Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer and the start of the fall movie season. • It's still hot, but at least the movies are getting cooler. • Vacations are ending, the kids are back in school and Hollywood begins rolling out serious contenders for year-end honors. • Six of this year's 10 best picture Academy Award nominees were released after Labor Day 2009. So far, only Toy Story 3 and Inception appear to be candidates for 2011's list, along with the long-shot indies The Kids Are All Right and Winter's Bone. • Scrambling for those remaining, coveted slots will continue into the new year. Let's pace ourselves with a fall movie preview, showcasing eight pedigreed releases from now to Thanksgiving for Oscar watchers, 10 for moviegoers who just want to have fun, and a few intriguing titles with Tampa Bay dates to be announced later. • As always, release dates are subject to change on the whims of studio suits.
Fall Movie Preview: Eyes on the Prizes
THE TOWN (Sept. 17)
Ben Affleck announced himself as a promising filmmaker with 2007's Gone Baby Gone. His followup covers the same Boston mean streets, with a bank robber (Affleck) falling for a kidnapped teller (Rebecca Hall). Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner co-stars as an accomplice, with Jon Hamm (TV's Mad Men) playing the FBI agent on their trail.
WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (Sept. 24)
Here's a conspiracy theory for Oliver Stone to explore: The current economic crisis is Twentieth Century Fox's way of advertising Stone's sequel, which couldn't be timelier. Michael Douglas reprises his Oscar-winning stocks shark Gordon Gekko, with Shia LaBeouf as the young hustler learning from the master.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK (Oct. 1)
Director David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) should be friended by audiences and critics alike for his dramatization of the creation of Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) stars as co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who still wades through personal and legal turmoil for the effort. The Social Network also provides the first chance to see Rooney Mara since her casting as Lisbeth Salander in the U.S. remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
SECRETARIAT (Oct. 8)
This one looks sharp in the racing form. Diane Lane stars as Penny Chenery, bucking the male-dominated sport of horse racing with a future Triple Crown winner. John Malkovich's turn as flamboyant trainer Lucien Laurin is already getting Oscar buzz. Disney will go to the whip to make this the season's feel-good hit. Hey, it worked for Seabiscuit in 2003, and he wasn't half the horse.
HEREAFTER (Oct. 22)
The words "directed by Clint Eastwood" automatically make a must-see movie. He reunites with Invictus star Matt Damon for the story of a blue-collar guy whose psychic gift links near-death survivors around the world. That may sound too Babel for some tastes, but it's authored by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), one of the finest screenwriters working today.
THE COMPANY MEN (Oct. 29)
Another drama ripped from financial page headlines, starring Ben Affleck and Chris Cooper as businessmen dealing with sudden unemployment in different ways. Tommy Lee Jones plays their sympathetic ex-boss, with Maria Bello and Kevin Costner lending support. Corporate downsizing is a tough sell at the box office even for George Clooney, as Up in the Air proved. Awards voters may not mind.
127 HOURS (Nov. 5)
Danny Boyle's followup to Slumdog Millionaire is the fact-based story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a mountain climber who amputated his lower right arm with a dull knife after four days trapped under a boulder. Being selected for prime slots in major autumn film festivals suggests this is an awards contender.
MORNING GLORY (Nov. 12)
For 22 years since Working Girl, Harrison Ford has dodged the fact that he can be a funny guy. The past decade of serious disappointments has him ready to try again. He plays a grouchy TV anchorman relegated to the happy-talk morning hours and not liking it. Rachel McAdams is the new producer dealing with two disgruntled employees, counting the co-host (Diane Keaton).
Fall Movie Preview: Just for Fun
EASY A (Sept. 17)
Possibly the season's comedy sleeper, with rising star Emma Stone as a high school virgin who helps a gay friend avoid bullying by pretending they had sex. The trouble is: Every wimp in school wants the same deal, so she gets a Scarlet Letter reputation. Comparisons to Mean Girls are expected and a compliment to the funny preview trailer. Stone apparently has her act together better than Lindsay Lohan, though.
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE (Sept. 24)
The preview trailer reeks of Narnian grandeur and Happy Feet, but the gorgeous 3-D animation of feathers and flight is growing on me. A young barn owl (voice of Jim Sturgess) escapes from an orphanage to join an armor-plated bird brigade to save the kingdom. Films for kids are rare this time of year, so it'll probably fly.
LET ME IN (Oct. 1)
One of my favorite films of the past few years is the Swedish shocker Let the Right One In. Normally the idea of an American remake would be repellent. Not this time, with talented Chloe Moretz (500 Days of Summer, Kick-Ass) cast as the preteen vampire balancing blood thirst with a crush on a new neighbor (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road). Please don't change the swimming pool scene.
BURIED (Oct. 8)
Rodrigo Cortes is a lucky director, casting Ryan Reynolds for what could be an art house flick barely recovering its $3 million budget. Since then, Reynolds romanced Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, married Scarlett Johansson and signed to play Green Lantern. Suddenly, spending 90 minutes trapped in a coffin with Reynolds is a profitable idea.
RED (Oct. 15)
Helen Mirren blasting automatic weapons. That's all you need to know to make RED worth seeing, but there's more. The title is an acronym for "Retired, extremely dangerous," which aptly describes former CIA agents (Mirren, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich) targeted for assassination. Mary-Louise Parker (TV's Weeds) is the agency paper pusher along for the ballistic ride.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (Oct. 22)
After the original sneaked up on everyone, details about the sequel are being closely guarded. Katie Featherston returns as Katie, whom we last saw leaping toward the camera, possessed by an evil spirit. The preview trailer is suitably creepy, shot in the same home-security-camera style with a baby in a crib and a hooded figure in the doorway. Very Blair Witch Project (hopefully not Part 2).
DUE DATE (Nov. 5)
The Hangover director Todd Phillips teams his breakout star Zach Galifianakis with Robert Downey Jr. in a comedy that's Planes, Trains and Automobiles without the first two modes of transportation. Downey plays a type-A guy needing to get home in time for his child's birth. Galifianakis is the crazy dude giving him a road trip lift. Hilarity should ensue.
MEGAMIND (Nov. 5)
Take one part The Incredibles and two parts Saturday Night Live sarcasm. Add a pinch of Brad Pitt and you have Megamind. The animated 3-D comedy features the voice of Will Ferrell as an evil space genius constantly at odds with Metro Man (Pitt) in his quest for galaxy domination. Tina Fey speaks for the damsel causing distress to both.
UNSTOPPABLE (Nov. 12)
Denzel Washington needs to stay off trains. Last year he stopped The Taking of Pelham 123, and now he's at the throttle of a runaway train hauling enough toxic materials to kill a city. Oh, there's another train carrying school children misdirected into his path, and a hotshot trainee (Star Trek's Chris Pine) keeps getting in his way. Directed by Tony Scott, who has a knack for catastrophe.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART I (Nov. 19)
There is light at the end of Hog's Head Tunnel for anyone wondering when Harry and Voldemort will finish it, already. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have more pressing things to do with their careers than plug a franchise that doesn't need it. The showdown is getting closer, but we still must wait until Part II hits theaters on July 15, 2011.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.