Having force-fed audiences their maximum seasonal requirement of special effects, superheroes and scatological humor over the summer, movie studios sober up considerably come autumn. An industry that has always teetered between entertainment and art now doffs the garb of the fanboy and takes up its lorgnette, reminding audiences that the medium almost completely reserved for exploitation in one season can turn into art once a chill hits the air.
Fall, in other words, is when Hollywood concerns itself with prestige, exemplified by those high-minded, artfully composed projects more readily called “films” than “movies” (or, heaven forfend, “pictures”). This is when studios trot out most of their Oscar-worthy products, the kind of awards bait that garners praise for smart writing, adroit direction, burnished production values and, always, gimme-that-statue performances.
So Sony Pictures, which just weeks ago was raking in oodles of cash with its surprise summer hit “The Smurfs,” now banishes all memories of little blue gremlins with three bona fide prestige pictures: “Moneyball,” an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book by gold-standard writer Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) and director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) starring Brad Pitt; “The Ides of March,” George Clooney’s adaptation of the Beau Willimon play “Farragut North” in which he co-stars with Ryan Gosling; and “Anonymous,” in which Roland Emmerich — usually associated with such high-octane spectacles as “Independence Day” and “Godzilla” — brings his pyrotechnic skills to bear on the controversy over whether Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by the Earl of Oxford (let the explosions ensue).
The list of heavy hitters continues: A remake of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” starring Gary Oldman; Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the FBI director so notorious his biopic doesn’t need a last name; and David Fincher’s Americanized version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
Nothing telegraphs prestige more than an adaptation of a best-selling book like Stieg Larsson’s Swedish detective series. But this year, Hollywood seems to have gone on a theater kick, not only scooping up “Farragut North” but Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” (now called “Carnage,” directed by Roman Polanski), Tracy Letts’s “Killer Joe” (now starring Matthew McConaughey); and “War Horse,” a World War I drama directed by Steven Spielberg. (That play, of course, is based on a novel.)
Then there are the festival favorites that have been wending their way through the circuit — from Sundance to Cannes to Toronto and points in between — to your neighborhood multiplex. Some titles to look out for: the winsome romantic drama “Like Crazy,” which won the grand prize at Sundance this year; Jeff Nichols’s haunting apocalyptic drama “Take Shelter”; David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” starring Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” in which Other Olsen Sister Elizabeth delivers a stunning breakthrough performance as a former cult member; and “The Artist,” French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’s beguiling homage to the silent films of yore.
“The Artist,” itself a silent movie, has already been subject to talk of an Academy Award (although not in the foreign language category, because its characters don’t speak a foreign language). But for pure Oscar bait, look no further than “The Iron Lady,” in which Meryl Streep promises to come up with yet more awards catnip as Margaret Thatcher.
Oddsmakers may already have La Streep the shoo-in, but with any justice, she’ll be given a run for her money by Viola Davis, who so somberly and expressively anchored “The Help” when it was released in August. Some observers have speculated that DreamWorks may rerelease it later, to remind Oscar voters of Davis’s performance and the film’s overall Oscar-worthiness. It’s never too late to acquire a little added prestige — or for a summer movie to become a fall film.
CRITIC’S PICK: With such maestros as David Fincher (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), Roman Polanski (“Carnage”) and Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”) coming out with films this fall, cinephiles will need the scheduling skills of an air traffic controller when making their viewing plans through the holidays. Surrounded by so many heavy-hitters, an outlier such as “The Artist” could get lost in the shuffle. With luck, it won’t. Michel Hazanavicius’s black-and-white throwback to cinema’s silent era may seem steeped in fusty nostalgia, but it glitters and gleams with utterly of-the-moment wit and romantic zest. French actor Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a 1920s movie star whose career begins to teeter with the onset of sound; the fetching Berenice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, a go-get-’em gal and ambitious young dancer for whom the new medium seems tailor-made. One part “A Star Is Born,” one part “Singin’ in the Rain,” Hazanavicius’s homage celebrates the allure of Hollywood at its most voluptuously glamorous while poking affectionate fun at the artifice. Even with its dialogue written on old-fashioned inter-titles, “The Artist” is anything but mute, with a lush orchestral score and a little sonic wink at the the end; fewer movies this year reward listening — and watching — so lavishly.