- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

Hollywood observers are predicting this fall will see about a third fewer films than last fall. The season traditionally focused on Oscar contenders will be lighter — in both senses of the word — than usual.

Paramount’s surprise move of “Shutter Island” to February created the biggest hole this fall. Directed by Martin Scorsese from a Dennis Lehane novel and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the movie was virtually a shoo-in for a best-picture Oscar nod. Word on the street is the studio couldn’t afford to market it this year in a tough economy.

Looking at fall’s release slate (opening dates are for Washington), it seems heavier on frothy fare. Two auteurs have spent years going in new directions with adaptations of beloved children’s books. Spike Jonze co-wrote his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s picture book “Where the Wild Things Are” (Oct. 16) with novelist Dave Eggers. “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (Nov. 13), based on the Roald Dahl book, is Wes Anderson’s first animated film and features the voices of George Clooney and Meryl Streep.

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Those aren’t the only books we’ll see on-screen this fall, of course. Two adaptations of note come this month. Steven Soderbergh’s dark comedy “The Informant!” (Sept. 18) stars Matt Damon as the man who blew the whistle on Archer Daniels Midland’s price-fixing scheme. In “Disgrace” (Sept. 25), John Malkovich brings to life Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee’s creation, a professor who deals with a sexual-harassment scandal only to find darker problems lurking in post-apartheid South Africa. The most luminous of the season’s literary films, though, is “Bright Star” (Sept. 25), Jane Campion’s film about poet John Keats’ doomed romance with Fanny Brawne.

The Coen brothers return sometime next month with “A Serious Man,” a dark comedy loosely based on their childhood and mostly starring unknowns.

Not everything this fall is serious. Even Michael Moore’s latest documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story” (Oct. 2), will tackle the financial crisis with his trademark jokey delivery. “Jennifer’s Body” (Sept. 18) is a comedic horror written by Diablo Cody (“Juno”) starring Megan Fox as a possessed cheerleader. In the same hybrid genre is “Zombieland” (Oct. 2.), starring Woody Harrelson as one of the survivors of a zombie plague who take shelter in an amusement park.

“The Road” (Oct. 16) was scheduled for release last fall and seems to have benefited from a long post-production period. The adaptation of the bleaker-than-bleak Cormac McCarthy novel, with Viggo Mortensen as a man traveling with his son in post-apocalyptic America, has gotten excellent early reviews. So has the thoughtful “An Education” (Oct. 23), which stars it-girl-of-the-next-moment Carey Mulligan as a 1961 English schoolgirl seduced by an older man (Peter Sarsgaard).

Two icons are brought to life this month. “Coco Before Chanel” (Oct. 9) stars Audrey Tautou as the legendary designer, while “Amelia” (Oct. 23) stars Hilary Swank as the legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart. The iconic Big Apple is explored in “New York, I Love You,” a collection of short films made after the success of the Parisian version. This one features shorts by Shekhar Kapur, Mira Nair and actress Natalie Portman.

One of the season’s most anticipated films — at least by young girls — is “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” (Nov. 20), the second book in Stephenie Meyer’s vampire trilogy. Those who can’t wait to satisfy a blood lust can check out “Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” on Oct. 23; it’s the first adaptation of another vampire trilogy. There’s sibling rivalry at play here: The first film is directed by Chris Weitz, the second by his brother Paul.

Another of the season’s most anticipated films — for Oscar watchers — also comes out in November. “Nine” (Nov. 25), the last screenplay of the late Anthony Minghella, is a film based on a Broadway musical that was based on an Italian play that was based on Federico Fellini’s film “8½.” Whew! Confusion aside, It has one of the year’s best casts, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren and Nicole Kidman.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” (Nov. 6), a comedy about a psychic military unit, isn’t too shabby, either, with George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor. “A Christmas Carol” (Nov. 6), on the other hand, seems to have kept costs down by keeping the cast size down: In Robert Zemeckis’ performance-capture 3-D film (like his previous “Beowulf”), Jim Carrey plays Ebenezer Scrooge and all three ghosts who visit him, while Gary Oldman is Jacob Marley, Bob Crachit and Tiny Tim.

“The Young Victoria” (Nov. 13) likely spent millions just on settings and costumes. Emily Blunt plays Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, while Rupert Friend is her beloved husband, Prince Albert. “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” (Nov. 13) sounds as harrowing as “The Road” — newcomer Gabourey Sidibe plays a Harlem, N.Y., teenager whose father has impregnated her twice.

December is when the studios bring out their big guns — movies expected to bring in blockbuster box office and movies that could strike Oscar gold. Some might do both. “Titanic” is the top-grossing movie of all time and won 11 Academy Awards — and its director, James Cameron, finally is back with his first fictional film since then. “Avatar” (Dec. 18) is a 3-D sci-fi epic starring Sam Worthington as a paralyzed soldier healed with the help of aliens.

Another filmmaker with critical and commercial success is Peter Jackson, who has turned to another literary adaptation after his “Lord of the Rings” films. “The Lovely Bones” (Dec. 11) stars precocious “Atonement” star Saoirse Ronan as a girl who watches her family grieve for her from above after she’s raped and murdered. The 11th brings two other big films. “The Princess and the Frog” features Disney’s first black princess, in a story set in New Orleans. “Invictus” is the one to watch come Oscar time: Clint Eastwood directs Morgan Freeman in this look at former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Christmas Day brings three very different films. “Sherlock Holmes” is Guy Ritchie’s take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s singular creation, with Robert Downey Jr. playing the complicated detective and Jude Law his faithful protector, Dr. Watson. Alex Baldwin has an affair — with his ex-wife, played by Meryl Streep — in the romantic comedy “It’s Complicated,” which also stars Steve Martin. “Broken Embraces” is Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s take on film noir, starring his frequent muse, Penelope Cruz.

A few films don’t have release dates yet. The comedy “Up in the Air,” directed by Jason Reitman, stars George Clooney as a man who flies around the country firing people. “Creation” stars real-life married couple Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany as another real-life married couple, the Darwins. That’s awaiting a distributor, as is “Antichrist,” Lars von Trier’s controversial film about a married couple grieving for their son.

There’s plenty of small-budget fare in between the big studio films, too. The documentary “The Way We Get By” (Oct. 2) is about seniors who greet returning soldiers at airports to thank them for their service. Another war-themed film — Hollywood keeps making them — is “The Messenger” (Nov. 22), with Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as Army officers who bring news of fallen soldiers to their families. The AFI Silver also will offer alternatives, from the new cinema in the Latin American Film Festival to the old favorites on offer in Noir City DC and the DC Labor FilmFest.

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