Sometimes you just have to up your game.
This fall's movie lineup shows actors stretching, directors reaching, funny men turning serious, and glamour gals going grim. Is something in the water out west? The long march to the last awards season was a showcase of collaborative professionalism ("Gravity," "Captain Phillips," "August: Osage County") and thematic darkness ("12 Years a Slave," "Nebraska," "Her"). By contrast, the ambitions this year seem unusually . . . individual. These are people with stories to tell and — more than that — something to prove.
How else can you explain that the one sure thing of autumn, the marital thriller "Gone Girl," is made by people who've already proved it: director David Fincher ("The Social Network"), star Ben Affleck ("Argo"), novelist-co-scripter Gillian Flynn. Elsewhere, pop-culture whiplash is to be expected as audiences take in "Foxcatcher," featuring Steve Carell in a shape-shifting dramatic role as a psychotic millionaire, or "Birdman," in which gonzo Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu gets onetime Batman Michael Keaton to bite the role that made him a star.
Mia Wasikowska and Reese Witherspoon each hit the road in biographical sagas about women making solo treks through the wilderness: Wasikowska across 1,700 miles of Australian Outback in Robyn Davidson's "Tracks" and Witherspoon up 1,000 miles of Pacific Coast Trail in "Wild," based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir.
Christian Bale is playing no less than Moses in "Exodus: Gods and Kings" for director Ridley Scott. Lovable Bradley Cooper is playing the late "American Sniper" Chris Kyle for Clint Eastwood. Eddie Redmayne, the lovestruck revolutionary Marius in 2012's "Les Miserables," will be seen as the young, lovestruck Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything." Even Quvenzhané Wallis wants you to know there's more to her than "Beasts of the Southern Wild" — there's "Annie."
A few years ago, Brad Pitt was joking his way through World War II in "Inglourious Basterds"; now he's a deadly serious tank commander in David Ayer's "Fury." And that hardly compares to what Mrs. Pitt's been up to: "Unbroken," a grueling true-life tale of World War II survival, may bring Angelina Jolie into the circle of Academy Award directing nominees.
Nor is she the only director aiming higher than usual. Christopher Nolan ("Inception," the "Dark Knight" trilogy) is no slouch, but "Interstellar" looks to be his bid to enter Kubrick territory, with Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain along for the ride. Paul Thomas Anderson ("The Master") tackles previously unfilmable novelist Thomas Pynchon in "Inherent Vice." Jon Stewart goes behind the camera for "Rosewater," a not-at-all funny account of an imprisoned journalist in Iran. And if you've never heard of writer-directors Damien Chazelle or Justin Simien — well, after "Whiplash" and "Dear White People," you will.
Even the franchise installments seem more weighty and war-torn than usual, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) joining the underground rebels in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" and all Smaug breaking loose in "The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies." But the ultimate sign of the fall movie season's ambitions? With an all-singing cast that includes Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick, Rob Marshall's "Into the Woods" wants to take Stephen Sondheim to the nation's multiplexes. Let's hope that dream has a fairy-tale ending.
THE DROP Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and the late James Gandolfini star in this adaptation of Dennis Lehane's crime novel. A Brooklyn bartender (Hardy) finds that involvement with organized crime may not be such a good idea after all.
DOLPHIN TALE 2 As in the original, cetacean patients get treatment in a Florida aquarium hospital. Returning for the sequel are Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, and Morgan Freeman.
THE GREEN PRINCE This documentary recounts the story of a young Palestinian, Mosab Hassan Yousef, who becomes a spy for the Israelis. The catch? His father was a founder of Hamas.
THE MAN ON HER MIND A romantic comedy where it isn't just boy and girl who meet — so do dream and reality. Amy McAllister and Shane Attwooll star.
A MASTER BUILDER Jonathan Demme directed this updated version of Ibsen's classic drama. Wallace Shawn, who did the adaptation, stars, along with Julie Hagerty and Andre Gregory.
NO GOOD DEED If you're an affluent suburban housewife (Taraji P. Henson), should you offer assistance when an escaped convict shows up on your doorstep? The answer isn't as obvious as it might seem, with Idris Elba playing the escapee.
JEALOUSY In this French drama, a man's decision to leave his wife and daughter has consequences both predictable and otherwise. Louis Garrel, Anna Mouglalis, and Rebecca Convenant star.
LEVEL FIVE This one-of-a-kind film, from 1997, by the late Chris Marker, a one-of-a-kind filmmaker, finally gets a US release. Part documentary, part fiction, it braids together technology and history (specifically, the Battle of Okinawa) for a meditation on human agency and memory.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY A New York couple (James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain) confront personal tragedy in this third and concluding film of writer-director Ned Benson's triptych about a marriage.
LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM Rory Kennedy has directed this documentary about the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.
THE MAZE RUNNER In this adaptation of James Dashner's best-selling YA novel, a group of adolescent boys whose memories have been erased live in a kind of orphanage. Who among them can escape?
MY OLD LADY Israel Horovitz, adapting his play, makes his narrative feature film directorial debut. New Yorker Kevin Kline inherits a Parisian apartment, only to find it inhabited by Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas.
THE SKELETON TWINS Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play, yes, twins. A reunion ends their decade-long estrangement — and maybe helps both get their lives back in gear?
THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Adam Driver, and Corey Stoll play siblings who find they have certain issues they have to confront when their father dies. Jane Fonda plays mom.
TUSK When a podcaster goes missing in Manitoba, his pal (Haley Joel Osment) and an ex-cop (Johnny Depp) go in search. The question is raised: How easily can a man become a walrus? The man with the answer is writer-director Kevin Smith.
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES In this adaptation of Lawrence Block's novel, Liam Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, Block's series hero. A drug dealer's wife has been kidnapped, and Scudder's on the case.
ROCKS IN MY POCKETS Writer-director Signe Baumane has drawn on her family history for this unusual animated feature about women, depression, and madness.
THE EQUALIZER Does Denzel Washington turn 60 on Dec. 28? Yes, he does. But he's spry enough to star in this adaptation of the '80s CBS series about a retired intelligence operative. Much of the film was shot in Boston and on the North Shore.
THE BOXTROLLS Lovable subterranean creatures raise a young human. A not-so-lovable old human does not approve. Voice talent in this animated feature includes Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg.
DAYS AND NIGHTS For his first outing as a director, Christian Camargo has updated Chekhov's "The Seagull" to rural New England in the 1980s. The intriguingly varied cast includes Allison Janney, Jean Reno, Mark Rylance, and Cherry Jones.
HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS Simon Pegg is the title character, a British psychiatrist, in this comedy about a man who decides to find out the meaning of happiness. Rosamund Pike, an un-gone girl (see below), is his love interest.
JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE John Ridley, who won an Oscar for his "12 Years a Slave" script, has written and directed this biopic about Jimi Hendrix. OutKast's André Benjamin plays the guitar legend.
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER A documentary about the making of an album featuring numerous musical legends associated with Stax Records and Memphis. Among the artists are Bobby Blue, Booker T. Jones, David Porter, Mavis Staples, and Hubert Sumlin.
TRACKS Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn Davidson in this adaptation of Davidson's memoir about making a 1,700-mile hike across western Australia.
GONE GIRL David Fincher directed this adaptation of Gillian Flynn's best-selling thriller. Ben Affleck plays a man suspected of being behind the disappearance of his wife (Rosamund Pike).
MEN WOMEN AND CHILDREN Teenagers, parents, and the Internet: Consider the possibilities. Director Jason Reitman has and he's assembled a cast that includes Adam Sandler, Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner, and Rosemarie DeWitt.
MEMPHIS A strange aura surrounds a mysterious singer (Willis Earl Beal) as he drifts through the Tennessee city of the title. Take him to the river. Based on a 2009 Broadway musical.
ANNABELLE In this spin-off from the 2013 horror film "The Conjuring," the title character is a doll, but she sure doesn't behave like one. Alfre Woodard heads a low-profile cast.
THE NOTEBOOK In this Hungarian drama, 13-year-old twin boys are sent by their mother to a rural village to escape the violence of World War II. But is escape possible?
PRIDE One of the most convulsive events in '80s Britain was a nationwide coal strike. This based-on-fact story looks at how a group of gay and lesbian activists decided to aid the miners. Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, and Dominic West star.
THE JUDGE Robert Downey Jr. plays a hotshot lawyer who returns to his hometown to find out what happened after his father (Robert Duvall), a judge, is accused of murder. Scenes were shot in Shelburne Falls, Millers Falls, Attleboro, Belmont, Dedham, and Waltham.
ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY Judith Viorst's popular children's book comes to the screen. Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner star.
ART AND CRAFT Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker directed this documentary about art forger Mark Landis, who passed off his own work as that of artists ranging from Picasso to Walt Disney.
DRACULA UNTOLD So how exactly did the most famous of all vampires develop his aversion to garlic and crucifixes? Luke Evans stars in this origins story.
KILL THE MESSENGER Jeremy Renner plays real-life journalist Gary Webb in this story of a Pulitzer Prize winner's life spiraling out of control as he investigates possible links between the 1980s crack epidemic and the CIA.
ONE CHANCE David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") directed this based-on-fact story of an unlikely winner (James Corden) of the TV contest "Britain's Got Talent." Julie Walters and Colm Meaney play his parents.
THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst are tourists in Greece in 1962. Encountering con man Oscar Isaac complicates matters. Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel. Screenwriter Hossein Amini ("Drive") makes his directing debut.
FURY It's April 1945, and Brad Pitt is in charge of a Sherman tank on a mission behind Nazi lines. Serving under Sergeant Brad are Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, and Michael Peña.
THE BEST OF ME The latest Nicholas Sparks novel to come to the screen stars James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan as onetime high school sweethearts who return to their home town and pick up where they left off.
BIRDMAN Michael Keaton plays a down-on-his-luck actor who once starred as a superhero. The impressive cast includes Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Amy Ryan.
THE BOOK OF LIFE Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, and Ron Perlman are among the voice talent in this animated comedy about a youth who has adventures in three otherworldly realms.
CAMP X-RAY A young enlistee (Kristen Stewart) finds herself assigned to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. She befriends a terrorism suspect who's been imprisoned there for eight years. Writer-director Peter Sattler makes his feature debut.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE The comedy is anything but mindless in this film about a group of African-American students trying to deal with life on a predominantly white campus.
LILTING In writer-director Hong Khaou's drama, cultures collide in London. An immigrant mother (Cheng Pei-pei) mourns her son's death, only to have grief turn to consternation when she meets his lover (Ben Whishaw).
ST. VINCENT A newly single mother (Melissa McCarthy) needs someone to look after her 12-year-old. Desperate, she turns to a grumpy neighbor who hangs out at racetracks and strip clubs. Why would she do such a thing? Because he's played by Bill Murray, that's why.
WHIPLASH Miles Teller plays a conservatory student who wants to be the best jazz drummer he can be. That means studying with the best (and scariest) teacher he can find (J.K. Simmons).
THE GOOD LIE In this story drawn from real life, an overbearing Southern lady (Reese Witherspoon) takes charge of four Sudanese refugees in Atlanta. Any similarities to "The Blind Side" are purely coincidental.
THE IRISH PUB A documentary about a certain institution much favored by those who like the occasional wee taste — or sometimes not so occasional and not so wee.
JOHN WICK Keanu Reeves plays the title role, a former mob hit man the mob now wants rubbed out. Willem Dafoe and Bridget Moynahan costar.
LAGGIES When Keira Knightley goes to her high school reunion, she ends up in the company of current high school student Chloë Grace Moretz. Not only is Moretz's dad (Sam Rockwell) single, he's a hunk. Class dismissed!
OUIJA A group of teenagers are devastated when one of their friends is killed in a horrific accident. They decide to try to contact his spirit using a Ouija board. This turns out not to be the best idea.
BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP In this adaptation of S.J. Watson's best-selling novel, Nicole Kidman plays a woman who wakes up suffering from amnesia. Colin Firth plays her husband.
NIGHTCRAWLER A nightcrawler is a freelance video journalist who finds subjects by chasing after rescue vehicles. Jake Gyllenhaal is the crawler in question. Also on hand are Rene Russo and Bill Paxton.
WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD It's 1988, and a teenage girl (Shailene Woodley) vows to discover the answer when her mother (Eva Green) disappears. Writer-director Gregg Araki adapted Laura Kasischke's novel.
INTERSTELLAR When a wormhole is found, the possibilities for space travel are just about endless. Or they are when Christopher Nolan is the director and the cast features Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Casey Affleck.
ROSEWATER Jon Stewart goes from "The Daily Show" to the big screen, making his directorial and screenwriting debut. Gael Garcia Bernal stars in this adaptation of Maziar Bahari's book about his Iranian imprisonment, "Then They Came for Me."
BIG HERO 6 The first Disney animated feature based on Marvel characters shows how the titular superhero team first came together. Yes, there's a nefarious plot to be foiled. No, that inflatable robot isn't the Pillsbury Doughboy.
DIPLOMACY Volker Schlöndorff directed this based-on-fact story of how a Nazi general disobeyed Hitler's orders to raze Paris in August 1944.
THE HOMESMAN Tommy Lee Jones directed, helped write, and stars in this unusual western about three insane women being escorted to safety by a pioneer woman (Hilary Swank) and unreliable drifter (Jones).
DUMBER AND DUMBER TO Stupidity never had it so good. Twenty years after "Dumb and Dumber," Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels reunite with the Farrelly brothers. Kathleen Turner and Jennifer Lawrence offer support.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Eddie Redmayne plays the young Stephen Hawking in this biopic about the renowned astrophysicist and his first marriage. Felicity Jones plays Mrs. Hawking.
THE BETTER ANGELS What was Abe Lincoln like as a boy? Writer-director A.J. Edwards tries to answer that question in this black-and-white biopic. Jason Clarke and Brit Marling play young Abe's parents, with Braydon Denney as their future-president son.
BEYOND THE LIGHTS Gina Prince-Bythewood has written and directed this story of a singer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) confronting the pitfalls of success. Minnie Driver plays her mother.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1 It's three down and one to go: Katniss is back. The Capitol won't be the same, that's for sure.
THE IMITATION GAME Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, in this biopic about the brilliant British mathematician who helped crack Nazi codes during World War II only to be prosecuted after the war for his homosexuality.
McFARLAND Kevin Costner stars as a track coach whose arrival at a predominantly Latino high school in California is transformative. Maria Bello also stars. Based on a true story.
HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 Beleaguered employees Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day return from the 2011 original, as do Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston. Newly arrived for the sequel are Chris Pine and Christoph Waltz.
THE PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR Flightless birds as spies? Sure, why not, when their voices (in this animated feature) are provided by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich.
FOXCATCHER An Olympic wrestler (Channing Tatum) is sponsored by a du Pont heir (Steve Carell), who becomes more than a sponsor. This based-on-fact story is director Bennett Miller's first film since "Moneyball."
WILD Reese Witherspoon stars in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir of the 1,000-mile hike she undertook. The supporting cast includes Laura Dern and Gaby Hoffmann. Maybe Witherspoon and Mia Wasikowska (see "Tracks," above) could costar in a joint sequel.
THE PYRAMID A team of archeologists unearths an ancient structure in the Egyptian desert. As they begin to explore it, bad things happen. Ashley Hinshaw, James Buckley, and Denis O'Hare star.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS Yes, that Exodus. Christian Bale is Moses. Also on hand are Aaron Paul, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and John Turturro. Ridley Scott directed.
INHERENT VICE Paul Thomas Anderson did the script and directed this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel about a sky-high LA private eye, circa 1970. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, and Owen Wilson head a most interesting cast.
DEMONIC Maria Bello and Frank Grillo star in this horror thriller about the investigation of the murder of five people researching paranormal activities.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES Hobbits, dwarfs, elves, and men wage war on orcs and their allies in this final installment of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel.
ANNIE Everyone's favorite lovable orphan is back on screen. Quvenzhané Wallis, of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," plays the title role. Jamie Foxx is Benjamin Stacks (a.k.a. Daddy Warbucks), and Cameron Diaz is Miss Hannigan. Emma Thompson had a hand in the script.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB The British Museum plays host to Ben Stiller and his blast-from-the-past pals. Among them are Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson, and the late Robin Williams. Newly arrived is Ben Kingsley, as an Egyptian pharaoh.
TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT In this latest from Belgium's Dardenne brothers, Marion Cotillard plays a woman who over a weekend tries to enlist co-workers to help save her job.
INTO THE WOODS Rob Marshall has directed a starry cast — Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick — in this adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical based on Grimm's fairy tales.
BIG EYES Twenty years after "Ed Wood," Tim Burton returns to the realm of the biopic. It's a no less unusual subject: painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), master portraitist of waifs with oversize eyes. Amy Adams plays Mrs. Keane.
UNBROKEN Angelina Jolie directed this tale of World War II heroism taken from Laura Hillenbrand's nonfiction bestseller. The Coen brothers helped with the adaptation. Jack O'Connell stars as the late Louis Zamperini.
AMERICAN SNIPER A Navy SEAL (Bradley Cooper) looks back on his career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills. Clint Eastwood directed this adaptation of Chris Kyle's memoir.
THE INTERVIEW A genre is born: geopolitical comedy. A celebrity TV show sends its host (James Franco) and producer (Seth Rogen) to North Korea in pursuit of dictator Kim Jong-un. Evan Goldberg and Rogen directed and helped write the script.
PADDINGTON The much-loved bear makes the transition from children's books to the screen. Ben Whishaw does the vocal honors.