SN&R's fall movie preview: Now watch this

SN&R film critics Daniel Barnes and Jim Lane take on pirates, drug traffickers and Bradley Cooper's perm in this rundown of the season's most anticipated films

Sam Claflin (left) co-stars with Jennifer Lawrence in <i>The Hunger Games: Catching Fire</i>, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ addictive trilogy.

Sam Claflin (left) co-stars with Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ addictive trilogy.

If summer is a time for blockbuster movies, lowbrow comedies and megafranchise flicks, then fall is the season when the films turn more serious. Think auteurs and arty, intellectual indies, epic documentaries and highbrow award fare, with nary an Iron Man: Part Whatever or drunken Vegas trip in the mix. Not sure what to see and what’s worth skipping (or at least waiting to download)? No worries, SN&R film critics Daniel Barnes and Jim Lane did the heavy lifting for you by highlighting some of the upcoming season’s most promising fare.

Catching excitement

I must admit that I am rather looking forward to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire—mainly because the movie’s producers had the good sense to dump Gary Ross, whose efforts to make a mess of the story’s first installment were thwarted mainly by the presence of Jennifer Lawrence as Suzanne Collins’ teenage heroine. For this outing, Ross has been replaced as director by Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), and as scriptwriter by Oscar-winners Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt. But Catching Fire isn’t the movie I’m most looking forward to this season—it’s not even in my top five. Here they are, in the order of scheduled release.

Light the way

Enough Said (September 20): I’ve been a fan of writer-director Nicole Holofcener ever since her first indie, Walking and Talking in 1996. She’s worked steadily since then—mainly on TV (Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls), with the occasional feature—but she’s still a well-kept secret. She has a flair for well-observed characters and smart dialogue that actors just love to light into. She’s got some good ones lighting into her dialogue this time, too: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette and, in his penultimate screen appearance, the late James Gandolfini.

Tom Hanks revisits his <i>Cast Away</i> look in <i>Captain Phillips</i>.

Money fall

The Wolf of Wall Street (November 15): Master director Martin Scorsese and writer Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) take on the life and career of stock-market buccaneer Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). This one has securities fraud, money laundering, a prison term, even a shipwreck—plus Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Jon Favreau, Rob Reiner, Christine Ebersole and director Spike Jonze in a rare turn in front of the camera.

Talent show

Black Nativity (November 27): From what I can tell, this appears to be less a film version of Langston Hughes’ 1961 gospel musical than an original story centered around a production of it. In any case, adaptor-director Kasi Lemmons is a talent to reckon with. She made a debut splash with Eve’s Bayou, coaxed Samuel L. Jackson to the performance of his life in The Caveman’s Valentine and distilled the African-American experience in Talk to Me. There’s talent to reckon with in front of the camera, too, including Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson. With all those names, this could be a Christmas perennial—a holiday musical with real soul.

Terror on the high seas

Captain Phillips (October 11): Director Paul Greengrass showed himself to be a master of the docudrama with Sunday and United 93, and he galvanized Universal Studio’s Jason Bourne franchise with The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Here, he takes on the real-life hijacking of an American freighter by Somali pirates, who held the captain (Tom Hanks) hostage and shouted their defiance at the United States—right up until the moment U.S. Navy snipers blew their brains out. This promises to be another real nail-biter from Greengrass, with his usual you-are-there authenticity.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in the latest Spike Jonze flick, <i>Her</i>.

Oscar watch

August: Osage County (December 25, but not due in Sacramento until January 2014): Tracy Letts’ prairie-gothic family dramedy was the kind of play that gives American theater a good name. Teeming with darkly comic intimations of Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, it carried audiences through three-and-a-half hours with never a dull moment, and it deserved every award it got (Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, five Tony Awards, etc.). And talk about an all-star cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others. Directing is John Wells, long-time producer. Don’t be surprised if this is the one to beat when Oscar time rolls around. (J.L.)

Gotta have Faith

I hate hype, dislike spoilers, loathe franchises and don’t care about buzz, so selecting my five most anticipated movies of the fall is an exercise in the many forms of cinematic faith.

Faith in an up-and-comer

12 Years a Slave (October 18): Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger was one of the great sit-up-straight-and-notice-me debuts of the last decade, and this is his first shot at a sweeping epic. It’s adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s, and like Hunger, it explores human strength and degradation in a visceral and intensely personal fashion. The chronically underused Chiwetel Ejiofor takes the lead as Northup, and he’s supported here by a strong ensemble cast, featuring Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard.

Bradley Cooper (left)—and his chemically treated curly locks—stars with Christian Bale in <i>American Hustle</i>.

Faith in an established brilliance

Inside Llewyn Davis (December 20): Ethan and Joel Coen are nothing if not inconsistent, alternating of late between top-shelf gems (A Serious Man) and unworthy fluff (Burn After Reading), yet no American directors have a higher ceiling. Their oeuvre may not stack up pound for pound against that of Martin Scorsese, but right now, I have more faith in the Coen brothers to make a great film. It doesn’t hurt that Inside Llewyn Davis, about a Dylan-esque musician (Oscar Isaac) traipsing through an off-kilter version of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, was quite possibly created from a focus group of my dreams.

Faith in a legendary writer

The Counselor (October 25): Speaking of the Coen brothers, they were the first to prove with No Country for Old Men that author Cormac McCarthy’s work could be successfully translated into the language of film. The 2009 adaptation of McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Road was a disappointment, but his lack of authorship on that production may have inspired him to seize control and write The Counselor, his first original screenplay. Ridley Scott’s steamy mise-en-scène might be just the ticket for this story of a sleazy lawyer (Michael Fassbender) mixed up with Mexican drug traffickers. He certainly has an intriguing cast to work with, including Javier Bardem, who reinhabits the sort of unhinged villain that won him an Oscar for No Country for Old Men.

Faith in an actor on a roll

Her (December 20): I was a huge fan of director Spike Jonze’s first two films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.), but compared to most critics, I was on an island with regards to Where the Wild Things Are. Unfortunately, that island was filled with a family of clinically depressed magical creatures whining incessantly about their many disappointments. Jonze’s latest effort is Her, and the twee trailer emphasizes the same sort of mopey navel-gazing that made Where the Wild Things Are unbearable. Still, if anyone can find the meaty center in this quirky romance about a sad sack who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system, it’s Joaquin Phoenix.

Faith in a ridiculously awesome trailer

American Hustle (December 25): If they gave an Academy Award for best trailer, American Hustle would be a Schindler’s List-level shoo-in. It’s an intoxicating blur of sex and violence, color and motion, bravado, and bad wigs, electrically edited and set to Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times.” You can’t watch it and not come away dying to see the movie, unless you gouged out your eyes when you saw Bradley Cooper’s perm. It is 150 seconds of pure cinematic sizzle, but whether or not the steak has any substance is up to hit-or-miss director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), and his stock company of Cooper, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence. (D.B.)