Face it, summer movies are like one-night stands: in, out and off our memory cards. Fall brings the movies you want to take home, learn to love and introduce to friends. They stick to the mind and heart, especially the ones ready for a serious date with Oscar. It's not that art totally trumps commerce at the multiplex between Labor Day and New Year's Eve: Escapism is plentiful, from sequels for Horrible Bosses and Night at the Museum to the musicals Annie and Into the Woods. But so far, 2014 has been a lean year for keepers. Only two films, both released earlier this year and both the work of Texas-born directors, have a shot at the gold: Richard Linklater's masterpiece, Boyhood, and Wes Anderson's career-defining The Grand Budapest Hotel. Can they be topped? Here are the scrappiest contenders with their eyes on the prize, as well as the fall blockbusters and under-the-radar gems to keep an eye out for over the next several months.
I'm calling this a real dark horse in the Oscar race. The film, splendidly directed by Matthew Warchus, deals with Welsh coal miners striking against the Thatcher regime in 1984. The strike won surprise support from London gays and lesbians. I'll say no more. Just see this beauty of a movie. It's an emotional knockout.
Trent Reznor, who wrote the score, terms Gone Girl "a nasty film." It damn well better be. Gillian Flynn's 2012 bestseller (she also wrote the screenplay) is a toxic portrait of a marriage gone wrong. At the helm is David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network), a director who calls darkness home. Weeks before the movie opens, social media blazes with debate. Did Fincher change the ending? Is Ben Affleck the right actor to play Nick Dunne, a jobbed-out New York journalist who's crawled home to Missouri, where he's accused of murdering his missing pregnant wife? And who the hell is Rosamund Pike, the Brit actress who nabbed the coveted role of Nick's glam spouse, Amy, over Oscar winners Natalie Portman and the film's producer Reese Witherspoon? Fincher faced similar heat three years ago when he filmed Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He relishes the challenge. Screening the film early for a critic? Not so much. "Proceeding to finish," he told me in a recent e-mail, adding waggishly, "ever hopeful of not being erased from cultural relevance." Fat chance.
Crash the cymbals for Damien Chazelle's electrifying drama about a battle royal between a student jazz drummer (a dynamite Miles Teller) and a drill sergeant of a conductor (J.K. Simmons, explosive and Oscar-bound). Prepare for a workout.
For me, Michael Keaton is one of the most underrated actors in film. (An Oscar for Beetlejuice? I'd have given it to him.) So I'm jazzed that he's digging into a role that should put him front and center in the race for Best Actor. Keaton, the former Batman, plays Riggan Thomson, a has-been who once hit it big as the high-flying Birdman. Now Riggan is trying to score a comeback in a Broadway show that pits him against a fellow actor (Edward Norton). The funny twist is a bracing change for director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams), who marvels at how Keaton can handle "comedy and empathy." It's already wowed crowds at the Venice and Telluride film festivals; word on the circuit is that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, an Oscar winner for Gravity, shot the thing to look like it's flowing in one long, continuous take. Innovation scares the suits and some audiences. I'm in.
In this down-and-dirty combat drama, Brad Pitt plays Wardaddy, the knife-wielding leader of a tank crew taking on Nazis in the final days of World War II. Writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch) sees his film as a "corrective" to Hollywood's retro heroics. Fury, named for Wardaddy's Sherman tank, has none of the bizarro black comedy of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. It's out for blood and what Ayer calls the "ground truth" of war. Wardaddy and crew (Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal) cross moral lines they don't obliterate. Academy voters should prep for a shock to the system.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives a potent and provocative performance as a video jackal who sells gory accident and murder footage to TV news outlets. In this blistering satire of what society calls entertainment, director Dan Gilroy slaps you around good.
Who wants to see a dramedy about a boozy, gambling Brooklyn codger who baby-sits a 12-year-old to help his single mom (Melissa McCarthy)? Bill Murray plays the old coot. There's your answer.
If anyone can make wormholes and theoretical physics coherent and sexy, it's director Christopher Nolan. At Comic-Con with his film's star Matthew McConaughey, the secretive director of Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy explained – make that hinted – that his film would follow a group of space engineers, including McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, as they explore other galaxies to save an Earth that can't self-sustain. Got that?
Apparently being the comic voice of reason about this crazy world isn't enough for Jon Stewart. The Daily Show host took a break to chase what we all chase: a chance to direct. He's done just that with Rosewater, the true story of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned and tortured (his interrogator smelled of rosewater) for 118 days for his reporting on the 2009 presidential election. After his release, Bahari (Gael García Bernal) raised more hackles in Iran for doing a comedy bit on The Daily Show – another reason Stewart said the project was "calling to me."
Theoretical physics, a topic in Interstellar, appears to be the hottest thing around these days, along with the ice-bucket challenge. The two come bizarrely together in this biopic of Stephen Hawking, the theorist who was diagnosed with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease) at 21. In this film from James Marsh (Man on Wire), no one needs to douse themselves with ice water to create ALS awareness. With the gifted Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as his first wife, Jane, the film shows Hawking before and after ALS strikes. At all times, his eyes reflect a mind alive to challenge.
Since the Farrelly brothers’ 1994 Dumb and Dumber, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels swore off dumb for more serious projects. Carrey won raves in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Daniels took home an Emmy for spouting reams of Aaron Sorkin erudition on The Newsroom. I’m eager to see them retreat into diarrhea-fueled stupid- ity in this sequel. Is it just me? I thought not.
From first scene to last, Bennett Miller’s brilliant Foxcatcher holds you in a vise of escalating tension. In only his fourth film — following the documentary The Cruise, Capote and Moneyball — Miller joins the front ranks of directors. Expect Oscar nominations all around for this true crime story. In 1996, Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) was murdered on the Pennsylvania estate of John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), the blue blood who trained Dave’s brother Mark (Channing Tatum) for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Working from a script by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, Miller digs deep into pathology in the worlds of sport and privilege. Ruffalo and Tatum, quietly devastating, hit an acting peak. As for Carell, unrecognizable behind a prosthetic nose, he is simply astonishing, finding the diseased obsessive behind du Pont’s soft-spoken elit- ism. Foxcatcher just floors you. It’s one of the year’s best.
Following the pattern set by Twilight, which turned three books into four movies, the Hunger Games series has stretched Mockingjay, the last book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, into a double feature. Padding is inevitable. But who’s complaining when screen goddess Jennifer Lawrence is still around to play Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay – Part 1. Don’t mess with those arrows in her quiver. They explode.
To the already packed list of fall contenders for Best Actor, led by Michael Keaton (Birdman) and Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), add the name of Sherlock Emmy winner Benedict Cumberbatch. His haunting performance as Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who was decisive in breaking the Nazi Enigma code, makes him a major Oscar contender. Whether Academy voters warm as much to Norwegian director Morten Tyldum's WWII-set biopic, including Turing's later persecution for being a homosexual, remains to be seen. But the "Cumberbitches," as a coterie of the actor's most fervent female fans call themselves, have reason to rejoice.
Reese Witherspoon is everywhere this fall, producing Gone Girl and acting in The Good Lie and Inherent Vice. But her passion is Wild, a true story that her company produced and in which she stars as Cheryl Strayed, a promiscuous heroin junkie who, in 1995, found a unique way to deal with the pain of her mother's death: Hike the Pacific Crest trail by herself for 1,100 miles. Director Jean-Marc Vallée guided Matthew McConaughey to an Oscar in last year's Dallas Buyers Club. He may be doing the same for Witherspoon.
Banish all memories of Charlton Heston as Moses, ponderously parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. Director Ridley Scott and star Christian Bale have come up with a revisionist new take on the biblical figure that’s considerably more rock-’em-sock-’em. This is not your daddy’s Moses.
Is Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) the best director of his generation? I think so. So when PTA takes on the impossible task of filming Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon's impossible phantasmagoria of a novel, attention must be paid. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a pothead PI, circa 1970, taking on the LAPD and assorted criminal conspiracies amid a haze of weed and psychedelia. As always with PTA and Pynchon, you take a leap into the wild blue. Afraid? Come on, cowboy the fuck up.
Timothy Spall took the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his superb performance as British seascape painter J.M.W. Turner. This magnificent film from Mike Leigh, a master of human behavior, opens up Turner’s private world.
In Tim Burton’s film, Amy Adams enters the Best Actress race as Margaret Keane, the painter whose husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her big-eyed portraits of children.
Talk about a hot-button comedy. North Korean officials have already protested this satire about a celebrity TV journalist (James Franco) and his producer (Seth Rogen), who are thrilled to snag an interview with Kim Jong-un until the CIA orders them to kill the dude. Rogen, who co-directed and co-wrote the film with Evan Goldberg, tweeted a reaction to threats of retaliation: "People don't usually wanna kill me for one of my movies until after they've paid 12 bucks for it. Hiyooooo!!!"
The fairy-tale title will no doubt bring in the family crowd over the holidays. But fans of Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 Broadway musical know that the composer likes the dark side. That’s Meryl Streep as the witch who’s not above rendering a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) barren if they cross her. And Johnny Depp’s Wolf isn’t above sexual misadventures. And, well, you get my point. Director Rob Marshall promises that he hasn’t wussified Sondheim. That might just be enough to pique Oscar’s curiosity.
It took two strong women – director Ava DuVernay and producer Oprah Winfrey – to get this Martin Luther King story to the screen. Set in 1965, when King, played by British actor David Oyelowo, led a march in Alabama to push the Voting Rights Act, Selma is a long-aborning labor of love.
While Brad Pitt mans a tank in Fury, Angelina Jolie takes on her own WWII story as director of Unbroken. Based on Lauren Hillenbrand's bestseller, it tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic track star who survives a Pacific plane crash and spends 47 days marooned on a raft, only to be tortured for two years in a Japanese prison camp. Zamperini, played by Jack O'Connell, died in July at 97, having been shown the film by Jolie in a hospital on her laptop. That's fall films for you: Academy all the way.