24 Best Movies & Shows Released in 2002

Staff & contributors

Find the best movies and show to watch from the year 2002. These handpicked recommendations are highly-rated by viewers and critics.

This gorgeous documentary opens on the snowy fields of its rural French setting, but the single classroom it spends much of its time in couldn’t be warmer or more inviting. That comforting atmosphere — which the film imbibes, too — is all thanks to the kindness and patience of Monsieur Lopez, the man responsible for the education of all of the village’s kids (up to age 11). Chronicling the final year of his career before retirement, this doc shares the instinctive empathy its chief subject has for his pupils and, accordingly, shoots them quite simply, trusting that the high drama of their little lives is enough to sustain the film.

And it is: from the cheeky antics of happy-go-lucky four-year-old Jojo to the crippling anxiety of older kids grappling with parental illness and the terrifying move to middle school, we’re plunged deep into a full spectrum of raw emotion. Inspiringly, Monsieur Lopez doesn’t just teach the kids maths and spelling — he also gently coaches them in off-syllabus skills, like talking about feelings and reconciling differences (even turning a fraught relationship between two boys into loyal friendship by the end of the year). There’s so much to learn from him and his perpetually wonderstruck kids here.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Nicolas Philibert

Adam Sandler, though currently imminently marketable, incredibly played out and boring, used to be a real actor. This is the film by which his legacy will be judged, where we see the funnyman drop the mask and actually show real feelings besides bumbling rage. Sandler's hurt and confused performance is beautifully vulnerable and true and is complimented by P.T. Anderson's incomparable direction (the man behind Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood), creating a true masterpiece of American cinema. This beauty also stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Watson.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Adam Sandler, David H. Stevens, Don McManus, Emily Watson, Hazel Mailloux, Jason Andrews, Joji Yoshida, Jonathan Loughran, Karen Kilgariff, Larry Ring, Luis Guzman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Nathan Stevens, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rico Bueno, Robert Smigel, Shelley Waggener

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rating: R

Bowling For Columbine addresses the sore wounds of 9/11 by exploring the concepts of safety and fear as perceived by various people. From school shooting survivors, through Canadians who never lock their doors, to Marilyn Manson and actor/NRA president Charlton Heston, Michael Moore's interviewees all inform the complex picture of gun violence and its rise today. The director is not afraid to provoke and ask the pressing questions linking the abstract fear of the other to the reality of lost lives every day. Even his irony and parody—a morose cartoon arguably based on South Park especially—bites back hard.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Adolf Hitler, Bill Clinton, Charlton Heston, Chris Rock, Dick Clark, Duke of York, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jacobo Árbenz, Jessica Savitch, Keanu Reeves, King Charles III of the United Kingdom, Marilyn Manson, Matt Stone, Michael Moore, Prince Andrew, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Salvador Allende

Director: Michael Moore

Rating: R

Here’s a biopic that focuses on capturing the feel of the era it depicts, rather than all the facts — and is all the better for it. 24 Hour Party People takes the same punk approach to storytelling as its subjects did to music, playfully throwing off the dull constraints that often make based-on-a-true-story movies feel like uninspired celluloid translations of a Wikipedia page. 

In the film’s opening scene, Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson breaks the fourth wall to address us directly and semi-spoil the movie’s ending. But it doesn’t matter, because the ride is so fun: we’re taken on an immersive trip through the heyday of the Manchester music scene: the births of Joy Division, New Order, the Happy Mondays, and Wilson’s Factory Records label and legendary Hacienda nightclub, an incubator for acid house and rave culture. The era’s hedonism is brought to life by the movie’s frenetic editing, documentary-style cinematography, and strobe-heavy visuals. For all its onscreen anarchy, though, the movie remarkably never feels loose or self-indulgent. Its irreverence is grounded by the ironic filter of the meta filmmaking, which frequently breaks the fourth wall to draw attention to its own conceits. A refreshing rejection of biopic tropes, but also a thrilling transportation into and evocation of the Madchester era.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Music

Actor: Andy Serkis, Chris Coghill, Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Lestuzzi, Danny Cunningham, Darren Tighe, Elizabeth Kelly, Enzo Cilenti, Fiona Allen, Helen Schlesinger, John Simm, John Thomson, Kate Magowan, Keith Allen, Kenny Baker, Kieran O'Brien, Lennie James, Margi Clarke, Mark E. Smith, Martin Hancock, Naomi Radcliffe, Neil Bell, Paddy Considine, Paul Popplewell, Peter Gunn, Peter Kay, Ralf Little, Raymond Waring, Rob Brydon, Ron Cook, Sean Cernow, Sean Harris, Shirley Henderson, Simon Pegg, Smug Roberts, Steve Coogan, Toby Salaman, Tony Wilson

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Rating: R

From a 1926 play to the iconic 1975 stage musical to Rob Marshall's 2002 extravaganza, Chicag0 has had a strong hold on popular culture. In a way, it's existed almost as long as cinema itself and its transformation across mediums and modes of expression has been well documented. The film carries all the marks of its theatrical predecessors, the expansive sets, the luscious costumes, the sleek characters whose banter and songs alike testify to their great chemistry — there's a lot to admire in such a self-referential spectacle. A black-comedy-fuelled musical about corruption and deceit set during the Jazz Age, Chicago fulfils all its promises. With a stellar ensemble cast featuring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, and John C. Reily, in tandem with dazzling camerawork and most exquisite chiaroscuro lighting, this one brings the stage to the movies. I mean it in the best possible way!

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama

Actor: Bill Corsair, Blake McGrath, Brendan Wall, Brittany Gray, Bruce Beaton, Capathia Jenkins, Catherine Chiarelli, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chita Rivera, Christine Baranski, Cliff Saunders, Colm Feore, Conrad Dunn, Cynthia Onrubia, Danielle Rueda-Watts, Darren Lee, Deidre Goodwin, Deirdre Goodwin, Denise Faye, Dominic West, Ekaterina Chtchelkanova, Eve Crawford, Faye Rauw, Gregory Mitchell, Jayne Eastwood, Jeff Clarke, Jeff Pustil, John C. Reilly, Jonathan Whittaker, Joseph Scoren, Karen Holness, Karine Plantadit, Kathryn Zenna, Ken Ard, Laura Dean, Lucy Liu, Marty Moreau, Michelle Johnston, Monique Ganderton, Mya, Nicki Richards, Paul Becker, Queen Latifah, Rebecca Leonard, Renée Zellweger, Rhonda Roberts, Richard Gere, Rick Negron, Rob Smith, Robbie Rox, Robert Montano, Roman Podhora, Roxane Barlow, Sara Ramirez, Sean McCann, Sean Palmer, Sebastian La Cause, Sergio Trujillo, Sheri Godfrey, Steve Behal, Susan Misner, Tara Nicole Hughes, Taye Diggs, Timothy Shew, Vicky Lambert

Director: Rob Marshall

Rating: PG-13

Grounded by Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall’s powerhouse performances, this gut-wrenching family drama from Mike Leigh is an acting juggernaut. Penny and Phil are a working-class couple whose marriage is rapidly deteriorating and pushed to the brink when their son, played by a young James Corden, is hospitalized. 

While Manville and Spall are centered as the leads, Leigh draws a staggering amount of depth from Corden as well as a young Sally Hawkins who plays a neighbor. Despite being one of Leigh’s grimmest films, there is still a profound sweetness lingering at the edges as the story teeters between despondency and hope.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alan Williams, Alex Kelly, Alison Garland, Badi Uzzaman, Ben Crompton, Brian Bovell, Daniel Mays, Daniel Ryan, Di Botcher, Diveen Henry, Dorothy Atkinson, Edna Doré, Emma Lowndes, Gary McDonald, Heather Craney, Helen Coker, James Corden, Jean Ainslie, Joe Tucker, Kathryn Hunter, Leo Bill, Lesley Manville, Marion Bailey, Mark Benton, Martin Savage, Matt Bardock, Maxine Peake, Michele Austin, Oliver Golding, Parvez Qadir, Paul Jesson, Peter Stockbridge, Robert Wilfort, Russell Mabey, Ruth Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Sam Kelly, Timothy Bateson, Timothy Spall, Tracy O'Flaherty

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

A film written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman as he struggles to adapt a book about poaching a rare plant into a successful movie. Through Kaufman's clever writing and Spike Jones' unique style of directing, the film unfolds using "mise en abîme" as the viewer sees the lessons the writer in film comes across to improve his script more or less subtly influence the events he encounters as the narrative advances. Nicolas Cage's performance is also particularly good as a highly intelligent and self-obsessed screen writer with low self-esteem.

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama

Actor: Bob Stephenson, Bob Yerkes, Brian Cox, Cara Seymour, Caron Colvett, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper, Curt Clendenin, Curtis Hanson, David O. Russell, Donald Dowd, Doug Jones, Gary Farmer, Gregory Itzin, Jay Tavare, Jim Beaver, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Judy Greer, Larry Krask, Lisa Love, Litefoot, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Nancy Lenehan, Nicolas Cage, Peter Jason, Roger E. Fanter, Roger Willie, Ron Livingston, Sandra Lee Gimpel, Stephen Tobolowsky, Tilda Swinton

Director: Spike Jonze

Rating: R

The magic of this movie — and every other one directed by Aki Kaurismäki — is in the way it inspires so much hope despite the darkness of its subject. When a man (Markku Peltola) is beaten and robbed one night, he wakes up without any memory of who he is. Forced to start life all over again, he’s subjected to yet more cruelty at the hands of a greedy slum landlord and callous authorities, but finds sympathy and support from his equally downtrodden neighbors. Though the street thugs have emptied his wallet, the unquestioning generosity of the people around him suggests he’s now richer than he was at the film’s outset — as does the sweetly simple romance he strikes up with a lonely Salvation Army worker (Kati Outinen). 

Kaurismäki doesn’t just make films about the disenfranchised for the sake of it: he shows us how easy — and yet momentous — acts of human kindness and solidarity can be, how radical they are in a bleak world. It’s not often a movie can so persuasively reassure us of people’s inherent goodness, but it’s even rarer still for it to be done with as much deceptive, charming simplicity as here.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Aarre Karén, Aino Seppo, Andrey Chernyshov, Anneli Sauli, Antti Reini, Elina Salo, Esko Nikkari, Janne Hyytiäinen, Juhani Niemelä, Kaija Pakarinen, Kati Outinen, Liisa Mustonen, Markku Peltola, Olli Varja, Outi Mäenpää, Panu Vauhkonen, Pentti Auer, Pertti Sveholm, Sakari Kuosmanen, Silu Seppälä, Sulevi Peltola, Vesa Mäkelä

Director: Aki Kaurismäki

Joachim and Ceilie are engaged to be married when a car crash leaves the former paralyzed. While Joachim recovers in the hospital, Ceilie becomes entangled with his doctor—who also happens to be the husband of the woman who caused Joachim’s accident. What transpires after is not unlike a car crash itself: gut-wrenching to watch, impossible to look away from.

Although the film’s premise toes the line of melodrama, Susanne Bier handles the characters with extraordinary care. Elsker dig for evigt (Open Hearts) boasts incredible performances from its core cast of four, with Mads Mikkelsen and Paprika Steen particularly shining. This is not an easy nor feel-good movie to sit through, but its unflinching gaze at complicated characters in a tragic situation makes for a rewarding journey.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anders Nyborg, Birthe Neumann, Hans Henrik Clemensen, Ida Dwinger, Jens Basse Dam, Mads Mikkelsen, Michel Castenholt, Niels Olsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Paprika Steen, Pelle Bang Sørensen, Philip Zandén, Ronnie Lorenzen, Sonja Richter, Stine Bjerregaard, Susanne Juhász, Tina Gylling Mortensen, Ulf Pilgaard

Director: Susanne Bier

This is a touching saga based on the plight of the women labelled as "fallen" that the Magdalene Laundries housed in Ireland. The movie grips you by the throat right from the first minute and the sense of injustice to women that characterizes the entire length of the film only rarely eases up to give you room to appreciate the emotional complexities that each individual character represents. The stories of Margaret, Bernadette and Rose and the people they meet inside the Magdalene Laundry will force you to ask time and again during the movie, "Why?" and "Who are they to?". You will share in Bernadette's sense of outrage, in Rose's compassion and Margaret's acute fear of the church, of speaking up and asking for justice. So much so, that you may even find yourself identifying with (or at least understanding) Crispina's questionable grasp on reality. Worst of all, the devout Catholic establishment that this was, hypocrisy and corruption ran through its every vein, adding to the shock and resentment that builds towards the, for the lack of a better word, captors of our protagonists. The Magdalene Sisters is a tribute to one of the forgotten chapters in a long history of injustice to women and an absolutely moving one at that. It does not fail to utterly horrify while it also warms your heart.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Anne-Marie Duff, Britta Smith, Chris Patrick-Simpson, Daniel Costello, Dorothy Duffy, Eamonn Owens, Eileen Walsh, Eithne McGuinness, Frances Healy, Geraldine McEwan, Mary Murray, Nora-Jane Noone, Peter Mullan, Phyllis MacMahon, Stephen McCole

Director: Peter Mullan

Rating: R

Anyone who's seen All That Heaven Allows will naturally be skeptical that a movie claiming to be an homage to Douglas Sirk’s sumptuous masterpiece will live up to the heights of its inspiration. It’s a ballsy move, molding your film so closely to a peerless classic, but Todd Haynes transcends thin pastiche to be a genuinely great film of its own. Where Sirk’s movie charts the social scandal caused by an upper-class widow (Jane Wyman) falling in love with her gardener (Rock Hudson), Haynes sharpens the conflict by recasting the couple as an interracial one (played by Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert). What’s more, Haynes brings her husband back from the dead and into the closet to give Far From Heaven another angle through which to tackle the repression and stigma and explore the characters' rocky pursuit of happiness. If that sounds like the stuff of melodrama, it is — Far From Heaven is proudly of that genre, cracking through the veneer of suburban perfection to find roiling tension and repressed desire underneath.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Barbara Garrick, Betsy Aidem, Bette Henritze, Brian Delate, C.C. Loveheart, Celia Weston, Chance Kelly, Declan Baldwin, Dennis Haysbert, Dennis Quaid, Duane McLaughlin, Ernest Rayford, Geraldine Bartlett, J.B. Adams, James Rebhorn, Joe Holt, Johnathan McClain, Jordan Nia Elizabeth, Julianne Moore, June Squibb, Kevin Carrigan, Lindsay Andretta, Michael Gaston, Mylika Davis, Olivia Birkelund, Patricia Clarkson, Ryan Ward, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Susan Willis, Ted Neustadt, Viola Davis, Virl Andrick

Director: Todd Haynes

Rating: PG-13

Filmed in Paul Greengrass' signature documentary style, Bloody Sunday captures one of the worst tragedies in Northern Ireland's recent history with stunning attention to detail and a single-minded focus that most thrillers only dream of having. But this film doesn't dress up its violence with Hollywood flashiness or contrived suspense. Everything is presented in a matter-of-fact way (and over the course of just one day), emphasizing how unjust the balance of power was between the Irish citizens and the British Army. It's a remarkably realistic reenactment that should inspire plenty of angry tears, having already made a mark by winning the prestigious Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Allan Gildea, Carmel McCallion, Christopher Villiers, David Clayton Rogers, David Pearse, Gerard Crossan, Gerard McSorley, James Hewitt, James Nesbitt, Kathy Kiera Clarke, Mary Moulds, Nicholas Farrell, Tim Pigott-Smith

Director: Paul Greengrass

The story that Whale Rider tells is a familiar one: that of a young girl challenging the expectations of a patriarchal community in order to claim her rightful place in a position of authority. But this isn't a superficial girl-power movie; writer/director Niki Caro maintains the utmost reverence for this Māori community, even if its customs might not appear fair to an outsider's point of view. It's a film full of realistically flawed people, whose struggles are all borne from a common love for their culture in their little corner of the world. What could have been generic and simplistic is made beautiful—especially thanks to a truly moving performance from Keisha Castle-Hughes, who at the time became the youngest nominee for the Best Actress Oscar.

Genre: Drama, Family

Actor: Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Mana Taumaunu, Rachel House, Rawiri Paratene, Tahei Simpson, Tammy Davis, Taungaroa Emile, Vicky Haughton

Director: Niki Caro

There’s a natural competitive thrill to this chronicle of the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee and eight of its bright young participants, but Spellbound has more than an edge-of-your-seat pull going for it. For one, there’s its holistic approach to profiling the competitors: director Jeffrey Blitz makes this as much a portrait of the village that raises these kids by interviewing their proud families and supportive communities. We get intimate snapshots of each of their disparate young lives, which together represent a cross-section of American society: from Angela — the self-taught daughter of Mexican ranchers who don’t speak English — to Neil, whose parents employ an army of tutors to prepare him for the oncoming “war.”

Spellbound ultimately sees the good in everyone — even the pushiest parents — and charitably foregrounds the obvious love and pride they all have for their kid geniuses, no matter what happens. What’s even more impressive, though, is the inspiring resilience and emotional intelligence of the young competitors themselves, some of whom have transcended deeply entrenched social inequalities to earn their place in the contest. Even those who don’t have a stirring backstory are nonetheless compelling characters (see: the delightful Harry), making Spellbound an alternately emotional, funny, and always gripping watch.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Jeffrey Blitz