Bob Mondello

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

For more than three decades, Mondello has reviewed movies and covered the arts for NPR News, seeing at least 250 films and 100 plays annually, then sharing critiques and commentaries about the most intriguing on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine All Things Considered. In 2005, he conceived and co-produced NPR's eight-part series "American Stages," exploring the history, reach, and accomplishments of the regional theater movement.

Mondello has also written about the arts for such diverse publications as USA Today, The Washington Post, and Preservation Magazine, as well as for commercial and public television stations. And he has been a lead theater critic for Washington City Paper, D.C.'s leading alternative weekly, since 1987.

Before becoming a professional critic, Mondello spent more than a decade in entertainment advertising, working in public relations for a chain of movie theaters, where he learned the ins and outs of the film industry, and for an independent repertory theater, where he reveled in film history.

Asked what NPR pieces he's proudest of, he points to commentaries on silent films – a bit of a trick on radio – and cultural features he's produced from Argentina, where he and his husband have a second home. An avid traveler, Mondello even spends his vacations watching movies and plays in other countries. "I see as many movies in a year," he says. "As most people see in a lifetime."

David Bowie, who died Sunday at the age of 69, is best-known for his music — but he was also an actor of considerable gifts.

When he fell to Earth in 1976, an extraterrestrial seeking water for a dying planet, Bowie was persuasively otherworldly. One eye blue, the other green, hair a flaming auburn, his never-aging, British-accented alien was the first glimpse movie audiences got of a rock star who had already been a "Space Oddity," sung about a Starman, and become internationally recognized as the glammed-up Ziggy Stardust.

A guy who thinks everyone's the same meets a gal who's different. That could be the TV listing for Charlie Kaufman's extraordinary new film and latest weirdness, Anomalisa.

But that thumbnail description doesn't get at the weird, and the weird in this film is prodigious.

Start with the fact that in a world that looks otherwise real and natural, the leading man — motivational speaker Michael Stone — and all the folks around him are puppets, which are animated in stop-motion.

I'm not sure why this happened, but as I assembled this year's best-of list, I kept seeing matched sets: Two terrific desert movies, two swoon-inducing romances, two single-minded crusades by men who think they're already dead, and even a pair of riveting mortgage crisis flicks (and what are the chances of that?). The doubleness is a good organizing principle, since my 10-best list nearly always turns into a 20-best — so here goes:

1965. It had been seven years since Orson Welles directed Touch of Evil, more than 20 years since Citizen Kane, so a lot of people thought he was washed up when he shopped around a project he had created by blending bits and pieces of five plays by Shakespeare.

An Oscar-winning director, a major star, a survival saga that makes Heart of Darkness look like a pleasure cruise... and all anyone wants to talk about is the bear attack.

And in fact, it's hard not to start there. It comes about comes 24 minutes in. Fur-trapper Hugh Glass, played by a hirsute, bundled-up Leonardo DiCaprio, has helped his fellow trappers escape a harrowing Arikara massacre. In most movies that would be the scene everyone's talking about — arrows piercing vocal cords in mid-cry, death raining down from trees.

A short story about a long marriage — "In Another Country" by David Constantine — provided source-material for Andrew Haigh's breathtaking marital drama, 45 Years, but it's been enhanced and sharpened in its transition to the screen. What was once a story that harked back to WWII, and was loosely based on a real incident, has become a devastatingly intimate tale about a couple unsettled late-in-life, by an unexpected revelation.

The camera stays tight on a gaunt, weathered face as we hear a train and the dull roar of exhausted travelers disembarking at the outset of Son of Saul. The screen is narrow — almost square — so there's very little space in the image around his head. As a result, we hear but don't see a band playing as the train's passengers are herded into a building, then to a large room with benches and wall pegs.

With bigger advance sales than any movie in history, Star Wars: The Force Awakens needs reviews like a Death Star needs a decorative fountain. But all you really want to know is whether it's good, right? Well, in fact, it is better than it had to be. The fanfare starts and we're all kids again, anyway. Thirty-eight years and sticking it out through three lackluster prequels hasn't dimmed the force of memory. I still believed — I'm guessing we all believed — that the magic could come back, and now director J.J. Abrams has proved it.

The words "This Is An Emergency" flash on-screen in red block letters at the outset of Spike Lee's satirical call to disarm, Chi-Raq, setting up the newscaster who'll set up the title.

"Homicides in Chicago, Ill., have surpassed the death toll of American special forces in Iraq," he says.

Hence Chi-Raq. During the title sequence, rapper Nick Cannon, who plays an up-and-coming rap star in the film, underscores the urgency in song: "Please pray for my city / Too much hate in my city / City of Chi-Raq."

Looking for evidence that truth is stranger than fiction? Alan Bennett has a story for you: The Lady in the Van, about a writer named Alan Bennett who let a homeless woman move her van into his London driveway for "a couple of weeks," only to have her stay for 15 years.

This was, by his own account, awkward while it was happening, but from that awkwardness has come a best-selling book, and a splendid part for Maggie Smith on the radio, in a hit London play and now in a movie.

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