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FALL MOVIE PREVIEW: The top 25

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
'Never Let Me Go'

Are you ready for some movies?

Weekends in fall don't just mean football; they also represent a chance to take in some of the year's best films as studios slowly build up toward the holiday season with strong offerings, many of which have Oscar aspirations.

As with the days leading up to pigskin season, we've decided to speculate as to the top 25 movies coming out this fall. We've only seen a few of the movies below, so, just like with football teams, we base our excitement level and expectations on coaches (directors), quarterbacks (stars), fullbacks (co-stars) and previous records.

Texas is always a pre-season favorite, and so it is with Joel and Ethan Coen, who trot out the most Texas-centric movie of the season, ‘True Grit.'

You can always expect the perennial big names to get love early in the fall, and so it is in movies, with powerhouse ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I' generating a ton of excitement in addition to ‘The Social Network,' the Aaron Sorkin-penned drama based on one of pop culture's biggest names — Facebook.

Of course, you should never count out a crafty old coach (Clint Eastwood with ‘Hereafter' and Woody Allen with ‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger'), but those guys always eventually give way to the up-and-comers (Darren Aronofsky with ‘Black Swan' and Ben Affleck with ‘The Town.')

And although every team needs a strong leader, it never hurts to have a cut-up in the locker room to keep things loose (‘Due Date' and ‘Little Fockers').

Remember, if you don't see your team here, a lot can change during the season. And, undoubtedly, the games are always decided on the field.

1. ‘True Grit'

The brilliant Coen brothers return to Central Texas where they made their first film, ‘Blood Simple.' And they brought The Dude with them. Well, Jeff Bridges, at least, who portrays another country drunk, U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn, in this (the second film) adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis. Matt Damon and Josh Brolin also saddle up for the effort. (Dec. 25)

2. ‘The Social Network'

We've all been ensnared by the opportunity Facebook affords us to brag about our vacations and stalk old high school classmates, so we might as well hear the genesis story of the social media site. Directed by David Fincher (‘Fight Club'), penned by Aaron Sorkin (‘The West Wing') and starring Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the film uses multiple perspectives to tell the complicated story of ambition and betrayal that led to the online behemoth. (Oct. 1)

3. ‘Black Swan'

A companion piece of sorts to his fawned-over ‘Wrestler,' Darren Aronofsky returns to a world of competitive athletic performance, but this time he excavates the more delicate ground of ballet. The psychosexual thriller earned praise at the Venice Film Festival. And, oh yeah, Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis make out. So there's that. (Dec. 1)

4. ‘The Town'

Director Ben Affleck returns to his beloved Boston to play a professional bank robber torn between a world of crime and the desire to change his life — imagine a more high-stakes ‘Good Will Hunting' without the avuncular therapist. Jeremy Renner continues his ascent as Affleck's hardened partner in crime as they attempt to avoid the net of a savvy FBI agent (John Hamm, keeping busy in his time away from ‘Mad Men'). (Sept. 17)

5. ‘Let Me In'

‘Cloverfield' director Matt Reeves takes on the nerve-racking task of remaking cult Swedish vampire thriller ‘Let the Right One In.' There's no melodramatic tween gothiness in this film that eschews Team Edward vs. Team Jacob silliness for a dark tale full of coming-of-age ennui covered in blood. Makes its Austin premiere at Fantastic Fest in September. (Oct. 1)

6. ‘Tron: Legacy'

Jeff Bridges steps back to the future to reprise his role as computer programmer Kevin Flynn in this sequel that took almost 30 years to make it to the big screen. The talented Bridges must have had his acting chops tested going from the realistic world of Bad Blake in ‘Crazy Heart' to the hyper-surreal computer-generated one of this cult classic. Expect Disney's 3D digital graphics to put to shame the at-the-time groundbreaking visuals of the 1982 original. (Dec. 17)

7. ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I'

And so it is that we've come to the end for young Harry and his merry band from Hogwarts ... not so fast. The cinematic adaptation of the seventh and final Harry Potter book has been broken into two parts. So, we'll have to wait until next summer to see what happens in the long-awaited showdown between Harry and Lord Voldemort. But I would imagine fans of this juggernaut already know the ending. (Nov. 19)

8. ‘The Fighter'

It makes sense that the man who produces ‘Entourage' would have his boy's back, which is exactly the case with Mark Wahlberg, who fought for years to get his friend Micky Ward's story told on the big screen. Wahlberg, who has somehow maintained those six-pack abs that made him famous in Calvin Klein ads, is directed by David O. Russell, who's been known to do a little sparring himself. (Dec. 10)

9. ‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger'

A married man (Josh Brolin) with an unabashed crush on a dangerously beautiful woman (Freida Pinto); his wife (Naomi Watts) falling quickly out of love with him and in love with her hypnotic boss (Antonio Banderas); and her father (Anthony Hopkins) in the throes of a not-so-midlife crisis. All set across the pond. Classic late-era Woody Allen. (Undated October)

10. ‘Burlesque'

Golden-throated Christina Aguilera makes her silver screen debut as a wide-eyed and earnest neophyte looking for a break in the City of Angels' showy world of song and skin. Cher, who knows a little something about painted-on faces, plays the reluctant mentor and Kristen Bell the bitter diva. In a case of art imitating life, it will be interesting to see whether the veteran Cher can help Aguilera to her first taste of Hollywood success. (Nov. 24)

11. ‘Buried'

Ryan Reynolds buried alive in a coffin with a lighter and a dying cell phone. Doesn't sound like much, but director Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés will likely leave audiences gasping for their breath. We're feeling panicked just thinking about it. Makes Austin premiere at Fantastic Fest in September. (Oct. 8)

12. ‘127 Hours'

Following the worldwide success of his Academy Award-winning charmer ‘Slumdog Millionaire,' director Danny Boyle trains his lens on the American West, where mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) came face-to-face with his own mortality and eventually had to sever his own arm to survive. Thankfully, the film paints a portrait of the wild-eyed spirit in his time leading up to his accident and does not simply make us endure the pain of the 127 hours for which he was trapped. (Nov. 12)

13. ‘Due Date'

It's not exactly ‘The Hangover 2,' but comedian Zach Galifianakis plays another lovable imbecile in this buddy road-trip movie that pairs him with the always-money Robert Downey Jr. who hopefully can bring a little emotional weight to director Todd Philips' boilerplate juvenilia. (Nov. 5)

14. ‘Fair Game'

Stop if you've heard this one before: Sean Penn at the heart of a political controversy ...  . However, this time he's just acting. Penn plays Joseph Wilson, who wrote The New York Times op-ed piece that rattled the Bush administration and led to the revelation of the true identity of his CIA agent wife, Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). (Undated November)

15. ‘Never Let Me Go'

Carey Mulligan follows up her Oscar-nominated turn in ‘An Education' to lead this haunting film based on the novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of ‘Remains of the Day.' Despite October release, could garner more Academy attention for both Mulligan and co-star Keira Knightley if viewers can get beyond the disturbing content. (Oct. 8)

16. ‘The Next Three Days'

With just his second film since 2004's Oscar-nabbing ‘Crash,' director Paul Haggis returns with one of the biggest stars in the business. Russell Crowe is just an ordinary family man going about his life, until that life is turned upside down when his wife (Elizabeth Banks) is sent to prison. Desperate, he turns to an ex-con (Liam Neeson) to learn how to spring his wife from the joint. (Nov. 19)

17. ‘Love and Other Drugs'

A ‘Brokeback Mountain' reunion of sorts finds thinking-person's sex symbols Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway as director Edward Zwick gets back in touch with the rom-com territory he mined decades ago with ‘About Last Night.' Gyllenhaal plays a ladies man not looking to be tamed until he meets the charming, headstrong and gorgeous Hathaway. The strength of the two Academy-nominated actors will likely elevate this from the schlock it could be. (Nov. 24)

18. ‘Hereafter'

Re-teaming with his ‘Invictus' leading man Matt Damon, octogenarian director and national treasure Clint Eastwood combines the quasi-supernatural with the tenderness of a chick flick in this movie that tells three slowly merging stories of people coming to terms with death. (Oct. 22)

19. ‘Paranormal Activity 2'

Viral marketing helped the first installment of this micro-budget chiller gross close to $200 million worldwide. Now it's up to director Tod Williams (‘The Door in the Floor') to try and catch lightning in a bottle a second time. What do we know so far? The trailer shows a baby, a spooked dog and some vague surveillance video. Are you hooked? (Oct. 22)

20. ‘Secretariat'

Behind every great champion is a great team. This '70s-era period piece tells the story of Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), who, with the help of trainer Lucien Laurin (an eccentric — is there any other kind — John Malkovich) went from housewife to the top of the sport of kings in raising arguably the greatest non- human athlete. (Oct. 8)

21. ‘Conviction'

One wonders if Hilary Swank has a problem playing fictionalized characters. The impossible-to-typecast two-time Oscar winner is back playing a real-life character. This time she takes on the role of Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts woman fighting to overturn the conviction of her brother (the always amazing Sam Rockwell) for attempted murder. (Oct. 29)

22. ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'

Lucy and Edmund enter a world of fantasy to join Prince Caspian and some talking animals as they journey to the ends of the Earth in the movie based on C.S. Lewis' novel. (Dec. 10)

23. ‘How Do You Know'

Reese Witherspoon stars in what has to be the first-ever romantic comedy about a softball player caught in a love triangle. The charming and funny Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd are the other points of the geometric romance directed by big softie James Brooks. (Dec. 17)

24. ‘Little Fockers'

It's hard to believe we've been meeting people in this campy extended family for 10 years now. Added to the original cast of characters, all back for the third installment, are Harvey Keitel and Jessica Alba, who undoubtedly add a little sneer and sexy, respectively. (Dec. 22)

25. ‘Country Strong'

Clean-living yoga lover Gwyneth Paltrow really had to stretch for her role as a faded country star trying to regain her former luster after a stint in rehab. Although it's been a decade since her turn in ‘Duets,' Paltrow was no doubt the recipient of helpful instruction from ‘Country Strong' co-star Tim McGraw. Not to mention the in-house assist from husband Chris Martin of Coldplay. (Dec. 22)

Others receiving votes:

‘The Company Men'

On the heels of his blue-collar thriller in September, Ben Affleck journeys into the white-collar world with this drama about a man trying to piece his life together after the loss of his standing in corporate America. Heavyweights Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones round out the cast, along with fellow Oscar-winner Kevin Costner, who appears here with yet another horribly butchered accent. (October)

‘Life as We Know It'

After a first date from hell, Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Eric (Josh Duhamel) figure they'll never have to deal with one another again. Then tragedy ensues (but don't worry, its stench doesn't last) and the two find themselves raising their dead friends' baby. Hilarity (and love?) ensues. Date-movie bonus points: Men infatuated with Joan from ‘Mad Men' get to see Christina Hendricks on the big screen. (Oct. 8)

‘Morning Glory'

Combine the writer of ‘27 Dresses' and the director of ‘Notting Hill' and you're bound to get a cutesy tale of empowerment and love conquering all. Here Rachel McAdams plays a young television producer trying to catch a break while managing the warring personalities of her on-air talent, played by Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford. And, along the way, everyone might just learn a little something about themselves. Earnestness overload. (Nov. 12)

‘Red'

A different kind of graphic novel-based movie, ‘Red' relies not on costumed heroes but on the chummy camaraderie of getting the old gang back together for one last caper. A talented cast of big names (Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren) will have their hands full juggling a stockpile of weaponry and clichés. Mirren's reputation as a silver vixen gets yet another shot in the arm. Literally. (Oct. 15)

‘Unstoppable'

Director Tony Scott and his favorite leading man, Denzel Washington, team up for the fifth time here, and as with last year's ‘The Taking of Pelham 123,' they're back on a train. This time the story is based on actual events of a runaway train loaded with toxic cargo that could destroy a town. Washington plays the veteran train engineer about to be put out to pasture, but not before one last on-the-job lesson with his young charge, played by Chris Pine. (Nov. 12)