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Saving the best for last?

With four months and counting till the end of the 2002 Oscar calendar season, there are still no clear-cut favorites to take home gold in March.

But how is that different from any other year in the past decade?

While this summer gave us Road to Perdition and Signs to mull about, the real juicy flicks usually come in the late autumn/early winter months.

This year looks to be no different.

Moonlight Mile, a family drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon, will start off the contenders at the end of the month.

Also in September, competing for the epic genre vote, is The Four Feathers, starring Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson. Only two of Hollywood’s hottest young stars could pull off a story about a 19th century British officer who receives four symbols of cowardice because he resigns his post prior to a major battle.

Coming next month is the reinterpretation of the first novel featuring Hannibal Lector. Red Dragon brings Anthony Hopkins back as the sinister cannibal and Ed Norton in the Jodie Foster-esque role of the FBI agent who picks Lector’s brain for info about another killer. This one should be spiced up with the entrance of Ralph Fiennes as the evildoer who’s targeting Emily Watson.

The whimsical film entry of the fall season goes by the title of Tuck Everlasting, an adaptation of Natalie Babbitt’s girly novel about a family that drinks from a magical well and never dies.

Also in October is the blonde bombardment of Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn and Renée Zellweger, in White Oleander. Pfeiffer played a lawyer involved in the unrealistic custody-battle-schmaltz I Am Sam. This time, she plays the mama behind bars whose daughter gets shifted from one foster home to the next.

But the real gem of October may actually come in the most unlikely of places: an Adam Sandler film. Seriously, Paul Thomas Anderson won the best director award at Cannes for Punch-Drunk Love, a romantic dramedy pairing Sandler with the busy Emily Watson, and costarring Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anderson made Oscar buzz with Boogie Nights and Magnolia – both off-the-wall ventures – so we shouldn’t be surprised if he works the same magic with what most people will write off as an Adam Sandler movie.

Another Oscar-worthy surprise may come in November when Eminem makes his big-screen debut in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile. Hanson, who directed L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, looks to tackle his most controversial topic – and onscreen talent – to date when Marshall Mathers goes from rappa to thespian as, well, an inner-city white youth who becomes a rapper. OK, so perhaps the role won’t be too much of a stretch.

And we’re all waiting for the next Harry Potter installment to premiere, right? Well, don’t fret, The Chamber of Secrets looks to take a darker tone than the first kiddy-friendly Sorcerer’s Stone.

Making his annual push for another Oscar is Kevin Kline in The Emperor’s Club, a Dead Poets Society-type drama with a 20-years-later plot involving Kline’s classics prof and Emile Hirsch’s troubled student-turned-successful businessman.

Closing out November is the George Clooney star-vehicle in space, as Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris tries not to become another Red Planet/Mission to Mars/Armageddon.

Clooney makes his own directorial debut at the end of the year with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, scripted by Being John Malkovich‘s Charlie Kaufman. Also in December is Kaufman’s re-teaming with director Spike Jonze for Adaptation, with a plump Nic Cage playing a screenwriter named – get this – Charlie Kaufman, who wants to adapt a book written by Meryl Streep’s character about a orchid dealer played by Chris Cooper. After Jonze and Kaufman blended the lines of reality with Malkovich, it’s no surprise to learn that the three characters in this film are also nonfictional. We’ll see if it’s as wacky.

Another artist whose workload is doubled this December is everyone’s favorite heartthrob-who-so-desperately-wants-to-be-taken-seriously-as-an-actor, Leo DiCaprio. He stars opposite Daniel Day Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Gangs of New York and with Tom Hanks in the Steven Spielberg thriller Catch Me If You Can. Both look to give DiCaprio a chance to shine, and with Oscar-clout galore surrounding him, he better make the most of it. The only problem is that they’re both currently scheduled for release on Dec. 27, which will most likely change before then.

However, not all actors have something to prove this winter.

Oscar winners Jack Nicholson and Robert Benigni are throwing their hats into the wintry ring, as well. Nicholson plays the titular character in About Schmidt, a road-trip film about a man at the end of his life coming to terms with his own failures. And the uber-goofy Benigni plays the 50-year-old equivalent of Pinocchio. So, there should be at least some fun to round out the year.

Ed Norton will have all kinds of fun himself in Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, a film about a convicted drug dealer who parties his last night of freedom away.

A pair of films with Hitler connections will also be released when Max and The Pianist come to theaters in the final month of the year. John Cusack plays a 1918 Jewish art dealer and painter who develops a friendship with a young man named Adolf in Max. And Roman Polanski directs Adrien Brody in Cannes top-prize-winning The Pianist.

But the movie with all that jazz and more is the film version of Chicago, the Broadway musical about murder, fame and disgruntled housewives. Originally tapped for the starring roles were John Travolta, Charlize Theron, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. A few years pass, and you now have Richard Gere playing the razzle-dazzling lawyer, Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the wily women on trial, and Queen Latifah as the large-and-in-charge prison Mama.

And don’t forget about the second of the three-part Lord of the Rings series, The Two Towers.

This certainly will be one packed four-month stint we have in store at the box office. The expectations are high, but with this many hopefuls, there should be plenty of options for your dollar – and for Oscar voters.

Just try not to cringe if you hear, “And the Academy Award goes to Adam Sandler.”

Contact Will Albritton at