Sept. 4 2013 02:34 PM

Captain Phillips," Blue is the Warmest Color' and Inside Llewyn Davis' highlight Oscar-hopefuls season

Gravity, with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, will arrive in October amid much buzz.

Before we look forward, let's look back for a second. The summer of 2013 was in many ways a season of flops, although box-office returns had nothing to do with it. Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek into Darkness, Fast & Furious 6 and The Wolverine made substantial sums of money, but all shared a grandiose banality and irritating sameness indicative of the modern blockbuster. They will be forgotten in no time.

I'll argue (as I've done for months now) that only a few Hollywood entries from the past three months will have any future shelf life. James Wan's The Conjuring is convincingly scary, a superb mood piece made by a filmmaker possessed by unseen terror and unspoken trauma. Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is massive, an immaculate and stunning exercise in cinematic scale, devoid of emotion but astutely aware of collateral damage and sacrifice.

Despite their merits, neither of those strong films was as alive with improvisation and movement, history and genre as Gore Verbinski's much-maligned The Lone Ranger. What a glorious mish-mash of Western tropes, ambitious set pieces and smart historiography. It drove most critics nuts, many to the point of irrational rage. Audiences stayed away, too. But the stage has already been set for revision. Read A.O. Scott's great recent piece in The New York Times, "Maybe 20 Years From Now, Tonto," for the first major shot across the bow.

It's also worth noting that Frances Ha, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine and Drug War each offered art-house audiences a smart respite from the doldrums of mainstream filmmaking. They should all be sought out immediately.

So, what does the future hold for San Diego moviegoers? If it's like most years, the fall / winter movie season will bring more serious, adult and "quality" films to the multiplexes that hope to garner Academy Award attention. For better or worse, the end of the film year is stacked with must-sees.

The first such release is Destin Cretton's endearing sophomore feature, Short Term 12, which has already received recognition from film festivals and critics around the world. The setting of a foster-care facility becomes the backdrop for a lovely testament to family and other non-traditional support systems. With Cretton having attended grad school in San Diego, the film's local release on Sept. 13 will be something of a coming-home party. Read our cover feature on him.

On Sept. 20, we'll get a strange double-bill: A Single Shot and Museum Hours. The former is a brooding mountain noir starring Sam Rockwell as a deer poacher who gets in over his head with criminals after accidentally killing a woman and stealing a boatload of cash. The latter is a quietly mesmerizing tale of a museum guard in Vienna reminiscing about art and love. Also of interest in September is another Wan horror film, Insidious Chapter 2 (Sept. 13), and Joseph-Gordon Levitt's directorial debut, Don Juan (Sept. 27).

October starts with a bang: Alfonso Cuarón's much-anticipated space odyssey, Gravity (Oct. 4), starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts adrift, is the Mexican filmmaker's first project in nearly seven years. It's already got great buzz after premiering last week at the Venice Film Festival.

Other major Oscar contenders to be released pre- Halloween are Paul Greengrass' Somali pirate drama Captain Phillips (Oct. 11) starring Tom Hanks and director Steve McQueen's period-piece drama, 12 Years a Slave (Oct. 18).

Don't sleep on J.C. Chandor's All is Lost (Oct. 18), as well, which features only Robert Redford as a man lost at sea after his boat capsizes. The film opens in limited release before going wide later in the month.

Palme d'Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color will finally arrive on Nov. 1. The three-hour lesbian love story has already made waves with its controversial subject matter. Having viewed the film in Cannes, I can attest to its worthiness. Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (Nov. 15) will undoubtedly be a game-changer in the awards-season buzz. From the looks of its snazzy and satire-minded trailer, the film feels more like The King of Comedy than the director's more infamous gangster efforts.

November also features Spike Lee's much-ballyhooed remake of Old Boy (Nov. 27), a revenge film that takes hammer wielding to new heights. Matthew McConaughey stars as a dying hustler who decides to smuggle in pharmaceuticals from Mexico to help his ailing clients in The Dallas Buyer's Club (Nov. 8).

The big-budget spectacle rears its ugly head again in November with Thor: The Dark World (Nov. 8) and Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Nov. 22). Of those two, I'd wager my money on the ongoing saga of Katnis Everdeen reaching higher quality.

December is expectedly stacked with more prestige pictures: George Clooney's World War II caper film Monuments Men (Dec. 18), Spike Jonze's enigmatic love story Her (Dec. 18), Bennett Miller's dark comedy Foxcatcher (Dec. 20), David O. Russell's glitzy American Hustle (Dec. 25) and Jason Reitman's brooding drama Labor Day (late month) are all expected to be heavy award contenders.

It will be difficult, though, for any of these to transcend the sublime heartache and melancholy of Joel and Ethan Coen's wonderful Inside Llewyn Davis starring Oscar Isaac as a forlorn folk singer struggling to express himself in early-1960s Greenwich Village.

Other December titles that may spark the attention of adventurous moviegoers are Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace (Dec. 6), John Sayles' Go for Sisters (Dec. 13) and Ben Stiller's surreal adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Dec. 27).

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Dec. 13), the second installment in his completely unnecessary return to Middle-Earth. Still, when there's so much new material to see, why bother with more of the same?

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