The yearly movie calendar isn’t nearly as codified as it used to be. There are small “award” movies in July, and big, loud blockbusters in December. But studios still schedule the majority of their prestige films for the fall.
Be on the lookout first for “The Light Between Oceans” (Sept. 2). Derek Cianfrance’s first film since “The Place Beyond the Pines” looks just as sprawling and ambitious, a tale of a World War I vet (Michael Fassbender) and wife (Alicia Vikander) who find a baby in western Australia. The trailer makes this one look like Cianfrance’s most emotionally devastating yet, and that’s saying a lot.
September also brings “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s directorial take on the incredible safe landing of doomed U.S. Airways Flight 1549, with Tom Hanks putting his captain hero hat back on to play Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.
Also of note: “Blair Witch” (Sept. 16) brings the original first-person freak show back to theaters after more than 15 years. Oliver Stone returns to controversy and government conspiracy with the story of “Snowden” (Sept. 16, Joseph Gordon-Levitt). And Tim Burton adapts yet another children’s book with “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiars” (Sept. 30). Someone please get Burton an adult’s book.
September concludes with a dark-horse award candidate, Cannes winner “American Honey” (Sept. 30). The film stars Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough in a road move drama about youth gone wild, from British director Andrea Arnold, who made a similar splash in 2009 with “Fish Tank.”
The competition becomes only more intense in early October with the release of Virginia actor and director Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” (Oct. 7), a dramatization of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Southampton County in 1831. Turner is played by Parker, who also wrote the film, which garnered controversy when news of its impending release dredged up Parker’s 1999 trial for rape, of which he was acquitted. Couple that with continued incidents of race and policing in the news, and the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite from March, and you can pencil “The Birth of a Nation” in as one of the early favorites for Oscar nominations this year.
October is Oscar country, it seems, with “A United Kingdom” (Oct. 5, David Oyelowo) taking on the epic story of Botswana leader Seretse Khama. “Christine” (Oct. 14) casts Rebecca Hall in the sad, true story of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida reporter who took her life on air.
“American Pastoral” (Oct. 21) also should get some award buzz, in spite of or perhaps because of the multifaceted source material from Philip Roth looking like it’s been turned into a tidy fall period drama by first-time director Ewan McGregor.
But perhaps the most daring movie of the month is “Moonlight” (Oct. 21), if only because of its subject matter. Barry Jenkins’ film is a tale of a young black man’s struggle with sexual identity, set at three stages of his life. Jenkins has talent to burn, and he’s set to light the year on fire if the film’s trailer is any indication.
November is no less ambitious, beginning with “Arrival” (Nov. 11), an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “Is this book really adaptable?” story about time, mathematical languages and radially symmetrical alien visitors. It features Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and “Prisoners” director Denis Villeneuve, who reportedly also is on board for a long-discussed “Blade Runner” sequel.
Book adaptations stroll on with “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (Nov. 11) a modern war story directed by Ang Lee (“The Life of Pi”), and “Nocturnal Animals” (Nov. 18), with Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams (again) helping adapt the two-novels-in-one narrative of Austin Wright’s “Tony and Susan.”
The month wraps up with big movies by Robert Zemeckis, who directs Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as World War II spies who fall in love in “Allied” (Nov. 23), and Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” (Nov. 18), whose story of a man (Casey Affleck) returning to his hometown to care for his nephew sounds a lot like his Oscar nominee, “You Can Count on Me” (2000).
December will feel like spring when “La La Land” (Dec. 2) hits theaters. The colorful musical stars Ryan Gosling in a glossy, ambitious romantic comedy co-starring Emma Stone and J.K. Simmons, from “Whiplash” director Damien Chazelle.
Michael Keaton plays McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc in “The Founder” (Dec. 16), and Denzel Washington returns to his Broadway role in “Fences” (Dec. 16) opposite Viola Davis. Those two films should be sparring at the box office while “Neruda” (Dec. 16) sneaks up with a detective (Gael García Bernal) on the trail of exiled poet and politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco).
Oh, and a little movie called “Rogue One: a Star Wars Story” opens that same weekend.
Dates subject to change. Check local listings.