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Fall theatrical preview: Must see movies

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Wed August 31, 2011
Steven Soderbergh directed
Steven Soderbergh directed "Contagion," hitting theaters September 9.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • September is all about "Moneyball" starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman
  • Take 1995's "Outbreak" and mix it with 2000's "Traffic" and you've got "Contagion"
  • Writer not a huge fan of horror films, but looking forward to seeing "Dream House"

(CNN) -- There are always films being released, even in the relatively dead first few months of the year. Granted, many of the studio films released before May will come and go quicker than the cable guy when you've just stepped out for a quart of milk, but, every once in a while, a gem comes along. "The Matrix" was released in March, for example, but generally it's "Just Go With It" or "Legion."

(Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive list of the hundreds of films being released in the next four months. It's more of a curated look at what I think some of the can't miss titles will be, so if I don't mention your favorite chipmunk movie or Nicholas Cage film, I'm sorry. Kind of. Not really.)

September

September is all about "Moneyball" (Columbia Pictures, 9/23) as much for the cast (Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman) as for the fact that it's about baseball. The film is based on Michael Lewis' non-fiction book about how a young, relatively inexperienced general manager (Pitt as Billy Beane) turned the small-market Oakland A's into winners by ignoring some fundamental "rules" about putting together a team and in the process invented an entire new way of doing his job. As an aside/disclaimer, I know the director Bennett Miller and loved his first two films ("The Cruise" and "Capote"). And I love baseball.

"Contagion" (Warner Bros., 9/9): Take 1995's "Outbreak," mix it with 2000's "Traffic" (for its ensemble elements ... and director Steven Soderbergh) and make it much, much scarier. That's what I get from the trailer and publicity material. Considering the director and cast, I'm in. Just bring the Purell and face masks.

"Dream House" (Universal, 9/30): I'm not a huge fan of horror films, but I like scary ones (and apparently like to split hairs) and this is one I want to see. It stars Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts, is directed by Jim Sheridan ("In the Name of the Father") and the trailer wigged me out! Some folks are up in arms over potential spoilers in the trailer (if you don't wanna know, don't watch it!) but early press reports swear that the "twist" in the trailer isn't the twist.

"Drive" (FilmDistrict, 9/16): Ryan Gosling stars with Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks in this indie that nabbed the best director prize at Cannes for Nicolas Winding Refn and is being described as a modern film noir. Gosling plays a stunt driver who moonlights as a criminal getaway driver. It got raves at Cannes and other fests along the way.

"Apollo 18" (Dimension, 9/2): What if there was a secret 12th manned space mission that went terribly wrong and is the real reason we've never gone back to the moon? A "found footage" film of this disastrous mission, "Apollo 18" looks like candy for the lunar conspiracy nuts folks. For the rest of us? A really good scare.

October

The first of two George Clooney fall films, "The Ides of March" (Columbia Pictures, 10/7) hits me where I live. I'm a political junkie and in a previous life, worked on a couple of presidential campaigns. Not at the level of most of the folks in Ides, mind you, but once politics is in your blood, it's hard to get it out.

Clooney stars (and directs) as Governor Mike Morris, a democrat running for president and Ryan Gosling (does this guy ever take time off?) stars as Stephen Myers, a young media strategist on his campaign. Faced with knowledge of a deep, dark secret about Morris, Myers needs to decide whether he's going to stay with Morris and try to win or blow the whistle and reveal the truth. The film co-stars Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright.

"The Big Year" (Fox, 10/14): Competitive bird watching is hardly something that would come to mind when thinking of a film subject, but that's exactly what Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black are doing in this film from director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada"). I'm a bit of a bird nerd, so I can identify ... to a point. No trailer yet, so I am pretty much going on cast and the hope that these guys can turn this subject matter into an interesting film. Birding is actually pretty fun. No. Really. No. Stop laughing. I mean it!

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" (Fox Searchlight, 10/21): Starring Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley) this indie from debut writer-director Sean Durkin was all the talk at Sundance in January last year and Olsen's performance as a cult member trying to leave the life with the help of her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) won her raves. Co-stars Oscar-nominee John Hawkes.

"The Rum Diary" (FilmDistrict, 10/28): Adapted by writer-director Bruce Robinson ("How To Get Ahead In Advertising") from a fantastic "lost" novel by Hunter S. Thompson (written in the '60s, published in the late '90s), the film stars Johnny Depp, Amber Heard and Aaron Eckhart. Apparently Depp is a big fan of Robinson's first film, the cult classic "Withnail & I" (an absolutely brilliant film) and chose him to adapt and direct this one. I can't wait and please pass the rum.

November

"My Week With Marilyn" (The Weinstein Company, 11/4): Starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, "My Week With Marilyn" is based on two books by Colin Clark who was an assistant on the set of 1957's "The Prince and the Showgirl."

The film revolves around Monroe's relationships with two men on the set. One, a friendship with Clark (Eddie Redmayne) the other a less-than-ideal working relationship with her co-star, Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). No trailer yet, but cast alone gets me into the theater for this one. Joining Williams, Branagh and Redmayne are Dominic Cooper, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond (as Olivier's wife, Vivien Leigh), Dougray Scott (as Monroe's husband, Arthur Miller) and Judi Dench. directed by Simon Curtis in his feature debut.

"Melancholia" (Magnolia Pictures, On Demand 10/7 in theaters 11/11): Whatever you might think about filmmaker Lars von Trier, you have to admit he's original, courageous, provocative and I think quite possibly a genius. That's not to say I like everything that I have seen of his. In fact some of it makes me angry but then again, I value art that makes me angry more than art that makes me go "meh." Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, John Hurd, Udo Kier and Kiefer Sutherland. Dunst won the best actress prize at Cannes, 2011.

"The Muppets" (Disney, 11/23): From von Trier to "The Muppets" isn't that insane a leap, really. OK, I'm stretching it a bit on that one. Who doesn't love The Muppets, though? This time out an evil oil magnate (Chris Cooper) plans to raze the Muppet Theater and it's up to Jason Siegel, Amy Adams and ... Muppet superfan Walter to reunite the wayward Muppets and stage a fund-raising telethon. Apparently it's rife with celebrity cameos (I don't want to spoil it for myself, so I didn't read that part of the release) and all I have to say is, if Sam the Eagle isn't in it, I'm a gonna be super annoyed.

"The Descendants" (Fox Searchlight, 11/23): Clooney part deux. Filmmaker Alexander Payne ("Election," "Sideways") is back with his trademark mix of comedy and drama in this story about Matt King, a Hawaiian man (Clooney) who is dealing with a wife in a coma from a boating accident when he discovers she's been cheating on him.

Matt then has to deal with everything that goes with a loved one having a terrible accident while processing the emotions that go with a spouse cheating on you. All this with two young daughters and a host of other pressures. Doesn't sound funny, does it? Well, neither did Payne's "About Schmidt" and that one walked the line between the two genres pretty well and I'm betting this one does, too. Co-stars Beau Bridges, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer and Robert Forster.

December

Too. Many. Films.

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (Focus Features, 12/9): A Classic novel (once made into a classic TV mini-series starring Alec Guinness) gets the feature treatment from director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") with Gary Oldman as protagonist George Smiley, along with Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Stephen Graham and Benedict Cumberbatch. John Le Carré's novel is a masterwork of suspense and espionage and I'm betting the film is, too.

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" (Warner Bros., 12/16): I don't care what the Holmes purists say, the first one was a hoot! A gas! A ball! I had fun. Of course were I a devotee of Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes' creator, I hear I might not have liked the first one. So lucky me, I just got to sit back and enjoy! This one introduces us to Holmes' arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) as well as Holmes' brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) and includes Noomi Rapace (the original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), so it's a hell of a cast. (Even if Harris does support Manchester United. Nobody's perfect!)

"Carnage" (Sony Pictures Classics, 12/16): Based on Yasmina Reza's 2009 Tony Award-winning play "God of Carnage" and adapted by Reza and director Roman Polanski, this one has Oscar® written all over it and based on the trailer, I can't wait. Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly? Win!

"Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (Columbia Pictures, 12/21): I'm a few years behind on this one (currently reading the book and haven't yet seen the original film) but the buzz is pretty high on this one and after all, it's David Fincher, not to mention Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgård, Robin Wright and Christopher Plummer. Hell, if Mara can pierce all those places she pierced for this film, the least we can do is see it, right?

"The Adventures of Tintin" (Paramount, 12/23): I'll admit it. This one makes me nervous. I was a huge fan of the books as a kid and I really don't know what to make of the 3-D animation. While Tintin isn't really a big deal in the U.S., he's MASSIVE pretty much everywhere else in the world, so for most of the planet, this is really one of those "If you screw it up, people will be angry" moments. So what is it, (director Steven) Spielberg? "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "A.I."?

Notable Indies:

Not to leave the smaller films out, here are a few film that you might have to dig a little to find, but they're worth it.

"Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure" (Tribeca Film, 9/16): A festival darling and great reviews.

"A Good Old Fashioned Orgy" (Samuel Goldwyn Films, 9/2): See my review later this week. Seriously funny and sweet, I kid you not.

"Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" (Music Box Films, NY 8/31, LA 9/2): A biopic of one of the most interesting and iconic artists of the 20th century. Musician, actor, director, iconoclast.

"Tanner Hall" (Anchor Bay, 9/9): Here's your chance to see Rooney Mara before she was all "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" famous.

"Weekend" (Sundance Selects, 9/23): Well reviewed, award-winning and from what I hear, a heart-breakingly romantic example of new queer cinema.

"Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" (Magnolia, 9/30 on demand now): Are you kidding? I know I said I don't like horror movies, but funny one? Staring Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine? (Here's a little secret: Anyone touched by Joss Whedon=Gold. Pass it on!)

"Pariah" (Focus, Fall/Winter 2011 TBD): Sundance 2011 award winner and Toronto 2011 selection, buzz on this one is high. Exec produced by Spike Lee.

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