Now that we’ve reached the final stretch of this infernal summer of craven corporate entertainment and crass paradoxically named adult comedies (save yourselves the money and don’t even consider going foraging for a few air-conditioned laughs in “The Change-Up"), we’re subsisting on Netflix and the hope that a crop of masterpieces will emerge at this fall’s annual Oscar contender distribution centers (aka festivals) in Toronto, Telluride, Venice, and New York.
The lineup looks promising. Or so it seems every year before the inevitable ambush of noble failures like “Revolutionary Road,” “The Soloist,” or “Lions for Lambs” – all of which had all the elements necessary to blow minds and haul Oscars but failed to deliver the goods. We know there will be at least three head-scratching disappointments from among our most highly anticipated fall films. But there is also an elite class of fall release for which failure is simply not an option. These are the sacred cows – most of them sired from books. In a pinch we might be willing to settle for challenging or audacious. But we’re relatively confident that none of these five is destined for a “Lovely Bones”-like gruesome massacre. And if that does happen, things could get ugly for those responsible. Remember the Arab Spring? There’s no reason we can’t stage a digital Take Back the Hacks march.
1. “A Dangerous Method.” Director: David Cronenberg. This isn’t the most conventional choice to designate as Academy bait, but there may be no more perfect marriage of filmmaker to material than between the compulsive plumber of human pathology (see: “Dead Ringers” and “Crash”) that is Cronenberg and this true story based on John Kerr’s book about the rivalry between Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) over the heart and mind of their most brilliant student/patient (Keira Knightley).
2. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Director: David Fincher. Admittedly, it won’t be easy for this English-language adaptation to outdo the Swedish version of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling opus interweaving a social justice agenda with the compelling tropes of crime fiction. But we place our faith in Fincher to bring his own dark sensibility to the material and infuse this film’s hard-driving propulsive plot with a menace, mystery, and finely tuned insight into our conflicting primal desires for power, sex, and survival.
3. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Director: Stephen Daldry. Even though we’re not predisposed to rush out and see a film starring two movie stars as milquetoast as Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, we have rarely been so enchanted by a formally experimental novel about survival and grief as we were by Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a precocious nine-year-old who goes in search of the lock that fits the key his father left behind after perishing in the 9/11 attacks. Plus, Foer couldn’t have asked for a more capable custodian to bring his delicate material to the big screen than Daldry, who pulled off a similarly complicated feat with “The Reader,” based on Bernhard Schlink's bestselling novel.
4. “The Descendants.” Director: Alexander Payne. There are few more reliable sources of funny-sad portraits of heroic losers and pathetic winners than Payne, without whom there would have been no Tracy Flick in “Election” or “Sideways” odd couple of broken bachelor partiers. Now he’s turned his gift for social satire, which in his hands is often the sincerest form of flattery, on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ comic novel about a wealthy Hawaiian playboy (George Clooney) forced to become reacquainted with responsibility and his own family when his ex-wife ends up in a coma.
5. "Young Adult.” Director Jason Reitman. Ok, so there is no literary source material to covet or protect here. But in the interest of authenticity, we’re more genuinely invested in this film’s success than, say the John Le Carre-based “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” or Walter Salles’ long-awaited rendering of Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Part of the appeal of "Young Adult" is that it marks the reunion of “Juno” collaborators Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. But what we find most intriguing and promising here is the idea of watching the reliably great Charlize Theron play a lonely novelist who attempts to rekindle a romance with her married high school flame (Patrick Wilson). That, dear readers, is the kind of unmitigated act of self-sabotage from which we cannot look away. We’re already aching to watch this deliciously complicated domestic disaster unfold.
Ok, the gauntlet has been thrown. Now as we await the results, it’s your turn to weigh in with your top five can’t-fail fall films.