Constantly improving after far from auspicious beginnings, Cannes 2002 should finally settle in the memory as a robust and rewarding vintage. Filled with uncompromising auteurist statements, exciting discoveries and tender explorations of the human condition, it was a Festival to restore anyone's faith in the health and vigour of world cinema - even if the real excitement often fell outside the main competition.

On paper, it had seemed a Festival of forbidding austerity with many filmmakers intent on vigorous engagement with the political realities of a volatile, war-ravaged planet. In reality, what lingers is the underlying humanity they discovered in ordinary lives. A decent working-class family was united in adversity in All Or Nothing, a good man struggled to forgive his son's killer in The Son and hope sprung from a tiny seed of grave misfortune in The Man Without A Past.

The commercial possibilities of many of the most admired titles remains in doubt but if the widespread passion for City Of Gods or The Man Without A Past can be translated into audience enthusiasm then this will have been a Cannes that has pleased both the critics and the industry.

After a forty-six year absence, Michael Moore's passionate, brilliantly provocative gun law investigation Bowling For Columbine, eloquently justified the return of the documentary to the Official Competition. It then seemed that Moore might be the only established name to excite and enthral as Amos Gitai, Robert Guediguian and Manoel de Oliviera failed to raise the temperature of the main Competition section.

Paul Thomas Anderson's downbeat, self-consciously arty Punch-Drunk Love left his admirers wondering if he had become his own worst enemy. Even Atom Egoyan's anguished history lesson Ararat was a film that gathered admiration and respect rather than outright enthusiasm. Gloom settled on the critical fraternity as they braced themselves for a long and disappointing event.

Then the Festival seemed to hit its stride as long time Cannes favourites Mike Leigh, Marco Bellochio, David Cronenberg and Ken Loach all showed themselves to be on top form. Aki Kaurismaki's sublime, poker-faced romance The Man Without A Past brought a blissful smile to everyone's lips.

Jack Nicholson laid down an early marker for next year's Oscar nominations in Alexander Payne's melancholy About Schmidt (a film that supposedly only snagged a festival berth after Egoyan insisted on staying out of the competition). Abbas Kiarostami's Ten provided a triumphant vindication of digital video's potential. Alexander Sokurov's one-take time-travelling Russian Ark was considered a technical tour de force even if the audacity of its execution failed to excuse the tedium of its content. The Dardennes brothers touched the heart with The Son and Jia Zhang-Ke earned universal acclaim in some quarters at least for Unknown Pleasures.

Where once there seemed unlikely to be much of a tussle over who could win the Palme D'Or, it now seems that David Lynch's Jury face some impossible choices and there are still a number of unknown quantities waiting in the wings over the next two days, notably Roman Polanksi's The Pianist and Gaspar Noe's ticking timebomb Irreversible.

By the closing weekend, the quality of Competition titles had improved so dramatically that generous critics were even willing to overlook the inclusion of Olivier Assayas' embarrassingly awful cybersex muddle Demon Lover, perhaps the one title that really didn't deserve an invitation to the party.

There were discoveries to champion in all sections of the Festival from Lynne Ramsay's mesmerising Morvern Callar, Carlos Reygadas visionary Japon and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's gentle coming of age drama Abouna in Director's Fortnight to Pablo Trapero's gritty police corruption satire El Bonaerense and Francesca Joseph's remarkably touching Tomorrow La Scala in Un Certain Regard and the epic sweep and technical brilliance of Fernando Meirelles City Of God which captured the raw intensity of life on the mean streets of one of Rio De Janeiro's most dangerous ghettos.

Not too shabby at all when everyone arrived ten days ago thinking that the hoopla surrounding the Gangs Of New York premiere might make it the 900 pound gorilla that would overshadow the whole event. In the end it was just one frisson of excitement in a Festival filled with riches. Cannes 2002 may just be as good as it gets.