Any movie that opens in theaters in 2011 is technically eligible for an Academy Award, but it is a widely held belief that fall movies have a leg up on their spring and summer competition. This explains why so many films featuring what some enraptured critics might call “tour-de-force performances” or “epic dramatic arcs” tend to make their debuts at a time of year when people are not shuffling into theaters sporting sandy flip-flops and impressive farmer’s tans.
That said, this year’s fall slate seems surprisingly light—not in volume (because until Deep Impact becomes a reality, studios will continue to crank out movies faster than anyone with any semblance of a life can consume them, much like Lucy and Ethel in that chocolate factory assembly line), but in tone. Certainly among the wide releases, slap-happy comedies and cheap horror flicks outnumber pedigreed Oscar bait. But the movies that do court their winning moment in the Kodak Theatre do so with gusto.
J. Edgar (Nov. 9), for example, Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the controversial and possibly gay FBI director, stars Leonardo DiCaprio in a bit of inspired—if against-type—casting (or will they shorten him like they did with Chris Evans in Captain America and craft a wide, asymmetrical head using CGI?). Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Dec. 25), adapted from Jonathan Safran-Foer’s 9/11-themed novel, unites The Hours director Stephen Daldry with a powerhouse cast of Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis. George Clooney puts on his writer-director pants for The Ides of March (Oct. 7), a political thriller in which he stars as a presidential candidate whose staffer (Ryan Gosling) threatens to bring down the campaign. Martin Scorsese helms his first 3-D family film, Hugo (Nov. 23), about an orphaned boy living in a Paris train station. Capote director Bennett Miller and The Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin put their muscle behind Moneyball (Sept. 23), based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, which features a meaty role for Brad Pitt as the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Another literary screen adaptation, We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dec. 2), showcases Tilda Swinton as the mother of a teen who perpetrates a Columbine-esque massacre. And Anonymous (Oct. 28), a period piece that investigates the real authorship of William Shakespeare’s works, could be a dark horse—that is, if the Footloose remake (Oct. 14) starring Dancing With the Stars’ Julianne Hough doesn’t split the vote.
Much of fall’s fluffier fare, though, to be fair, doesn’t sound so terrible. Gwyneth Paltrow dies a phlegmy death in Steven Soderbergh’s apocalyptic Contagion (Sept. 9), so there’s a bright spot! Zoe Saldana is an assassin in Colombiana (Aug. 26), and Helen Mirren is a retired secret agent whose job may not be completed in The Debt (Aug. 31). Killer Elite (Sept. 23) teams Robert De Niro with Jason Statham, and a porn ’stache’d Clive Owen for in shoot-em-up action romp (it’s gotta be better than The Expendables, right?). No one ages past 25 (just like Us Weekly!) in the dystopian thriller In Time (Oct. 28), starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. And Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy lead a blue-collar Ocean’s Eleven-type gang in Tower Heist (Nov. 4).
Of course, on the other hand, are movies like The Sitter (Dec. 9), which looks, essentially, to be a remake of Adventures in Babysitting starring—wait for it—Jonah Hill, and Jack and Jill (Nov. 11), which features Adam Sandler as both the protagonist and his identical twin sister. (Somehow, Al Pacino got roped into playing (girl) Sandler’s love interest. This is worse than when he put the hit on Fredo.) And then there’s the return of Robert Rodriguez’s money tree Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (Aug. 19), which claims to be in 4-D Aroma-Scope.
Luckily, there are some comedies that promise to be more quirky and less broad. Jesse Eisenberg is a pizza delivery boy who is forced to rob a bank in 30 Minutes or Less (Aug. 12). The Big Year (Oct. 14) pits three bird-watching rivals (an inspired trio made up of Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson) against each other in a national competition. In 50/50 (Sept. 30), Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars opposite Seth Rogen as a cancer patient trying to find humor in his plight. Dirty Girl (Oct. 7) follows misfit high school friends in 1987 Oklahoma. And anyone who has been waiting with bated breath since 1998’s The Object of My Affection to see Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston reunited can finally exhale: Wanderlust (Oct. 7), produced by Judd Apatow, finds the duo playing a couple who leave their high-powered New York jobs to join a rural commune.
If big-budget blockbusters are more your speed, there’s no shortage of franchise favorites. Hide from the final gasp of summer heat with Conan the Barbarian (Aug. 19). The first half of Twilight’s Breaking Dawn saga (Nov. 18)—the one in which Bella and Edward finally do it!!—will have tweens tweaking with pleasure, while adults flock to the highly anticipated David Fincher adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Dec. 21). There’s the somewhat less anticipated Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Dec. 16), which reunites Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Dec. 21), the series’ fourth installment, finds Tom Cruise, as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, fighting a global nuclear war. And who can resist The Muppets (Nov. 23), Jason Segel’s long-awaited reboot of the beloved Jim Henson franchise? I mean, other than the Twi-hards, who might trample you if your ticket lines overlap.
Rounding out the season’s celluloid greetings are a few crowd-pleasing comedies: the Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle I Don’t Know How She Does It (Sept. 16), the raunchy Anna Faris romp What’s Your Number? (Sept. 30), and the mind-bogglingly star-studded New Year’s Eve (Dec. 9), director Garry Marshall’s follow-up to Valentine’s Day. There’s a few scares: a remake of 1985’s Fright Night (Aug. 19) with Colin Farrell as the new neighbor/vampire, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Aug. 26), Shark Night 3D (Sept. 2), Paranormal Activity 3 (Oct. 21), The Thing (Oct. 14) and Dream House (Sept. 30), with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. And there’s a few unclassifiable head-scratchers: Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) directs Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson in We Bought a Zoo (Dec. 23), in which (spoiler alert!) they … buy a zoo. Ryan Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt driver who gets caught in L.A.’s criminal underworld in Drive (Sept. 16). Angelina Jolie spreads her goodwill even further with In the Land of Blood and Honey (Dec. 23), a film written and directed by the actress about the Bosnian War, featuring an unknown, local cast. John Singleton and Taylor Lautner (better known as Jacob from Twilight) team up for an action thriller Abduction (Sept. 23). And someone, somewhere decided that this was the year for Glee: The 3D Concert Movie (Aug. 12) and A Very Harold and Kumar 3-D Christmas (Nov. 4). Why couldn’t the Mayans have seen this coming?
It’s just under the wire for Academy eligibility, though. I think this might be Kal Penn’s year.