The autumnal equinox is three weeks away but a cinema solstice is occurring right now, blending Hollywood's most successful movie seasons.
It's the annual intersection of summer's blockbusters and winter's award contenders, stocked with movies that studios figured don't automatically fit into either category; the 'tweeners keeping theater seats warm.
They'll draw crowds and/or critical buzz but only two fall releases — The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Thor: The Dark World — figure to post summerlike box office numbers. A handful of movies with awards momentum at Thanksgiving will likely be overshadowed by Christmas.
Our fall movie guide spotlights 10 movies in each category, the ones that wish they hit theaters when everyone's vacationing, and those dreaming of opening dates closer to award balloting deadlines.
As always, opening dates are subject to change, and a few like 12 Years a Slave and All Is Lost may roll out slowly to cultivate awards buzz. We'll cover the top choices between now through Thanksgiving, when our annual holiday movie guide is published. Click on the hyperlinks to see a trailer.
10 movies that could've come out weeks ago
Insidious Chapter 2 // Sept. 13
St. Petersburg's own Patrick Wilson is on a roll playing paranormal games, in the first Insidious chapter and recently The Conjuring. He'd be the first to credit director James Wan, sharpening his Saw notion of horror as splatter sport into old-school spooky dread. Wilson returns as Josh Lambert, who astral-projected himself into a jam that takes at least one more movie to escape.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 // Sept. 27
The animated foodalanche that destroyed Chewandswallow in 2009 was only the beginning. Now the inventor (voice of Bill Hader) of that unnatural disaster learns his cuisine machine is being used to genetically splice food and animals. Watch out for the tacodiles and shrimpanzees. Enjoy it, wee children; this is as wholesome as it gets between now and November.
Machete Kills // Oct. 11
Danny Trejo returns as Machete Cortez, a former cop turned hired killer who spread a lot of red blood to earn his green card in the first movie. Robert Rodriguez's grindhouse hero is called to serve his new country by the president (Charlie Sheen), to hunt and slaughter an arms dealer launching a weapon into space. Everybody who's anybody is here, from Mel Gibson to Lady Gaga and Sofia Vergara.
Carrie // Oct. 18
The worst prom night ever returns, when telekinetic wallflower Carrie White takes fiery revenge on bullying classmates. This time it's Hit Girl herself, Chloe Grace Moretz, getting doused in pig's blood, with Julianne Moore co-starring as her religiously psychotic mother. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie earned Oscar nominations in the roles 37 years ago. No word yet on what Stephen King thinks about this version of his novel.
Escape Plan // Oct. 18
A designer of maximum security prisons (Sylvester Stallone) gets framed and tossed into one of his creations, making him wish he weren't so good at his job. Sly gets assistance on the inside from a lifer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) with connections and a crafty goatee. Writing the script probably took as long as it did Ah-nold to shoot his scenes for both Expendables flicks.
Ender's Game // Nov. 1
Not exactly Han Solo material but Harrison Ford is back in outer space again. He's commander of a military school prepping children like Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield) to battle the next alien invasion. The loudest buzz so far about this movie is the fuss kicked up by author Orson Scott Card's inflammatory statements about gay marriage and President Barack Obama's policies.
Last Vegas // Nov. 1
A must-see Mount Rushmore of Oscar winners — Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline — go to Vegas for a bachelor party and get The Hangover. Director Jon Turteltaub swears the script was written before that debauched blockbuster, but who cares? We have Travis Bickle, Gordon Gekko, a Shawshank saint and stupid Otto in one movie.
Free Birds // Nov. 1
Not the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert movie you've been requesting. This is the season's other animated comedy, already boasting it's a turkey. In fact, two turkeys, voiced by Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, traveling through time to take their species off Thanksgiving menus. The movie had better be as much fun as those dudes probably were between tokes, I mean, takes.
Thor: The Dark World // Nov. 8
By the beard of Odin it was prophesized that Marvel's god of thunder and his flowing blond mane would return. Well, the beard and the first movie's box office numbers did it. Chris Hemsworth puts the hammer down again on his bad seed brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) but there's another threat to Asgard: the cheerily named Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston). Maybe an Avenger or two can lend a hand?
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire // Nov. 22
Jennifer Lawrence is an Oscar-winning A-lister now but to millions of fans she'll always be that plucky District 12 savior Katniss Everdeen. Things aren't going well for Katniss. Her victory in Part 1 got the commoners riled up, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) stuck her in an all-star Hunger Games competition, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) still makes goo-goo eyes at her. Sometimes, I guess there just aren't enough arrows.
10 movies that could open deeper into awards season
Rush // Sept. 27
Fast cars were central to Ron Howard's first directing job, but Rush is about as different from Grand Theft Auto as it gets. For one thing, the reported $38 million budget is more than 60 times what Howard spent in 1977. Rush is also the true story of Formula One racer Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), who survived a fiery crash to wage an epic stretch run against James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). The biggest difference, though? No role in Rush for kid brother Clint Howard.
Gravity // Oct. 4
Ground control to Sandra Bullock: The trailers for your new movie are sending serious shivers up our spines. Bullock plays an astronaut separated from her spacecraft and co-pilot (George Clooney), helplessly drifting through space and praying someone can reach her. Director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) employs state-of-the-art CGI tactics to simulate zero gravity for maximum gravitas; this isn't space fun and games.
Captain Phillips // Oct. 11
Nothing makes American history more believable than Tom Hanks starring in a movie about it. Hollywood's most trusted star — it's a short list — plays captain of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, hijacked in 2009 by Somali pirates and rescued days later by Navy SEAL snipers. Knowing the facts won't get in the way of a good story, and few directors work with the urgency of Paul Greengrass (United 93, two Jason Bourne flicks.)
The Fifth Estate // Oct. 18
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose loyalty to whistle-blowers and stealthy exposure of corporate and government secrets are defining acts of this decade. The movie is based on two books reportedly critical of WikiLeaks and Assange, who deemed the movie "a hostile work" in an interview. Meanwhile, agents for Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning prepare pitches for movies about their clients.
12 Years a Slave // Oct. 18
The true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1841 who was kidnapped, sold into slavery and lived to write about it. Northup is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor still underrated but not for long with this material. Director Steve McQueen hired his Shame star Michael Fassbender to play Northup's sadistic owner, and Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and young Quvenzhané Wallis for supporting roles.
All is Lost // Oct. 18
Robert Redford channels Hemingway's heroes as a nameless man stranded alone in a sinking yacht with a storm coming. Playing nearer his age (77) than usual, Redford's character barely speaks, concentrating on wits and instincts when survival of the fittest is out of the question. Writer-director J.C. Chandor couldn't have taken a sharper turn from his loquacious Wall Street debut, Margin Call.
The Counselor // Oct. 25
No Country for Old Men author Cormac McCarthy tries his hand at screenwriting, and the results are just as dark and violent. An easily corrupted lawyer (Michael Fassbender) gets involved with drug trafficking and orbiting lowlifes played by Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz. The director of this neo-noir nightmare is Ridley Scott, who tightens screws with the best of them.
Diana // Oct. (TBA)
Naomi Watts essays the late Princess of Wales during her final two years, particularly her unpublicized romance with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), who was reportedly the love of her life until he broke it off. Then she moved on to Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar) and intense media attention that contributed to her death. Tiny distributor eOne Entertainment is playing coy with the U.S. release date but soon after England's Sept. 20 debut is likely.
The Wolf of Wall Street // Nov. 15
If you need a caffeine boost and can't afford Starbucks, call up the trailer for Martin Scorsese's high-wire finance act. Set to Kanye West's Black Skinhead throb-groove, the preview promises Leonardo DiCaprio going Goodfellas in the investment game, dialing up every vice and risk that securities fraud bought in the '90s. Stirring the darkly comical brew are Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey as accomplices of varying degrees.
Nebraska // Nov. 22
Alexander Payne's penchant for the emotionally hobbled continues, with Bruce Dern as an aged alcoholic thinking he's won a sweepstakes marketing prize. The reward is supposed to be in Nebraska, a long drive from Montana, but the old man has his antagonistic son (Will Forte) to pass the road trip time. After his warm reception at Cannes, Dern could wind up as this year's sympathy fave at the Oscars.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.
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