Is there any time better than autumn? It’s got everything: leaf peeping, baseball playoffs, the NFL, college football and, best of all, fall movies. It’s the official kickoff to the Oscar season, the  time when studios put their best footage forward.

Is there any time better than autumn? It’s got everything: leaf peeping, baseball playoffs, the NFL, college football and, best of all, fall movies. It’s the official kickoff to the Oscar season, the time when studios put their best footage forward.

This year, more than any other, their arrival could not be more welcome, coming as they do on the heels of a rash of disappointments filtering through theaters the past four months. You can count the winners among the summer bummers on one hand. And that’s just not right.

The autumn, thankfully, looks more promising, as the emphasis shifts from kiddie- and adolescent fare to more mature content. And by mature, I mean actors old enough to drive. Some even have gray in their temples. And they’re not named Clooney.

Yup, it’s the old folks’ time to howl over films like “Howl,” which recounts the early years of poet Allen Ginsberg; and recommit themselves toward movies like “Conviction,” in which two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays a Boston woman trying to free her wrongly convicted brother.

That’s not to say there’s nothing out there for the tykes. In fact, there are several animated flicks on the slate, but most of them are a tad more cerebral than their summer cousins, as evidenced in titles like “Megamind” and “Tangled,” which is really about hair but close enough to the brain to count.

And while we’re counting, you also can start adding up the odds for next year’s Oscar race, in which many of these films will be vying for golden immortality. So to get you started, here’s a rundown of both the brightest and – unfortunately – the dimmest prospects in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, when, hopefully, the turkeys will be in ovens and not in the theaters:
 
Friday Sept. 17
   
“The Town”: Ben Affleck is  fast becoming the Bard of Boston with his string of Hub-set dramas, including “Good  Will Hunting,” “Gone Baby Gone” and now this  adaptation of Chuck  Hogan’s “Prince of  Thieves,” in which – in  addition to co-writing  and directing – he  plays  a Charlestown bank robber who  develops a bit of a conscience  when he falls for the woman  (Rebecca Hall) who could put  him and his gang behind bars if  she talks. And looking to keep  her from talking – permanently –  is “The Hurt Locker’s” intense  Jeremy Renner. Will love trump  crime? Dah! But who cares  when you’re so busy savoring the sterling  performances by the three  leads and  fine supporting  cast of Chris Cooper,  Jon Hamm, Blake  Lively and Pete Postlethwaite. I’m there, baby, there.

“Easy A”: Like Jonah Hill in  “Super Bad,” I’m madly in love  with Emma Stone, the beautiful  but brainy gal with the baritone  pipes. She was beyond good in  “Bad,” and in last year’s  “Zombieland,” she proved more  than capable of stirring the  undead. Now, she’s playing the  high school version of Hester  Prynne in this tongue-in-cheek,  religious-right-bashing send-up  of “The Scarlet Letter.” I’ll give  her an A, all right: an A for  aphrodisiac. “Devil”: I’ve heard rumors  that moviegoers are booing  when M. Night Shyamalan’s  name appears during the trailer  for this supernatural thriller,  which he produced but did not  direct. Too many bad movies in  a row tends to elicit such  negativity, I guess.

“Alpha and Omega”: This  underwhelming  animated entry  features two bickering wolves  trying to get back home after  they are shipped off halfway  across the country.

Sept. 24

“Legend of the Guardians":  The Owls of Ga’Hoole”: Zack  Snyder’s adaptation of Kathryn  Lasky’s fantasy novels about  warrior owls battling evil seems  a tad too pretentious to me  (not to mention a rip-off of  “Lord of the Rings”), but the  animation looks  spectacular. Plus, this is  from the guy who made  “300.” But, then, he’s also  the guy who made the  impotent “Watchmen.”

“Wall Street: Money  Never Sleeps”: It’s sad  when artists grow so  desperate they revert to  their greatest triumphs in  hopes of re-igniting stalled  careers: Harrison Ford in  “India Jones 4”; Tom Cruise  in “M:I 4”; Sly Stallone in  “Rocky Balboa”; and, now,  Michael Douglas in this  questionable resuscitation  of Gordon Gekko. And  standing right next to  Douglas ready to snatch  the oxygen mask is Oliver  Stone, himself on career life-  support. Can they  succeed? Probably not,  and that’s because the  premise of “Greed is good,  while it lasts” arrives two  years and $700 billion too  late. It’s further hobbled by  the presence of  Shia  LaBeouf as Gekko’s small  but powerful son-in-law,  who helps the big guy get  back into the money game  after he’s sprung from  prison. Money may never  sleep, but audiences might.

“Never Let Me Go”:  Keira Knightley, Carey  Mulligan and the red-hot  Andrew Garfield (“Red  Riding” and the next  Spider-Man) play former  school chums forced to  confront the darkest part of  their past in this foreboding  thriller from Mark Romanek,  who directed one of the  great music videos of all  time in Johnny Cash’s  “Hurt.”

“You Again”: Why does  Hollywood insist on  portraying women as  idiots? Exhibit A, this  potential turkey about two  generations of warring  ladies (youngsters Kristen  Bell and Odette Yustman,  and oldsters Jamie Lee  Curtis and Sigourney  Weaver) doing their best to  be the worst human beings  possible before  discovering  the joys of sisterhood. Yuk!  At least it has Betty White to  generate some real laughs.

Oct. 1

“Case 39”: Strange to see  Renee Zellweger in a horror  picture, but here she is  playing a  social worker   encountering a family she’ll  rue getting involved with. The  impressive supporting cast  includes Ian McShane and  Zellweger’s latest boy toy,  Bradley Cooper.

“Let Me In”: This  Hollywood remake of the  Swedish smash “Let the  Right One In” stars two of the  finest child actors working  today in Chloe Moretz (“Kick-Ass”) and Kodi Smit-McPhee  (phenomenal in “The Road”).  They play lonely 12-year-olds  who strike up a bizarre, but  touching, friendship  complicated by the fact that  one of them is a vampire.  Matt Reeves, of “Cloverfield”  fame, directs.

“The Social Network”:  The story about the creation  and founding of Facebook  doesn’t sound very  interesting on paper, but in  the hands of director David  Fincher (“Benjamin Button,”  the upcoming remake of  “The Girl With the Dragon  Tattoo”), it’s emerging as a  leading Oscar contender.  And chief among the  potential nominees are Jesse  Eisenberg and Andrew  Garfield as Harvard nerds  who come up with a  revolutionary idea that earns  them vast riches and even  vaster legal troubles.

“Bagman”: You have to be  either a really great man or a  total dirt bag to warrant two  movies  in one year, but  notorious Washington lobbyist  Jack Abramoff is such a  person. First there was Alex  Gibney’s acclaimed  documentary, “Casino Jack,”  and now comes the feature film  version starring Kevin Spacey  as Abramoff, the ultimate  money guy, whose fraudulent  dealings with Indian casinos  earned him room and board in  a federal penitentiary.
   
“Howl”: James Franco is one  of the handsomest men alive;  poet Allen Ginsberg is was not.  So how in the world can one  play the other? Acting, my  friend. And few act more  fluently than Franco, who  manages to transform himself  into the young bard of the Beat  Generation. The movie’s trailer  suggests a sort of black-and- white “Mad Men” after dark,  but I’m betting Franco gives the  balding, bearded counter- culture icon his just due.

“Waiting for Superman”:  Looking to do for public  education what his “An  Inconvenient Truth” did for  global warming, documentarian  Davis Guggenheim lays out   exactly what’s wrong with  America’s schools and how  egregiously they are depriving  our youth. From teachers’  unions to school administers  administrators, just about  everyone is earning a failing  grade, Guggenheim asserts.

“You’ll Meet a Tall Dark  Stranger”: Another year,  another Woody Allen  disappointment. Or so it  seems. This one, though, has  real possibilities, especially with  Anthony Hopkins, Gemma  Jones, Naomi Watts and Josh  Brolin filling the roles of two  married couples seeking  excitement outside their unholy  matrimony. Lucy Punch,  Antonio Banderas and  “Slumdog’s” Freida Pinto are  among the forbidden fruits  waiting to be picked.

Oct. 8

“Buried”: Ryan Reynolds  acts out your worst nightmare,  playing an Iraq war contractor  who is captured and buried  alive with only a lighter, a cell  phone and his wits as a means  of escape.

“Life as We Know It”: Here’s  something new: Katherine Heigl  in a romantic comedy, playing   opposite a middling co-star   who will go from hating her  character to loving her. This  time it’s Josh Duhamel, with  whom Heigl tumultuously  shares a godchild. When the  parents kick, guess who must  come together for the good of  the kid?

“Secretariat”: It will be hard  to say neigh to this tale about  the beloved Triple Crown  winner that electrified a nation  in the spring of 1973. Diane  Lane leads an all-star cast,  playing Secretariat’s severely  tested owner, who had more  trouble with sexist pigs than  thoroughbred horses.

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”:  Newton native Anna Boden and  her writing and directing  partner, Ryan Fleck, once again  prove to be among the most  eclectic indie filmmakers  around with this tale about a  disgruntled teenager (Keir  Gilchrist of “United States of  Tara”) finding happiness after  checking himself into a mental  institution. The fine supporting  cast includes Lauren Graham  and Jim Gaffigan as the boy’s  clueless parents, and Zach  Galifianakis and Emma Roberts  as fellow mental patients eager  to teach him all about love and  life.

“Nowhere Boy”: Promising  newcomer  Aaron Johnson  (“Kick-Ass,” “The Greatest”)  has been drawing raves for his  portrayal of a young John  Lennon in this recounting of the  music legend’s  pre-Beatles  days in Liverpool, where rock   ’n’ roll became his salvation  from a tumultuous home life.   

“Inside Job”: Matt Damon  narrates this timely  documentary from Charles  Ferguson (“No End in Sight”)  about the hows and whys of  the 2008 economic meltdown.  Should be interesting, and it  might have been a must-see if  Michael Moore hadn’t beat  Ferguson to the punch with last  year’s “Capitalism: A Love  Story,” which covered much of  the same material, albeit in a  more humorous vein.

“Stone”: Robert De Niro and  Edward Norton, so great  together in “The Score,” reunite  for this legal thriller in which De  Niro plays a parole officer  assigned the case of a  convicted arsonist (Norton)  seeking early release. Nothing  special there. But things get interesting catch  fire once Bobby D starts sniffing  around the convict’s beautiful  and seductive wife, played by  “Resident Evil’s” Milla Jovovich.  John Curran (“The Painted  Veil”) directs.

Oct. 15

“Jackass 3D”: Get out your  shopping carts and get ready to  ride them off your roofs  because Johnny Knoxville and  his brave, but obviously insane,  buddies are back for another  serving of self-mutilation. Even  better, this time we can see the  blood, bruises and broken  bones in glorious 3-D.

“Red”: Sly Stallone proved  with “The Expendables” that  you don’t have to be young and  spry to produce a solid action  movie. And Bruce Willis,  Morgan Freeman, John  Malkovich and Helen Mirren are  prepared to second that motion  with this tongue-in-cheek tale  (based on a graphic novel)  about retired CIA agents drawn  back into the fray after they are  framed for the assassination of  a world leader. Think of it as  “The Re-Born Identity.”

“Conviction”: Hilary Swank  makes her bid for a third Oscar  with this fact-based courtroom  drama about a Massachusetts  mother fighting tooth and nail to  prove the innocence of her  brother (Sam Rockwell) after he  is wrongly convicted of murder  in 1983. It ends up being an 18-year ordeal that yields her a law  degree and mounting evidence  that a crooked small-town cop  (Melissa Leo) is responsible for  her brother’s plight.

Oct. 22

“The Company Men”: In a  movie befitting  our economically  depressed times, Ben Affleck,  Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee  Jones play businessmen who  are forced to re-evaluate their  lives after they are laid off from  their corporate jobs. Kevin  Costner co-stars in this comedic  drama written and directed by  “ER” creator John Wells.

“Hereafter”: Matt Damon is  seeing dead people in Clint  Eastwood’s metaphysical  drama about a man (Damon)  with a special connection to the  afterlife. Cecile De France,  terrific as a gun moll in  “Mesrine,” is among the people  Damon meets on the other  side. No word yet if Bruce  Willis’ character from “The Sixth  Sense” will be there, too.

“Paranormal Activity 2”:  You can’t say the producers of  last year’s most surprising hit  aren’t striking while the iron is  hot. In less than a year, they’ve  thrown together a sequel, the quality of which I cannot attest. The  plot, of course, is being kept  hush-hush, but perhaps not for  the reason you think.

Oct. 29

“Monsters”: We’ve all read  about Central American aliens,  but in this alleged thriller, the  aliens really are aliens (of the  outer-space kind) residing  south of Mexico. Go onll,ll  Arizona, try and  to stop these guys  from crossing the border. I dare  you! Of course, it’s left to a  journalist (Scoot McNairy) to  come to the rescue. But he is  not in Central America to  preserve mankind; he’s gone  there to save his boss’s over- privileged daughter, played by  the immortal Whitney Able.

“Saw 3D”: If it’s Halloween,  it’s time to see the new “Saw.”  Only this time it’s in blood-glorious 3-D. But that’s  probably the only added depth  you’ll see in this tired franchise,  which, once again, stars  Weymouth-bred Tobin Bell as  the notorious Jigsaw.

“Alone in the Dark 2”: A  team of witch hunters tries to  track down the notorious  sorceress, Elisabeth Dexter.  Why do I feel like this one will  drag on for more than a spell?  


Nov. 7

“Megamind”: In the mold of  “Despicable Me” comes this  animated tale about a bored  supervillain (voice of Will Ferrell)  outsmarting himself by creating  an even bigger menace (voiced  by Jonah Hill)  – a menace so  fierce, it forces him to do good.  Also lending their voices are  Brad Pitt and Tina Fey.

“Due Date”: I don’t know  about you, but of all the  comedies due out this fall, none  has piqued my interest more  than this one. And that’s largely  due to the inspired pairing of  Robert Downey Jr. and Zach  Galifianakis as combatants and  compatriots on a cross-country  road trip in which Downey must  get from Atlanta to the West  Coast before his wife gives  birth. Still, the familiar plot, an  obvious rip-off of “Planes,  Trains and Automobiles,” could  prove troublesome, leaving it  up to Downey and Galifiankis  Galifianakis  to save the day.

“Fair Game”: The  administration of Bush 43 was  rife with disgrace, but none of  its misdeeds matched what  Cheney and company did in  purposely outting CIA agent  Valerie Plame (a perfectly cast  Naomi Watts) as revenge  against her husband for writing  a New York Times column  accusing Bush of lying about  WMDs in Iraq.

“127 Hours”: Director Danny  Boyle and writer Simon  Beaufoy follow up on their  Oscar-dominating masterpiece  “Slumdog Millionaire” with this  far more modest, but no less  thrilling, true tale about  mountain climber Aron Ralston  (James Franco), who had to  amputate a limb after getting  trapped under a boulder while  climbing in an isolated section  of Utah. Like “Slumdog,” the  movie is heavy with flashbacks,  as Ralston reflects on his life  and loves during his dogged  fight for survival. Amber  Tamblyn and Kate Mara costar.

“Welcome to the Rileys”:  Heavy metaphor alert, as  James Gandolfini and Melissa  Leo move to flood-ravaged  New Orleans to rebuild their  lives following the death of their  teenage daughter. And, as luck  would have it, they find a  surrogate daughter in the form  of a young prostitute with –  everybody say it now – a heart  of gold. She’s played by Kristen  Stewart, sneaking off the  “Twilight” set to moonlight here.

Nov. 14

“Skyline”: A mysterious light  in the sky is vaporizing  everyone who ventures  outdoors in this sci-fi thriller  from Colin and Gregg Strause.  Now that’s what I call global  warming.

“Unstoppable”: Denzel  Washington teams with director  Tony Scott for what seems like  the umpteenth time for this  done-to-death thriller about a  runaway train. The twist is that  this choo-choo is carrying  enough toxic chemicals to wipe  out Hollywood. Not to fear,  because Captain Kirk, aka  Chris Pine, is assisting Scotty,  er, Denzel, at the controls.

“Morning Glory”: For fans of  silver-haired romances like “It’s  Complicated” comes this trifle  from director Roger Michell  (“Notting Hill”) about a serious  journalist (Harrison Ford)  grudgingly brought in to co- host a fluff-oriented network  morning show alongside a  former beauty queen played by  Diane Keaton. You wanna bet  they don’t get along? Better  yet, wanna bet that they end up  falling in love? Ditto for the  show’s producers, played by  Rachel McAdams and Patrick  Wilson.

Nov. 21

“Harry Potter and the  Deathly Hallows Part 1”: It’s  the beginning of the end for the  lucrative Potter series, which  will wrap up next summer with  Part 2 of this final installment in  which the wizardly Harry is  drawn ever closer to the forces  of evil ruled by the dastardly  Voldemort. Will Frodo, I mean,  Harry, survive?

“The Next Three Days”: Life  pulls the rug out from under an  idyllic couple (Russell Crowe  and Elizabeth Banks) when  Bank’s character is accused of  committing a grisly murder,  leaving Crowe to do everything  in his power to clear both her  name and the stench left by his  God-awful “Robin Hood.”

Nov. 24

“Red Dawn”: The original  “Red Dawn,” about a Soviet  takeover of the United States,  was cheered and reviled in  equal measure. Now comes  this remake, or should I say, re- imagining of the John Milius  original in which scrappy teens  stand up to the invading  Chinese communists. Hey,  wait, aren’t Americans already  slaves to the Chinese?

“Tangled”: Hair – long,  beautiful, 3-D hair – is  cascading everywhere in this  less-than-reverent retelling of  “Rapunzel,” in which the feisty  teen (voice of Mandy Moore)  with the 70-foot locks drafts a  charming bandit (“Chuck’s”  Zachary Levi) into helping her  escape the tower she’s been  locked away in.

“Burlesque”: Tired of  laughing at “Showgirls”? Me,  too; but good news waits in this  potential Thanksgiving turkey in  which Christina Aguilera plays a  small-town girl trying to make it  in show biz. Who better to help  her in her quest for self-parody  than the queen of the genre,  Cher. I see multiple Razzie  Awards in this film’s future.

“Faster”: Whatever  happened to the Dwayne  Johnson that was earmarked  as the next Schwarzenegger?  Doing awful kiddie movies,  that’s what. Now, thankfully, he  seems to be righting the ship  with this Arnold-esque action  yarn in which he plays an ex- con out to avenge the murder  of his brother. One by one he  tracks  the perps down, while a  cunning cop (Billy Bob  Thornton) and a crazed young  hit man (Oliver Jackson Cohen)  try to stop him.

“Love and Other Drugs”: Ed  Zwick (“Glory,” “Blood  Diamond”) returns with yet  another intriguing social  commentary: this one about a  young Viagra salesman (Jake  Gyllenhaal) caught up in the  cutthroat world of  pharmaceuticals. Based on  Jamie Reidy’s memoir “Hard  Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra  Salesman,” the film also stars  the always welcome duo of  Anne Hathaway and Judy  Greer. With those two around,  who needs Viagra?

“The King’s Speech”: When  King Edward vacated the  British throne to marry his  commoner sweetheart, his  younger  brother, George VI (the  current queen’s father),   suddenly found himself in  power. But there was one small  problem: a speech impediment.   How he resolved it is the theme  of this classy production  starring Colin Firth as George  and Geoffrey Rush as his loyal  speech therapist.
    
Al Alexander may be reached  at a alexander@ledger.com.