A critic friend recently groaned to me over lunch that 2019 was, in his opinion, “the worst year for movies in the history of movies.” Maybe that’s a tad hyperbolic, but there hasn’t been a lot in theaters to build a counterargument: a fine Quentin Tarantino film, an insanely profitable Avengers finale, a reliably excellent “Toy Story” installment, the wayward oddball masterpiece like Bi Gan’s 3-D dreamscape, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” For me, Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird” is one of the year’s best films, but it played only on Netflix. The most intensely emotional cinematic experience I’ve had in 2019 was probably the final moments of “Fleabag” on Amazon.
Fall movies are supposed to change all that, and maybe they will. As September kicks in and the autumn film festivals (Venice, Toronto, Telluride, New York) release their riches, Oscar voters and the hoi polloi alike start to sit up and pay attention. Here come the films with weighty themes, big budgets, major stars, and important messages to impart.
All right, not “Cats,” although the trailer for the film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/T.S. Eliot musical has already boiled millions of eyeballs. The fall movie season will bring literary adaptations — “The Goldfinch,” “Motherless Brooklyn,” and director Greta Gerwig’s take on the beloved “Little Women” among them — as well as a big-screen version of PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” and an updated “Henry V” (“The King”) starring It Boy Timothée Chalamet. It’s not like the months ahead won’t be starved for class.
High-end science fiction and tales of space travelers have touched down in recent years, and the new crop includes “Ad Astra” (Brad Pitt seeking dad Tommy Lee Jones in the stars), “Lucy in the Sky” (astronaut Natalie Portman returns to an Earth too small for her), and, uh, “The Aeronauts” (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as 19th-century hot-air balloon travelers).
In addition, we’ll see true-life biographies of women both dramatized (“Harriet,” with Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman; “Judy,” with Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland; “Seberg,” with Kristen Stewart as actress Jean Seberg) and documentary (“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”; “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins”). We’ll get Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins as Popes Francis and Benedict (“The Two Popes”), and Eddie Murphy as 1970s comedian-actor Rudy Ray Moore (“Dolemite Is My Name”). And one of our most trusted movie stars will take on one of our most trusted anybodies when Tom Hanks puts on Fred Rogers’s cardigan in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
On the flip side, Joaquin Phoenix will star in “Joker,” a movie already stirring controversy on the festival front with its “Taxi Driver”-esque take on a comic-book villain. The season’s remake/reboot/sequel franchise properties range from the ambitions of “Joker” and “Doctor Sleep” (a follow-up to “The Shining”) to the do-we-really-have-to? of “Rambo: Last Blood” and “The Addams Family” (again). Did we mention there’s a new “Star Wars” movie — “The Rise of Skywalker”? They’re promising it’ll be the last in the Skywalker cycle, but don’t bet on it.
For our money, the fall movies to watch for are the ones that loosen up and have a little fun, because lord knows we could use some. “Knives Out,” from the gifted writer-director Rian Johnson (the last “Star Wars” movie, but also “Brick” and “Looper”) revives the drawing-room murder mystery genre with a game cast, while “Gemini Man” has future hit man Will Smith stalking himself and “The Lighthouse,” from “The Witch” director Robert Eggers, puts Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in heavy facial hair and 19th-century coastal suspense. Cannes top prizewinner “Parasite,” from the gonzo South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho (“Snowpiercer,” “Okja”), plays upstairs-downstairs class games with a vengeance. And BU’s former bad boys of cinema, the Safdie brothers (“Good Time,” “Heaven Knows What”), offer karmic redemption to Adam Sandler in a dramatic role as a New York diamond merchant in trouble in “Uncut Gems.”
Lastly, Martin Scorsese has a little 3½-hour crime behemoth called “The Irishman” coming out, and it stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. But he’s making it for Netflix, which means that while the film will get a theatrical release, he’s really making it for TV.
Oh, well. We’ll always have “Cats.” How bad a movie year can 2019 be?