Directors are the stars of fall 2013 movies.
Autumn and winter will bring projects from two independent directors who made good on their 1990s promise (Alexander Payne and David O. Russell), a chameleonic Mexican filmmaker (Alfonso Cuaron) , two Spikes (Jonze and Lee) and a Scorsese.
The fall movie season -- also the season for films with awards potential -- usually boasts four or five well-known, top-tier directors, as well as a mix of talented but unexciting period-piece-making Brits and American indie upstarts with no real shot at the Oscar.
But this season brims with directors who are not yet august (except Scorsese) but are proven, quality filmmakers known to stretch conventions. It's a time when the directors who you love but haven't thought about for a while (like Cuaron and Jonze) are re-emerging all at once.
The inventive filmmakers listed below likely have found new ways to use effects, humor and Leonardo DiCaprio. (Movie release dates subject to change).
Alfonso Cuaron moved easily from a gritty, sexually frank coming-of-age film (2001's "Y Tu Mama Tambien") to a big-budget, special-effects-laden PG-rated coming-of-age movie (2004's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban").
Cuaron then showed the power of quietude in his 2006 sci-fi film "Children of Men," the exquisite sound design of which gave silent moments more power than loud ones.
The 3-D "Gravity" (Oct. 4) marks Cuaron's most technologically adventurous project to date. Its story strands astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space after an incident separates them from their vessel, air supply and mission control. "Gravity" won raves at the recent Venice Film Festival, with critics comparing its gasp-inducing visual wonders to those of last year's "Life of Pi," for which Ang Lee won his second directing Oscar.
Paul Greengrass brought hand-held-camera immediacy and emotional grace to "United 93," his 2006, real-time dramatization of the terrorist-hijacked flight that crash-landed in Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001.
Greengrass also made "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2004) and "Bourne Supremacy" (2007) and for a while every action hero, including James Bond, leaped across buildings and beat up bad guys in naturalistic, almost guerrilla Greengrass style.
Greengrass chronicles another real-life hijacking in "Captain Phillips" (Oct. 11), which stars Tom Hanks as the captain of a Kenya-bound cargo ship overtaken by Somali pirates. The film is based on the book by Capt. Richard Phillips, who was at the wheel of the U.S.-flagged MV Maersk Alabama when it was hijacked in 2009. Hanks' always steadying manner likely will balance out Greengrass' shaky camera.
If Hanks' presence lends a movie instant legitimacy, Charlie Sheen's and Mel Gibson's do the opposite. That's just how director Robert Rodriguez wants it. Rodriguez's "Machete Kills" (Oct. 11) revisits Machete (Danny Trejo), the granite-faced, indefatigable ex-Federale from Rodriguez's 2010 "Machete." This time out, the U.S. president (Sheen, billed under his birth name Carlos Estevez) appoints Machete as official assassin of a madman played by Gibson.
Rodriguez made strides in computer-generated imagery with the "Spy Kids" films and "Sin City," but he's been in a 1970s exploitation groove since 2007's "Grindhouse." Expect bad dissolves, abrupt cuts and foxy, naughty ladies in "Machete Kills," including Sofia Vergara as an enforcer whose machine-gun accessories give new meaning to "bullet bra."
Only slightly less plausible is the female figure at the center of Spike Jonze's "Her" (opening in December in New York and Los Angeles; wide in January 2014). She's a Siri-like operating system (given a froggy voice by Scarlett Johansson) who helps manage a lonely guy's (Joaquin Phoenix) schedule before interacting with him in more personal ways.
Jonze usually lends visual wonder to twisty, internal-logic worlds created by others (screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's in "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" and author Maurice Sendak's in "Where the Wild Things Are"). "Her" comes from Jonze's original screenplay, allowing us to see how much of his signature creativity springs directly from his own brain.
'ER' and onward
George Clooney and his old "ER" boss John Wells might vie against each other for directing awards for their high-profile ensemble films.
Clooney directs and acts in "The Monuments Men" (Dec. 18), inspired by the true story of a group of American soldiers -- some of them art historians and curators -who saved important artworks from the Nazis during World War II. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett co-star.
Plusses: intriguing premise, great cast. Minuses: Clooney's directing resume is uneven ("Good Night, and Good Luck," "Leatherheads"), and his last World War II (acting) outing with Blanchett, 2006's "The Good German," was a bust.
The cards are stacked fully in favor of "ER" executive producer Wells, if only because Meryl Streep is in his film. Streep plays an irascible Oklahoma matriarch Violet in "August: Osage County" (Dec. 25), which Tracy Letts adapted from her own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Clooney is a producer.
Violet's family (including Julia Roberts as her daughter) come to her side after her husband (Sam Shepard) disappears. But Violet, who has cancer yet still smokes and who likes to pick on her adult children, is difficult to console.
Wells directed many episodes of "ER," but has made only one film, 2010's "The Company Men," starring Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones as downsized executives. Though little seen, "Company Men" was an accomplished, realistic portrait of the practical and emotional toll of a bad economy.
Laughs, unease and Coens
Some of America's finest directors work within a subgenre loosely billed as dramedy. Loosely billed because the innocuous term fails to capture the discomfort and intensity these filmmakers merge with humor.
Director and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener ("Friends With Money," "Lovely & Amazing") specializes in awkward social situations and characters who often say what they think instead of what's polite. Holofcener's characters dress well, eat organic and make messes of their lives.
In "Enough Said," (Sept. 27), Julia Louis-Dreyfus, that prickly, pretty delight whose persona fits the Holofcener universe like Eileen Fisher casual wear, plays a masseuse who falls for a great guy (James Gandolfini). Then she finds out he's the much-loathed ex-husband of a massage client (Holofcener veteran Catherine Keener).
The film's trailer shows a nice chemistry between Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini (in one of his final screen roles before his death in June at age 51). Holofcener's movies always are bittersweet, but Gandolfini's presence is likely to make "Enough Said" more so.
In Alexander Payne films ("The Descendants," "Sideways,""About Schmidt," "Election"), absurd situations, colorful ancillary characters and slightly enhanced Midwestern-isms offset characters' inherent sadness. His new film "Nebraska" (Nov. 22) sends a crotchety father (Bruce Dern) on the road with his son ("Saturday Night Live" veteran Will Forte) to collect a sweepstakes prize the father believes he has won.
Dern (father of Laura, star of Payne's "Citizen Ruth") never has been funny on screen. Or anything less than terrifying, really. But he's never acted for Payne before.
Payne and David O. Russell became mid-1990s indie darlings via dark comedies (Schmidt's abortion-themed "Ruth" and Russell's incest-themed "Spanking the Monkey") before becoming Oscar-recognized filmmakers.
Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook, "The Fighter") has turned into more of a crowd-pleaser than Payne, but he still loves oddballs and weirdos. His new film "American Hustle" (Dec. 25) stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams from "The Fighter" and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from "Silver Linings."
"Hustle" is a fictional story about the real-life late-1970s FBI "Abscam" sting that netted a senator and several House members on corruption charges. Bale sports extra pounds and a comb-over look as a con man cheating on his wife (Lawrence) with a fellow scammer played by Adams. Cooper's FBI agent is a loose cannon with a tight perm.
Joel and Ethan Coen often inflect their dramas and tragedies with black humor that feels wrong but also strangely satisfying. They also go broad at times. It's hard to tell where the 1960s folk-world-set "Inside Llewyn Davis" (Dec. 20) falls on the drama-comedy spectrum. Musically, though, it looks highly promising.
Oscar Isaac, a Juilliard grad who played Carey Mulligan's husband in "Drive," stars as Davis, a struggling Greenwich Village folk musician. Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play fellow folkies and also sing in the film.
Mulligan's real-life husband, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, contributed to film's soundtrack. That soundtrack, like the one for the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," was produced by T Bone Burnett. Perhaps "Llewyn" will inspire new interest in 1960s coffeehouse folk the way "Brother" did bluegrass.
A hit would help
Ten years ago, Ron Howard and Spike Lee would have made any list of top 10 American directors. Today, each is a wobbler (especially if you count both Coens). Howard hasn't made a truly good film since 2008's "Frost/Nixon" and Lee since 2006's "Inside Man."
Howard became stuck in the "Da Vinci Code" puzzle with "Code" and its sequel "Angels & Demons" before he said the heck with it and made the Vince Vaughn-Kevin James film "The Dilemma." Lee's last theatrical release, "Red Hook Summer," pulled the rug out from beneath viewers in a highly disturbing way when it revealed a character's criminal past late in the game.
Each kept busy -- some of Lee's best work has been for cable, including his HBO Hurricane Katrina documentaries, and Howard made a Jay-Z documentary airing in October on Showtime -- as their movie careers stalled.
Things might be looking up for them at theaters. Howard's "Rush" (Sept. 27) stars that big hunk of Thor, Chris Hemsworth, as 1970s British Formula One race car driver James Hunt. The movie follows the rivalry between Hunt, a playboy with flowing blond locks, and his far more contained Austrian rival Niki Lauda, played by Daniel Br hl ("Inglourious Basterds"). Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon," "The Queen") wrote the screenplay.
Lee's "Oldboy" (Nov. 27) remakes the beloved 2003 Korean violence-fest directed by Chan-wook Park. Josh Brolin plays a guy held prisoner by mysterious forces for 20 years before emerging to seek answers and revenge. In the trailer, people and rooms look alternately menacing and sleek. Lee has paired the brawny Brolin romantically with the youngest, tallest Olsen, Elizabeth -- an unlikely, intriguing match.
Scorsese & DiCaprio IV
Martin Scorsese made a biopic ("The Aviator"), a crime drama-thriller ("The Departed") and a suspense-horror film ("Shutter Island") with Leonardo DiCaprio. All that was missing was a wild, based-on-a-true story, down-the-rabbit hole, "Goodfellas"-style cautionary tale. Scorsese and DiCaprio fill that void with the early-1990s-set "The Wolf of Wall Street" (Nov. 15). DiCaprio plays hyper-successful, seriously shady stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who wrote a memoir about his experiences. Expect a lot of Armani and Rolling Stones, the latter not because it's the '90s but because Scorsese puts "Gimme Shelter" in everything.