In 2002, the movies saved the best for last

At the movies, 2002 generated little excitement until near the end, when a last-minute burst of first-rate films gave a thrill to everyone from serious cinema savants to early Oscar handicappers.

The lopsided timing of the year's best releases was partly a matter of marketing - as is everything connected with Hollywood these days. Movies previewed as early as last spring were held until after the summer, when comedies and fantasies rule, and the Labor Day onslaught, when distributors fear substantial offerings may get smothered by too much competition.

Better late than never, though, and I found plenty of contenders for my list of the year's most worthwhile pictures.

In alphabetical order, here are the movies I'll be remembering and pondering well into 2003.

24 Hour Party People, directed by Michael Winterbottom. You don't have to be a punk or new-waver to dig this lively visit to the pop-music scene in Manchester, England, starting in the Sex Pistols era and winding up in the early 1990s. Along with Winterbottom's high-octane visual style, the movie's driving force is Steve Coogan's astonishing portrayal of Antony Wilson, the impresario whose life and work inspired the story.

25th Hour, directed by Spike Lee. Of all the movies on this list, Lee's latest has the most things wrong with it - problems of weak acting, implausible psychology, and scattershot filmmaking. But if he didn't take the risks that fail, he wouldn't take the risks that pay off brilliantly, and portions of this eccentric drama are simply stunning.

The plot centers on a drug dealer (Edward Norton) on the day before he begins serving a seven-year prison term. But this is really a story about America today, plagued by the evils of terrorism and materialism, yet unbounded in its hope and unquenchable in its spirit. The film lurches, stumbles, falls flat on its face, then rebounds with moments of soul-stirring truth.

The Believer, directed by Henry Bean. This trailblazing indie drama had trouble reaching theaters at all with its disturbing fact-based story of a Jewish neo-Nazi, brilliantly played by Ryan Gosling, who argues for his repellent convictions with the skill of a preacher and the intensity of a master demagogue. A more timely exploration of real-world bigotry is hard to imagine.

Far From Heaven, directed by Todd Haynes. This exquisitely crafted melodrama is a semi- remake of Douglas Sirk's great 1955 movie "All That Heaven Allows," about an attractive widow whose romance with a younger man sparks scandal in her small town. Haynes retains the '50s setting but updates the story to address issues of racial and sexual prejudice that continue to trouble our own time. With its delicate moods and superlative cast headed by Julianne Moore, this is the one of the year's most deeply moving films.

The Hours, directed by Stephen Daldry. The year's best literary adaptation takes its cues from Michael Cunningham's novel about three women - author Virginia Woolf, a suburban housewife in 1949, and a liberated woman of today - facing dire emotional crises in their lives. Nicole Kidman gives the performance of her career, with Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep right on her heels. David Hare's screenplay ingeniously translates Cunningham's time-jumping narrative into motion-picture terms. As a bonus, Philip Glass has composed his best score in years.

In Praise of Love, directed by Jean-Luc Godard. The most revolutionary cinematic maverick of the '60s has grown more unpredictable with the passing years. His latest feature has an elliptical story - about a restless movie director, an elusive actress, and an elderly couple with a haunted past - along with an unfliching moral sense and an unconventional structure. It's puzzling, challenging, and passionate. Which means it's quintessential Godard from start to finish.

Late Marriage, directed by Dover Kishashvili. A look at life and love among the Georgian population of Israel, following the exploits of a 30-something bachelor who wants to marry a divorcee despite the wishes of his highly traditional parents. No movie of 2002 offered a more plentiful supply of wit and wisdom. Look out for some explicit sex, though.

Punch-Drunk Love, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Who would have thought an Adam Sandler vehicle would be among the best of any year? Or any week, for that matter? Anderson digs out qualities that lurk below the surface of Sandler's usual screen persona - a wounded insecurity, a sense of repression that's almost violent in its force - and makes them the bedrock of what may be the quirkiest romantic comedy ever.

The Quiet American, directed by Phillip Noyce. Miramax almost buried this thoughtful adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, worried about its portrait of unchecked American power embodied by a US agent with a secret scheme for winning the Vietnam War. Brendon Fraser is just right as the title character, and Michael Caine is even better as the British journalist who tries to wise him up.

Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov. This utterly unique movie follows a bewildered Russian time-traveler and a 19th-century French aristocrat as they wander through a Russian palace discussing historical, aesthetic, and philosophical issues. Filmed in one continuous 90-minute-plus shot that makes film history, the film makes viewers feel they're floating on a sumptuous cultural cloud.

Runners-up include "Love Liza," "Auto Focus," "Roger Dodger," "The Good Girl," "Personal Velocity," and "Max."

Other fine foreign films were "Talk to Her," "I'm Going Home," "8 Women," "Baran," "The Piano Teacher," "All About Lily Chou-Chou," "Time Out," "Songs From the Second Floor," and "What Time Is It There?"

And it was a fine year for documentaries, such as "Bowling for Columbine," "Hell House," "Domestic Violence," and "Standing in the Shadows of Motown."

Kudos to all.

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