Every year, summer gives way to fall, and in movie theaters, blockbusters give way to awards contenders. On this week's Pop Culture Happy Hour, film critic Bob Mondello of All Things Considered and I spoke with Tasha Robinson of The Verge and film writer Bilal Qureshi about some of what we all saw at the Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off the fall movie season. But if you need a list to carry in your pocket, Bob and I put together this rundown of some of the best, buzziest and otherwise noteworthy films coming to you over the next few months. (Keep in mind that release dates are subject to change.)
Battle of the Sexes (Sept. 22): Billie Jean King didn't want to play Bobby Riggs in 1973. It was a sucker bet, since she had much to lose and he didn't. But in this film, Emma Stone conveys King's understanding that because of the precarious position of women's tennis in the early 1970s, she had no choice. Steve Carell, as Riggs, makes a pathetic, credible troll, and the film nails the no-win situation of a pioneer forced to defend all she is trying to accomplish from people who know that the laziest and most potent weapon against her is to make her a joke. — Linda Holmes
The Florida Project (Oct. 6): Sean Baker's 2015 film Tangerine might be as famous for its low-cost production (it was shot on an iPhone) as for its stunning performances and moving story. Here, Baker has more resources to play with as he follows a 6-year-old girl who lives with her mom in a grungy motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World that often houses the very poor. Naturalistic and unforgettable, The Florida Project features a surprisingly sweet turn from Willem Dafoe as the motel manager who tries to balance enforcing the rules and acting like an on-site surrogate parent. — Linda Holmes
BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Oct. 20): An urgent French drama about AIDS activists in Paris in the early 1990s. Protease inhibitors are just being introduced — too slowly, according to the activist group ACT UP. So activists are throwing "blood"-filled balloons to disrupt government forums, tossing crematory ashes at insurance confab buffet tables and invading pharmaceutical offices. Robin Campillo's film follows Sean, a bright-eyed, boyish rabble-rouser, as he gets visibly sicker and falls for a new ACT UP member who is not HIV-positive. As the light starts to go out of Sean's eyes, the film's emotional temperature soars. (This one won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.) — Bob Mondello
The Square (Oct. 27): Making biting satire about contemporary art is a dangerous game, simply because it's so easy. Some high-handed pronouncements, some foolish and self-satisfied wine drinkers, some inscrutable artists, and you're there. But The Square, from Ruben Östlund (who directed 2014's Force Majeure) isn't as much about the artifice of the art world as it is about the artifice of performative goodness. In it, a museum director tries to mount an exhibit about a literal, floor-traced place of refuge from injustice, only to struggle to live up to its promises anywhere. Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West both have small but interesting roles. — Linda Holmes
Lady Bird (Nov. 10): Greta Gerwig's solo directing debut — a paean to Sacramento, Calif., and a dramedy with more laughs than most comedies — is such fun, it may only register after the fact that it's a striking piece of feminist filmmaking. The plot is basically the title character's senior year in a Catholic high school. Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan keep a quirkily contentious mother-daughter act going, with Tracy Letts' unemployed dad on hand to referee. The relationships all ring true, and the title character's insecurities and precocity power the story even when she heads off in unpleasant directions. Really sharp filmmaking. — Bob Mondello
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Nov. 10): The darkest of dark comedies, Martin McDonagh's scabrous script is smart, funny, affecting and filled with commentary on race — basically it's everything Suburbicon (see below) wants to be, with the bonus that it has Frances McDormand. 'Nuff said, right? McDonagh (In Bruges) loves to mix violence with comic patter, and in McDormand, he has found an American muse: a grieving mom who puts up the titular signs to embarrass police chief Woody Harrelson into finding her daughter's rapist/killer. Doesn't sound like a laugh riot? Well, wait'll you hear what the stars (including Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage) do with the dialogue. (This one won the people's choice award in Toronto.) -- Bob Mondello
Mudbound (Nov. 17): Director Dee Rees finds uplift in unexpected places in this resonant, Jim Crow-era tale of land shared by two Mississippi farming families: one black, one white and each with a soldier returning from World War II (albeit to vastly different battles at home). "When I think of the farm, I think of mud; I dream in brown," says a voiceover, as a man digs a white racist's grave in a forgotten slave cemetery. Mary J. Blige is a stoic wife and mother who cares not just for her own brood, but also for Carey Mulligan's white family. -- Bob Mondello
A Fantastic Woman (Nov. 17): Attractive young transgender singer Marina (Daniela Vega) celebrates her birthday in Santiago, Chile, with her much older boyfriend, only to have him suffer an aneurysm. Doctors at a hospital can't save him; they can, however, treat Marina as a freak and a murder suspect while her boyfriend's family is even more cruel. Director Sebastián Lelio treats Marina with the same sensitivity and gives her the same abiding strength as he did the title character of his 2014 award winner Gloria. Marina is heroic, striking and charismatic — a pretty damn fantastic woman. -- Bob Mondello
Call Me by Your Name (Nov. 24): Apricots ripen in the orchard, and romance ripens pretty much everywhere in this gorgeous, coming-of-age/coming-out story penned by James Ivory (his first screenplay in 14 years). It's based on André Aciman's novel in which a 24-year-old grad student (Armie Hammer) spends a summer in Italy assisting an American professor and connecting with the prof's 17-year-old son (Timothée Chalamet). Director Luca Guadagnino's images are lush, summery, surprising (ancient statues surface in the Mediterranean as if they'd just been taking a dip); and the script will open tear ducts far more resilient than mine. Just extraordinary. -- Bob Mondello
The Disaster Artist (Dec. 1): The often-exhausting James Franco has found his ideal project in The Disaster Artist, which he directed and in which he stars as Tommy Wiseau, the deeply eccentric filmmaker behind the awful cult film The Room. Rather than digging into how bad art happens, the film mostly has fun with Franco's impersonation of Wiseau and with the combination of bafflement and delight that Wiseau's friend and co-star Greg Sestero (played by Franco's brother, Dave) finds in knowing him. The Disaster Artist doesn't have much to say about making bad films, but it's very funny getting there. — Linda Holmes
Newsy movies from, or starring, people you may know:
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (Sept. 29): You probably by now know that Mark Felt, who was the associate director of the FBI at the time, turned out to be "Deep Throat," The Washington Post's Watergate informant. Unfortunately, this film, starring Liam Neeson as Felt, doesn't have much more to say than that. It doesn't go deeply enough into Felt's character to reveal him, and it doesn't have enough thrills to be a thriller. Without a sharper angle, it simply doesn't justify the retelling of a story that's now so familiar. — Linda Holmes
Breathe (Oct. 13): Robin and Diana Cavendish (Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy) are a golden couple — posh, athletic, attractive. Then while twirling this newfangled thing called a hula hoop (it's 1958), Robin falls to the ground feeling weak. By the next day, he is hooked up to a breathing machine, paralyzed from the neck down by polio. Diana is told he won't last more than a few months, but there wouldn't be a film if that were true. Robin, in real life, helped make the world more accessible for the disabled. In this tearjerker, he anchors an assured directing debut by Andy Serkis, a motion-capture actor who has captured a motionless man. -- Bob Mondello
Suburbicon (Oct. 27): George Clooney's quirky, Coen brothers-scripted comedy opens with chirpy music and a promotional film for its titular, 1959 tract home development. Everyone in the ad is white, and just as you decide that is part of the joke, the cheesy promo melts into candy-colored real life and a smiling postman discovers a black family has just moved in. The neighborhood goes ballistic while, on a nearby block, Matt Damon's family deals with its own problems — the mob, insurance investigator Oscar Isaac, the sort of complications that drove earlier Coen brothers films from Blood Simple to Fargo. Sly, if not quite cream of the Coens' crop. -- Bob Mondello
Molly's Game (Nov. 22): You expect snappy dialogue in an Aaron Sorkin gabfest, but who knew he would be so sharp managing images in his first stint as director? This film tells the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who ran high-stakes poker games involving movie stars and Russian gangsters. It makes the vagaries of poker, power and tax law crystal clear through dialogue, voiceovers (to fill those pesky wordless stretches) and annotated visuals edited with every trick known to filmmaking. Chastain notwithstanding, this film is as male-oriented as the rest of Sorkin's oeuvre (Idris Elba gets the best speech as her lawyer), but purely as filmmaking, it's an impressive debut. -- Bob Mondello
The Shape of Water (Dec. 8): Bubbles, droplets, puddles, moisture; on windshields, in glass pots boiling on the stove and in the gigantic Cold War government lab that mute Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and enormously talkative Zelda (Octavia Spencer) clean every day. When the lab turns out to contain an amphibious critter (think Creature from the Black Lagoon), mythmaking and enchantment ensue. Guillermo del Toro shot The Shape of Water in gorgeous rusts and greens; he enlisted Michael Shannon as a bully and created moments that'll make audiences think of everything from Thunderball to Amélie. Complex enough to inspire graduate dissertations galore. -- Bob Mondello
Downsizing (Dec. 22): Director Alexander Payne begins with a sci-fi premise: In order to vastly reduce resource consumption, humans learn to shrink themselves to pocket-size. That way, they can live in terrariums and easily afford mansions that are basically made of Popsicle sticks, all while saving the planet. Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play a couple who decide to "get small," and that part of the movie is pretty successful. Later, though, Payne gets bogged down in a lot of biblical, sometimes stereotype-driven hooey that isn't as effective as the breezy critique of consumerism that the premise initially offers. — Linda Holmes
Other stuff to look out for:
Stronger (Sept. 22): Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Blade Runner 2049 (Oct. 6): Ryan Gosling's Officer K goes looking for Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard, who has been missing for three decades.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Oct. 13): The creator of the beloved comic book character — and the wife and mistress who influenced him.
Goodbye Christopher Robin (Oct. 13): The creator of the beloved children's book character Winnie-the-Pooh, and the little boy and wartime trauma that influenced him.
Human Flow (Oct. 13): Artist/director Ai Weiwei explores the global refugee crisis.
Marshall (Oct. 13): Chadwick Boseman stars in his passion project about the young lawyer who would someday become the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
Wonderstruck (Oct. 20): Timelines collide as director Todd Haynes weaves together the stories of two children born 50 years apart.
Thor: Ragnarok (Nov. 3): Chris Hemsworth's hammer-throwing god is back and teamed up with some folks you might not expect.
Last Flag Flying (Nov. 3): Thirty years after serving together in Vietnam, Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne reunite in Richard Linkater's drama.
Murder on the Orient Express (Nov. 10): Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as detective Hercule Poirot; his suspects include Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe.
Justice League (Nov. 17): Two weeks after Thor assembles a Marvel team, Batman ups the ante with DC all-stars Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg.
Coco, paired with the short Olaf's Frozen Adventure (Nov. 22): Pixar animates the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), plus a shameless plug for Broadway's Frozen.
Darkest Hour (Nov. 22): Gary Oldman's riveting Winston Churchill engages in all the strategizing that was left out of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.
All The Money in the World (Dec. 8): The kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III, with grandfather Kevin Spacey resisting paying ransom.
Ferdinand (Dec. 15): An animated tale of a bull with a big heart.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Dec. 15): A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...
The Post (Dec. 22): Steven Spielberg's Pentagon Papers drama features Tom Hanks as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Kay Graham.
The Greatest Showman (Dec. 25): Hugh Jackman plays circus impresario P.T. Barnum in a splashy musical about his rise to fame.
Also mentioned on the podcast:
I Kill Giants
Mom And Dad
In The Fade
Sammy Davis, Jr.: I Gotta Be Me
Looking For Oum Khaltoum
Nicole Cohen produced this story for the Web. Jessica Reedy produced this podcast episode.