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Last Year's Cache of Underrated Movies Includes Small Gems

EVERY year produces a crop of underrated movies that are worth a look even though they're not top-10 material. Some of these are still wending their way from theater to theater, while others have been, or will be, released on video.

* Hero by Stephen Frears. Dustin Hoffman plays a lifelong loser whose one heroic act - rescuing victims from a plane crash - is stolen by a slick imposter. If the movie classics "Meet John Doe" and "Ace in the Hole" got married, this is the offspring they'd have.

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* A Brief History of Time by Errol Morris. Documentary on physicist Stephen Hawking, a brilliant mind living a triumphantly productive life in what seems to be a profoundly handicapped body. This exploration of human creativity is itself a splendidly creative work.

* Zentropa by Lars von Trier. A young American visits Germany after World War II, filled with ideals, but discovers a network of corruption and crime. This bizarre melodrama combines pitch-black comedy worthy of Kafka with a visual style of fever-dream intensity. For the adventurous only.

* 35 Up by Michael Apted. The latest installment in a documentary series on selected young people who let the filmmakers into their lives at seven-year intervals. Sociology was never more lively, surprising, or funny.

* Night on Earth by Jim Jarmusch. Stories set in taxicabs hurtling through five different cities. The mood ranges from comic to tragic, and the cast is always up to the challenge.

* A Midnight Clear by Keith Gordon. A war story with an antiwar message, centering on American and German soldiers in World War II who are convinced that their deaths will contribute nothing to a better world. Modest but memorable.

* Light Sleeper by Paul Schrader. A small-time drug dealer realizes his need for redemption. Willem Dafoe gives the most fully realized performance of his screen career in this thoughtful thriller.

* Jumpin at the Boneyard by Jeff Stanzler. Superb performances spark this perceptive look at a young man who wants to help his brother away from drugs and degradation. A strong filmmaking debut.

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* Brother's Keeper by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Sensitive documentary on a murder case in upstate New York, showing how neighbors cooperate to help a troubled man who's always been an outsider.

* The Match Factory Girl by Aki Kaurismaki. Finland's greatest filmmaker continues his winning streak with this dark comedy about a young woman who strikes back at family oppression and male-chauvinist piggery. Hilarious and heart-breaking.

* Save and Protect by Aleksandr Sokurov. The great Russian filmmaker gives his version of "Madame Bovary" the surprise and audacity that Flaubert's novel must have had for its early readers. A literary adaptation like no other.

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