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Here are Bob Mondello's picks for the year's best 10 films


Between the pandemic and the rise of streaming services, movie theaters have had a rough couple of years. But Hollywood keeps cranking out awards contenders. Critic Bob Mondello is celebrating the best of 2021. And as always, his 10 best list overfloweth.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Before we talk about the best, let's talk about the business. In March of 2020, the pandemic closed down more than 90% of American cinemas. Today, most of those theaters are open again. But until the last couple of weeks, audiences have only been trickling back. "Spider-Man: No Way Home" changed that, mostly for Spider-Man.


TOM HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) Can you please explain what is going on?

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Dr. Strange) We started getting visitors from every universe.

HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) The multiverse is real.

MONDELLO: Industry analysts say that one reason "Spider-Man" has taken in a billion dollars in the midst of a pandemic surge is that its audience skews young and male. That's the crowd least likely to avoid movie theaters because of COVID.

Older audiences have been more cautious. And as a result, a lot of films targeted at folks over 25 - well-reviewed, theoretical crowd-pleasers - haven't had crowds to please. What are known as event films have been doing just fine, though. With help from Marvel, James Bond and the "Fast And Furious" crowd, this year's box office is more than double last year's, and the film industry analysts at Gower Street Analytics are projecting those numbers will double again in 2022 with such potential blockbusters as "Black Panther 2"...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Wakanda forever.

MONDELLO: ...And "Thor," "Batman," "Flash," "Aquaman" and "Dr. Strange" super sequels, as well as new "Fantastic Beasts"...


EDDIE REDMAYNE: (As Newt Scamander) We're here to see Albus Dumbledore.

MONDELLO: ...Beasts of a Jurassic sort...


MONDELLO: ...Beastly little minions...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking non-English language).

MONDELLO: ...Not to mention the first of several long-awaited "Avatar" installments. If box office does double next year, that would get worldwide attendance back to roughly 80% of pre-pandemic levels. To get back to full strength, attendance at some non-event films, the sort critics like to talk about in 10-best lists, will also need to come back.

Now, with that said, let's talk about this year's best films. "West Side Story's" an excellent place to start. Steven Spielberg's reinvented a classic musical by mitigating stereotypes and deepening characters.


MIKE FAIST: (As Riff) You know, I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don't like.

MONDELLO: ...The camera not so much capturing action as propelling it, the dancers explosive. And "West Side Story" is just one of three stage adaptations that sizzle this year.

Filmmaker Joel Coen seemed to be channeling Hitchcock and Orson Welles with his stylized black-and-white "Tragedy Of Macbeth," featuring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Shakespeare's murder-minded royals.


FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Lady Macbeth) Why did you bring these daggers from the place? They must lie there. Go. Carry them, and smear the sleepy grooms with blood.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) I'll go no more. I'm afraid to think what I have done. Look on it again I dare not.

MCDORMAND: (As Lady Macbeth) Give me the daggers.

MONDELLO: Washington and McDormand are both harrowing, surrounded by their filmmaker with a majestic architecture of shadows plus sound and monochrome fury.

More down-to-Earth is the Thanksgiving gathering that Pulitzer-nominated playwright and now filmmaker Stephen Karam has arranged for the middle-class Blake family in "The Humans."


RICHARD JENKINS: (As Erik Blake) To the Blake family Thanksgiving.

JAYNE HOUDYSHELL: (As Deirdre Blake) To the very special Chinatown edition of the Blake family Thanksgiving.

AMY SCHUMER: (As Aimee Blake) Hear, hear.

JENKINS: (As Erik Blake) This is what matters right here. But end of the day, everything anyone's got, one day it goes.

HOUDYSHELL: (As Deirdre Blake) Well, that's a positive way of looking at things.

SCHUMER: (As Aimee Blake) You should do that at a funeral.

MONDELLO: "The Humans" makes its rundown Chinatown apartment so authentic, it practically requires the performers to be. And they don't disappoint.

That's also true of a richly imagined 1970s comedy from Paul Thomas Anderson. "Licorice Pizza" stars Alana Haim, of the rock group Haim, as a young woman in her 20s who is startled to find herself being romanced by a go-getting 15-year-old.


COOPER HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Ever since I was a kid, I've been a song-and-dance man.

ALANA HAIM: (As Alana Kane) Come on - ever since you were a kid, song-and-dance man. Where are your parents?

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) My mom works for me.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) Oh, of course she does.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Yes, she does...

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) That makes sense.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) ...In my public relations company.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) In your public relations company - because you have that.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Yes.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) And you're an actor.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Yes.

HAIM: (As Alana Kane) And you're a secret agent, too.

HOFFMAN: (As Gary Valentine) Well, no. I'm not a secret agent. That's funny.

MONDELLO: The kid is played by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. And though both of the "Licorice Pizza" leads are newcomers, their wide-eyed, wistful romance is as relatable as it is surprising.

Another coming-of-age film is surprising in a different way. The title "CODA" stands for child of deaf adults, which describes Ruby, the main character. The film cast her family with actors who are deaf and gave them such complicated, interesting lives that a guy who wants to be Ruby's boyfriend is envious.


FERDIA WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) It sucks at my house right now, and you've got this, like, perfect life. And...

EMILIA JONES: (As Ruby Rossi) What?

WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) Your parents are madly in love. They can't keep their hands off each other. And your house is...

JONES: (As Ruby Rossi) Disgusting.

WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) It's a home, and you all work together and laugh. And my family's not like that.

JONES: (As Ruby Rossi) You have no idea what it's like to hear people laugh at your family and have to protect them because they can't hear it but I can.

WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) I know.

MONDELLO: "CODA" won multiple awards at the Sundance Film Festival, as did Questlove's documentary "Summer Of Soul."


GLADYS KNIGHT: Something very important was happening.

MONDELLO: Shot in Harlem in 1969 during an African American festival that got upstaged by Woodstock, the footage sat unseen for decades.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: We're going to try to sing a song together. Don't wait for your neighbor 'cause your neighbor might be waiting for you.

MONDELLO: Performers in their primes include James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, The Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone and dozens of others - found footage as extraordinary as the performers.

Another documentary barely uses footage at all. The film "Flee" charts an Afghan refugee's journey from war-torn Kabul to asylum in Denmark. It's drawn from many hours of interviews, and I mean the verb drawn literally. To protect his subject's identity, the filmmaker animated his story.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

MONDELLO: That's seven films. The next two are about the power of relationships that develop between strangers. "Drive My Car" links, to life-affirming effect, a grieving Japanese theater director and the regret-plagued woman hired to drive him. And Pedro Almodovar's surprisingly political melodrama "Parallel Mothers" casts Penelope Cruz as one of two women who give birth on the same day, then find their lives intertwined.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: Rounding out my top 10 is "The Power Of The Dog," a Western from director Jane Campion which, like her Oscar-winner "The Piano," has wide-open spaces, a sensitive man, a cruel man and a single mother with a child, plus an instrument that the mother practices hoping to impress her husband, practicing that can be subverted by his brother upstairs.


MONDELLO: Not since "Deliverance" has the sound of a banjo felt so unnerving.

Ten is an arbitrary number, so I'm just going to ignore it. Another Western, "Old Henry," features Tim Blake Nelson in a redemption-by-shootout tale that packs plenty of surprises. Two world-class directors mind their own childhoods for inspiration - Paolo Sorrentino, his teen years in "The Hand Of God," and Kenneth Branagh, his adolescent reaction to a family move in "Belfast."


JAMIE DORNAN: (As Pa) There's a house that goes with it. There's a big garden, too.

JUDE HILL: (As Buddy) Are you allowed to play football in that garden, Daddy?

DORNAN: (As Pa) Aye, son.

MONDELLO: Seeing the world through the eyes of children also resulted in "C'Mon C'Mon," with a warm, empathetic Joaquin Phoenix, a time-bending French drama called "Petite Maman" and a head trip from first-time filmmaker Edson Oda about auditioning souls for life on Earth. His film "Nine Days" had me waxing philosophical for a lot more days than that. And those films get us more than halfway to a second 10 - not bad for a truncated year. Now to head bravely into 2022...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking non-English language).

MONDELLO: ...And all the joys that Hollywood's prepared to serve up. I'm Bob Mondello.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, speaking non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.