything to clear her son of murder charges in Mother to the misguided French plantation owner who tries to withstand a tidal wave of African social change in White Material. Men, meanwhile, blended substance with testosterone in surprisingly thoughtful ways in the dreamscapes of Inception, the survival-of-the-fittest-gangster metaphors of Animal Kingdom and the boxing-family dynamics of The Fighter.

I've gone way over that 10-best line, but still, let me just mention three marital dramas that arrived in the end-of-year rush: Blue Valentine, Rabbit Hole and Another Year. All exemplary, all hoping for Oscar nominations -- and all likely to be playing at a theater near you in 2011.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.