Movie buffs don’t need to check their calendars to know what season this is. All they have to do is note the steady drumbeat of advance hype and must-see buzz emanating from the Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals to know that summer is behind us, autumn has begun in earnest, and studios and producers have launched their major fall releases (and, in many cases, begun their long marches toward Academy Award nominations).
Mind you, not every auteur feels the need to go the September festival route. Steven Spielberg reportedly will hold onto Lincoln (opening November 9) until its November 8 premiere as the closing-night attraction at AFI FEST 2012. And Quentin Tarantino probably won’t show Django Unchained (December 25) to anyone, anywhere, until he’s damn good and ready.
But for many other filmmakers, a prime spot on a high-profile film festival schedule can be, quite literally, worth its weight in gold. During the next several weeks, you’ll be hearing a lot about some highly touted features launched at the Big Four. Here are 10 that appear especially promising.
Opened: September 21
Marquee Allure: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson
The Pitch: Anderson insists it’s not really a thinly disguised biopic about Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard. In fact, he claims to have screened it for Tom Cruise, America’s best-known Scientologist, and that Cruise — an Oscar nominee for Anderson’s Magnolia — gave the movie his blessing. On the other hand, way back in the day, Orson Welles was heard to claim that Citizen Kane wasn’t really about William Randolph Hearst.
The Attraction: After Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, it’s safe to say that any new movie by Anderson arrives with a pronounced must-see cachet. And there’s already talk about Oscar heat rising for Phoenix’s performance as a troubled World War II vet who falls under the influence of the charismatic leader (Hoffman) of The Cause, a movement that really, no kidding, pinkie swear, has nothing whatsoever to do with Scientology.
End of Watch
Opened: September 21
Marquee Allure: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, America Ferrera, director David Ayer
The Pitch: An up-close and personal view of two LAPD cops (Gyllenhaal, Pena) on the meanest streets of South Central, filled with mucho faux video supposedly shot by one of the cops for — no kidding — a filmmaking course he’s taking as a pre-law elective.
The Attraction: Early approving reviews have indicated enthusiasm ranging from pleasant surprise — What’s this? A fresh take on a buddy-cop movie? — to flat-out astonishment. And with good reason: Writer-director Ayer (who also wrote 2001’s Training Day) delivers the real deal, an in-your-face, breathlessly paced urban drama percolating with foul-mouthed humor and flinch-inducing mayhem.
Opened: September 28
Marquee Allure: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels, director Rian Johnson
The Pitch: In the future, when time-travel is outlawed, crime lords can send their intended victims back 30 years, where the unfortunates are zapped by hit men known as “loopers.” But what happens when a successful looper (Gordon-Levitt) finds he has been assigned to kill a 30-years-older version of himself (Willis)?
The Attraction: With this twisty sci-fi action-adventure, writer-director Johnson (who previously teamed with Gordon-Levitt for the cult-fave Brick) attempts to make the quantum leap from indie darling to mainstream A-lister. Early reports suggest he has succeeded.
Opens: October 12
Marquee Allure: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler
The Pitch: Based on a stranger-than-fiction true story, Affleck’s latest directorial effort (the first in which he also stars) deals with an improbable plan to smuggle six U.S. embassy staffers out of Tehran in the wake of the Iran Hostage Crisis. A CIA “exfiltration” specialist (Affleck) proposes to rescue the staffers — who have taken refuge in the Canadian embassy — by passing them off as part of the production crew for a low-budget Canuck-produced sci-fi movie.
The Attraction: Shortly after Argo was screened earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival, Affleck was rattled by complaints that his movie had minimalized the role of Canadian officials in the real-life rescue mission. (He subsequently altered an on-screen postscript line to smooth any ruffled feathers.) But the controversy did little to muffle the Oscar buzz that began a few days earlier, when the movie was sneaked at Telluride, and it has only grown louder.
Opens: October 12 (limited)
Marquee Allure: Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits, Olga Kurylenko, writer-director Martin McDonagh
The Pitch: A screenwriter (Farrell) struggling with writer’s block finds inspiration — indeed, maybe more than he really wants — in the criminal activities of two dognapping acquaintances (Rockwell, Walken) who have swiped the beloved Shih Tzu of a gangster (Harrelson) with serious anger-management issues.
The Attraction: McDonagh earned an Oscar nomination for writing In Bruges, another violent comedy featuring Farrell, so expectations are high for his latest flick, which has been described as a cross between Short Cuts and Natural Born Killers. No, really.
Opens: October 26
Marquee Allure: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, co-directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
The Pitch: Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix) join forces for a star-studded adaptation of David Mitchell’s time-tripping novel that charts the connections and conflicts of characters through entwined storylines that span across continents and millennia.
The Attraction: Judging from the wildly diverse early notices, this is very much a love-it-or-hate-it (or can’t-understand-it) epic. Count my Variety colleague Peter Debruge among the immensely impressed: “As inventive narratives go,” he raved after the Toronto premiere, “there's outside the box, and then there's pioneering another dimension entirely, and this massive, independently financed collaboration … courageously attempts the latter, interlacing six seemingly unrelated stories in such a way that parallels erupt like cherry bombs in the imagination.” Cowabunga.
Opens: October 26 (limited)
Marquee Allure: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin, director Ben Lewin
The Pitch: A 38-year-old poet-journalist (Hawkes), long confined to an iron lung, attempts to finally lose his virginity, with a little help from a professional sex surrogate (Hunt) — and, surprisingly, the blessing of his parish priest (Macy).
The Attraction: Watching The Sessions is bit like witnessing a bomb-disposal unit at work: Your appreciation for what you’re seeing is elevated and enhanced by your anxiety that if Lewin or anyone in his cast were to make one wrong move, the whole thing could blow up in their faces. At once gracefully sensitive and boisterously funny, this quietly remarkable dramedy (based on the real-life experiences of the late Mark O’Brien) nimbly avoids schmaltzy excess as it touches your heart and lifts your spirit.
If you’re automatically skeptical when you hear a movie will do that for you, well, then you’ll especially enjoy the blunt-spoken honesty of Hawkes’ performance of a guy who really, truly and sincerely wants to get laid because, after all he’s been through, he feels he’s damn well-entitled.
Silver Linings Playbook
Opens: November 21
Marquee Allure: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Anupam Kher, Chris Tucker, director David O. Russell
The Pitch: Recently released from a mental institution — where he spent eight months under a plea-bargain agreement after beating the hell out of his estranged wife’s lover — a manic depressive ex-teacher (Cooper) tries to rebuild his life with the assistance of his football-fanatic parents (De Niro, Weaver) and a beautiful widow (Lawrence) with her own set of problems.
The Attraction: Russell directed Three Kings and The Fighter, which should be more than enough to arouse your interest. And then there’s that cast —with Cooper reportedly offering another performance that allows him to overshadow (or at least hold his own against) Limitless co-star De Niro. Professional curmudgeon Jeffery Wells was absolutely gobsmacked by the movie when he caught it in Toronto — but worries that early over-the-moon acclaim might spark a backlash that’ll hurt its Oscar chances.
Hyde Park on Hudson
Opens: December 7
Marquee Allure: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams, director Roger Michell
The Pitch: During one of the last pre-war weekends of 1939, King George VI (West) and Queen Consort Elizabeth (Colman) — the same fun couple we saw in The King’s Speech — visit the upstate New York manor home of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Murray), in the hope of securing America’s support in what seems like an inevitable clash with Germany. But FDR is distracted by his growing infatuation with his cousin, Margaret Daisy Suckley (Linney).
The Attraction: Bill Murray is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What more do you want, people?
On the Road
Opens: December 21 (limited)
The Pitch: Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel about Beat Generation free spirits finally makes it to the screen. Would-be writer Sal Paradise (Riley), Kerouac’s autobiographical alter ego, savors all manner of emotional and physical sensations while traveling cross-country with his buddy Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) and Marylou (Stewart), Dean’s mercurial lover.
The Attraction: If you still have a dog-eared paperback copy of On the Road somewhere among your possessions, you may find it impossible to resist buying a ticket, if only to rekindle memories of who and where you were when you first read Kerouac’s classic. And if you’ve never read it, or you’re too young to fully appreciate its enduring appeal — hey, it’s got the dude from Tron: Legacy and the gal from the Twilight movies in the cast, okay?