Please pick up your pencils. The fall film season is a test.
Not a test of moviegoers’ collective endurance — although maybe that, too — but a history quiz in which we’ll hopefully come out enlightened, educated, even entertained by true stories from the distant and recent past. Yes, the season’s biggest moneymaker by far will no doubt be “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” a sequel set in that much-loved galaxy long ago and far away. We’ve entered the starting gates of the annual movie awards race, though, and nothing so quickens the hearts of serious audiences and Oscar voters as the sight of famous stars playing real-life heroes.
Most are heroes who are no longer with us: US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” (star Chadwick Boseman completes his biopic hat trick, after previously playing Jackie Robinson and James Brown); Watergate’s own Deep Throat (Liam Neeson) in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” is already being touted as a career peak.
At least one hero is local and still living: Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in “Stronger,” from eclectic director David Gordon Green, which opens Sept. 22.
Some could hardly be called heroes at all, What did Tommy Wiseau do to be played by “The Disaster Artist” star-director James Franco except make “The Room” (2003), widely held to be one of the most ineptly made movies of all time?
The fall is about larger-than-life figures played by larger-than-life movie stars, and, after a disastrous summer that helped the annual box office to date decline by 6 percent, the movie industry truly hopes you’ll go watch them on larger-than-life movie screens. Putting those actors into period costumes and period conflicts generally guarantees serious attention. So we’ll get Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in “The Greatest Showman.” Dame Judi Dench will play Queen Victoria again (”Victoria & Abdul”). We’ll be treated to the war of wills and wires between young-ish Tom Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) in “The Current War.”
Closer to the modern era, the life and mythos of young J.D. Salinger (Hoult again! busy lad) will be explored in “Rebel in the Rye,” and “Battle of the Sexes” will replay the iconic 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). Why make stories up when real life is this rich in drama?
Thankfully, people still do. To attract our attention, new movies based on fiction rather than fact are relying on bold acting to win audiences over, like Frances McDormand tearing the roof off the coming attractions for Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Stellar directors matter, too: Richard Linklater (“Last Flag Flying,” about Iraq War vets), Michael Haneke (“Happy End,” which will probably have anything but), Todd Haynes (the Young Adult Lit adaptation “Wonderstruck”), and Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water,” already knocking audiences for a loop at the Venice and Telluride festivals).
Because it’s Hollywood, there will be the usual rash of remakes, glitzy (“Murder on the Orient Express”), trashy (“Death Wish”), and inexplicable (“Flatliners”). There will be another “Thor” movie, a new Pixar (“Coco”), a long-awaited all-star DC donnybrook (“Justice League”), a mega-disaster flick (“Geostorm,” as if our current reality weren’t enough), and, because you didn’t ask for it, “Blade Runner 2049,” directed by Denis Villenueve (“Arrival”) and starring Ryan Gosling and lonesome Harrison Ford.
But it’s the true-life tales that stand to dominate the season, the screens, the statuettes, and maybe more. With any luck, all those heroes may inspire audiences to become real-life heroes themselves. We could certainly use the help.
AMERICAN ASSASSIN Old CIA hand Michael Keaton shows the ropes to rookie operative Dylan O’Brien. Taylor Kitsch also stars. Based on the Vince Flynn novel.
FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER Angelina Jolie directed and co-wrote this drama adapted from Loung Ung’s memoir of growing up under Khmer Rouge dictatorship.
MOTHER! A happy couple (Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem) find that happiness threatened by a mysterious older couple (Michelle, Pfeiffer, Ed Harris). Darren Aronofsky wrote and directed.
Also opening: After Love, Rebel in the Rye
KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, and the British secret service gang are back in this sequel to “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2015). Look for Elton John in a cameo role.
THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE Take colorful plastic building blocks, add ninjas, and watch what happens. Voice talent includes Olivia Munn, Justin Theroux, Jackie Chan, and Dave Franco.
STRONGER Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman in this based-on-fact story of a man’s recovery from the loss of both legs after the Marathon bombing. David Gordon Green directed.
Also opening: Friend Request, Letter From Baghdad, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, The Tiger Hunter, Year by the Sea
AMERICAN MADE Tom Cruise stars as an airline pilot turned drug smuggler turned government informant in this based-on-fact story. Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow”) directed.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES The famous 1973 tennis match revisited, with Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) directed.
VICTORIA & ABDUL Judi Dench stars as the British queen and Ali Fazal as her Muslim footman in this based-on-fact drama. Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) directed.
Also opening: Flatliners, Woodshock
BLADE RUNNER 2049 In this sequel to the science fiction classic, Ryan Gosling goes in search of replicant hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) three decades after his disappearance. Robin Wright and Jared Leto costar. Denis Villeneuve directed.
LUCKY The great Harry Dean Stanton plays a nonagenarian atheist who lives in the desert. The happily unusual cast includes David Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., and James Darren (that’s right, Moondoggie).
THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US It’s strangers on a plane, as Kate Winslet and Idris Elba star in this story of two people who share a charter flight with highly dramatic consequences.
Also opening: Dolores, Loving Vincent, My Little Pony
THE FLORIDA PROJECT A single mother and her 6-year-old spend a summer in a Sunshine State motel. So? It’s managed by Willem Dafoe. Director Sean Baker’s follow-up to “Tangerine.”
MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE Liam Neeson stars in this biopic about the senior FBI official who was Woodward and Bernstein’s fabled Watergate source, Deep Throat.
MARSHALL Chadwick Boseman plays the title role in this story of a defining early case argued by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Also opening: The Foreigner, Happy Death Day, Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton
GEOSTORM When climate-controlling satellites malfunction and set in motion the storm to end all storms, it’s up to astronaut Gerard Butler to save the day. Screenwriter Dean Devlin (“Independence Day”) makes his directing debut.
GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN Margot Robbie, Domhnall Gleeson, and Kelly Macdonald star in this look at the family of A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh.
HUMAN FLOW A documentary about the worldwide refugee crisis, directed by the acclaimed Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.
ONLY THE BRAVE Jennifer Connelly, Taylor Kitsch, and Josh Brolin star in this based-on-fact story about deadly 2013 wildfires in Arizona.
THE SNOWMAN Tomas Alfredson (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) directed this adaptation of the Jo Nesbo detective novel. Michael Fassbender plays Nesbo’s series hero, Harry Hole.
Also opening: The King’s Choice, Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween
PROFESSOR MARSTON & THE WONDER WOMEN The based-on-fact story of an academic (Luke Evans) whose open relationship with his wife (Rebecca Hall) and mistress (Olive Byrne) led to the creation of the comic-book heroine Wonder Woman.
SUBURBICON It’s 1959 and things turn nasty in a seemingly picture-perfect suburb. This is a comedy? Somewhat: Ethan and Joel Coen wrote the script, with Grant Heslov and George Clooney, who directed. Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac star.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE Screenwriter Jason Hall (“American Sniper”) makes his directorial debut in this based-on-fact story of the struggles of returning Iraq veterans. Adapted from David Finkel’s book. Miles Teller stars.
WONDERSTRUCK Todd Haynes directed this adaptation of Brian Selznick’s YA novel about a young girl in 1927, a young boy in 1977, and the mysterious connection they share. Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams head the cast.
Also opening: Jigsaw, The Paris Opera
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) directed and co-wrote this drama about a surgeon (Colin Farrell) whose life goes awry. Nicole Kidman plays his wife.
THE SQUARE Ruben Östlund (“Force Majeure”) wrote and directed this satire about modern Western society. When an art curator’s cellphone is stolen things get . . . complicated. Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, and Dominic West star.
THOR: RAGNAROK Chris Hemsworth is back as the Norse god superhero. He has to engage in combat with fellow Avenger the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). That sound you hear is Loki (Tom Hiddleston) laughing.
Also opening: A Bad Moms Christmas, Novitiate
DADDY’S HOME 2 In this sequel to the 2015 comedy, Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell play very different dads — that difference multiplied by their own dads, played by Mel Gibson and John Lithgow, respectively.
LAST FLAG FLYING Richard Linklater directed and co-wrote this story of three Vietnam veterans (Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne) who reunite after the death of one of their sons in Iraq.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS Dan Stevens stars as Charles Dickens in this recounting of how the author came to write “A Christmas Carol.”
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS Kenneth Branagh, who plays Hercule Poirot, directed this remake of the 1974 film based on Agatha Christie’s detective classic. Among the suspects are Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, and Daisy Ridley.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI Angered over the handling of her daughter’s murder, a mother (Frances McDormand) places signs berating the local police chief (Woody Harrelson). It’s a comedy, kind of. Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) wrote and directed.
Also opening: Blade of the Immortal, Dina
JUSTICE LEAGUE Hail, hail the DC gang’s all here. Hey, it worked for Marvel’s the Avengers, right? In a league of their own are Ben Affleck (Batman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), and Henry Cavill (Superman).
LADY BIRD Saoirse Ronan plays the title character, a woman at loose ends in northern California. Stepping behind the camera, Greta Gerwig wrote and directed.
ROMAN ISRAEL, ESQ. There are unanticipated consequences when an activist LA lawyer joins a big downtown firm. Denzel Washington plays the title character. Colin Farrell costars.
WONDER In this based-on-fact story, Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson star as parents of a seriously disfigured boy who enters elementary school for the first time.
Also opening: God’s Own Country, The Star
COCO In this latest animated feature from Pixar, a 12-year-old aspiring musician and his dog enter the Land of the Dead and seek to solve a family mystery. Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) directed.
DEATH WISH Horrormeister Eli Roth directed this remake of the ’70s hit about a New Yorker who takes justice into his own hands. Vincent D’Onofrio, Bruce Willis, and Elisabeth Shue star.
MOLLY’S GAME Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the script, makes his directorial debut in this based-on-fact story of a world-class ski champion turned high-stakes poker player turned FBI agent. Jessica Chastain stars. Also on hand are Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and Michael Cera.
Also opening: The Breadwinner
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME A 17-year-old American (Timothée Chalamet) spending the summer of 1983 in northern Italy discovers love. Based on the novel by André Aciman. Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg costar.
THE CURRENT WAR The based-on-fact story of the battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) to decide whether Edison’s DC or Tesla’s AC will be the standard for electrical current.
Also opening: The Divine Order, Polaroid
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD Ridley Scott directed this based-on-fact account of the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), the namesake grandson of the richest man in the world (Kevin Spacey). Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams costar.
DARKEST HOUR It’s a big movie year for 1940. First there was “Dunkirk,” now there’s this drama about Winston Churchill’s desperate early days as British prime minister. Gary Oldman stars. Joe Wright (“Atonement”) directed.
THE DISASTER ARTIST James Franco, who also directed, stars in this based-on-fact story about the making of the 2003 movie “The Room,” widely regarded as one of the worst films ever. Seth Rogen, Dave Franco, Zac Efron, and Ari Graynor costar.
THE SHAPE OF WATER Guillermo del Toro directed and co-wrote this beauty-and-the-beast tale of a janitor (Sally Hawkins) who befriends a mysterious amphibian hidden in a government laboratory. Michael Shannon plays the janitor’s boss, and Octavia Spencer her friend.
VILLA CAPRI A comedy about a pair of grumpy old men (Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones) who enter into an uneasy alliance in a resort community. Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump”) wrote and directed.
THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN Bill Pullman stars as the title character, a classic western sidekick who finds himself the center of attention when he seeks to avenge his lawman boss (Peter Fonda).
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI Returning from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015) are Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Lupita Nyong’o, and the late Carrie Fisher. New to a galaxy far, far away are Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro. Rian Johnson (“Looper”) directed.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE Four teens discover an old video-game console — and end up in an imaginary jungle. Among the adults they have to deal with are Dwayne Johnson, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart.
DOWNSIZING Alexander Payne directed and co-wrote this fantasy about shrinking human beings to a height of 5 inches as a population measure. Sounds crazy? Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig sign up to do it.
PITCH PERFECT 3 The Bellas are back, reunited for one last concert, on a USO tour. Soon enough they’re singing a different tune. Anna Kendrick and Elizabeth Banks star.
Also opening: Permanent
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN Hugh Jackman stars in this musical about 19th-century impresario P.T. Barnum. Zac Efron and Michelle Williams costar.
HAPPY END Endings interest Michael Haneke more than happiness does, and that’s the case in this family drama/social satire. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert play a wealthy French father and daughter who live near the Calais refugee camps.
THE POST Steven Spielberg directs a starry cast — Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson — in this recounting of The Washington Post’s 1971 publication of the “Pentagon Papers.”
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