The last quarter of the year, thanks to film-festival scheduling and the elbow-throwing nature of Academy Awards politics, is crammed with Oscar contenders, would-be moneymakers, and, if you're lucky, a few surprises. Here's our list, complete with our reasoning, of the 10 films that matter most between now and 2015—whether you're an Oscar addict, a serious film fan, or someone who just really likes AMC's buttered popcorn.
Debuts Nationally: Oct. 3
Stars: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry
What You Should Know: Adapting Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel—with a script adapted, and altered, from the book by Flynn herself—Gone Girl at first looks like just another glossy movie of an airport-shop best-selling page-turner, and yet as director David Fincher's twisty thrillers have previously reminded us, looks can be very deceiving. Ben Affleck plays a man who becomes the main suspect in his wife's (Rosamund Pike) disappearance as his trials and tribulations are shaped and shared by a scandal-hungry tabloid media. Fincher looks to be combining the thrills and chills of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with the scalpel-sharp commentary of The Social Network, and Affleck—who knows a little about media scrutiny—looks like he's working at his highest level.
Debuts Nationally: Oct. 17
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Paxton, Rene Russo
What You Should Know: If, let's say, Prince of Persia had been a hit, then Jake Gyllenhaal might have become one of those leading men—stuck in franchises, bound up in big-screen "glory." But thankfully, Gyllenhaal's been spared that fate, and his recent films, like Enemy and Prisoners, have clearly demonstrated that he's looking for—and finding—great roles outside of the well-trodden path to the multiplex. Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy (cowriter of The Bourne Legacy and The Fall), sees Gyllenhaal playing a budding freelance L.A. crime journalist. In the trailer, Gyllenhaal's would-be newsmaker seems to be spitting out the phrases of self-improvement while on a path of self-destruction ... and Gyllenhaal's strained smile seems to hide very sharp teeth.
Debuts Nationally: Nov. 7
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
What You Should Know: Christopher Nolan creates a sci-fi epic that shoots for the stars, literally, with a script that Spielberg was originally going to direct. In a near future, Earth's impending doom forces a crew of explorers to look to other planets for deliverance—even if it means Matthew McConaughey has to leave his family behind to save the planet. The cast is also a reason to be excited—McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, and others—and the trailers released so far feel like a hybrid of Kubrickian majesty circa 2001 and the feelings-and-family vibe of Spielberg or Zemeckis in their artistic prime.
Debuts Nationally: Nov. 7
Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Shohreh Ashdagloo
What You Should Know: Earlier this year, Jon Stewart took a leave of absence from The Daily Show to make a film—not as the star on-camera, but as the director behind it. Based on the life and work of journalist Maziar Bahani, here played by Gael Garcia Bernal, Rosewater turns headlines into a human story. Bahani was imprisoned and tortured by the Iranian regime—on charges "proven" in part by an interview Bahari did on The Daily Show, for a meta, modern down-the-rabbit-hole touch. Very few directors have the brains,or guts, to tackle Middle Eastern politics, but Stewart's real years as a fake newsman promise something special.
Debuts Nationally: Nov. 14
Stars: Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carell
What You Should Know: The last time director Bennett Miller told a true crime story, Capote earned Oscar glory; the last time Miller told a sports story, it was the very different, very smart Moneyball. Foxcatcher might actually bridge the two, telling the story of the Olympic wrestlers the Schultz brothers, who were sponsored, and later killed, by patron and supporter John du Pont. The Schultzes are played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo—who reportedly trained so hard Ruffalo burst Tatum's eardrum. In a fascinating choice, Steve Carell plays du Pont—with prosthetics, hairpieces, and a strangled vocal delivery—putting one of America's most loved comedic actors in the hands of a director who knows how to get Oscar-level performances out of his stars.
Debuts Nationally: Oct. 17
Stars: Brad Pitt, Michael Pena, Logan Lerman, Shia LeBeouf, Jon Bernthal
What You Should Know: Written and directed by David Ayer—the man behind such modern mean-streets films as Training Day and End of Watch, Fury takes Ayer's style from the cop cars of L.A. to the tanks of WWII. Brad Pitt plays a tank commander in the waning days of the conflict, with Logan Lerman as the new guy and Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, and Shia LaBeouf as the rest of the crew. It'll be interesting to see Ayer's style translated to widescreen war action, and the tank battles, which were shot in England with real tanks from the war, promise heavy-metal thunder.
The Imitation Game
Debuts Nationally: Nov. 21
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
What You Should Know: Another WWII drama, though this time it's not Sherman tanks but rather a think tank, as the story behind one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in warfare—equivalent to the creation of the A-Bomb—comes to the big screen. The Imitation Game features Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the genius assigned the task of breaking the unbreakable German Enigma code as he tries to hide his homosexuality from his superiors, who consider it a crime and a security risk. A rare historical drama that—unlike A Beautiful Mind, for instance—doesn't sanitize or 'straighten up' real history, The Imitation Game promises what may be the best performance of Cumberbatch's already sterling career.
Debuts Nationally: Dec. 25
Stars: Jack O'Connell, Domnhall Gleeson, Jai Courtney
What You Should Know: The first-pass read on this film alone makes it look like a sure-thing Oscar nominee—the second film directed by Angelina Jolie, telling the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who served in WWII and spent years in a prisoner-of-war camp. The pitch alone sounds like Chariots of Fire meets Bridge on the River Kwai, but look at what Jolie's working with: a script with contributions by the Coen Brothers, cinematography by the great Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country For Old Men), and music by Alexandre Desplat (Moonrise Kingdom, Godzilla). That's enough to prove that Jolie's film doesn't just need her marquee name to earn serious interest.
Debuts Nationally: Dec. 25
Stars: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Randall Park, Lizzy Caplan
What You Should Know: The end of the year is usually not a time for big laughs at the movies, so it's strange and somehow satisfying to see a comedy opening then. The plot suggests madness, as James Franco's vain infotainment host and his producer Rogen are recruited to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), who just happens to be Franco's biggest fan. Facing down real-world Fascism with fart jokes seems like a odd combination—until you remember that Chaplin also used comedy to mock and shock Hitler in The Great Dictator. While no one's expecting quite that level of satire, it's intriguing to see funny people tackle the real concerns of our unfunny moment in history.
Debuts Nationally: Jan. 7th, 2015
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin
What You Should Know: On his own, Paul Thomas Anderson is perhaps our best American director and Inherent Vice is his first full and faithful adaptation, of a freewheeling '70s Los Angeles P.I. novel from the paranoid poet laureate of our age, Thomas Pynchon (V, Gravity's Rainbow). The cast alone is to die for—Joaquin Phoenix as our weed-addled defective detective, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin as a clean-cut man up to dirty deeds—and Martin Short as the perfectly Pynchon-esque character Dr. Blatnoyd. Images and news have been held close to the vest, but the potential for something like The Big Lebowski made with Anderson's skill, real grit, and Pynchonian oddness could be a real delight.
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