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Fall flicks take an aim at Oscar

It's time to stash away the superhero capes and start brushing off the evening wear.

After a summer of high-wattage escapism, movies are getting serious about awards season.

A few fall movie offerings may make the short list of Academy Awards contenders. Many others will try anything to convince moviegoers they deserve consideration. In movies, as in love, the best are often found in unlikely places and when you least expect it.

Our fall movie preview covers key releases from now until Thanksgiving, when studios begin loudly touting this or that film as the next big Oscar thing. Release dates are subject to change as momentum build or fades.

Here we go . . .

10 MOVIES STUDIOS WILL CRAM DOWN OUR THROATS

Celebrities, sequels and sensationalism are easy commodities to sell. Preview trailers are only the beginning. Watch for stars hawking these releases from morning TV shows to late-night banter with Jay, Dave and Conan.

Eagle Eye (Sept. 26) — Two strangers (Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan) are framed as terrorists in a thriller that was once Steven Spielberg's pet project. Count how many times LaBeouf (Transformers, Disturbia) changes the interview subject from his recent DUI car crash.

The Duchess (Oct. 3) — Keira Knightley (Atonement) slips into another corset-and-crumpets drama as Georgiana Spencer, the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire who scandalized the British crown. Yes, she was related to Lady Diana Spencer.

W. (Oct. 17) — Many expect Oliver Stone to turn his biography of President George W. Bush into Natural Born Republicans. They forget that 1995's Nixon was a surprisingly laudatory and sympathetic portrait. Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) leads a grand look-alike cast.

Max Payne (Oct. 17) — Since The Happening died on the vine, Mark Wahlberg retreats from sensitive heroics to two-fisted action. The Oscar nominee (The Departed) plays a vengeful DEA agent, the star of a popular and violent video game.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (Oct. 24) — The Disney Channel phenomenon moves into theaters where more money can be made. The gang's all here, plus a few new dancing classmates who will carry on after Zac Efron and Corbin Bleu graduate.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Oct. 31) — Seth Rogen's routine is getting stale with overexposure. Hopefully he won't expose himself as a slacker teaming with a platonic friend (Elizabeth Banks) to pay bills with homemade porn. Directed by Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Dogma).

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (Nov. 7) — A rare family-friendly treat this season, and a sequel to an overrated 2005 hit. Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer and the late Bernie Mac lend voice to animated critters.

Quantum of Solace (Nov. 14) — Daniel Craig silenced critics who considered him as a bad choice to play James Bond before Casino Royale. Now he must make 007 fans comfy with the worst title in 21 official Bond adventures.

Twilight (Nov. 21) — Stephenie Meyer's vampire-crush novels are thrilling teenage readers. We'll see if bloodsucker Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and his mortal girlfriend Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) are dreamier in the flesh than in young imaginations.

The Soloist (Nov. 21) — Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx (Ray) aims for another statuette, playing a homeless schizophrenic with extraordinary musical talent. Robert Downey Jr. co-stars as the journalist helping his psyche and career.

10 MOVIES TO LEARN MORE ABOUT

Unconventional ideas aren't easily explained in preview trailers. These flicks appear to transcend their genres with smart casting and themes, offering fresh takes on tired subjects.

Miracle at St. Anna (Sept. 26) — Spike Lee took Clint Eastwood to task for not featuring African-American soldiers in his fact-based Iwo Jima movies. Lee puts his camera where his mouth is, with buffalo soldiers saving an Italian village during World War II. Thing is, it's based on James McBride's novel. Couldn't Lee find a true story to tell?

Blindness (Sept. 26 ) — Director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) creates a new style of doomsday flick, in which humans suddenly lose their sight and society crumbles in Lord of the Flies fashion. Julianne Moore plays the only unaffected person, who's afraid to admit it.

Appaloosa (Oct. 3) — Ed Harris directs, co-authors and stars in an adaptation of Robert B. Parker's gritty Western saga. Harris and Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises) play gunfighters hired to protect a frontier town from a ruthless rancher (Jeremy Irons). Oscar winner Renee Zellweger co-stars as their romantic distraction.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (Oct. 3) — The geeky presence of Michael Cera (Juno, Superbad) promises this won't be just another teen movie. Cera and Kat Dennings (The House Bunny) play strangers faking romance then finding it during a wild Manhattan night.

City of Ember (Oct. 10) — Fantasies about children thrust into incredible surroundings are common. They usually don't star Bill Murray. He plays the corrupt mayor of a dying underground city, while two friends (Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway) seek the key to survival.

Body of Lies (Oct. 10) — Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe reunite (or perhaps you forgot The Quick and the Dead) in a spy thriller directed by Ridley Scott. Crowe is a CIA operative tracking Jordanian terrorists; DiCaprio is the field agent who doesn't always agree with company policies.

Changeling (Oct. 31) — Buzz about Angelina Jolie's Oscar chances began at the Cannes Film Festival, where Clint Eastwood's drama debuted. Jolie plays a mother whose son disappears in 1920s Los Angeles. Nobody believes her when she claims to have seen the boy. Not even the boy.

RocknRolla (Oct. 31) — Guy Ritchie was an exciting filmmaker before he became Mr. Madonna. The buzz from Toronto's film festival is that Ritchie has his Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels groove back. Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton and Tom Wilkinson co-star in a cheeky, ultra-violent London mob movie.

Soul Men (Nov. 7) — The recent deaths of Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes lend a sentimental sheen to Malcolm D. Lee's show biz comedy. Mac and Samuel L. Jackson play former R&B bandmates reunited at their lead singer's funeral. Hayes and John Legend make brief appearances.

The Road (Nov. 21) — Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel is adapted by director John Hillcoat, who created the hellish Western, The Proposition. Viggo Mortensen stars as a nameless father protecting his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) after civilization ends. Oscar winner Charlize Theron co-stars. If The Road transfers as superbly as McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, this is an awards contender.

FIVE MOVIES OFF THE BEATEN PATH

They don't have the marketing budgets or high concepts of major studio releases, so these intriguing independent films may be tough finds at neighborhood megaplexes. They may also be worth driving a few extra miles.

Hounddog (Sept. 19) — News that child star Dakota Fanning dramatizes being raped in this Southern melodrama launched protests that shelved the movie for two years. Fanning portrays a troubled girl in the 1950s with a deserting father (David Morse) and an unhealthy Elvis Presley fixation.

Choke (Sept. 26)Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk spins another abrasive tale, this one focused on a sex-addicted con artist (Sam Rockwell).

The Lucky Ones (Sept. 26) — Iraq war movies have been box office duds, but director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) tries again with the story of three veterans (Tim Robbins, Michael Pena, Rachel McAdams) coming home to a nation they don't recognize anymore.

Happy-Go-Lucky (Oct. 10) — Writer-director Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Naked) gets cheery for a change. A sparkling performance by Sally Hawkins as an incurable optimist made this my favorite film at the recent Telluride Film Festival.

Synecdoche, New York (Oct. 24) Surrealist screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) makes his directorial debut. It's strange, as expected, with a theater producer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) replicating Manhattan in a warehouse, hiring actors to portray his complicated history with women while it unfolds.

Fall flicks take an aim at Oscar 09/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2008 9:20am]

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