Making Movies That Matter: A Different Kind of Fall Film Preview

A look behind the curtain at six filmmaking forces hoping to make a difference with their movies this season.

Joel Edgerton as a Navy SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty, Brad Pitt holding a gun in Killing Them Softly, Richard Gere on a plane taking notes in Arbitrage

Among the fall’s most thought-provoking coming attractions: Joel Edgerton in the Osama bin Laden hunt film Zero Dark Thirty, Brad Pitt in the capitalism run amok heist flick Killing Them Softly and Richard Gere in the hedge fund high crime thriller Arbitrage. (Photos: Courtesy of Sony Pictures, The Weinstein Company and Roadside Attractions)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

It isn’t only the leaves that begin to change when autumn rolls around. The kinds of films you’ll be able to see at your local theater are shifting in tone and weight as well.

After a summer where explosions dominated the screen to excite audiences visually, a group of films is on the way that aims to light the fuse cerebrally and, in many cases, incite action after the end credits scroll.

Here’s a collection of some of the most thought-provoking films of the fall and five filmmakers behind them.

Megan Ellison

Even before she purchased the rights to make more installments of The Terminator movies, the 26-year-old daughter of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has become a one-woman army in Hollywood, although there’s no mistaking her for anything but a force for good. This fall will mark her production company Annapurna Pictures’ coming-out party, beginning next week with the bootlegging thriller Lawless. However, it’s the three films that follow that are likely to extend conversations well beyond the theater.

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Among film buffs, there’s already a healthy debate about Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (September 14), which sees Joaquin Phoenix as a tortured World War II veteran who finds faith in the leadership of a self-styled prophet (Philip Seymour Hoffman), said to be inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

However, expect Ellison’s other two productions—the Brad Pitt-starring Killing Them Softly (October 19) and director Kathryn Bigelow’s followup to The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty (December 19)—to enter into the national dialogue in the months ahead.

The former, which stars Pitt as a hit man, uses the dynamics of a heist film to serve as a critique of capitalism set against the 2008 presidential election. Meanwhile, Zero Dark Thirty will offer the first cinematic take on the killing of Osama bin Laden featuring a host of up-and-coming stars such as The Odd Life of Timothy Green’s Joel Edgerton, Jessica Chastain and Moneyball star Chris Pratt.

Some film fans see Ellison as saving serious-minded movies; she might just help with saving the world.

Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh

Millions of people will turn out to see Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (December 14), but if even a fraction of them file into a nearby theater to see Jackson’s other production this fall—West of Memphis, which will come out less than two weeks later on Christmas day—that audience could make a huge difference in clearing the names of the West Memphis Three.

After the Bruce Sinofsky-Joe Berlinger-directed Paradise Lost series help set them free, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, who spent 17 years in prison from the time they were in their teens after being accused of the murder of three boys in 1993, will once again see the big screen in a documentary directed by Deliver Us From Evil filmmaker Amy Berg. West of Memphis was financed by Jackson and wife Fran Walsh, who also quietly footed the bill for the trio’s legal defense fund with the hopes of fully exonerating them.

Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin became free men as a result of a peculiar deal in the state of Arkansas called an Alford plea that allowed them to walk so long as the state was able to save face with an assertion of innocence rather than an admission of guilt. The film seeks a full pardon of the three through a new investigation of the facts in the case.

Nicholas and Eugene Jarecki

Though their films are unrelated, two of this fall’s most potentially electrifying films come from a pair of brothers, both sons of the entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Jarecki.

The first to see theaters (and video-on-demand) is the financial thriller Arbitrage (September 14), the directorial debut of Nicholas Jarecki, which centers on a successful hedge fund manager (Richard Gere) who hopes he can sell off his company before his bad behavior on the stock market, including defrauding his investors, is revealed.

While the younger Jarecki casts an eye on the all-too-relevant issue of white collar crime, the older Eugene, who previously directed the acclaimed documentary Why We Fight, is aiming to raise awareness about an issue deeply affecting America’s lower classes—the seemingly endless and ineffective war on drugs—with The House I Live In (October 5). Demonstrating the racial bias inherent in prosecutions and arrests for even the most minor of offenses, and the financial incentives that lead police departments and prisons to pile up arrests to boost statistics, the film paints a depressing portrait of a bottomless pitfall the war on drugs has created both for offenders of the current law of the land as well as the American economy as a whole.

Participant Media

Any roundup of fall films that matter would be remiss not to mention just a few of the thought-provoking productions on the way from TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media.

A sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where its director, Ava DuVernay, took home the award for Best Director, Middle of Nowhere (October 12) concerns a woman who is forced to rearrange her life following the incarceration of her husband.

Participant will also present two films that should figure prominently in awards season discussions, as well as in informed conversations about the history and current state of America: Lincoln (November 16) is Steven Spielberg’s long-in-the-works biopic of the nation’s 16th president starring Daniel Day Lewis in the title role, and Promised Land (December 28) reunites Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant with co-writer/star Matt Damon in what’s said to be a Capraesque story of a fracking proponent (Damon) who arrives in a small town to sell the community on the idea of drilling, but faces opposition from a schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) and an activist (John Krasinski, who cowrote the script with Damon from a story by Dave Eggers).

Are you ready for some cinema that melts in your mind instead of exploding in your face? Send some thoughts in COMMENTS.

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