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 Martin Scorsese) but are proven, quality filmmakers known to stretch conventions.
It’s a time when the directors whom 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.
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, (now playing) 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.
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 a 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, (now playing), starring 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 lends a movie instant legitimacy, Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson do the opposite. That’s just how director Robert Rodriguez wants it.
Rodriguez’s Machete Kills (now playing) revisits Machete (Danny Trejo), the granite-faced, indefatigable ex-Federale from Rodriguez’s 2010 Machete. This time, 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, nationwide in January). 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 world in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation; and author Maurice Sendak’s world 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.
George Clooney and his former boss ER executive producer John Wells, might vie against each other for directing awards for their high-profile ensemble films.
Clooney directs and acts in The Monuments Men (opening 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.
The cards are stacked fully in favor of Wells, if only because Meryl Streep is in his film. Streep plays irascible Oklahoma matriarch Violet in August: Osage County (opening 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) comes 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.
Drawn to ‘dramedy’
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-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 (now playing), 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 (opening 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) has never acted for Payne before.
Payne and David O. Russell became mid-1990s indie darlings via dark comedies (Payne’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 (opening 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 yet strangely satisfying. They also go broad at times. It’s hard to tell where the 1960s folk-world-set Inside Llewyn Davis (opening 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 the 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.
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, nor 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 premiering this month on Showtime – as their movie careers stalled.
Things might be looking up for them at theaters. Howard’s Rush (now playing) 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 Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds). Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) wrote the screenplay.
Lee’s Oldboy (opening 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 look alternately menacing and sleek.
Lee has paired the brawny Brolin romantically with the youngest, tallest Olsen, Elizabeth – an unlikely, intriguing match.
Scorsese made a biopic (The Aviator), a crime-drama-thriller (The Departed) and a suspense-horror film (Shutter Island) with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Scorsese and DiCaprio fill that void with the early-1990s-set The Wolf of Wall Street (opening 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.