The period between Labor Day and Thanksgiving used to be lightly regarded as something of a dumping ground for movies that seemed to offer little promise of success at the box office -- or during the awards season. However, Hollywood has discovered in recent years that it is possible to do strong box-office business at times of the year that were formerly considered to be slack.
The fall-season competition still bears no resemblance to the smash-mouth of summer, when studios release the movies with the strongest expectations of achieving blockbuster status, but among the dozens of pictures scheduled for release between now and the middle of November, some will doubtless display commercial strength -- and some will very probably figure prominently in the awards-season sweepstakes.
Charlize Theron returns to the big screen this weekend, after her Oscar-winning turn last year in "Monster," starring with Stuart Townsend and Penélope Cruz in "Head in the Clouds," a drama from English writer-director John Duigan ("Sirens"). Theron stars in the sweeping, 1930s-era drama as a woman who shares her Paris apartment -- and pursues a hedonistic lifestyle -- with a teacher and a refugee from the Spanish Civil War.
"Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence" is a futuristic animated feature from Japanese writer-director Mamoru Oshii, in which a cyborg detective for an anti-terrorist unit investigates a robot accused of killing its owner.
"Incident at Loch Ness" is a documentary by writer-director Zak Penn, who wrote "X2" and "Last Action Hero." It's a film-within-a-film-within-a-film starring German actor Werner Herzog as himself, but it's best not to give away too much about the storyline.
Bernie Mac -- who has had supporting roles in such features as "Ocean's 11," "Bad Santa" and the upcoming holiday release "Ocean's 12" -- takes a crack at carrying a picture himself in "Mr. 3000," the story of a retired baseball player who needs to go back to baseball 10 years after his retirement if he is to have a shot at the Hall of Fame. The cast also includes Angela Bassett, Paul Sorvino and Chris Noth.
Writer-director John Sayles' latest project, "Silver City," stars Oscar winners Chris Cooper and Richard Dreyfuss in a satire about a politician whose campaign is complicated by his poor syntax and the untimely discovery of a corpse. The cast also includes Daryl Hannah, Tim Roth and Kris Kristofferson.
Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie provide the star power for "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," but all the pre-release buzz is about writer-director Kerry Conran's visual style, in a Sci-Fi adventure tale about an attack by giant flying robots, and a journalist and pilot who fight back.
Kirsten Dunst ("Spider-Man") is an American tennis ace and Paul Bettany ("A Beautiful Mind") is the under-achieving British tennis bum who falls for her at the All-England tournament, in the romantic comedy "Wimbledon," directed by Richard Loncraine ("My House in Umbria," "The Gathering Storm").
Late September features the return of writer-director John Waters, with Tracey Ullman, Chris Isaak and Johnny Knoxville starring in "A Dirty Shame," a comedy about a blue-collar Baltimore woman who becomes sexually insatiable after a head injury. Pre-release publicity about the movie has focused on its battle with the Motion Picture Association of America over an NC-17 rating.
Robin Williams, Mira Sorvino and Jim Caviezel star in "The Final Cut," a futuristic tale of memory implants from writer-director Omar Naïm. Williams is a man who has the last word on people's personal histories -- and learns information that puts his own personal history in jeopardy.
"The Forgotten" features Oscar nominees Julianne Moore ("Boogie Nights") and Gary Sinise ("Forrest Gump") in a thriller about a woman who is told by her psychiatrist that she has fabricated years of memories about a son she never had.
In the comedy "The Last Shot," Matthew Broderick plays a writer-director who finds a financier for his latest project but doesn't realize that the angel is an FBI man setting up a sting operation to nab a mobster.
Other September titles include "The Motorcycle Diaries," about the radicalization of a young Ché Guevara, and "Shaun of the Dead," a horror-comedy that has a group of young British friends fighting for their lives against a zombie attack.
In October writer-director David O. Russell releases his first feature since 1999's Gulf War-themed "Three Kings." Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law and Lily Tomlin stars in "I (Heart) Huckabees," in which a husband and wife play detective to help others solve not crimes, but existential and anxiety-causing questions about the meaning of life.
October also brings "Shark Tale," a computer animated feature starring the voice talents of Robert De Niro, Will Smith, Renée Zellweger and Jack Black. And Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta star in "Ladder 49," an action picture set in the world of the Baltimore City Fire Department.
Oscar-winners Michael Caine and Christopher Walken join first-time writer-director Jordan Roberts in "Around the Bend," the story of four generations of men from the same family who reunite for a strange journey after being separated for years.
"Friday Night Lights" is a drama starring Billy Bob Thornton and Derek Luke, set against the world of high school football in Texas. "Riding the Bullet," based on the Stephen King e-book of the same name, is about a New England college student who goes through a kind of hell as he hitchhikes home to his sick mom.
Also in October, Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon show up in the comedy, "Taxi," and Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons co-star in "Being Julia," an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel about love and revenge among a group of actors in 1930s London.
"Shall We Dance?" features Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez in an Americanized version of the 1996 Japanese film about a successful but unhappy man who finds passion when he secretly takes up dance lessons.
In "Team America: World Police," Matt Stone and Trey Parker ("South Park") use one-third scale marionettes to lampoon current events in a movie inspired by the action style of producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
The schedule for late October includes the remake of "Alfie," starring Jude Law, Susan Sarandon and Marisa Tomei, and the Americanized version of the Japanese horror film "The Grudge," starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.
"Surviving Christmas" features Ben Affleck, Christina Applegate and James Gandolfini in a tale of Christmas spirit run amok. And "Ray" features Jamie Foxx's much talked about performance in the movie biography of the late music legend Ray Charles.
November comes roaring in with the first epic of the holiday season, "Alexander," writer-director Oliver Stone's take on Alexander the Great, starring Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie.
Nicole Kidman is also due in theaters in November in "Birth," which includes a dream sequence of her in a bathtub with a young boy who she believes is her reincarnated husband.
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