Give or take a few notable exceptions like "Toy Story 3" and "Inception," it's been a rough summer at the movies. At least for big studio product. Boosted by 3-D ticket sales, the box-office numbers may have been healthy, but the soul-deadening march from "Clash of the Titans" to "Sex and the City 2" to "Grown Ups" hasn't been a pretty one.
But that's why we look forward to the fall, when the studios trot out their finest fare, ostensibly for Oscar consideration. Right?
But looking at the slate ahead, this particular crop of movies is shaping up like summer's second chances. Let down by the romance in "Eat, Pray, Love"? Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway are here for you. "Iron Man 2" played a little flat? Robert Downey Jr. wants to win you back. Trampled by Twi-hards at the theater? Harry Potter wants to show 'em how it's done. These fall movies could be just what we've been waiting for.
"The Social Network"
Is Facebook, that preeminent time-waster and high-school-classmate aggregator, important enough to make a movie about? That's one question bound to be asked of the latest movie by director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, men whose previous projects have tackled serial killers, Washington politics, man's existential crises in this modern age and late-night sketch comedy. Very important subjects!
Facebook might seem lightweight, but this story of its founding, and the hubris, backstabbing and tech-boom excess found therein looks to be plenty cinematic. Early reviews have been intensely celebratory. And there's already talk of Oscar nominations for Fincher, Sorkin and actor Jesse Eisenberg, who plays founding Facebooker Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2004 was sued and accused of stealing the Facebook idea from three fellow Harvard students. (Opens Oct. 1)
"Paranormal Activity 2"
When you've already scared the hell out of a sizeable chunk of the movie-going audience with your no-budget ghost story, what can you possibly do for an encore? Raise the stakes! "Paranormal Activity" crashed the box-office last fall, making people afraid of their own bedrooms, not to mention doing untold damage to the duplex real estate market.
For the sequel, if the trailers are any indication, the new couple besieged by demonic spirits has a baby ... and a dog! As if new parents needed something else to be nervous about. Will first-film "survivor" (uh ... more or less) Katie Featherstone be on hand for Round 2? And will the same low-concept scare tactics work on an audience who's been through the wringer once before? One new wrinkle: directing duties have been passed to Tod Williams, who previously directed the gorgeous but decidedly fright-free "The Door in the Floor." (Opens Oct. 29)
The current state of American comedy may be in a bit of flux — have we settled into a post-Apatow lull? Of the top 20 movies at the box-office this year, only three are pure comedies, all of which ("Grown Ups," "Date Night," "The Other Guys") feel like lesser efforts from once-dominant comedians.
Which makes a movie like "Due Date" feel so fresh ... if only by comparison. The reality is the plot sounds like an updated "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles," with high-strung Robert Downey Jr. road-tripping with highly irritating Zack Galifianakis en route to Downey's wife giving birth. But love or hate "The Hangover," it was a huge hit, and with director Todd Phillips and star Galifianakis reunited here, along with red-hot Downey, you may be looking at the standard-bearer for 2010 comedy. (Opens Nov. 5)
Considering director Tony Scott's ("Crimson Tide," "Days of Thunder") affinity for things that move fast and spin out of control, it's almost shocking that he hasn't made a movie about an actual runaway train until now. He almost got there with last year's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," but that was a subway, and ultimately just one car. This time, it's a whole damn train! The size of the Chrysler building! Full of highly combustible chemicals! And only Denzel Washington and "Star Trek" star Chris Pine can stop it! And did we mention it's headed right for another train full of school children?
This kind of movie that smashes up everything in sight and is moving too fast to think about whether it makes any sense would have been just the kind of movie to liven up this dreary summer season. But even a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, how are audiences supposed to resist the "We're gonna run this bitch down!" intensity that's being promised? (Opens Nov. 12)
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1"
So there's this wizard named Harry, and he lives in England, and boy does this other wizard want him dead! Yes, plot details seem a bit unnecessary for this most-anticipated movie. Except to say that the seventh and final book of the "Potter" series is being presented as a two-part movie, with Part 1 this November and Part 2 next summer. Word has it that the first two-thirds of the book will take place in Part 1, covering almost everything before the climactic showdown at Hogwarts.
It's hard to imagine anybody who's already a Potter fan not lining up to see the final two movies. The question is whether a final novel that was already considered a bit bloated 'round the middle needed the two-part treatment in the first place. (Opens Nov. 19)
The fact that it's taken us until 2010 to get Cher into a movie where she plays the wizened owner of a burlesque club that takes in a small-town ingénue, corrupts her, and discovers a heretofore unknown talent that recalls her own faded glory doesn't exactly speak well for us as a society. Christina Aguilera makes her acting debut as the aspiring burlesquetress, with Kristen Bell as her rival and Stanley Tucci as Cher's right-hand man.
Will it be the next notoriously classless bomb like "Showgirls"? Or will it be the next delectable guilty pleasure ... like "Showgirls"?! The trailer, with its "Cabaret" costumes and bitchy quips, promises a campy good time. Cher's next comeback (it's about that time ...) could be riding on whether the film delivers on that promise. (Opens Nov. 24)
"Love and Other Drugs"
As we enter the season of Oscar hopefuls, it sometimes feels like there's precious little room for romantic comedies. Unless one could be both? Director Edward Zwick has seen his films get awards attention before, with "Glory," "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond," but those have all been serious dramas. How he'll fare with this lighter tale of a pharmaceutical sales rock star who falls for a free spirit will depend largely on his leads.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway managed to have great chemistry even as ill-fated spouses in "Brokeback Mountain." Their re-pairing here promises a more genuine romance — and serious sex appeal — but an illness subplot will either provide the gravity the film needs to be taken seriously ... or it'll totally bum people out. (Opens Nov. 24)
Joe Reid is a regular contributor to TODAYshow.com and lives in New York.