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Fall Movie Preview 2016: Oscar Hopefuls, Slave Rebellions and ‘Rogue One’

From awards-worthy dramas and controversial history lessons to a new ‘Star Wars,’ what you need to see

It's fall, the season when summer blockbusters and idiot comedies give way to movies that actually might be — wait for it — good enough to grab awards. Even the epics, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, lace escapism with smarts. It's a time when a remake of The Magnificent Seven might potentially equal its predecessor, and a bestselling mystery thriller, The Girl On the Train, can get us all on board for the film version.

But fall is mostly about Oscars and how to win them. Will The Birth of a Nation, about a slave rebellion, put an end to last year's wallow in #OscarsSoWhite? Will Manchester By the Sea, about inconsolable grief, remind us of the power of indie cinema to make us feel something again? There are over a 100 fall movies vying for our attention this autumn. Here's a guide to 20 that should be on your radar over the next few months

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‘Sully’ (September 9)

Tom Hanks hits a new career peak as Capt. Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who crash-landed into the icy Hudson River on January 15th, 2009, saving all 155 passengers. Hailed as a hero, he is still privately haunted by nightmares and aviation experts who say he did wrong. Director Clint Eastwood, shooting with IMAX cameras, nails the visuals, but it's as personal drama that Sully soars. Hanks catches the character in one line: "I did my job." Eastwood, 86, can relate: Having worked in Hollywood for 60 years, he values Sully's experience over computers that ignore the human factor.

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‘The Magnificent Seven’ (September 23)

"Let's do it," said Denzel Washington when director Antoine Fuqua urged a reboot of 1960's The Magnificent Seven. Washington rides like gangbusters into his first Western, to save a town from guys worse than he is. Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke join in, with punch from South Korea's Byung-hun Lee, Mexico's Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Native American Martin Sensmeier. "Diversity — I love it," says Fuqua.

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‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ (September 30)

In Tim Burton's film of Ransom Riggs' 2011 bestseller, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) uses a time warp to protect children with secret powers from a villainous Samuel L. Jackson. It's Burton's best blend of visuals and emotion since Edward Scissorhands, with a title character that Green calls a "dark Mary Poppins."

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‘The Birth of a Nation’ (October 7)

Get ready for a new landmark in American cinema. Sharing a title, but nothing else, with D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent-screen polarizer that lauded the KKK, The Birth of a Nation celebrates a bloody 1831 
slave rebellion. Led by Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a Virginia-born slave and Baptist preacher, the revolt is a massacre, a literal race riot. Star, writer and debuting director Parker (currently mired in controversy) is brilliant and blistering in all departments. Even when he overreaches, Parker electrifies, showing that, then and now, black lives matter.

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‘The Girl on the Train’ (October 7)

Everyone from Oprah to Obama has read Paula Hawkins' bestselling mystery, and now Emily Blunt plays the girl who stares out a train window and sees a murder — or so she thinks. (Her character is a bitter divorcee and a raging alcoholic.) Readers may be shocked that director Tate Taylor has moved the location from London to New York. Still, the Gone Girl vibe is irresistible.

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‘The Accountant’ (October 14)

Think "Jason Bourne" meets Rain Man in this taut thriller starring Ben Affleck as an autistic math genius who works as an accountant for criminal organizations and moonlights as a vigilante. There are shades of Affleck's Batman, but with less dialogue — because, as his character admits, he has "difficulties socializing."

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‘Doctor Strange’ (November 4)

Get ready for the latest addition to the Marvel Universe. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a surgeon whose hands are injured in an accident — an incident that paves the way for him to head east and gain mystical powers that will turn him into the comic-book "Sorceror Supreme" we know and love. The actor admits that the doctor is "very alpha male, very arrogant," like his Sherlock, but Mr. Holmes never had a Cloak of Levitation (he can fly!) or the skill to mold time to his whims.

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‘Loving’ (November 4)

Put Ruth Negga high on your list for a Best Actress Oscar. She plays Mildred Loving, a black woman prosecuted in Virginia in 1958 for daring to marry a white man (a superb Joel Edgerton). Unbelievable? Sadly, it's a true story, and director Jeff Nichols wisely lets the drama and pathos come out in Negga's haunted eyes.

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (November 11)

Iraq war hero Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is being honored at the Super Bowl with a halftime show that groundbreaking director Ang Lee interrupts with gory combat flashbacks. Lee filmed at an eye-frying 120 frames per second, nearly five times the norm — so prepare for full immersion.

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‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (November 18)

Hold on to your wands, Pottermaniacs. Harry the boy wizard makes no appearance in Fantastic Beasts, which focuses on Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British "Magizoologist" who lets his magic out of the bag when fantastic creatures leap from his briefcase in New York. J.K. Rowling wrote the screenplay (her first) — which Redmayne says "blew my mind" when he read it.

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‘Manchester by the Sea’ (November 18)

No film this year will move you more with its humor, heart and humanity than director Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career as a handyman torn by family tragedy. Michelle Williams, as his ex-wife, has never been better. In his third film (after You Can Count on Me and Margaret), Lonergan turns life's turmoil into a masterpiece.

Nocturnal Animals

Merrick Morton

‘Nocturnal Animals’ (November 18)

Fashion icon Tom Ford won raves for his 2009 directing debut, A Single Man. He's back with a mind-teaser about an L.A. art dealer (Amy Adams) whose ex-husband has written a brutal novel about a couple (Jake Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher) that she thinks is them. Can Ford blend fact and fiction into a provocative Hitchcockian thriller? We're betting on it.

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‘Rules Don’t Apply’ (November 23)

Warren Beatty, 79, directs, produces, writes and stars as Howard Hughes, the playboy billionaire who mentors a virginal starlet (Lily Collins) in love with her limo driver (Alden Ehrenrich). Both are religious. It's about "American puritan morality on the brink of the sexual revolution," says Beatty, once America's leading hedonist.

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‘Moana’ (November 23)

Disney's first animated feature about a Polynesian princess (voiced by Hawaiian teen Auli'i Cravalho) has music from Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, who tweeted, "I played a new tune for my wife  . . .  She got teary, and she's the toughest." We’re in.

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‘La La Land’ (December 2)

Fresh off Whiplash, where drum lessons tracked the road to hell, director Damien Chazelle creates a musical romance between a jazz man (Ryan Gosling) and an actress (Emma Stone). The director has called his film "a big Cinemascope love letter to Los Angeles"; the old-school numbers hinted at it in the trailer look truly showstopping.

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‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (December 16)

A stand-alone Star Wars focuses on Felicity Jones' scrappy thief and a handful of other criminal types being recruited by rebel fighters to steal something that could make or break the alliance's future: the Death Star blueprints. (We assume the folks behind this will do a better job with the Dirty Dozen-style storyline than Suicide Squad did.) It's a genius idea for a prequel — even promising a Darth Vader sighting.

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Kerry Brown

‘Assassin’s Creed’ (December 21)

You'll get your dramatic, serious Michael Fassbender in early September, when the romantic tragedy The Light Between Oceans comes out; now comes the action-hero, popcorn-entertainer version. The Oscar nominee stars as a convict who's executed — only to wake up, find out he's still alive and is the key to government types gaining memories of his ancestor during the Spanish Inquisition. (Don't ask.) Can a movie adaptation of a popular video game do justice to its source material? Maybe see what the people behind Warcraft have to say about that.

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‘Passengers’ (December 21)

Chris Pratt knows from guarding a galaxy. But how will he do stranded on a spaceship for 120 years with just one person for company? Since that person is Jennifer Lawrence, we're guessing he'll do just fine.

Patriots Day

Gretchen Ertl/Reuters

‘Patriots Day’ (December 21)

A movie, directed by actioner Peter Berg, about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — too soon? Boston's Mark Wahlberg, playing a cop, felt a "huge pressure to get this right." It's the kind of risk that makes the fall film season worth waiting for all year.

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‘Fences’ (December 25)

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis have given Tony-winning turns in August Wilson's play on the stage. Now, with Washington directing, they again honor Wilson's take on race in 1950s America through the lives of a trash collector and the wife he betrays in the name of "dreams and feelings." How can Oscar resist?