At last, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the return of movies for thinking people. Children are back in school, the Toronto and Telluride festivals just jump-started the race to the Oscars, and local theaters are filling with adult-oriented movies from established and promising directors featuring our most reliable and risk-inclined actors. This handpicked list pairs major (and sure-to-be heavily promoted) Hollywood movies with blink-and-you-might-miss-em independent films that deserve all the love and attention they can get. There are so many intriguing films headed our way between now and Thanksgiving, in fact, that several tempting titles (such as The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall) didn’t make the cut. Too many worthwhile movies? Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them
Opens Sept. 12
Writer-director Ned Benson made an ambitious debut at Toronto last year with a pair of films that portrayed a fractured relationship from the perspectives of each partner. Edited and integrated into a single feature that premiered at Cannes, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them should be catnip for fans of intimate character studies as well as those perpetually on the lookout for talented newcomers. The ever-surprising and perennially award-worthy Jessica Chastain and the perpetually boyish James McAvoy play the lovebirds derailed by a tragedy. The two original movies, incidentally, are tentatively slated to receive very limited releases in October.
The Skeleton Twins
Opens Sept. 12
Another young director, Craig Johnson, embraces the fraught and fertile territory of adult siblings in this serio-comic tale that was a word-of-mouth triumph at the S.F. International Film Festival. Suicidal estranged twins Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig -- fine comic actors displaying their range -- are unhappily grappling separately with how and where their lives went askew when a failed wrist-slashing throws them together. Who said misery loves company? (Among others, the legendary San Francisco band It’s a Beautiful Day, on their third album.) Johnson and Mark Heyman took the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, and no wonder: The Skeleton Twins is funny, real, poignant and shattering.
Opens Sept. 26
I prefer eccentric, labor-intensive, handmade stop-motion animation to the seamless computer-generated stuff. (I also like LPs and stick shifts.) The Boxtrolls, from the Portland studio Laika that made the stop-motion winners Coraline and ParaNorman, is a hybrid. Adapted from Alan Snow’s massive children’s book, Here Be Monsters!, the movie follows an orphan raised by underground trash collectors. The wee lad eventually helps his benefactors by fending off the obligatory villain (Sir Ben Kingsley) with the help of a winsome lass (Elle Fanning). The movie has something of a British sensibility, with Dickens’ spirit hovering and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost voicing key parts. It all adds up to a film for kids and adults.
Opens Oct. 3
David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac) is one of a small handful of American directors whose films are essential viewing -- alive, surprising, unnerving and disturbing -- despite their often-distasteful subject matter. His new thriller, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her novel, finds Ben Affleck distraught over the disappearance of his wife (Rosamund Pike). As the screws tighten, hubby’s story springs a leak. Is he really a victim, or the perp? Gone Girl runs nearly 2½ hours, a declaration, along with its opening-night slot at the New York Film Festival, that it wants to be seen as an important movie, if not an instant American classic.
Listen Up Philip
Opens Oct. 17
Wunderkind writer-director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) aims to bust through the indie-world ceiling with this Philip Roth-influenced drama. Jonathan Schwartzman plays the titular Philip, a narcissistic writer awaiting the publication of his no-doubt-brilliant second novel. Angry and wired, he jumps at the invitation to hang out with a revered older writer (the marvelous Jonathan Pryce) at his country home. Let’s hope the place is big enough to hold both egos. Elisabeth Ross, Krysten Ritter and Jess Wexler play the women in Philip’s complicated life.
Opens Oct. 17, 2014
Fifteen years after Saving Private Ryan, war movies are more realistic than ever. Consider yourself warned. Brad Pitt, making up for his role in the cartoonish World War II fantasy Inglourious Basterds, commands a Sherman tank on a mission behind German lines in April 1945. Once upon a time, the star didn’t die in war films, but we’re not making any bets on this one. We are curious about the look, edging toward black-and-white, that writer-director David Ayer and the young Russian cinematographer Roman Vasyanov devised for the picture.
Dear White People
Opens Oct. 24
Justin Simien’s timely, canny satire has garnered awards nearly everywhere it’s played, including a Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the audience award at SFIFF. Four distinctly different black characters pursue strategies (that is, identities) for success at an Ivy League university. Riffing on the stereotypes, expectations and presumed cultural tastes that the majority uses to define black people, even at a supposedly enlightened East Coast school, Dear White People tweaks every shade of racial identity. The question, after the tragedy and brutality of Ferguson, is whether a hip, young, white audience is inclined to check out or ignore a hip, young, black point of view.
Opens Nov 7
According to his army of adoring fans, Christopher Nolan (Inception, three Batman movies) is a combination of Kubrick and Kierkegaard. I find his movies boring and superficial, when they aren’t outright impenetrable. His latest money-spinning hunk of sentimental, less-than-meets-the-eye science fiction ships sensitive Texan Matthew McConaughey to Mars to save his family and, incidentally, the rest of us peons on Earth. Or so the trailer leads me to conclude. I’ll see it anyway, digging the visual effects and enjoying crafty vets William Devane, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow and Michael Caine in thankless cameos.
The Way He Looks
Opens Nov 7
Expanding his 2010 short film with the same trio of young actors, Brazilian writer-director Daniel Ribeiro makes his feature debut with the charming saga of a blind teenager determined to carve his own path. Leonardo’s routine, his relationship with his (female) best friend, and the way he perceives the world all change with the arrival of a new (male) student. Friendship, lust, romance, love -- the gang’s all here in this deliciously observed and wonderfully acted coming-of-age tale. Winner of the audience award at several festivals, including Frameline, The Way He Looks (note the double meaning) has heart to spare.
Opens Nov 14
Comedian and The Daily Show host Jon Stewart grows up with this hard-hitting and at times droll depiction of the imprisonment and torture of Tehran-born, London-based BBC journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) for four months in 2009. Stewart penned the screenplay (adapting Bahari’s memoir of the events that transpired when he returned to Iran to cover the presidential election) and makes his debut behind the camera, so there’s a chance that it’s a flatfooted flop. But the guy’s pretty darn smart, and he chose a compelling story and a remarkable character. And how can you not root for a first-time director in his 50s (even if he is a multimillionaire)?
The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game
Opening Nov. 14 and Nov. 21
Americans love physics and geeks, if the success of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory is any measure. I somehow doubt, however, that those Nielsen numbers will translate into long lines for the pair of films based on real English brainiacs opening on successive Fridays. Drawing on Jane Hawking’s memoir and directed by the gifted documentarian James Marsh, The Theory of Everything portrays the Cambridge love affair of graduate student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his future wife (the luminous and criminally underrated Felicity Jones). When he is struck by a degenerative disease and given a terminal diagnosis, Jane becomes his fiercest ally. (At least in the movies, nothing inspires romantic commitment like a partner’s illness.) The ticking clock that drives The Imitation Game, meanwhile, is the seemingly inevitable invasion of Britain by Nazi Germany. Gay mathematician, logician, cryptologist and computer scientist Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock) heads a team of code breakers racing to decipher intercepted German messages. After the war, Turing made several other contributions, but his career and life were cut short by a 1952 prosecution for homosexuality. I expect this terrible chapter falls outside the film’s purview, and will be disclosed in an end card before the closing credits.
Opens Nov. 21
Yet another riveting drama crafted from real life finds Steve Carell solidifying his place on the long list of comedians with outstanding dramatic chops. (Let us pause here to remember Robin Williams.) Carell plays a schizophrenic, manipulative du Pont heir who persuades Olympic gold-medal wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum) to accept his deep-pocket sponsorship as they train for the 1988 Games. Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) won the Best Director prize at Cannes for this piercing, downbeat character (and crime) story that illuminates the gulf between appearances and reality, thereby pulling back the curtain on the whole Reagan-era “morning in America” jive. A surefire year-end awards contender, and not to be missed.
Maps to the Stars
I realize that a baker’s dozen is 13, but I can’t resist including a bonus track: David Cronenberg’s icy cool, blacker-than-black comedy of an alienated, damaged Hollywood family and the ripple effects of their narcissism and cruelty. Julianne Moore (Best Actress winner at Cannes), John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams and Robert Pattinson (as a limo driver!) embody the seven deadly sins (and there is assuredly death). Bruce Wagner, a bitterly funny novelist and chronicler of L.A.’s foibles (the fondly remembered ‘90s miniseries Wild Palms was his handiwork) wrote the screenplay, which is piled high with his trademark blend of absurdist humor and gut-wrenching depravity.
Maps to the Stars is not for everyone, and definitely not for the kids. But that’s the great thing about fall movies: They make you very glad to be an adult.