Lights, camera, autumn!

For movie geeks, it’s that season after the summer blockbusters, when next year’s Oscar contenders compete with big-budget monsters, lowbrow teen flicks and a few charming surprises

It is no coincidence that the naked golden man known as Oscar is holding a sword and standing on a reel of film. Making movies is often a bloodstained affair. Producers pound on directors. Directors and actors pound on writers. And writers pound on walls with their heads. Movie sets are booby-trapped with egos, greed, politics, incompetence and compromise and are littered with shredded artistic, socially redeeming and recreational intentions. When the cameras stop and the smoke machines clear, it’s a wonder films are made at all.

But they are.

Sometimes, these motion pictures even have value beyond the price of the celluloid and videotape on which they are stored. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annually bestows the Oscar statuette to the productions and people it deems representative of the “best” in their field. Sometimes, the academy seems baffled by the nomination and award ballots. To make the process less taxing, the studios release most of their prestige (as opposed to popcorn) pictures in December. And, to avoid offending the academy, the studios privately insist that the American public likes to see its allotted ration of quality films all in the same month.

<i>The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.</i>

Last year, the members of the academy apparently agreed that their peers had saved the best for last. Three of the five films nominated for Best Picture (Chicago, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Gangs of New York) opened wide in December. The other two (The Hours and The Pianist) opened in limited release the same month to qualify for Oscar honors and then opened wide (including in Sacramento) in January.

Right now, movie audiences are wedged between a new field of end-of-year photo finishes and a summer in which a moviegoer, theoretically, could see one sequel per week. For example, X2: X-Men United was smart and sexy. And Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was an unexpected comic gem, with Arnold Schwarzenegger daring to fall from the sky naked at the age of 55 before running for governor. The rest of the retreads ranged from bearable to noxious.

The summer included such successes as 28 Days Later, Seabiscuit and Finding Nemo. The Crest Theatre and Tower Theatre screened such stellar independent films as Raising Victor Vargas and Respiro, along with such documentaries as Spellbound and Winged Migration. And, hoping those films represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of quality for 2003’s films, here is an autumn film season that has several dream casts to die for. At the very least, it has a little something for everybody.

(Please keep in mind that all release dates are subject to change, and the number of available films makes it impossible to mention them all.)

Mike Myers in <i>The Cat in the Hat</i>.

Underworld (to be released September 19) jumps onto the Halloween bandwagon early. This supernatural thriller stars Kate Beckinsale (Pearl Harbor) as an urban vampire who falls in love with

a werewolf: a relationship they both sink their teeth into. On the other side of the crucifix, Joseph Fiennes stars in Luther (September 26) as the 16th-century German monk who rebelled against the Catholic Church and changed the face of Christianity.

Lighter offerings include Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) as he continues his career as a fatherless child, in the comic Secondhand Lions (September 19). The boy’s mom (played by Kyra Sedgwick) sends him to live in Texas with his crusty uncle (Robert Duvall) and crony (Michael Caine). I’m guessing everyone enjoys a life lesson and a group hug or two. In a switch of genres, Unfaithful’s Diane Lane stars in the comedy-romance Under the Tuscan Sun (September 26) as a writer who goes to Italy to recover from her divorce. She falls in love with more than just the local gelato. And perky Meg Ryan reciprocates this genre flip-flop with In the Cut (October 24), in which she plays a professor involved both in a murder case and with the investigating detective (Mark Ruffalo). Jane Campion (The Piano) directs.

Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman make Oscar runs under three-time Oscar-winning director Robert Benton, in The Human Stain (September 26), in which an African-American professor who passes himself as white and Jewish makes a racial slur in his classroom that shatters his life. And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pumps up the action with The Rundown (September 26), as bounty hunters run amok in a South American jungle.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney in the Coen brothers&#8217; <i>Intolerable Cruelty</i>.

Music dominates Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock (October 3). Jack Black plays a rock renegade who poses as a substitute teacher and enters a group of fifth-graders in the local battle of the bands. And, in two independent films with only very tentative October local-release dates, the kids are not all right, even by the Who’s standards. In Home Room, which has been in low-level release since 2002, the survivor (Traffic’s Erika Christensen) of a school shooting befriends an outsider who is both the key witness and a prime suspect. Columbine-style violence is the topic of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which won the Cannes Palme d’Or and Best Director awards. Director Clint Eastwood also wrestles with elements of childhood trauma in Mystic River (October 15). Three boys grow up with emotional scars after one is molested. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney star.

Adult crime stories also flourish. Director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) reunites with Denzel Washington, as a Florida police chief is accused of homicide in Out of Time (October 3). Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume One (October 10) is about a woman left for dead on her wedding day who returns to kill all her associates. Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah and Michael Madsen share the marquee. In Gothika (October 24), a psychiatrist wakes up in her own hospital as a patient accused of murdering her own husband, with Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Penélope Cruz and Charles S. Dutton in the credits.

October also features two courtroom battles of will. Runaway Jury (October 17) features John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Rachel Weisz and Jennifer Beals, as a jurist offers to sell his verdict to the highest bidder. The Coen brothers’ comedy Intolerable Cruelty (October 10) pits a divorce lawyer (George Clooney) against a manipulator (Catherine Zeta-Jones), with Cedric the Entertainer, Billy Bob Thornton and Geoffrey Rush in the wings. Thornton also stars in two other films: In the title role of the comedy Bad Santa (November 26) for Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff and as coonskin-capped Davy Crockett in The Alamo (December 25) for director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie).

This season, screenplay writers also are directing. Peter Hedges (who adapted Nick Hornby’s About a Boy) directed Pieces of April (October 17), which stars Katie Holmes as a nonconformist who invites her estranged parents for Thanksgiving. And Richard Curtis (Notting Hill) overlapped 10 story lines and 12 stars, including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth and Alan Rickman, in Love Actually (November 14).

Around Thanksgiving, screens will crawl with fantasy. The Matrix Revolutions (November 5) with the Wachowski brothers and their basic cast intact opens in IMAX format with the burning question: Is Neo really the one? Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat (November 21) has Mike Myers in the title role. Elf (November 7) finds Swingers’ Jon Favreau directing Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart and Edward Asner in a story about a Santa helper who searches for his biological dad. Tim Burton’s Big Fish (November 26), in which a journalist visits his dying father and listens to all his tall tales, stars Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange and Helena Bonham Carter. And adventure splashes across the screen when Russell Crowe storms through high seas as a British naval officer in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (November 14).

Despite all that comes before, December still arrives fully reloaded. Time travel abounds, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman starring in separate post-Civil War stories. In Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (December 5), Cruise plays a war vet invited by the emperor of Japan to modernize his army. In Cold Mountain (December 25), Kidman, Jude Law, Renée Zellweger, Natalie Portman and Philip Seymour Hoffman star in a love story about a wounded Rebel soldier and his journey home. The English Patient screenwriter Anthony Minghella directs. Ron Howard helms his first western, The Missing (December 10), with frontier woman Cate Blanchett coping with the kidnapping of her child and the return of her father (Tommy Lee Jones) after living with the Apaches. And Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (December 17) is poised to add to the trilogy’s 19 previous Oscar nominations.

Other holiday films include Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s comedy Stuck on You (December 12), with Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as conjoined brothers. Nancy Meyers (What Women Want) writes and directs Something’s Gotta Give (December 12) with Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves and Frances McDormand in muddled relationships. Mona Lisa Smile (December 19) has Julia Roberts leading Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Marcia Gay Harden in a story about female empowerment at a 1953 women-only college. And The Young Black Stallion (December 25) is an IMAX experience in which a girl stranded in Africa after World War II is rescued by a wild horse and winds up at a racetrack.

One filmmaker missing from this December’s lineup is former Channel 31 editor Joe Carnahan (Narc). Mr. Carnahan may not currently be in Oscar contention, but he is not out of work: He’s off shooting Mission Impossible 3 in Australia for a summer 2004 release. He probably doesn’t mind the shift to the popcorn detail.