The best thing about the fall films of 2011 is that we won't have to wear those damn 3-D glasses every time we step into the theater. Autumn brings the release of Oscar bait and films with genuine artistic aspiration. Few filmmakers can provide insightful commentary on the human condition while jabbing objects at the audience from the movie screen.
Studios will still use 3-D for animated family films, including experiments from two of America's most respected filmmakers. Martin Scorsese helms the live-action Hugo in which a street urchin living in a Parisian train station uncovers a mystery involving a mechanical man and one of France's first celebrity filmmakers. Steven Spielberg directs the motion-capture film The Adventures of Tintin, based on the beloved but obscure Belgian comic strip about the "Young Indiana Jones"-style exploits of a boy and his dog.
Otherwise, Hollywood gives your depth perception a reprieve this season. Hugh Jackman's Real Steel isn't even in 3-D, and it's about boxing robots. Instead, the movies of the upcoming months will attempt to explore emotional and social dimensions — or at least try to appear serious enough to sway critics and Academy members.
More: Fall 2011 TV Preview
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DRIVE (SEPT. 16)
Ryan Gosling delivers a macho star turn as a taciturn Los Angeles mechanic and stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for high-risk heists. Quirky Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for this terrific, moody film noir update. Gosling, who keeps cool even with patrol cars and police helicopters on his tail, captures the soft-spoken magnetism of Steve McQueen. Any film that puts Gosling, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks in the same scene already has a lot going for it, and Drive also co-stars Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks.
MONEYBALL (SEPT. 23)
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics who assembles a winning baseball team with unconventional recruiting methods. The Social Network's Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin co-wrote this adaptation of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, so expect interesting baseball factoids comparable to The Blind Side's prologue about the value of quarterbacks and left tackles. The trailer suggests that Pitt and Jonah Hill, who concocts an "Island of Misfit Toys" approach to building a team, make a great comedy duo.
THE IDES OF MARCH (OCT. 7)
Intergenerational dreamboats Ryan Gosling and George Clooney co-star in this presidential campaign film. Clooney reteams with his Good Night, and Good Luck co-scripter Grant Heslov to co-write, direct and star in a political drama in which a rising political strategist (Gosling) reconsiders his loyalty to an idealistic presidential candidate (Clooney). Beau Willimon's original play Farragut North was loosely based on the 2004 presidential run of Howard Dean. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei have supporting roles, but it could be the kind of film that looks more significant than it actually is (see: Primary Colors, All the King's Men).
J. EDGAR (NOV. 9)
Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover in this biopic directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for Milk, shifts his attention from an openly gay historical figure to an allegedly gay one. Hoover served as director of the FBI for more than three decades, and J. Edgar explores Hoover's longtime relationship with FBI associate director Clyde Tolson (The Social Network's Armie Hammer). J. Edgar wades into controversy about Hoover's personal life, but reportedly shies away from speculation that America's No. 1 G-man liked to wear ladies' dresses. The film also examines Hoover's persecution of activist group leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But can DiCaprio, who was so-so as middle-aged Howard Hughes in The Aviator, effectively play Hoover as a senior citizen?
A DANGEROUS METHOD (NOV. 23)
Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings, Keira Knightley of Pirates of the Caribbean and Michael Fassbender of X-Men: First Class team up for ... a period drama about psychoanalysis? In A Dangerous Method, Knightley's Sabina Spielrein, one of world's first female psychotherapists, creates a rift between rockstar headshrinker Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and his protégé Carl Jung (Fassbender) on the eve of World War I. Director David Cronenberg helms Christopher Hampton's (Dangerous Liaisons) adaptation of his own stage play, The Talking Cure. Biopics about famous thinkers seldom match the significance of their subjects, but Cronenberg has explored abnormal psychology for his entire career, so if he can't make it compelling, no one can.
THE DESCENDANTS (NOV. 23)
Alexander Payne, director of Election and About Schmidt, moves from his beloved Omaha, Neb., plains to the sunny climes of Hawaii for a bittersweet drama. George Clooney plays an emotionally distant father who must reconnect with his daughters and uncover family secrets when his wife lapses into a coma. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendents looks to be more of a weep-and-reconcile heart-warmer than one of Payne's acerbic satires. But it could prove to be a top-notch character study on par with the director's last feature film, 2004's Sideways.
THE MUPPETS (NOV. 23)
Kermit the Frog and company return for their first theatrical release in 12 years. Amy Adams and Jason Segel play ordinary folks who fall in love when trying to reunite the Muppets to save their beloved theater. The behind-the-scenes pedigree is impressive: Director James Bobin co-created HBO's hilarious "Flight of the Conchords" series with musician/star Bret McKenzie, who serves as musical director. Segel co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller — you may recall their Dracula puppets from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. So far this year, the clever marketing campaign includes hilariously misleading trailers and an OK Go cover of "The Muppet Show's" theme song. As long as people don't get sick of the Muppets before the movie actually comes out, it should be fun.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (DEC. 2)
Tilda Swinton may be a Best Actress contender for this heavyweight drama about the parents of a troubled boy (Ezra Miller) involved with a school massacre. John C. Reilly plays her husband. Lynne Ramsay, director of intense Scottish indies such as Ratcatcher, helms the adaptation of the award-winning novel by American writer Lionel Shriver. We Need to Talk About Kevin addresses a huge, uncomfortable topic underexplored on the big screen — let's hope it lives up to its ambitions.
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (DEC. 9)
Gary Oldman returns to his soft-spoken Commissioner Gordon mode as English spymaster George Smiley, who comes out of retirement to expose a high-ranking Soviet mole in the Intelligence community. Tomas Alfredson, director of Let the Right One In (the awesome Swedish one, not the decent American one), helms this adaptation of John LeCarré's classic espionage novel from 1974. The film features the best ensemble of British character actors this side of a Harry Potter movie: Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciarán Hinds. Fun fact: In 1979 and 1982, Alec Guinness played Smiley so well for the BBC that LeCarré felt he could no longer write for the character and retired him. LeCarré drew inspiration from the case of real-life defector Kim Philby, so it could draw on rich issues of personal and national loyalty. But Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy might turn out to be just a cerebral, slow-burning thriller.
THE IRON LADY (DEC. 16)
The Academy Awards probably have a Best Actress nomination already reserved for Meryl Streep in this dramatization of the rise of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The supporting cast includes Richard E. Grant, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" Anthony Head and Jim Broadbent as her husband Denis. How the film treats Thatcher's conservative politics will probably kick off a political argument, but given that director Phyllida Lloyd's only other major film was the wispy musical Mamma Mia!, we might want to reduce expectations.
YOUNG ADULT (DEC. 16)
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody reunites with her Juno director Jason Reitman for this sure-to-be quippy comedy. Charlize Theron plays a successful young adult author who returns to her hometown and reconnects with her now-married sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) and a more maladjusted classmate (comedian Patton Oswalt). It probably won't be particularly challenging fare, unless it resembles one of those early Alexander Payne midlife satires, only with a female point of view.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (DEC. 21)
The Social Network director David Fincher returns to more familiar themes like obsession and serial murder in this take on the Swedish best-seller. While Noomi Rapace as superhacker Lisbeth Salander was the best thing about the Swedish version, Rooney Mara plays the title role here. (You may remember her telling off Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network's opening scene.) Daniel Craig plays a disgraced journalist who investigates a decades-old mystery about a missing girl. In Se7en and Zodiac, Fincher revealed a flair for conveying moral turpitude and complex information, but his Tattoo remake runs the risk of being just a slick, zeitgeisty thriller. The bootleg trailer that leaked online (but was probably a viral stunt) delivers such an unnerving rush that one can only hope the film lives up to it.
WAR HORSE (DEC. 28)
During World War I, an English horse gets sold to the British cavalry and has adventures on either side of No Man's Land. Meanwhile his young friend Albert (Jeremy Irvine) tries to find the steed in the war zone and bring him back to Devon. The material has made a circuitous route to the screen, beginning with Michael Morpurgo's 1992 novel and then the popular 2007 theatrical version. (Yes, it was a hit stage play about a horse.) In addition to his four-legged ensemble, Steven Spielberg directs David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Emily Watson. The most fun thing about it should be the potential Spielberg title mashups: E.T.: The Equine Terrestrial? Saddler's List? Saving Pony Ryan?
THE ARTIST (TBD)
French director Michel Hazanavicius helms a tribute to the silent film era in this gorgeous-looking black-and-white, silent period piece. In 1927 Hollywood, the rise of the Talkies threatens the career of a matinee idol (Jean Dujardin) while making a star of a pretty extra (Bérénice Bejo). Hazanavicius and Dujardin worked together on the intoxicating OSS 117 spoofs of 1960s spy films, and The Artist looks too heartfelt to be merely an exercise in style. And since it's a silent French film, it doesn't matter that it has subtitles. Dujardin won Best Actor at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Next: Fall 2011 TV Preview