The shift from the summer to the fall movie season usually means the names get bigger and the budgets get smaller. More thoughtful films starring Russell Crowe or Tom Hanks replace blockbusters starring Chris Evans or Shia LaBeouf.
This fall and holiday season is a bit different. There are modest-budgeted films starring Oscar winners, but also sweeping, big-budgeted films starring or directed by Oscar winners. From the bursting-at-the-seams "Cloud Atlas" to the star-packed "Les Miserables" to "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," fall and holiday films seem especially big this year.
It's tempting to try to group the 2012 fall films thematically, to explain why they are coming out at the same time. The releases of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt-centric "Hyde Park on Hudson," for example, could be linked to a presidential election year.
But what about "Anna Karenina"? Were the times crying out for another adaptation of the Tolstoy novel?
Truth is, most of these films have been in the works for years, and share little more than ambition. They are being released in the final part of 2012 because they are finished, and it's awards season.
But for cinephiles who appreciate scope and grandeur, the release of these films in the same movie season is serendipity.
Here is a preview of 20 fall/holiday movies that, based on their trailers, source material or the creative people involved, look compelling. The "very serious" films are those clearly presented for Academy Awards consideration, given their high-profile casts, directors or subject matter.
All dates are subject to change.
"The Master": Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") chronicles the rise of a 1950s writer turned religious leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) named Lancaster Dodd. The fictional Dodd shares traits with writer-turned-religious-leader and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But like Daniel Day Lewis' oil baron in Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," Dodd likely is based on a few people rather than one. Joaquin Phoenix plays an alcoholic World War II veteran who falls under the religious leader's sway. The film was shot partly in Vallejo. (Sept. 21)
"Argo": Set during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, this movie directed by and starring Ben Affleck is based on a true story. Doesn't sound like it is, but it is. Affleck plays a CIA "exfiltration" specialist who comes up with a ruse a fake movie production team scouting locations in the Middle East to try to rescue six hostages who had sneaked away from their captors and were holed up at the Canadian ambassador's house. And they say Hollywood keeps telling the same stories. (Oct. 12)
"Cloud Atlas": Future, present and past interact, and Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon and other famous names appear in a film with such HUGE THEMES it needed three directors the Wachowski siblings (the "Matrix" films) and Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run"). Hanks plays several different characters, in different decades. A five-minute extended preview ("Cloud Atlas Movie Trailer 2" on YouTube) of the film is intriguing but also makes you wonder how they fit all these characters, story lines and worlds into a single movie. (Oct. 26)
"Flight": Denzel Washington plays an airline pilot who executes a Sully Sullenberger-style miracle landing. But his actions in averting disaster later are called into question. This film by Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") returns Washington to more serious storytelling, after a few years of genre movies. (Nov. 2)
"Lincoln": Daniel Day-Lewis is always exciting on screen, even when he goes over the top. His presence in the role of the United States' 16th president promises to flesh out Lincoln well beyond the four-score-and-Ford's-Theatre sketches we usually get. Steven Spielberg directs and Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") wrote the script. Do American movies get more prestigious? (Nov. 16)
"Life of Pi": Based on the acclaimed 2001 novel by Yann Martel, the film tracks the experiences of Pi, the spiritually curious son of a zoo owner. Most of the story takes place on a lifeboat on which Pi is stranded with a Bengal tiger. From the looks of the trailer, this film by director Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") is chock full of stunning, and computer-generated, imagery. (Nov. 21)
"Anna Karenina": Director Joe Wright is the Scorsese to Keira Knightley's Robert De Niro, the Ingmar Bergman to her Liv Ullmann, the Judd Apatow to her Seth Rogen. Except those actors do fine in other directors' movies as well. Knightley can flounder when she's not being directed by Wright, director of two of her best films, "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement." But she is working with him again here, so all is right. The prospect of seeing Wright's staging of ballroom scenes entices, as does the promise of a fur-hatted fashion parade. You know it's a pretty movie when Jude Law is playing the cuckold. (November)
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey": The first film in Peter Jackson's three-part prequel to his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy follows young Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman of the British version of "The Office." Ian Holm also appears, as the older Bilbo, and "Rings" trilogy favorites Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen come back as well. A couple of people probably will go see this film. If they can get a bargain price on a matinee. (Dec. 14)
"Les Miserables": This adaptation of the long-running stage musical, in turn adapted from the Victor Hugo novel, brings together actors who really can sing. Hugh Jackman (Broadway's "The Boy From Oz"), Anne Hathaway (the 2009 Oscar show, with Jackman), Russell Crowe (lead singer of his own band) and Amanda Seyfried ("Mamma Mia!") star for Tom Hooper, who directed "The King's Speech." (Dec. 14)
"Zero Dark Thirty": Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter of "The Hurt Locker," collaborate again on this film that follows the decade-long hunt for, and killing of, Osama bin Laden. Joel Edgerton ("Warrior") and Jessica Chastain - the former Sacramento stage performer and ubiquitous Oscar-season screen presence - star. The movie already has stirred controversy. A Republican lawmaker claims the filmmakers, in researching the movie, saw classified information they should not have seen. (Dec. 19)
"Django Unchained": Jamie Foxx plays a slave who helps out a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, from "Inglourious Basterds"), wins his freedom and sets out to find his wife (Kerry Washington). Don Johnson and Leonardo DiCaprio play antebellum sleazes. This Quentin Tarantino movie looks absolutely nuts. So did Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." And it was. It was also great. (Dec. 25)
"Hyde Park on Hudson,"Set in 1939, the movie focuses on a visit by King George VI to the home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams). War with Germany is looming, and the king needs America's help. The story is told from the perspective of FDR's distant cousin and confidante, Daisy Stuckley (Laura Linney). (December)
Sort of serious
"Trouble With the Curve": Clint Eastwood, in his first starring role since 2008's "Gran Torino," plays a veteran Atlanta Braves baseball scout whose eyes are going. I have not seen this film but have some predictions. Amy Adams, as Eastwood's estranged daughter, will be adorable. Justin Timberlake will be handsome but non-threatening as a rival scout. Eastwood's old-school character will tell those computer-using "Moneyball" modern baseball scouts where they can shove it. There will be a scene that starts in a dark stadium. As the stadium lights click on, one bank at a time, Eastwood's character, standing on the pitcher's mound, will survey the stadium, and by extension, his life. (Sept. 21)
"Killing Them Softly" Brad Pitt, in leather-jacketed dirtbag mode, plays a professional enforcer charged with taking out a pair of loose-lipped criminals. The premise sounds tired, especially when considering James Gandolfini plays another enforcer. But there is great hope here: The movie was directed by Andrew Dominik, who made the excellent "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," also with Pitt. (Oct. 19)
"The Man With the Iron Fists": This kung fu movie set in 19th century China was directed by and stars rapper RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. It was written by RZA and torture-horror maven Eli Roth. Quentin Tarantino "presents" this film. RZA plays a blacksmith forced to defend his village. Russell Crowe plays a mercenary and Lucy Liu plays a madam. The soundtrack is by RZA, Black Eyed Peas and other acts not closely associated with feudal China. (Nov. 2)
"Skyfall": Daniel Craig's James Bond is believed dead but emerges to help M (Judi Dench) when she gets in trouble. This 23rd James Bond has a higher pedigree than most, with Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") directing and Oscar winner Javier Bardem as a baddie. It also marks a new standard in the continuing campaign to de-handsome Bardem. His blond hairdo here looks worse than his Buster Brown 'do in "No Country for Old Men." (Nov. 9)
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2": Gotta hand it to Kristen Stewart. Her offscreen shenanigans make her seem far more complex than she ever did in the 65 previous "Twilight" films. As we watch this final movie in the series, shot before the scandal, we can look for signs things already might have been amiss. Signs like pale skin, yellow eyes and a desire to give one's progeny the unfortunate handle of Renesmee. (Nov. 16)
"For a Good Time, Call": Ari Graynor and Lauren Miller play roommates who bond the way so many roommates do: by collaborating on a phone-sex business. This film and the similarly raunchy "Bachelorette" premiered at January's Sundance Film Festival and were lauded as fine examples of post-"Bridesmaids" female-centric movies. "Good Time" finally gives Graynor, not yet 30 but already a veteran comic supporting actress, a starring role. Miller wrote the script. In real life, she is married to Seth Rogen. (Sept. 14)
"This Is 40": Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd reprise their roles as Katherine Heigl's likable and real sister and brother-in-law from 2007's "Knocked Up." The always funny Mann is director Judd Apatow's wife, and their kids play the couple's kids, just like they did in "Knocked Up." Am sensing a hint of autobiography here. (Dec. 21)
"Frankenweenie": This is a tale of a boy named Victor and his dead dog, Sparky. Victor reanimates Sparky, Frankenstein style. Tim Burton has remade a 1984 short he created as a junior animator at Disney. The new, full-length version is in black and white and 3-D. The voice cast includes Burton veterans Catherine O'Hara, Winona Ryder and Martin Landau. (Oct. 5)
"Wreck It Ralph": In this Disney animated film, John C. Reilly voices a muscle-bound character from a Super Mario Bros.-style 1980s video game. Tired of doing the same thing for three decades, Ralph escapes to other games. The always winsome Sarah Silverman voices the role of a child whose constant questions irritate Ralph. (Nov. 2)