Welcome to the Unsilly Season! Some important new movies that aren’t self-serious Oscar-bait

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Jason Segel with his beloved Muppets. ()
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Now that the summer season, with its obligatory superhero-infested-C.G.I.–3-D-overwhelmed blockbuster juggernaut has passed, it’s time for fall, when things start to get very serious. It’s the pre-Oscar season, and while many Oscar-bait films are dreary, self-serious projects, there are quite a few movies coming out this fall that I, for one, can’t wait to see.

Three (Sept. 16)
Director: Tom Tykwer
From the director of Run Lola Run comes the story of Hanna and Simon, a middle-aged unmarried couple in Berlin who have been together for 20 years. They love each other. But they’ve been together 20 years. There’s malaise, there’s restlessness. Both Hanna and Simon, separately from one another, befriend a young man named Adam, and they both fall in love with him. Touted as a reinvention of the classic 1930s screwball comedy (which automatically makes me curious), Tom Tykwer is a stylish, energetic director with a strong visual stamp, and the story of a couple looking to reinvigorate their relationship through a third party sounds very intriguing. Starring Sophie Rois and Sebastian Schipper as Hanna and Simon, Three has been making the festival rounds and it will be interesting to see how a domestic drama will be served by Tykwer’s famously kinetic and frenetic style.

Moneyball (Sept. 23)
Director: Bennett Miller
For a long while Steven Soderbergh was the director attached to Moneyball, but it changed hands, and there was a point when it seemed like the project might not happen at all. But it’s opening on September 23, with an all-star cast headed by Brad Pitt. It is not automatically apparent how Michael Lewis’ cerebral book of the same name will translate into a filmable story, but with Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian as the screenwriters it is reasonable to have high hopes on that score. Both writers have a long history of taking gripping yet intellectually rigorous material and turning it into something active, something character-based and urgent. The story of general manager Billy Beane’s overhaul of the hiring practices of the Oakland As by relying on computer-generated statistics as opposed to the received baseball wisdom of the old guard scouts and managers, makes for a great story, but it was the effect of Beane’s experiment on the entire game of baseball that made Michael Lewis’ book such a groundbreaking study. Judging from the trailer, it looks as though Moneyball may slip into the stereotypical story of one lone individual going up against The Man, but even if that is the case, it’s a pretty reliable cliché if the writing and acting is good. Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman also star.

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What’s Your Number? (Sept. 30)
Director: Mark Mylod
Anna Faris would be interesting reading her grocery list. The fact that this glorious comedian has not yet had a project worthy of her is an indictment of current-day Hollywood and how baffled the industry often is when it comes to comedies (not to mention funny women). Had she come up in the 1960s or 1970s, or, better yet, the 1930s or 1940s, entire projects would have been created to highlight her specific brand of humor. She’s that good. She’s got an inherent likability, reminding one of Goldie Hawn, but she can play horrifying monsters, too (her hilarious takedown of Hollywood starlets in Lost in Translation, her role in the criminally underrated Observe and Report as “Brandi”). What’s Your Number? sounds like pretty standard fare: A girl who has slept with 19 men goes back to re-visit all of them, trying to see if she might have “missed” her one true mate. Director Mark Mylod, who comes from a successful television career, hopefully knows what to do with this hilarious and gifted young actress. Just get out of the way and let her fly. Someone, please!

The Ides of March (Oct. 7) Director: George Clooney
"A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March." Of course it is Brutus who passes on the warning to Caesar, and of course George Clooney, whose directorial efforts include the goofy Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the more serious Good Night and Good Luck, would be drawn to this story of a young staffer learning the dirty side of politics while working the campaign trail for a presidential candidate. Clooney’s interest in the machinations of political power can lead him to projects that take themselves a bit too seriously, and advance word out of the Venice Film Festival, where The Ides of March premiered, is so-so. 1972’s The Candidate, with Robert Redford, is still one of the most pointed criticisms of the American political system existing in cinema, never more relevant than it is today. The Ides of March will be compared to The Candidate without a doubt, and it may suffer in comparison. With the presidential election coming up in 2012, The Ides of March is arriving at a perfect moment. As George Clooney proved in last year’s haunting, brooding The American, he is best when he is silent and a little bit dark. The golden-boy leading-man thing is not for him. As a director, he is also known for bringing out the best in his ensemble casts.

The Big Year (Oct. 14)
Director: David Frankel
Bird-watching is not what you would call inherently cinematic. There’s a lot of sitting around. But The Big Year, which follows three avid bird-watchers trekking across North America to find the rarest birds out there, looks very promising due to the fact that the three bird-watchers are played by Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin. Even just imagining the dynamic between these three personalities gives me pleasure, and David Frankel, director of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me, is wonderful at highlighting the chemistry of his cast members. Frankel is also a master at casting: witness Emily Blunt as “Emily” in The Devil Wears Prada, who gave one of the most brilliant and undersung performances in the movie, a comedic tour de force. Frankel also is able, at his best, to walk the fine line between comedy and touching heartfelt drama. The Big Year could totally stink, let’s be honest. It’s got “corny” written all over it. Male crisis (mid-life and otherwise) is the theme of the film and it has been done to death. Is this City Slickers except with birds? But I have faith in Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin. I’m in.

The Muppets (Nov. 23)
Director: James Bobin
Jason Segel has said that Kermit the Frog made him want to be an actor when he was a kid. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, puppets play a huge part in Segel’s character’s life, and the puppets in Sarah Marshall were designed by Jim Henson Studios. When Segel got a deal to write another film, he knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to write another Muppet movie. And so he has. Reviving the Muppet franchise was one of his lifelong dreams, and with an all-star cast of humans (Mila Kunis, Amy Adams, Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, Ricky Gervais, Chris Cooper, Alan Arkin, etc. etc.) not to mention the beloved Muppets we all know so well, The Muppets is one of the most exciting projects coming down the pike. The potential for disappointment is huge, especially to those of us who hold the Muppets dear. What if it’s not good? What if it dishonors the sacred memory of Miss Piggy? Will Statler and Waldorf be in it? Will Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem perform a number? Will Fozzie’s voice be right? There are many concerns. The trailers, which have been appearing left and right for a couple of months, have just upped the anticipation factor. The plot sounds like typical Muppet fare: the Muppets' vaudeville theatre is threatened with destruction by a greedy oil tycoon. Will the merry band of fuzzy friends save their home? Wherever the movie is playing, whatever the time, I will definitely “hitchhike, bus, or yellow cab it” to the theater.

A Dangerous Method (Nov. 23)
Director: David Cronenberg
There are so many reasons to be excited for Cronenberg’s latest. First of all: Cronenberg. Second of all, it tells the story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and how that dialogue gave rise to psychoanalysis, which has been tormenting the Western world ever since. Lastly, Viggo Mortensen (a Cronenberg regular, unforgettable in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence) plays Sigmund Freud, and Michael Fassbender (quickly becoming beloved by fans of acting for his memorable roles in Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank, Jane Eyre, not to mention his tour de force performance as Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in 2008’s Hunger) plays Carl Jung. There is something delightfully perverse in this casting, and it makes no sense on the face of it, and it has piqued my curiosity to the quick. The film opens in Vienna in 1904 where Carl Jung has agreed to take on a patient (played by Kiera Knightley) in order to test the theories propounded by Sigmund Freud. While some may wonder what the director of The Fly could see in such potentially “dry” material, it seems that this is all of a piece with Cronenberg’s lifelong interest in the darkness at the heart of human desire, and the twisted ways in which subconscious needs come bursting out when repressed. With heavy hitters like Mortensen and Fassbender in the leads, and a screenplay by Christopher Hampton (who is so good with wordy cerebral source material), A Dangerous Method is one of the most highly anticipated films of the fall.

The Descendants (Nov. 23)
Director: Alexander Payne
Matt King, an aristocratic land baron in Hawaii (George Clooney) learns his wife will never emerge from the coma she went into following a boating accident. He pulls the plug, as her living will decreed. His life then crashes around his ears when his teenage daughter informs him that his wife had been having an affair with someone prior to her death. Matt then races off on a crusade to find the truth. Melodramatic material for sure, but with Alexander Payne at the helm, he who directed Sideways, The Descendants might have a fair shot at focusing in on character and humor, saving the story from its excesses. Clooney plays a father here, something he hasn’t normally done in his career, and the dichotomy between what we know of Clooney the perennial bachelor and the serious-faced baffled man dealing with his burgeoning teenage daughters in the clips of The Descendants available to us is already compelling. Clooney is such a big star that it is always nice to see him in an ensemble-driven piece. It suits him. With the one-two punch of The Ides of March and The Descendants, Clooney proves yet again that he is having (and creating) one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood today.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Dec. 2)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Lionel Shriver’s chilling book of the same name is about a mother whose teenage son kills a bunch of people at his school. What is the responsibility of a parent who unwittingly gives birth to a monstrous human being? What is it like for the parents of, say, Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris, and what is their standing in the community? Could they have stopped the slaughter? Lionel Shriver’s book, told from the first-person point of view of Eva, the mother, was notable for its eerie cerebral prose, its daunting vocabulary, and the issues of parenting it presented. People hated it, people threw it across the room, people discussed it in book clubs across the land. One of the most memorable parts of the book is that Eva is a very unreliable narrator. She tells her subjective experience of her son Kevin, and what she sensed in him from very early on (she even sensed it when he was in the womb). Eva does not take to motherhood, shall we say. It bores her. Did Kevin sense that? Explosive stuff, and Lynne Ramsay’s film, which stars Tilda Swinton as Eva, comes with an impressive pedigree, terrific early reviews from Cannes, and a sense of trepidation in those (like myself) who loved the book. Swinton, so fantastic in everything she does, is a perfect choice for the uptight logical Eva, so full of rage and longing, and so unable to fit into the role of motherhood prescribed by society. John C. Reilly plays Franklin, the husband who sits by watching helplessly as Kevin develops his sociopathic tendencies very early on. A brutal book, nearly unreadable in its ruthless excavation of family dynamics and child development, let’s hope director Lynne Ramsay (who also wrote the screenplay with Rory Kinnear) has the courage of her convictions. Let’s hope the film doesn’t cop out.