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The 20 best movies of 2002

It should go without saying that cinema has changed considerably since the start of the new millennium, particularly when it comes to popular releases, with the concept of a major movie raking in billions of dollars at the box office being largely unheard of.

In fact, on the list of 49 movies that have broken one billion at the box office, just four came before 2002, with the oldest being James Cameron’s epic romance Titanic in 1997.

Though it didn’t reach one billion at the box office, the release of the Marvel and Sam Raimi flick Spider-Man would prove to be one of the most significant movies of the 21st century, heralding the superhero dominance that we can see taking over in modern cinema. But this isn’t to say that 2002 was full of such franchise-starters, with standalone action movies Infernal Affairs and Minority Report impressing, alongside the genre game-changer The Bourne Identity.

Whilst each of these aforementioned films is heralded in their own right, they weren’t lucky enough to squeeze onto the list of the best 20 movies of 2002, missing out on the exclusive cut alongside award-winning films such as 24 Hour Party People, Spellbound and Chicago. Celebrating the finest films from a diverse year in cinema, take a look at our list of the finest movies of 2002, below. 

The 20 best movies of 2002

20. To Be and to Have (Nicolas Philibert)

This utterly charming French documentary follows the life of a one-room school in rural France where the students are taught by one single teacher. A quiet, meditative experience, Philibert’s film speaks to the power of teaching and the tender impressionability of young children in the education system. Captured in grainy home-video-style footage, it’s a personal glimpse into a crucial period of childhood. 

Screened at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and nominated for a BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language, To Be and to Have remains a favourite to this very day.

19. Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese)

A strange mix of fantasy and reality, Gangs of New York is a pulpy, yet undoubtedly enjoyable thriller that follows several gangs that clash in the titular American city whilst living through the brutal Civil War. With a staggering ensemble cast that includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson and John C. Reilly among others, Martin Scorsese’s first film of the 21st century is a challenging piece of dramatic cinema. 

Nominated for ten Academy Awards at the 75th Academy Awards, the film was unlucky enough to walk away with nothing, even if it sparked the fruitful relationship of Leonardo DiCaprio and Scorsese.

18. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami)

Abbas Kiarostami’s simple cinematic achievement, Ten follows the travels of a female taxi driver and the ten interrelated passengers she encounters. Filmed almost entirely on two digital cameras facing both the driver and passenger, Kiarostami’s film has been championed for its technical proficiency as well as for its insight into the minds and lives of contemporary female lives in Tehran. 

As passengers come and go, she discusses love, everyday hardships as well as the downfalls of the western world with a whole mix of non-professional actors each bringing a compelling honesty to their role.

17. Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Capturing a visceral temperature, texture and mood to a staggering extent, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s study on mid-life depression and the existential struggle of such an age is a methodical watch, moving at a slow pace as we get to know the central character and the desolate streets of Istanbul. It all follows Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), a photographer whose life falls into disarray when his wife leaves him. 

Whilst it’s not an easy watch, the more you invest in Distant, the more you’ll get out of it, and the more you’ll be thinking about it for many years to come.

16. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore)

Even 20 years since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Bowling for Columbine remains a bold reminder of the nonsensical laws of American gun control, with little truly changing since the turn of the new millennium. Whilst grim reading, it’s important to remember that since the events of Columbine in 1999, over 220 school shootings have taken place across America, with over 300 young lives being lost as a result of such attacks. 

Approaching the subject without much space for objectivity, Moore tackles gun control with a familiar bullish stance, creating a truly rousing piece of filmmaking.

15. Irreversible (Gaspar Noé)

Interweaving chaos and tragedy whilst toying with the construct of time, Gaspar Noés’s film is a disorientating ride that follows the events of a traumatic night in Paris when a young woman is brutally raped in an underpass, with the film itself unfolding in reverse-chronological order. Truly pushing the boundaries of taste, whilst the film displays several scenes of graphic violence, it is the notorious nine-minute single shot of the female character being raped that stirred the most controversy. 

Though wildly divisive, Noé’s film is provocative filmmaking at its most explicit, exploring the nature of violence and sexual assault in such graphic detail that it purposefully demands a reaction. 

14. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay)

Waking on Christmas day, the titular protagonist, Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton), discovers that her boyfriend has committed suicide, leaving his completed novel on the illuminating computer screen along with a suicide note. She changes the author’s name to her own and hits the road with her best friend. It’s a sombre piece that looks into the complex journey of grief, handled with a delicate touch by director Lynne Ramsay, who matches the film with a stellar soundtrack featuring the likes of Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and The Velvet Underground.

After making this and Ratcatcher in 1999, Ramsay would be propelled forward, making more masterpieces in We Need to Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here in 2011 and 2017, respectively.

13. The Son (Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne)

Known as two of the greatest French filmmakers of all time, Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne released one of their most celebrated movies in 2002, in the form of the intricate coming-of-age drama, The Son. It all follows a joinery instructor at a rehab centre who refuses to take a young man as an apprentice until he begins to follow him outside of work, through the city streets.

It all results in an emotional and suspenseful mystery that stands out in the Dardenne filmography as one of their most daring pieces of cinema.

12. All or Nothing (Mike Leigh)

British filmmaker Mike Leigh is used to domestic drama, with his 2002 movie All or Nothing taking his fondness for such stories to new heights, exploring the lives of several characters in a poor working-class council estate. Centring on the love between an elderly couple whose romance has run dry, it is the lead performances of Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall that truly bring this story to life. 

Nominated for a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, All or Nothing shows off Mike Leigh at his very best and gives the world an early look at late-night behemoth James Corden to boot.

11. Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg)

Not only Steven Spielberg’s finest film of the 21st century but also up there with some of his very best films of all time, Catch Me If You Can is a wild thriller that never stops surprising the viewer with its frenetic pace. With Leonardo DiCaprio in the exhilarating lead role as the real-life spinster Frank Abagnale Jr, the actor has visible fun, toying with the supporting cast of characters including Tom Hanks as an FBI agent and Amy Adams as an unfortunate lover. 

A film of many moving parts, Spielberg manages to craft a crime thriller that also taps into emotional beats and incredibly ends on a high note too. It’s a piece of movie magic that only Steven Spielberg could create.

10. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle)

The concept of a virus bringing a nation to its knees is unfortunately no longer such a fantasy, albeit the crippling coronavirus was nowhere near as violent as the bloodthirsty horror show of Danny Boyle’s riveting 28 Days Later. Changing the very perception of the zombie sub-genre, Boyle’s film, written by Alex Garland, turned the idiotic meat parcels of old into the most frightening contemporary foe.

A visionary masterpiece, 28 Days Later, establishes an apocalyptic London with genius imagination whilst containing an excellent, isolated story of human desperation, fragility and violence, having as much of an impact on the genre as its distant relative, Night of the Living Dead.

9. Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach)

One of Ken Loach’s most underappreciated pieces of cinema is his 2002 film Sweet Sixteen, a touching story that shows off one of his finest examples of character composition, recalling his success with 1969’s Kes. Starring a young Martin Compston, the film follows a Scottish teenager who is faced with constant pushback in pursuit of happiness as he tries to raise money for a home. 

With an emotionally-wrought performance from Compston in the lead role, Loach crafts an endearing tale that expresses the intense difficulty of growing up in an environment that seems to always be going against you.

8. Adaptation (Spike Jonze)

A rousing collaboration between director Spike Jonze and the modern mastery of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation is a complex drama about the nature of the creative process, starring Nicolas Cage as two physical dual personalities. Writing himself into the story, Kaufman bases Cage’s character on him, with the story following a lovelorn screenwriter who becomes stuck adapting a novel for the big screen.

It is thanks to Cage’s terrific performance in the lead role that Jonze’s film is allowed to thrive, bringing the perfect combination of humour and dramatic weight to a film that demanded levity. 

7. The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki)

Winning several awards at the Cannes Film Festival, including the Grand Jury Prize and Best Actress for Kati Outinen, The Man Without a Past by Aki Kaurismäki became one of the most celebrated movies of the event’s history when it was released in 2002. The Finnish comedy-drama follows the arrival of a man in Helsinki who is savagely beaten up and pronounced dead, only to revive with no memory of his past or identity. 

A powerful movie with a wicked sense of humour, Kaurismäki’s film is led by the charm of its central characters who provide a touching sentiment to the slow-paced drama. 

6. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund)

Nominated for four Academy Awards, the Brazilian movie City of God remains a firm favourite of film fans worldwide for its frenetic pace and compelling characterisation. Delving into the ramshackle world of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, this thrilling drama tells the story of several characters trying to escape from the cycle of poverty and violence that plagues the land and forces stagnation. 

Even at over two hours long, there’s not one moment in this intense modern classic that lags, creating an emotionally-draining ride that will have you on tenterhook throughout.

5. Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes)

Nominated for several Academy Awards, including a nod for Julianne Moore for Best Actress, Far From Heaven pays homage to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, from the likes of All That Heaven Allows to Imitation of Life. The film itself is set in 1950s Connecticut and follows a housewife who faces a marital crisis and mounting racial tensions when she falls for her gardener. 

Starring alongside Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert and Viola Davis, Julianne Moore’s lead performance is nothing short of immaculate, bringing all the class and beauty of Hollywood’s golden age to a culturally pertinent tale.

4. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson)

A cult favourite from the filmography of the modern master Paul Thomas Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love sees Adam Sandler star in one of his all-time greatest roles as Barry Egan, a socially frustrated bachelor who inadvertently jeopardises his burgeoning romance after he calls a sex line. Awkward and hilarious, Sandler helps to construct one of the director’s funniest movies with a performance that perfectly illustrates his ability as a performer. 

Winning Anderson the award for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, Punch-Drunk Love would spark a long sequence of success for the filmmaker and the leading actor. 

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson)

The influence of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is so great it’s almost difficult to comprehend. Heralding a new era for fantasy fiction in cinema and television as well as a craving for authentic blockbuster movies, the second movie in Jackson’s trilogy is considered by many to be the very best, offering a banquet of imaginative offerings, illustrated in the thrilling battle of Helm’s Deep which remains one of the greatest action sequences of all time. 

Whilst the first movie in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring was recognised as a critical and commercial success, the emphatic reception that The Two Towers received would establish the series as something truly special.

2. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar)

No doubt the most celebrated Spanish filmmaker of all time, Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 classic Talk to Her is considered to be one of his very best, telling the story of two men who share an odd friendship whilst taking care of two women in deep comas. Dark, brooding and romantic, the film is a brave, compassionate exercise of storytelling that pushes the boundaries of the filmmaker’s capabilities even further. 

A daring piece of cinema, Talk to Her is a mature mystery that benefits from the filmmaker’s compassionate strengths whilst helping to wean out brand new qualities.  

1. The Pianist (Roman Polanski)

No doubt Brody’s most defining role, the actor’s performance as a Jewish musician trying to escape Nazi persecution is nothing short of incredible, winning him the Oscar for Best Leading Actor. Appearing with Thomas Kretschmann and Frank Finlay among others, Brody is helped by a remarkable screenplay from Ronald Harwood, adapted from the novel of the same name by Wladyslaw Szpilman. 

Today, the film is considered to be one of the greatest movies ever to depict the horrors of the holocaust and the Second World War, providing an important document about the lives of those who died at the hands of true evil.