When you step outside tonight, take a good, long sniff. Can you smell the September? That delicious crispness is slowly but surely making its way back, promising good sleeping weather and stirring our desire for woolen blankets, hot apple cider and stew. For movie fans, it means the time has (finally!) come to pack away robot cars, action sequels and fart jokes and to haul out the tweedy, the erudite, the serious fall movie. We’re talking historical biopics, Academy-ready performances, big-stringed scores and long-long running times (empty your bladders now!). This year, September alone is packed with so many screen gems we can hardly think about October and November. We’ve got Brad Pitt as Jesse James! Mr. Director, Sean Penn! And a new, much-anticipated Wes Anderson movie is slated to open the New York Film Festival—an indelible symbol of autumn in this town—at the end of the month. Could this be the best September ever? We’ve waded through the cinematic foliage and present to you the seven movies you’re not going to want to miss this month.
Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The mystique of Frank and Jesse James was tailor-made for Hollywood. Charismatic, dashing and dangerous, the gun-slinging bank robbers of the late 19th century have come to personify our undying romance with the wild, wild west. Plenty of ‘art’ has already been made, of course—decades of songs, TV shows (Remember that episode of Little House on the Prairie? Or when Bobby Brady learned a lesson thanks to the James brothers on The Brady Bunch?), not to mention countless films. In Andrew Dominik’s Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brad Pitt is the latest in a long string of actors—Tyrone Power, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe, Colin Farrell—to don the spurs of the iconoclastic antihero. And who better to play a man that is described in the opening voice-over of this melancholy drama with the line, “Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them … rain fell straighter … clocks slowed”? Finally, Brad Pitt has found a way to translate that blinding movie-star thing of his to the big screen. Even with no Angelina Jolie or George Clooney to make hot sparks with, Mr. Pitt is at his most believable best playing a man who’s larger-than-life (a trick that worked well for him before, in Fight Club). His soft pretty-boy face has weathered and aged into something truly handsome, and when his light-eyed charisma mercurially changes into something darker and dangerous, you believe. But there’s another surprise in this movie—Casey Affleck. Mr. Affleck, who has previously been doomed to the Johnny Drama celebrity-brother syndrome, holds his own as Robert Ford, Jesse James’ complicated hero-worshiping killer. The movie is a little long at 160 minutes, and has some unexplained mysteries. … Like, why on earth would Mary-Louise Parker sign up for this meager handful of lines? Ditto Sam Shepard. (And note to Hollywood, more Sam Shepard please! Much more!) But the supporting cast, which includes Sam Rockwell and Paul Schneider, is stellar, and the cinematography a golden-hued delight. (Warner Bros., September 21)
The Brave One
We’ve been told time and time again that New York is one of the safest big cities in the world, which is why Neil Jordan’s The Brave One will scare the stuffing out of New Yorkers in particular, chilling the spines of those of us who still get nervous on late-night subway rides and spooky walks through too-quiet streets. Jodie Foster stars as Erica Bain, talk-radio host of “Street Walk,” a celebration of New York City. She and her fiancé (Lost’s Naveen Andrews) are living the dream—the cute and quirky walk-up near the Central Park, the German shepherd, the endless discussion over wedding invitations (Cream! Eggshell! Ecru! etc.)—when a random violent attack leaves Bain severely beaten (a brutal scene that will unnerve even the most steely viewer) and her fiancé dead. Mr. Jordan’s New York is a moody and downright scary place where violence seems to lurk around every corner (Giuliani be damned). “I never understood how people lived with fear,” Foster’s Bain says, post-attack, when she realizes she’s turned into a stranger even to herself. Victim morphs into vigilante, and there’s a classic cat-and-mouse dynamic courtesy of a silky-voiced Terrence Howard, the cop assigned to the case. Ms. Foster is flinty and heartbreaking, and the forgotten shadowy corners of the city shows a New York we rarely see on the big screen. Released a mere three days after the anniversary of 9/11, it’s a reminder of how fragile life here can be. (Warner Bros., September 14)
In The Shadow of the Moon
Hey, remember when people used to get excited about space? In the midst of the heady tumult and disillusionment of the late 60’s, the world slowed down on July 21, 1969, as earthlings watched Neil Armstrong take a giant leap for mankind on the lunar surface. David Sington’s beautiful and moving documentary In The Shadow of the Moon (a favorite at Sundance, and sure to clean up come Oscar time) takes a look at the space program between 1968 and 1972 and the men who once walked on the moon. Ten of the surviving astronauts (each one a delightfully entertaining character) offer first-person accountants of their experience (though, glaringly, Neil Armstrong is missing), with stunning never-before-seen NASA footage. The filmmakers make the hazards of space travel clear, as well as the extraordinary times—Vietnam, race with the Russians—serving as the backdrop. No one has been to the moon since 1972, and after watching this deeply moving film you’ll feel rather sad about that fact, and nostalgic for a time that seems more like centuries rather than decades ago. Ron Howard presents, and the one thing we can’t figure out is how Tom Hanks stayed out of this one. (ThinkFilm, September 7)
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