By Ken Chanko
With the arrival of the Labor Day Weekend, superhero sequels and other big-budget formula fare recede on Hollywood’s release schedules, replaced by tempting scatterings of Oscar bait.
If you look at the Oscar nominees for Best Picture last year — or pretty much any year over recent decades — you’ll see that almost all the nominated films had release dates within the final four months of the calendar year.
This year looks to be no different. Most Oscar prognosticators believe that only one film released so far this year — Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — has a real shot to be among the eight to ten Best Picture nominees.
Here’s my personal list of the ten films due out soon after Labor Day through the end of the year that I most want to see, based on the talent involved, word-of-mouth from film industry folks with whom I’m still in touch, and my own idiosyncratic gut instincts. Odds are half of these ten will be getting Academy Award attention when nominations are announced early next year.
1. The Irishman. Martin Scorsese directs De Niro (ninth time), Pacino (first time), Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin and Harvey Keitel in an epic gangster film about the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa. Spanning decades, it’s as much about America and its politics/socio-economics as it is a character study of a hit man, so no surprise that it snagged the prestigious Opening Night Film slot of the 57th edition of the New York Film Festival, which runs Sept. 27 to Oct. 13. Opens Nov. 1.
2. The Laundromat. Steven Soderbergh (“Erin Brockovich”) directs Meryl Streep in this true story of how a middle-aged widow, Ellen Martin (Streep), looking into an insurance scam, stumbles upon the Panamanian attorneys at Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the center of the 2016 “Panama Papers” scandal. The impressive line-up of co-stars includes Antonio Banderas, James Cromwell, Gary Oldman, Sharon Stone and Jeffrey Wright. Opens Sept. 27.
3. Parasite. South Korean filmmaker extraordinaire Joon Ho Bong’s satirical take on wealth inequality, “Parasite” is a surreal comedy that transforms into a stinging drama as it goes along. It’s from the director who gave us “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” and he delivers his best film to date. Or so said the Cannes jury, which gave its top festival prize last May to “Parasite.” Opens Oct. 11.
4. Harriet. Yes, that Harriet. Director Kasi Lemmons (“Talk To Me,” “Eve’s Bayou”) takes on the heroic life of Harriet Tubman, from her escape from slavery to her work as “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, risking her own life to help free hundreds of slaves. Word is that Cynthia Erivo (“Widows”) as Tubman delivers a can’t-miss Best Actress Oscar performance. Opens Nov. 1. Janelle Monáe (“Hidden Figures”) is also prominent in the cast.
5. The Lighthouse. As psychologically smart as it is spooky, this tale of two lighthouse keepers on a mysterious New England island in the 1890s is Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his frightening 2015 period film, “The Witch.” This time out, Eggers directs Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison, who go head-to-head in this tense black-and-white two-hander. Are they losing their minds or is that mermaid (the lovely Valeriia Karaman) the real deal? Opens Oct. 18.
6. Pain and Glory. The great Pedro Almodóvar’s “8-1/2,” starring Antonio Banderas as the Spanish director, with Penélope Cruz as his mother (yes, in flashbacks). Enough said — I’m there. Opens Oct. 4.
7. Motherless Brooklyn. Edward Norton’s long-gestating directorial debut, based on the acclaimed Jonathan Lethem novel about a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome who solves the murder of his mentor. Norton, who also stars as the detective, transports Lethem’s contemporary novel back to 1950s Brooklyn. Bruce Willis plays the murdered man, with Willem Dafoe and Alec Baldwin also featured. Opens Nov. 1.
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire. In French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s (“Girlhood,” “Water Lilies”) latest, things get heated on a remote island in Brittany in this period piece when a female artist is commissioned to paint a young woman’s wedding portrait. Poor hubby isn’t in the picture, in more ways than one. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel co-star. Opens Dec. 6.
9. Jojo Rabbit. Potentially cringe-worthy, given that the off-beat New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi plays an imaginary Adolf Hitler, Waititi’s tale about a boy named Jojo who’s enamored of the Hitler Youth could just as well be the surprise critical darling of the season. Set during World War II, things get complicated for Jojo — and his imaginary Führer — when the boy realizes his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their attic a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie of “Leave No Trace”). Opens Oct. 18.
10. Ad Astra. Under-appreciated filmmaker James Gray sends Brad Pitt, as Major Roy McBride, into space on a very personal mission: Roy must track down his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a renegade scientist nestled at the edge of the solar system whose experiments threaten Earth’s survival. Liv Tyler plays Roy’s wife, with Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga also among the cast. Opens Sept. 20.
Two catnip star vehicles — Renée Zellweger as a late-career “Judy” (Sept. 27) Garland and Kristen Stewart as the French New Wave icon Jean “Seberg” (late fall) — explore the fates of their legendary stars. On the male side of the true-story ledger, Matt Damon plays car designer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale plays British driver Ken Miles, in “Ford v. Ferrari” (Nov. 15), which looks to be a “Fast and Furious” for grown-ups. If you’re seeking lower-octane, more tender-hearted fare — and if you were to look up type-casting in the dictionary — there’s sweater-clad Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (Nov. 22).
Calling all “Lady Eve” fans who also appreciate top-tier British acting: “The Good Liar” (Nov. 15) pairs for the first time on screen Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren in a tale of a veteran conman (McKellen) who begins to care too much about the widow (Mirren) he’s set to swindle. Sounds like a heart-warming hoot.
Two literary adaptations with the kind of pedigrees that could entice Oscar voters include “The Goldfinch” (Sept. 13), from Donna Tart’s acclaimed novel (its sprawl, however, portends a difficult translation to the screen), and Greta (“Ladybird”) Gerwig’s “Little Women” (Dec. 25), which focuses on Jo, the most progressive-thinking of Alcott’s sisters.
Four others to keep an eye out for: “The Report” (Nov. 15), starring Adam Driver as a Senate staffer who helps lead an investigation into the Bush Administration’s “Detention and Interrogation Program” (aka, torture); “Clemency” (Dec. 27), with Alfre Woodard as a prison warden who oversees the executions of inmates and the toll it takes on her; “Honey Boy” (Nov. 8), Shia LaBeouf’s filmmaking-as-therapy project, in which he essentially plays his own father, and “21 Bridges” (Nov. 22), starring the versatile Chadwick Boseman as an NYPD detective on the trail of two cop killers.
Last but here’s hoping not least, I’m intrigued by one particular sequel coming this fall. No, not another “Terminator” or “Rambo” or “Charlie’s Angels,” all of which will be foisted upon us over the next few months. It’s “Doctor Sleep” (Nov. 8), Stephen King’s sequel to “The Shining,” with an all-grown-up Danny (Ewan McGregor) trying to sober up. As he does, his ability to “shine” re-emerge and he sets out to save a young girl (newcomer Kyliegh Curran) with similar extrasensory gifts from the clutches of the powerful cult, The True Knot. Horrormeister Mike Flanagan is said to have paid sly tribute to the Kubrick original, which may or may not involve young twin girls and a hotel check-in to Room 237.
Meryl Streep stars in Steven Soderbergh’s film about the Panama Papers revelations.
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.”