Welcome to Observer’s 2020 Fall Arts & Entertainment Preview, your complete guide to the best this season has to offer. We’ve combed through everything happening in TV, movies, dance, opera, streaming theater, the visual arts and literature to bring you our picks for what to pay attention to as the weather cools.
We just lived through a summer blockbuster season without blockbusters. Now get ready for a fall prestige season without…the prestige? Well, actually there is more than a sprinkling of that this season—the sorts of films that would garner Oscar attention in any year. They include a long-gestating Aaron Sorkin ensemble court drama from Netflix and a foray into musicals from Steven Spielberg. Both of those films—The Trial of the Chicago 7 and West Side Story—like many of the most anticipated fall releases, will brim with all sorts of urgency and relevance whether they like it or not. Fall’s movies will debut amid America’s ongoing protests over race relations, and they will stare into the eyes of a pandemic that crushed our economy, altered our lives and pushed the idea of movies without theaters from a distributor’s existential threat to an unprepared-for reality.
Considering how long the coronavirus is likely to linger in our lives, with its shifting dates and the complicated way these films interplay with our real life anxieties, this movie season is in many ways a glimpse at the future of movies. Here is a taste of what is in store.
Greenland (September 25)
Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh
Written by: Chris Sparling
Starring: Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin and David Denman
Only a few critics and diehard followers of the Fallen series had much that was positive to say when Angel Has Fallen came out last August. Then came April, and the collaboration between director Ric Roman Waugh and sturdy leading man Gerard Butler all of a sudden hit a nerve in post-quarantine America, becoming one of the most watched films on Netflix as we cowered in fetal positions on our living rooms couches. Now the pair team up again in a film that promises to once again tickle our still shaken ids. Greenland tells the story of a fractured family unit who flee to the titular country as a planet-killing comet threatens a global apocalypse.
“It’s almost uncanny the similarity to what’s going on today with COVID, with Black Lives Matter protests,” Butler told EW. We always felt that our message was about humanity coming together, [and] these things always tend to bring us together.”
Wonder Woman 1984 (October 2)
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Written by: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns and David Callahan
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Kristin Wiig
Wonder Woman 1984 is one of two comic book films coming out in the fall to feature female characters, boast women directors and feature lead characters who seemingly perished in an earlier film. Could the hotly anticipated Reagan-era set sequel to the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, who remains at the helm of this one) also be the next IP to bypass regular distribution and give a major boost to a streaming outlet, in this case doing for HBO Max what Mulan will likely do for Disney+? Only time and infection rates will tell. Being set six decades after the first film, time also plays a significant role in the new film. The sequel sees the Amazonian princess face off with a former friend turned super-powered villainess played by Kristin Wiig, and a vainglorious media mogul played by The Mandalorian‘s Pedro Pascal. “In the first movie, a big thing that we played off was the naiveté of Diana,” Gal Gadot told Total Film. “She’s not naive anymore. She’s been around.” This time, look for Pine’s potentially resurrected flyboy Steve Trevor to be the fish-out-of-water in a Flock of Seagull’s USA.
Candyman (October 16)
Directed by: Nia DaCosta
Written by: Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld and Nia DaCosta (screenplay); Bernard Rose (original screenplay); Clive Barker (short story)
Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris and Tony Todd
It is fitting that one of the first films to directly address some of the most insidious issues fueling the current social justice movement—lack of economic equality and gentrification, for starters—would be a horror film. The 1992 original, which has already spawned a pair of sequels, was viewed by many at the time as perpetuating racist systems rather than confronting them. (“It’s irresponsible and racist,” said filmmaker Carl Franklin of the original film.) Leave it to producer and co-screenwriter Jordan Peele to use his Get Out and Us clout not just literally to flip the Candyman script (the original semiotics grad student played by Virginia Madsen becomes a curious artist played by Emmy-nominee Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but to also address another institutional injustice.
Following a year when only four women directed films among the top 100 grossing films—and only one of these women is Black—Peele’s decision to tap Nia DaCosta (2019’s neo-Western Little Woods) was far more groundbreaking than it ought to be. It led to the Brooklyn-based filmmaker landing the coveted director’s chair for Marvel’s Captain Marvel 2. DaCosta is also one of the few directors in Hollywood history to use shadow puppets to promote her movie. “Candyman, at the intersection of white violence and black pain, is about unwilling martyrs,” DaCosta tweeted in accompaniment with the video. “The people they were, the symbols we turn them into, the monsters we are told they must have been.”
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (October 16)
Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
If there is one thing that a majority of 2020 films have in common, it is delays and extended development. For no film is this truer than Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, a film that began life in 2007 as a priority project for director Steven Spielberg, but was stopped because that year’s WGA halted his desired rewrites on Aaron Sorkin’s script. Heath Ledger was in talks to play Tom Hayden in that version, with Will Smith as Bobby Seale, roles that eventually went to Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne and Watchmen‘s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II—who is clearly having a good year. Sacha Baron Cohen was slated to play Abbie Hoffman from the beginning, while Succession‘s Jeremy Strong was a late replacement for Seth Rogen to play Jerry Adler.
When Spielberg moved on and his replacement, Paul Greengrass (2006’s United 93) did too, Sorkin eventually took the reins of his own script. The film marks a return to the courtroom for the A Few Good Men scribe, detailing the court case of the protesters charged with crossing state lines with the intention of inciting the famous Grant Park riots during Chicago’s 1968 Democratic convention. Of course, given its history, there was a final twist in this ensemble film’s pretzel-like journey to the screen: due to COVID, original studio Paramount sold the film to Netflix for release. As the original Chicago 7 might say, “Yippie!”
Those Who Wish Me Dead (October 23)
Directed by: Taylor Sheridan
Written by: Taylor Sheridan and Michael Koryta (screenplay); Michael Koryta (novel)
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Jon Bernthal and Nicholas Hoult
Look for this tale of a survivalist (Angelina Jolie) helping a murder witness (Nicholas Hoult) make it out of a Montana wildfire while being pursued by a pair of trained assassins to split the difference between big-screen spectacle and prestige picture. Financed by Bron, one of the companies behind the Oscar-winning Joker—the highest-grossing R-rated film ever—and directed and co-written by Yellowstone co-creator Taylor Sheridan, this neo-western promises to be the rare action and acting showcase for Jolie.
The movie, based on co-screenwriter Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel and shot entirely in New Mexico last summer, maintains its part-mainstream part-arthouse indent throughout its creative credits: Beasts of the Southern Wild DP Ben Richardson serves as cinematographer while Brian Tyler, who scored The Expendables series, wrote the music.
Black Widow (November 6)
Directed by: Cate Shortland
Written by: Eric Pearson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh and David Harbour
Thanos has got nothing on COVID. Unlike the Mad Titan, the disease was able to break the iron grip the comic book juggernaut has had on our springtimes dating back to 2008. Now, for the first time since 2013, the Disney subsidiary only has a single film coming out in a calendar year, and because a female hero fronts it, this one is likely to be met with some version of the tortured fanboy mishegoss that met Captain Marvel last year. (Though that foolishness had a much greater impact on the film’s Rotten Tomatoes viewer scores than it did on its box office.)
Far from the typical, smoothly run Kevin Feige production, Black Widow—in development in different forms for over 16 years—has had its share of tumult. This included an over half-year search for director and MCU newcomer Cate Shortland (2012’s Lore) and production turnover that saw changes to both the cinematographer and composer. The film, which takes place in the two-year gap between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, is also in the tricky position of having to get fans emotionally invested in a character who already met her final fate in Avengers: Endgame. (Speaking of investments, the movie reportedly marked a $15 million payday for Johansson.) Look for the film to showcase the blockbuster bonfires of Florence Pugh, rumored to take over the Black Widow mantle, after her breakout 2019.
Deep Water (November 13)
Directed by: Adrian Lyne
Written by: Zach Helm and Sam Levinson (screenplay); Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas and Tracy Letts
These are perilous times for all of us, including Ben Affleck. After the two-time Oscar winner made a return to dramatic acting earlier this year with The Way Back, a film marketed on the back of his own addiction struggles and feelings of regret, he spent the summer in a position that has never seemed that healthy for him: in the crosshairs of the celebrity press as he navigates a relationship with a famous co-star, Ana de Armas. But Affleck’s baggage is only one of the elements that make Deep Water—in which he and de Armas are stuck in a loveless marriage where their infidelities and mind games turn deadly for their friends and neighbors—such a rich, intriguing stew of a fall release.
The film marks the return of Adrian Lyne, Hollywood’s onetime king of sultry dramas (9 1⁄2 Weeks, anyone?), after 18 years away from the director’s chair. (Lyne was the initial director attached to 2010’s The Town, which Affleck ended up directing and co-writing.) Deep Water is the latest in the more than two dozen film adaptations of the work of novelist Patricia Highsmith—including 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Affleck’s once and future running mate Matt Damon in the lead role and sporting a legendary pair of green bathing shorts. (Deep Water was previously adapted by director Michel Deville with 1981’s Eaux profondes, starring Isabelle Huppert.) Most intriguingly though, the film sees a Hollywood studio making a major bet on a genre—the erotic thriller—that the industry had basically ceded to Netflix and the other streamers and which was popularized, in part by Lyne, more than a generation earlier.
Soul (November 20)
Directed by: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers
Written by: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers and Mike Jones
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey and Phylicia Rashad
Summer’s loss became Thanksgiving bounty when Disney moved Pixar’s latest poetic exploration of inner lives from June 19 to the start of the holiday weekend. (Unless of course COVID concerns force the Mouse House to enrage exhibitors all over again and release this box-office sure shot directly on Disney+.) How and whenever we end up seeing it, the film, which does for the spark of our existence what Inside Out did for our emotions, promises a return to the core mission for the Emeryville-based Disney subsidiary, which has come to rely on existing IP’s every bit as much as its less-lauded competitors down south do. (Half of the studio’s last ten releases were sequels.)
Directed by Pixar chief Pete Docter, and co-written and co-directed by Kemp Powers (the playwright and screenwriter behind One Night in Miami, Regina King’s forthcoming feature directorial debut), the film is both a metaphysical journey to the realm where souls get their personalities, as well as the first film from the studio to focus on Black characters and culture. To that end, The Late Show‘s Jon Batiste will be writing original jazz music played by Jamie Foxx’s in-limbo band teacher. (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Oscar-winners for The Social Network, created the original score that wafts between the real and ethereal worlds.) Whether or not the heavy reliance on “America’s classical music” will alienate the film’s core audience or create a new generation jazz revival will be among the most trenchant tests of Pixar’s cultural cachet yet.
Dune (December 18)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth and Denis Villeneuve (screenplay); Frank Herbert (novel)
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac
To say that there is a lot riding on this Warner Bros. and Legendary reboot is a gross understatement along the lines of saying Trump is behind a little in the polls. For starters, director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) calls his film, shot in the deserts of Jordan and Abu Dhabi, “Star Wars for adults“—in other words, the kind of hardcore sci-fi viewed as box office poison long before COVID. After all, Frank Herbert’s space-based and sand-swept 1965 political, ecological and religious allegory has already been the basis for David Lynch’s notorious 1984 misfire and the more successful yet little-remembered 2000 Syfy miniseries.
The high-budget film is intended to be not only the first of a two-part series, but also the basis of an upcoming HBO Max series, Dune: The Sisterhood. But for its director, the stakes are far greater than the financial future of a studio in desperate need of a bankable franchise; they are, as they were for Herbert when he wrote the novel some six decades ago, the very fate of our over-mined and under-resourced planet. “It’s a coming-of-age story,” Villeneuve told Vanity Fair. “But also, [it’s] a call for action for the youth.”
West Side Story (December 18)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner (screenplay); Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents (musical)
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler and David Alvarez
How do you frame the new Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 Oscar-magnet musical? Should we call it the second reboot of the iconic 1957 Broadway hit from composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, book writer Arthur Laurents, and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins to be launched this year following the COVID-shuttered Broadway revival? Is it the third teaming of Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner, who adapted the screenplay? Perhaps it will one day be known as the last big-budget film top-lined by Baby Driver‘s Ansel Elgort, who plays lovestruck erstwhile Jet Tony, and who earlier this summer was confronted with sexual assault allegations that he denied?
In its use of real locations from Harlem to Jersey, and Spielberg’s insistence that Hispanic actors play Hispanic characters, the film promises not only to carry an authenticity that the original film lacked, but continue the movement towards more diverse musicals typified by Broadway’s Hamilton. Ariana DeBose, who danced “The Bullet” in Lin Manuel-Miranda’s show, takes over the role of Anita from Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her efforts. This time, Moreno plays the widowed owner of the corner store where the gangs hang out, and was made executive producer by Spielberg. “Not too shabby,” the EGOT-winner bragged to a TCA panel. “I was on set whenever I wanted to be.”