It’s been an up-and-down summer at the movies — one that peaked early with indies like “Before Midnight” and Hollywood tentpoles like “Iron Man 3” — and went out with a whimper. If a paltry $19 million was enough to win the week for Vin Diesel’s tired actioner “Riddick,” then the filmgoing audience must certainly be feeling a little fatigue.
Never fear, Oscar is here, and this fall’s lineup of award hopefuls and risky independent cinema is enough to get any film fan excited. Here’s a look at what’s ahead for the remainder of 2013:
“Rush” — Ron Howard directs this 1970s-set true story of the rivalry between polar-opposite Formula One drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). The early word is that the script, from Oscar nominee Peter Morgan (“The Queen”), is as intense and thrilling as the racing sequences.
“Gravity” — I was already excited to see director Alfonso Cuarón’s long-awaited 3-D survival story about two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) stranded in space because it’s the follow-up to his 2006 masterpiece “Children of Men,” but the buzz coming from the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals is deafening. “Gravity” promises to be a unique theatrical experience, one James Cameron already called “the best space film ever done.”
“Captain Phillips” — The superb Danish import “A Hijacking” covered similar ground this year, but its top-line talent like Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass raise my excitement for this movie, based on a 2009 hijacking of a cargo ship by Somali pirates. Greengrass is at his best in neo-realistic mode — see “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” — and with last year’s bold “Cloud Atlas,” Hanks has proven that he doesn’t take roles based on box office potential anymore.
“12 Years a Slave” — British filmmaker Steve McQueen tackled humanity pushed to the brink in 2008’s “Hunger,” about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and 2011’s “Shame,” about a man with a crippling sex addiction. His new film, riding a huge wave of best picture buzz from Telluride, is another intense affair, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor in the true story of a free black man in pre-Civil War New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.
“All is Lost” — If you thought the miniscule cast of “Gravity” was as lean as one could get in a modern-day feature film, Robert Redford is out to prove you wrong. He is the lone actor in director J.C. Chandor’s virtually dialogue-free survival tale. Chandor met Redford at the Sundance premiere of his debut movie “Margin Call,” and now the legendary actor is headlining his indie thriller about a sailor lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The film reportedly got a standing ovation at this summer’s Cannes Film Festival.
“The Counselor” — Novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote the screenplay for this Ridley Scott-directed black comedy/thriller about a respected lawyer (Michael Fassbender) whose one-time dalliance with illegal drug trafficking leads him down a dark path, littered with dire consequences. Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem look like they’re having a ball playing two of the film’s shadier characters, while Penelope Cruz is the counselor’s naïve fiancée.
“Ender’s Game” — Another sci-fi book with a devoted cult following makes its way to the big screen, while Lionsgate/Summit (producers of “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” films) hopes for franchise potential. The question is how watered down it will be. Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) plays the title character, a gifted boy who is taught military strategy at the Battle School in Space in hopes of leading the International Fleet in defending the human race. Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley co-star.
“Last Vegas” — Morgan Freeman, Robert DeNiro, Kevin Kline and Michael Douglas star in what looks to be a geriatric, feel-good PG-13 version of “The Hangover,” complete with bad behavior and constant mugging. With that cast, however, there is a high threshold of what an audience may forgive, and if it’s actually funny, it could end up a blockbuster.
“Thor: The Dark World” — Marvel continues its world-uniting superhero series with pretty big shoes to fill, following the success of “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3,” currently number three and 13 on the all-time domestic gross list. Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as the crown prince of Asgard, while Natalie Portman’s Earthbound astrophysicist Jane Foster makes the journey to Thor’s home world, making her the fish out of water this time around.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” — Martin Scorsese reteams with his modern-day muse Leonardo DiCaprio for the fifth time in this adaptation of convicted swindler Jordan Belfort’s memoir. Although the movie takes place during the bull market of the ’90s, what could be more timely than a tale about a Wall Street playboy defrauding investors?
Co-stars Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, and best actor winner Jean Dujardin are highlights of a cast stacked with talent, but Scorsese’s take on the material needs to rise above the debauched insanity of the book to leave a deeper mark.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” — Best actress winner Jennifer Lawrence is back as Katniss Everdeen, the poverty-stricken girl who clawed her way to victory in the runaway hit adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult book “The Hunger Games.” Her success, along with fellow District 12er Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), sparks a rebellion, but the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) throws them back into the ring — this time to fight other winners of past games. Philip Seymour Hoffman joins the cast to no doubt ham it up as some extravagantly coiffed rich weirdo.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” — The middle section of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s kid-lit fantasy classic “The Hobbit” continues the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he quests with Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellan) and 13 dwarves to face a giant, treasure-hoarding dragon. Projected at the same 48-frames-per-second rate as last year’s “An Unexpected Journey,” this chapter will no doubt divide audiences again on the issue of picture clarity vs. film-like quality.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” — Joel and Ethan Coen set their latest offbeat comedy/drama against the backdrop of the ’60s New York City folk scene, with Oscar Isaac portraying the fictional singer/songwriter of the title, who was nevertheless inspired by Dave Van Ronk. The tone of the trailer is arch but steeped in sadness, while the music, produced by musician T. Bone Burnett, is said to be great. “Inside Llewyn Davis” received a very warm welcome at Cannes.
“Saving Mr. Banks” — Disney is betting on this family film starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and focusing on a two-week period in 1961 when the legendary studio head persuaded author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to give him the screen rights to her novel “Mary Poppins.” It’s directed by John Lee Hancock, whose treatment of “The Alamo” and “The Blind Side” prove that he’s a complete stranger to any kind of subtlety. Will this film be full of big helpings of saccharine or be a well-balanced meal for all ages?
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” — Believe it or not, this epic adaptation of James Thurber’s most famous short story is getting a big Oscar push. Whether that is out of deference to its powerful star/director Ben Stiller or because it actually deserves it remains to be seen. Stiller is the mundane office drone who has a rich life in his daydreams, and Kristen Wiig plays his love interest. Meanwhile, the special effects-laden trailer and casting of heavy hitters like Sean Penn and Shirley MacLaine are arousing serious interest in the film as a big holiday-season hit.