Published Aug. 31, 2006|Updated Aug. 31, 2006

In autumn, theater screens take on a golden sheen, as studios begin presenting their best candidates for Academy Awards.

This year's fall movie slate is packed with previous Oscar winners, period pieces based on true stories, films with political messages or adventurous themes, and filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Lasse Hallstrom, whose names above the titles automatically make them award contenders.

Now Hollywood gets serious after a summer of comic book heroes, silly comedies and amusement rides turned into movies.

Of course, theaters will still showcase movies released just for fun, not prizes. See the accompanying story for those easy favorites. But first, here's a list of 20 reasons why going to the movies this fall should be interesting and possibly exciting.

Release dates are subject to change. Films in limited release may take a bit longer to reach local theaters.

Hollywoodland (Sept. 8)

The 1959 gunshot death of TV's Superman, George Reeves (Ben Affleck), is investigated by a seedy private eye (Adrien Brody). Was it suicide ending a stunted career, an accident, or payback for bedding a movie studio executive's wife? Whatever the feature film debut of director Allen Coulter (The Sopranos, Sex and the City) lacks in answers it compensates for in fine performances and period detail.

The Black Dahlia (Sept. 15)

Another enduring Hollywood mystery becomes a movie based on James Ellroy's novel. Director Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Scarface) dramatizes the investigation of starlet Elizabeth Short's gruesome murder in 1947, which remains unsolved. Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart play detectives on the case; two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank is the femme fatale.

Gridiron Gang (Sept. 15)

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stars in the obligatory fall football movie. This isn't merely based on the true story of a coach inspiring juvenile delinquents with wind sprints. It contains the football authenticity of Friday Night Lights and the emotional pull of Hoosiers.

All the King's Men (Sept. 22)

Academy Award winner Sean Penn plays fictional Louisiana governor Willie Stark, who taps into grass roots dissatisfaction with government then loses his ideals. The 1949 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel - based on real-life demagogue Huey Long - earned Oscars for best picture and for best actor Broderick Crawford as Stark.

The Last King of Scotland (limited release Sept. 27)

A Scotsman (James McEvoy) becomes personal physician to fearsome Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). That's fine, but playing "doctor" with Amin's wife (Kerry Washington) may not be a good idea.

The Departed (Oct. 6)

Leonardo DiCaprio has replaced Robert De Niro as Martin Scorsese's favorite go-to actor after Gangs of New York, The Aviator and this gangland drama. DiCaprio plays an undercover cop infiltrating a Boston crime family while the godfather (Jack Nicholson) has a "mole" (Matt Damon) inside the police department.

Flags of Our Fathers (Oct. 20)

Raising the U.S. flag after the battle of Iwo Jima is a classic World War II image. Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood details the battle and what happened to those soldiers later at home. Ryan Phillippe and Paul Walker get top billing, but Adam Beach (Smoke Signals) may have the best role, as Pvt. Ira Hayes, whose battles with prejudice and alcoholism led to an early death.

Marie Antoinette (Oct. 20)

Director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) adds modern pop music and fashion to a biography of France's flamboyant 18th century ruler. Kirsten Dunst (Spider-man, Spider-man 2) plays Marie, mostly famous for suggesting that starving peasants should eat cake. Let them eat popcorn instead.

The Prestige (Oct. 27)

A professional rivalry among magicians (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale) in Victorian-era London leads to murder. Director Christopher Nolan's resume (Memento, Batman Begins) suggests narrative sleight of hand and grand settings. Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson co-star.

Infamous (Nov. 3)

Another biography of writer/bon vivant Truman Capote and his struggle to write In Cold Blood, although director Douglas McGrath (Emma) spends more time detailing Capote's Manhattan high life. British stage actor Toby Jones says he hasn't seen Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar winning portrayal. Sandra Bullock co-stars as novelist Harper Lee, with Daniel Craig (Casino Royale) as death row inmate Perry Smith.

Babel (Nov. 10)

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams) juggles three disparate stories in Mexico, Morocco and Japan that are fatefully connected, a la Crash: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play a couple vacationing after their daughter's death; a Los Angeles nanny (Adriana Barraza) spirits her charges to Tijuana for a wedding; and a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl rebels against her father.

A Good Year (Nov. 10)

Russell Crowe isn't an immediate choice for romantic comedy but perhaps it will work. Crowe plays a stock trader who inherits a French vineyard and falls in love with a woman (Marion Cotillard) staking her claim to the land.

Fur (limited release Nov. 10)

Nicole Kidman plays 1960s photographer Diane Arbus, whose lens captured the swinging 1960s and whose suicide made her a cult icon.

Stranger Than Fiction (Nov. 10)

Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) tries his hand at existential comedy with Will Ferrell as an IRS auditor who discovers his life and impending death are merely chapters in a novelist's book. Emma Thompson co-stars as the writer with his fate in her computer keyboard.

Casino Royale (Nov. 17)

James Bond returns, reportedly more dangerous than ever. Daniel Craig (Layer Cake) got the celebrated role when Pierce Brosnan was unceremoniously dumped, creating consternation among 007 fans. We'll see if the franchise's license to thrill has expired.

Fast Food Nation (Nov. 17 limited release)

Eric Schlosser's academic expose of American culture's addiction to junk food is massaged into satirical comedy by director Richard Linklater. Greg Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine) plays a hamburger chain executive growing aware of his effects upon consumers' health.

The Hoax (Nov. 22)

Author Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) created a stir in 1972 when his "authorized" biography of fabled tycoon Howard Hughes was proven bogus. Lasse Hallstrom's film, alongside The Aviator and Melvin & Howard, proves Hughes' life was simply too remarkable for one movie.

For Your Consideration (Nov. 22)

Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) shapes another "mockumentary" about independent filmmakers who think their pretentious work deserves award nominations.

The Fountain (Nov. 22)

Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) mixes his hallucinatory style with the legendary fountain of youth sought by Spanish conquistadors. But the film has something stranger in mind, crossing centuries and also becoming a modern love story that features Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.

The History Boys (limited release Nov. 22)

Richard Griffiths reprises his Tony award-winning portrayal of a British university professor shepherding unruly students through their senior year.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or


Bankable stars and familiar genres attract moviegoers any time of the year. The fall season has its share of each, although few appear to be sure-fire hits.

Whether these movies break the bank or just break even is going to depend on how clever the marketing is and whether audiences are tired of the same old things.

Suspending animation?

So many animated films passed through theaters in the past year that screens resemble the Sunday comics. Disappointing returns for The Ant Bully and Barnyard suggest that cartoon critters are getting stale.

Studios will closely monitor ticket sales for Martin Lawrence voicing a bear in Open Season (Sept. 29), the sewer rat saga Flushed Away (Nov. 3) and the penguin comedy Happy Feet (Nov. 17) before "hiring" animated animals any time soon. At least the baseball yarn Everyone's Hero (Sept. 15) sticks to drawn people.

Nightmares in the making

Horror never goes out of season for its core, gore audience. Seven fright flicks are scheduled for fall release but only sequels - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Oct. 4), The Grudge 2 (Oct. 13) and Saw III (Oct. 27) - are likely to have legs, probably severed.

Snickers and guffaws

Bad Santa and Napoleon Dynamite - a.k.a. Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Heder - pool their fan base in School for Scoundrels (Sept. 29) as a motivational instructor and the student he plans to ruin. The film is directed by Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School), making this a promising candidate for lowbrow laughs.

That likely won't offer the most offensive comedy, though. Johnny Knoxville and the gang are back with more sick stunts in Jackass: Number Two (Sept. 22), and Sasha Baron Cohen (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) reverts to his MTV pranks on Nov. 3 with the season's vaguest title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Not exactly Snakes on a Plane, is it?