In a couple of weeks, the fall movie schedule brings us one of the great box-office showdowns of all time. Sept. 20 is the day the “Downton Abbey” movie opens opposite “Rambo: Last Blood.”
What a great moment in our culture. And the juxtaposition does say something about the fall movie season: It’s split between big multiplex pictures and more thoughtful projects that would get lost in summer.
I suppose audiences will pick their sides, although it’s tantalizing to imagine a Bizarro World event where the two movies switch casts, and Sylvester Stallone stomps through an English manor house while Maggie Smith grabs a machine gun and exacts vengeance after performing self-surgery on her knife wounds. Maybe next year.
In the meantime, we’ve got a characteristic schedule of sequels and awards hopefuls. Headliners include Brad Pitt, Will Smith and Matt Damon, while Angelina Jolie shows up for one of her increasingly rare movie appearances, and Renee Zellweger emerges from wherever she’s been.
And, of course, Joaquin Phoenix will play the Joker. Before we’re through, everyone will play the Joker. Sylvester Stallone, Maggie Smith, doesn’t matter, everyone will play the Joker. (But really, early reports suggest that Phoenix is very, very good.)
Here’s a look at what’s coming between now and Thanksgiving or so, with the usual warning that some release dates are guaranteed to change.
“The Goldfinch.” ‘Tis the season for literary adaptations, and this take on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller is first up. Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”) plays the survivor of a terrorist bombing; his life is haunted by the attack and his possession of a valuable painting. The busy supporting cast includes Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright and Luke Wilson.
“Official Secrets.” In the ramp-up to the Iraq War, a UK intelligence analyst (Keira Knightley) discovers that her government is inventing reasons to wage war. She leaks the information, only to find out what happens to whistleblowers. The story is based on fact, and features Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode.
“Hustlers.” A group of strippers team up to turn the tables on the Wall Street fat cats who deserve their comeuppance, which is exactly what Karl Marx had in mind. Or possibly Groucho Marx. The spirited crew is led by Jennifer Lopez (already being cast in “wily veteran” roles), Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), Cardi B and Lizzo.
“Ad Astra.” Brad Pitt blasts off into space as an astronaut on a long mission that has consequences both personal and galactic. Pitt has been in a good groove lately, and the director is the ambitious James Gray, whose “Lost City of Z” carried the whiff of an old-fashioned adventure film. The intriguing cast includes Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler and Ruth Negga (“Loving”).
“Downton Abbey.” The TV phenomenon comes to the big screen, with a story about the household thrown into a tizzy by a royal visit. The regular cast returns to duty, including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and a gun-toting Maggie Smith.
“Rambo: Last Blood.” Another installment of the blood-soaked Stallone series, and it appears that — I kid you not— “This time it’s personal.” John Rambo returns to home soil, only to get drawn into a rampage that involves (let us assume) many bullets flying and many bad guys perishing.
“Judy.” Interesting casting here: Renee Zellweger stars as Judy Garland, one of those larger-than-life roles that actors live for. The focus is on a period in London toward the end of Garland’s life, although the trailer shows some glimpses of the Yellow Brick Road, so be prepared for flashbacks. Is a Best Actress Oscar nomination guaranteed for this kind of thing? In a word, yes. Co-stars include Finn Wittrock and Jessie Buckley (the star of “Wild Rose,” and something of a new Garland herself).
“Abominable.” A big animated film from DreamWorks, about a little girl who befriends a Yeti (the creature formerly known as the Abominable Snowman). The definitive cartoon version of this monster is the stop-motion one in the 1960s TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but we’ll give this the benefit of the doubt.
“Joker.” Batman’s giggly arch-villain gets his own movie, an origin story about a loser who finds himself by making others laugh. Or something close to that. There’s no actual Batman in this one, so the big interest is what Joaquin Phoenix does with the role, and if the trailers are any indication, he looks suitably unhinged. Directed by Todd Phillips, of the “Hangover” trilogy, and co-starring Robert De Niro.
“Lucy in the Sky.” When astronaut Natalie Portman returns to Earth, she can’t shake the mind-altering experience of walking in space. The way she slowly unravels (in a story loosely based on a real incident) is the drama here, which promises to give the Oscar-winning actress another big workout. With Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens.
“Gemini Man.” Will Smith plays an aging professional assassin who goes head-to-head with a younger clone of himself, played by … Will Smith. This is another technical exercise from director Ang Lee, who previously conjured up a vast digital world in “Life of Pi,” so the ingenuity level could be very high. Clive Owen and Mary Elizabeth Winstead co-star.
“Zombieland 2: Double Tap.” Was the original film big enough to merit a sequel? Maybe not, but it did have a lot of kick-back charm. That could explain how they got the main cast to return: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. The land is still dominated by the undead, but will Bill Murray be back?
“The Addams Family.” Since their early days in the pages of the New Yorker, the Addams clan has knocked around: notably on TV in the 1960s and in a couple of ‘90s live-action films. Now we get the animated version, with Charlize Theron and Oscar Isaac leading the voice cast for America’s most morbid family.
“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.” Disney rolls out a sequel to the 2014 live-action hit, with Angelina Jolie (who maintains dominant movie-star status without actually making many films) returning as a very dark queen. Elle Fanning is also back for another trip through the fairy-tale universe, and Michelle Pfeiffer joins up as a rival who might give Jolie a run for her money.
“Jojo Rabbit.” Director Taika Waititi directed “Thor: Ragnarok” and the uproarious vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows,” so there’s every reason to believe this satire could score. The story follows a young German lad during World War II, whose imaginary friend is named Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi). Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell are also in there.
“Black and Blue.” An urban thriller about a newbie cop (Naomie Harris) who gets caught in the middle of police corruption and the mistrust in the black community she hails from. Could this be the breakout leading role for an actress who’s been on the verge for a while now? “Fast and Furious” guy Tyrese Gibson is along to help.
“Pain and Glory.” Antonio Banderas has been winning raves (and the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival) for his performance in the new one by the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. Banderas plays a movie director sifting through his past and stumbling through his drug-fueled present. Penelope Cruz co-stars.
“Terminator: Dark Fate.” This franchise has taken a few wayward turns over the years, but James Cameron is back as producer, and both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton are saddled up for another ride. The plot presumably has something to do with cyborgs from the future, and focuses on a “hybrid” human-cyborg (the compelling Mackenzie Davis, from “Tully”) stuck in the war between future and present.
“The Irishman.” The real war in Hollywood is between Netflix and traditional theatrical exhibition, and Martin Scorsese’s new gangster opus is the current battlefield. With juicy roles for Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, this thing returns to “GoodFellas” turf (but with a mammoth running time of 210 minutes). Netflix is putting it in theaters — hoping for Oscar glory — for a limited run before it starts streaming.
“Harriet.” A biopic for Harriet Tubman, the celebrated heroine of the Underground Railroad (and future face of the $20 bill). Sounds like a good opportunity for American history, and the biggest chance yet for leading lady Cynthia Erivo, an electric presence in “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) directs.
“Motherless Brooklyn.” Cool-sounding project directed by and starring Edward Norton: a throwback private-eye picture in which Norton (whose character has something like Tourette’s Syndrome) investigates the murder of his mentor (Bruce Willis). The 1950s setting and the source novel by Jonathan Lethem give this a big upside.
“Doctor Sleep.” Stephen King’s novel is a kind of postscript to “The Shining,” with the extra-sensory little boy from that story grown into manhood. Stanley Kubrick is no longer around to direct, so we get Mike Flanagan, the guy who made “Ouija.” A nice cast, including Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson and Jacob Tremblay (that kid from “Room” and “The Boys”), should help the proceedings.
“Midway.” The pivotal World War II battle comes to life in a big-canvas production from director Roland Emmerich (the “Independence Day” movies). The film is promised to be heavy on factual material and military procedures. Patrick Wilson leads a cast that features lots of character actors barking out gruff dialogue: Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart.
“Last Christmas.” After all these years, someone has finally mounted a cinematic treatment of the seminal Wham! holiday song. This bucket-list achievement is a romantic comedy featuring “Game of Thrones” stalwart Emilia Clarke and “Crazy Rich Asians” hunk Henry Golding, along with Emma Thompson (who also worked on the screenplay).
“Charlie’s Angels.” This, we needed? It’s another reboot of the TV series, with Kristen Stewart leading the espionage action, in cahoots with Ella Balinska and Naomi Scott (late of “Aladdin”). Guiding the blend of action and comedy is director Elizabeth Banks, who also plays one of the Angels’ handlers.
“Ford v Ferrari.” There’s good buzz revving up about this unlikely-sounding blockbuster, which details the rivalry between two racing teams on the 1966 circuit. Matt Damon and Christian Bale play car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles, respectively, the duo that challenging the mighty Ferrari dynasty. James Mangold (“Logan”) directs.