As summer gives way to autumn with almost everyone’s approval, we move from bloated blockbuster programmers to prestige fare that will end up topping a lot of critics’ and awards committees’ lists. The typicalness of this summer’s movies was strangely comforting. After a few shaky years, this season at the cinema said “we’re back” and “business as usual.” Or did it?
The success of “Top Gun: Maverick” is astonishing, and it will be compelling to see what lessons Hollywood internalized from it. In a quieter way, the success of “Elvis” is also notable, as a nearly 3-hour biopic of a legendary artist presumably of little interest to younger generations has consistently earned money, and a measure of actual respect, all season.
It is tempting to politicize the success of “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Elvis,” and many have succumbed to such temptations. “Maverick” has been seen as a return to the conservative values of the silent majority, and, as over-the-top and out-there as it is, so has “Elvis.” The pointed, almost obsessive lack of messaging in “Maverick,” a message of course in itself, is undoubtedly part of its appeal. Right-wingers aren’t the only people sick of preaching in Hollywood either. Blunt, glib civics lessons flatten movies out. Message movies often ignore emotional spontaneity, contradiction, or ambiguity—the qualities of actual drama in other words—favoring easy cliches for the sake of broadsword moralizing.
No matter how true it may be, it is simply not subversive to blame everything on a rigged patriarchy anymore, as at least six big fall movies appear prepared to do this year in the tradition of every fall movie season in recent memory. That message is very available for consumption, and so the studied pointlessness of “Maverick” did feel a little sneaky, like we were getting away with something. Personally, I think people want a return to star-driven vehicles, and “Maverick” did nothing less than carve Tom Cruise’s face into Mount Rushmore. “Elvis” is nothing but sensation too. I could’ve used more—quite a bit more—cultural context from that one, though, for all of the hype of Austin Butler’s performance, he is eclipsed by director Baz Luhrmann’s spectacle. The film is a huge, occasionally volcanic cartoon that owes more to Marvel-like, super-productions than initially meets the eye, but Elvis’ iconography lent it an old-school patina.
Having now achieved some measure of closure about this summer at the cinema, for myself at least, while establishing the preconceived notions that led to my picks below, let’s move on to this fall. A few disappointments, namely that Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” has been pushed to 2023, and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” is being coy about its own release, even as it’s currently making the festival rounds. As always, be aware that only hindsight is 20/20, and many of the small, original breakout films are tough to discern in advance. This is particularly true of documentaries, independent and imported cinema, which will become more discoverable as the year progresses.
“The Cathedral” (Ricky D’Ambrose)
I’ve already seen “The Cathedral,” twice in fact, and it’s a frontrunner for my film of the year. D’Ambrose tells a wrenching story of a family’s rise and fall against the backdrop of an aspiring filmmaker’s childhood from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Think a modern, working-class “Magnificent Ambersons” framed as a mixture of faux-documentary and melodrama, and you’ve got a small idea of D’Ambrose’s striking originality. (Now available on MUBI.)
“Pearl” (Ti West)
I’m still mixed on Ti West’s “X,” though I’m curious to see this prequel, particularly as it appears to be a cheeky, gory vehicle for the very promising Mia Goth, as well as a revel in the hallucinatory powers of Technicolor. As female-driven horror movies go, I’m more interested in “Pearl” than Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling,” which appears to be yet another smug “Get Out”-inspired remake of “The Stepford Wives.” (Sept. 16)
“Blonde” (Andrew Dominik)
I’ve read Joyce Carol Oates’ “Blonde,” and she has thrown a hell of a gauntlet down for anyone looking to dramatize the life of Marilyn Monroe. It is a relentlessly subjective novel, roosted entirely in Monroe’s frazzled, self-hating psyche as she is descended upon by a merciless Hollywood system. Dominik, with his penchant for free-association, might be up to the challenge. Ana de Armas is Monroe. (Sept. 28)
“Tár” (Todd Field)
Todd Field’s first film as writer-director, “In the Bedroom,” was vivid and powerfully disconcerting, while his second, “Little Children,” was a sluggish, unconvincing art doodle. Then he disappeared. Field’s first film in 16 years, “Tár,” follows a conductor (Cate Blanchett) who’s apparently punished for her sins by cancel culture. Said to be austere and ambiguous in the Kubrick tradition, advanced word is enthusiastic. (Oct. 7)
“Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” (Josh Gordon, Will Speck)
Had to throw you a curveball, right? This adaptation of a beloved children’s book appears to have a very charming singing crocodile (voiced by Shawn Mendes) and a formidable cast that includes Constance Wu and Javier Bardem. The trailer suggests spry, poignant elegance in the vein of the shockingly decent “Paddington” movies. (Oct. 7)
“The Banshees of Inisherin” (Martin McDonagh)
McDonagh’s first movie since “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” finds him in Ireland with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, his buddies from “In Bruges.” When Farrell teams with McDonagh he becomes a true movie star—no other filmmaker has that particular alchemy with him. And Gleeson is wonderful in everything. The trailer suggests a confident return to McDonaghland. (Oct. 21)
“Armageddon Time” (James Gray)
A white prep-school boy in 1980s-era New York learns that racism is bad, with apparent cameos from the Trump family to seal the deal. Of all the upcoming fall movies that appear to have MESSAGE tattooed across their foreheads—including “Till,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” and “Call Jane”—I’m giving “Armageddon Time” the edge because Gray is an artful director, and because I’m curious to see what Jeremy Strong does with a role now that he’s flush with the acclaim of HBO’s “Succession.” (Nov. 11)
“She Said” (Maria Schrader)
Another movie that appears to be more than its message, “She Said” follows New York Times reporters Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they break the culture-redefining Harvey Weinstein story. I’ve often found Mulligan overrated, but Kazan is among the finest actors of her generation, and she’s long overdue for a star-making vehicle. Samantha Morton, Andrea Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, and Patricia Clarkson round out a terrific supporting cast. (Nov. 18)
“The Menu” (Mark Mylod)
Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult as foodies who bark up the wrong tree on the remote island of a renowned chef played by Ralph Fiennes—I’ve got a feeling about this one. Among this season’s various twisty comic thrillers, I’m betting on “The Menu” over several others, most prominently Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.” Am I the only person who finds Johnson’s movies insufferably smug and convoluted? Given the success of the first “Knives Out,” apparently. (Nov. 18)
“The Fabelmans” (Steven Spielberg)
With his first screenplay credit since “A.I.,” shared with Tony Kushner, Spielberg spins a story of how, as a child, he fell in love with movies and began to cultivate his voice. I haven’t clicked with a Spielberg movie in a few years, but as I’ve said before, I really want this one to be a career-capping masterpiece. Such preconceived notions are almost always unrewarded. David Lynch apparently turns up as John Ford, which sounds like stunt casting as cinephile nirvana. (Nov. 23)