While blockbuster season in the movie business is year-round these days, studios increasingly reserve their adult-oriented character-driven films for fall and winter, when serious moviegoers celebrate the cooling temperatures as a herald of quality cinema.
But older audiences are proving reluctant to return to theaters so long as COVID variants circulate, while streaming has become the preferred platform for a portion of the public. So the state of movies and the health of theaters are open questions, even as those in the industry—not to mention film lovers—crave a return to normalcy.
Tempered optimism is the watchword, so my fall forecast is gripping drama with a chance of excitement.
Sept. 10, Castro Theatre
Pier Paolo Pasolini was known in the U.S. merely as a provocative filmmaker; in his native Italy, he was an eminent (and devoutly controversial) public intellectual and social critic. A poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, actor, screenwriter and director, Pasolini remains a complicated, challenging figure 45 years after his unsolved death at the hands of a male prostitute. Cinema Italia SF commemorates his centennial with an all-day marathon spotlighting Pasolini’s early ’60s black-and-white dramas of Rome’s underclass, Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani’s signature role) and Accatone, and capped by the unflinching, notorious Saló, or the 100 Days of Sodom (1976). A BAMPFA retrospective (Oct. 22-Nov. 27) offers even more chances to immerse yourself in Pasolini’s fascination with sex, violence, faith and power.
Sept. 23, Apple TV+
Our personal reactions to movie stars reveal more about us—our fantasies, our prejudices—than them. Sidney Poitier’s career spanned the entirety of the second half of the 20th century and the enormous evolution in how Black people were portrayed, played and viewed onscreen. It’s impossible to conceive the tightrope Poitier walked in the ’50s and ’60s, playing dignified characters (Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night, notably) who had to restrain their response to a diet of insults lest they scare white moviegoers—without losing his credibility with Black audiences. A successful director (Stir Crazy) and a prominent civil rights activist, Poitier, who died in January, possessed an unshakable moral compass. Reginald Hudlin’s documentary introduces Poitier to a new audience, filtered through the voices of his contemporaries (Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand) and heirs (Denzel Washington, Spike Lee).
Oct. 6-16, in theaters and online
Marin County’s venerable fall blowout boasts several strong strands: female directors, local documentaries, music films, foreign-language sleepers. In addition, as fall marks the kickoff to awards season, MVFF has positioned itself over the last 15 years as the Bay Area venue of choice to premiere thoughtful, actor-powered dramas. This year’s star sightings could include Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up, Tilda Swinton in Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, Olivia Colman and/or Colin Firth in Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light and Brendan Fraser in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Of note, MVFF is expanding its in-person events this year to BAMPFA in Berkeley and the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
'The Lost King'
A potential candidate for MVFF’s opening or closing night slot, the new film from the underappreciated British director Stephen Frears is an expertly calibrated, comic yet touching portrait of female perseverance. Frears and his Philomena collaborators, screenwriter Jeff Pope and co-writer and actor Steve Coogan, recreate contemporary writer Philippa Langley’s real-life obstacles and travails on her journey to uncovering the burial site of King Richard III (1452-85). Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) plays the determined protagonist, aided by her husband (Coogan). Frears has a dry sense of humor, giving me hope that Sir Ian McKellen, who played Richard so brilliantly on stage and screen, makes an unbilled cameo as, say, a librarian or cab driver. (The audience for The Lost King overlaps with the demographic that’s been the slowest to return to theaters, so the film may score more success on PVOD.)
Emmett Till was just 14 when he was kidnapped, tortured and shot to death while visiting family in Mississippi on his summer vacation in 1955. One of the most heinous crimes in the endlessly brutal history of American racism, Emmett’s murder became a flashpoint for the entire country when his mother gave him a public funeral with an open casket back home in Chicago. Writer-producer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s follow-up to Clemency (which starred Alfre Woodard as a prison warden) recounts the saga of another Black woman under unfathomable pressure, Mamie Till-Mobley (played by the estimable Danielle Deadwyler). The terrible events of 1955 continue to reverberate in the present day, and Till will likely extend the conversation: Keith Beauchamp, who alleged in his 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till that no fewer than 14 people were involved in the boy’s death, has a writing and producing credit.
Oct. 21 in theaters, Nov. 4 on Amazon Prime Video
The esteemed British theater director Michael Grandage directs Ron Nyswaner’s adaptation of Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel, though Harry Styles is the only name trending on Twitter. The Evesham heartthrob plays the title character—a married, closeted cop in 1950s Brighton who’s having an affair with a museum curator. Forty years after making a hash of things, the characters (now played by Linus Roache, Gina McKee and Rupert Everett) strain to alchemize regret into redemption. Regardless of the artfulness of the film’s structure, the performances are the key to its emotional punch. By the time Oscar nominations are announced, Styles may be trending everywhere.
Devotees of nonfiction film will have ample opportunities to partake of real-world sagas this fall, between the Green Film Festival of San Francisco’s (Oct. 6-16) globe-hopping array of environmental documentaries and the San Francisco Dance Film Festival’s (Oct. 28-Nov. 7) scintillating mix of portraits and performances. SFFILM’s Doc Stories casts its net beyond any specific niche to snare the latest high-profile works on any subject by well-known filmmakers and buzz-catching newcomers. This compact series avidly positions itself as a stop on the road to the Academy Awards due to the many Bay Area members of the Documentary branch. Regular folks benefit, too, from the unusually sophisticated post-film conversations on documentary practice and ethics. Keep your eyes on the skies for the possible inclusion, synced to its HBO premiere, of the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prizewinner All That Breathes, Shaunak Sen’s touching, poetic portrait of New Delhi brothers who save injured black kites.
'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever'
Surely there’s room to include one blockbuster on our list. Yes, Oakland native Ryan Coogler’s hotly anticipated new film is a sequel, a superhero movie and a Marvel production. Yes, the death of Chadwick Boseman leaves a void in the Wakanda universe. Consequently, and thrillingly, the sequel foregrounds and centers the characters played by forces of nature Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o. There’s every reason to anticipate that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (scripted by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote the original) will be even more audacious, outspoken and galvanizing than the original. Yes, I know that runs counter to the Hollywood mode of business, but selling out isn’t in Coogler’s DNA.
Steven Spielberg isn’t known as a writer—he last took pen to paper to adapt the A.I. Artificial Intelligence screenplay 20 years ago—but who else could tell his semi-autobiographical tale of a Jewish boy growing up in wild and woolly Phoenix in the ’50s and ’60s? Thankfully, his longtime collaborator, Louisiana-raised Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner. Consequently, Spielberg’s contribution to the precious (in both senses of the word) genre of the formative years of film directors has potential to be much more than a lavish golden-hour ode to the ups and downs of the nuclear (age) family. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play Sammy’s parents, with Seth Rogen in the key role of lad’s uncle. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll remember a time when air conditioning was proof of God’s existence.
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