Michael Pitt and Ryan Gosling in Murder by NumbersMURDER BY NUMBERS

In Barbet Schroeder's thriller Murder by Numbers, Sandra Bullock stars as Cassie Mayweather, a Southern California detective who, along with her nebbishy partner (Ben Chaplin), attempts to solve the murder of a local Jane Doe, killed in a seemingly haphazard fashion and left beside a creek.

Bill Paxton in FrailtyFRAILTY

Until it flirts with supernatural looniness in its last reel, Bill Paxton's directorial debut Frailty is a strong, scary, deeply affecting piece of work - so good, in fact, that it easily ranks, thus far, as 2002's finest film achievement.

Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd in High CrimesHIGH CRIMES

If Hollywood studios absolutely insist on feeding us one piece-of-crap potboiler after another, they could certainly do worse than the trashily entertaining military thriller High Crimes.

Kristen Stewart and Jodie Foster in Panic RoomPANIC ROOM

David Fincher can pull off some amazing tricks. Early on in Panic Room, the director's latest thriller, the camera, initially located in an upstairs bedroom where newly single mom Meg (Jodie Foster) rests, glides away from the bed, through the banister of the staircase, and down the flight of stairs, and then scoots through the kitchen - and, it must be added, over countertops and appliances - until it finally lands on the kitchen doorway, where a shady character is waiting to break in.

Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Boyle, and Heath Ledger in Monster's BallMONSTER'S BALL

In Marc Forster's sterling drama Monster's Ball, Halle Berry portrays Leticia Musgrove, the wife of a convicted murderer (Sean Combs), who takes the graveyard shift of an all-night Georgia café to support herself and her pre-teen son (Coronji Calhoun). One of her repeat customers is corrections officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), son of an unrepentant racist (Peter Boyle) and father of a damaged, depressed son (Heath Ledger). Through a series of tragedies, Leticia and Hank find spiritual and sexual solace in each other's company, and Monster's Ball asks the question that, sadly enough, must still be asked in modern-day America: Can black and white find a middle ground and truly exist in harmony?

Scrat in Ice AgeICE AGE

Movies with charm have been in such short supply this year that the animated Ice Age feels like a shot of pure oxygen. Visually, the film is lacking the detail of a Shrek or a Monsters, Inc., and it's a bit on the goody-goody side, but it's a completely enjoyable, amiable good time at the cineplex, particularly if you've been looking for a movie to take the family to that's less saccharine than Return to Neverland and infinitely smarter than the likes of Big Fat Liar and Snow Dogs.

Chris Klein in We Were SoldiersWE WERE SOLDIERS

We Were Soldiers is, in many ways, the oddest war movie I've ever seen. It's set during the Ia Drang battle of the Vietnam War, but it's performed and directed with such resolute patriotism and heroism that it feels like a product of World War II, or rather, movies about World War II.

Aaliyah in Queen of the DamnedQUEEN OF THE DAMNED

Granted, the new year is only eight weeks old, but I already have a nominee for Best Guilty Pleasure of 2002: the Anne Rice adaptation Queen of the Damned. I'm not suggesting the movie is great, or even good, but this tacky amalgam of vampire clichés, hard rock, and MTV posturing is a surprisingly deft and confident work, and about a hundred times more fun than the pompous, enervated Interview with the Vampire.

Denzel Washington in John Q.JOHN Q.

In Nick Cassavetes' soapbox-lecture-cum-thriller John Q., Denzel Washington stars as blue-collar worker John Archibald, a middle-aged Chicagoan struggling with tight finances but deeply in love with his wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), and a great father to their only son, Mike (Daniel E. Smith). While rounding the bases at a little-league game, Mike collapses, and it's revealed that Mike's heart is three times the size it should be; unless the Archibalds can come up with the enormous fee required for a heart transplant, Mike will die. The Archibalds do have health insurance, but because their insurance company recently switched to an HMO (cue the duh-duh-dun music), their coverage is no longer sufficient for Mike's operation, and when all of their other money-raising options have been eliminated, John arms himself, takes the hospital's emergency room hostage, and announces that, yes, Mike will be getting that transplant.

Henry Cavill, Dagmara Dominczyk, James Caviezel, and Luis Guzman in The Count of Monte CristoTHE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO

The best reason to see the latest remake of The Count of Monte Cristo is the source material. You can easily shrug off the movie's unimaginative staging, corny laugh lines, and obtrusive score for the chance to enjoy an opulently designed adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' audience-grabbing tale; it's the sort of story that was once called "a ripping good yarn."

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