Fall movie preview 2014: Time to get serious

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It’s that time of year.

The superheroes are hanging up their costumes, the Turtles and Transformers are fading in the rearview mirror, and we start hearing the phrase “Oscar contender” applied to a film or a performance nearly every weekend from now until the holidays.

This fall is no exception. With summer movie previews, it’s often a stretch to find 10 contenders with the potential for four-star ratings. In the autumn, the chore is narrowing it to 10.

In chronological order, here’s my list of the films I’m most anticipating.

‘The Drop’ (Sept. 12)

Some 15 months after we lost the great James Gandolfini, his last film performance will be showcased in Michael B. Roskam’s gritty underworld drama. Tom Hardy — who gave what I still consider to be the best performance by an actor this year in “Locke” —stars as a Brooklyn bartender who makes money drops to local gangsters. Based on the clip I’ve seen of Gandolfini berating Locke while Locke quietly defies him, there’s much hope for electricity here.

‘This Is Where I Leave You’ (Sept. 19)

The years have taught me not to get too excited about a film based on its trailer, but I’m excited about this film based on its trailer. The plot hardly sounds fresh — four dysfunctional grown siblings reunited for their father’s funeral — but what a cast! Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Jane Fonda, Timothy Olyphant, Kathryn Hahn … that’s a whole lot of funny and a whole lot of talent.

‘Gone Girl’ (Oct. 3)

Another wildly popular, critically acclaimed novel gets the big-screen treatment. Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a former journalist who moves with his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), from New York City to his Midwestern home town. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing, and Nick becomes the prime suspect. David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Zodiac”) is on my short list of “Event Directors” — master filmmakers (such as Christopher Nolan, Scorsese of course, Spielberg) whose very name instantly makes a project an event. The source material is rich; there’s more than one stunning twist in the novel. And the eclectic supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry and Emily Ratajkowski, she of “Blurred Lines” dancing fame. Wow.

‘The Judge’ (Oct. 10)

Once again we’re talking about a big-city professional returning to his childhood home — but this time it’s Robert Downey Jr. as attorney Hank Palmer, returning home when his father (Robert Duvall), a judge, is a murder suspect. The topline cast also includes Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga and Vincent D’Onofrio. Have I mentioned how much I love the fall movie season?

‘Fury’ (Oct. 17)

Brad Pitt headlines this World War II film about a Sherman tank crew embarking on a harrowing mission behind enemy lines in April 1945. The talented David Ayer, a Champaign native who wrote “Training Day” and directed “End of Watch,” directs.

‘Nightcrawler’ (Oct. 31)

As much as any actor of his generation, Jake Gyllenhaal has a keen eye for provocative projects. The already thin Gyllenhaal lost 20 pounds for his role as a underground TV crime reporter in Los Angeles who’s often the first on the scene to capture footage of grisly murders and horrific car crashes. “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket” is his motto — a slogan that grows increasingly chilling as the story progresses.

‘Before I Go to Sleep’ (Oct. 31)

This sounds like a much darker and serious version of “50 First Dates.” Nicole Kidman stars as a woman who suffers a traumatic episode that gives her anterograde amnesia, i.e., she wakes up every morning as a blank slate, remembering nothing. Based on her journals, she believes she’s a woman named Christine, married with a son. But is she? Kidman’s fellow Oscar winner Colin Firth stars as her husband, and the cast also features the brilliant Mark Strong. If director Rowan Joffe finds the right notes to effectively translate Steve Watson’s terrific novel, this one could be a stunner.

‘Interstellar’ (Nov. 7)

Arguably the most anticipated movie of the fall season. Christopher Nolan (the “Dark Knight” trilogy) directs Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, Ellyn Burstyn and William Devane in the story of band of travelers who burst through a wormhole. Their mission? Only to save humanity, that’s all.

‘Dumb and Dumber To’ (Nov. 14)

It’s “Dumb and Dumber To.” How can it not be on this list!

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1’ (Nov. 21)

The first two “Hunger Games” films were thrilling adaptations that captured the essence of the Suzanne Collins books, thanks in large part to the stellar cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and featuring great character performances from Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared in “Catching Fire” and will be seen in both “Mockingjay” movies. As was the case with the “Twilight” films, the decision was made to split the finale into two parts. As was not the case with the “Twilight” films, that should be a bonus.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper

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