It is pretty much a given what the big preholiday fall film is going to be: "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2," the last installment of the vamp romance franchise drawn from the books of Stephenie Meyer. Not even the messy (make that very messy) breakup of stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart is going to keep the film from dominating the box office when it opens Nov. 16, although it probably will make those pre-opening media interviews a touch uncomfortable.
So, given all that, we're going to ignore "Breaking Dawn" for now and move onto fall films that we think will grab your attention over the next couple of months. As always, we only cover films opening through the week before Thanksgiving, so such high-profile, holiday movies as Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," the film version of the musical "Les Miserables" and "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" aren't included. And opening dates can change.
Opening: Sept. 21
The story: Is it or isn't it? That question hounds "There Will Be Blood" director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest venture, which many have said is inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Here's what we know for sure: Joaquin Phoenix -- coming out of his sort-of retirement -- plays a troubled World War II veteran who gets a helping hand from the leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a new religion. You draw the parallels from that.
The buzz: Solid. Anderson's films
Opening: Sept. 28
The story: In what promises to be one of the season's hippest flicks, an assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seeks to notch a final hit -- traveling in time to kill his older self (Bruce Willis). Sound like another sci-fi mind game from David Cronenberg or those Wachowski siblings? Wrong. This is the sly handiwork of cult sweetheart Rian Johnson, who messed with genres for his first feature, the mesmerizing "Brick."
The buzz: Deafening. And it's not only fan boys doing back flips; early reviews after it opened the Toronto International Film Festival have been dynamite. Also stoking the hype are stars Gordon-Levitt, Willis and Emily Blunt, each having been very effusive about the project. We're so there!
'Won't Back Down'
Opens: Sept. 28
The story: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis head a group of mothers determined to reform the school their children attend. It's from some of the same folks who produced "Waiting for Superman," one of the big documentaries of 2010.
The buzz: Well, the teachers' unions aren't any happier with this film than they were with "Waiting for Superman." So far, however, it has only resulted in more publicity for the movie. Gyllenhaal and Davis already have popped up on most early lists of possible Oscar nominees, and the trailer suggests a real crowd pleaser.
Opening: Oct. 5
The story: Director Tim Burton again shows his affection for stop-motion animation by expanding on his little live-action film made in 1984. A beloved and quite dead pooch is revived that old Frankenstein way, wagging its way back to life and freaking out many around him.
The buzz: All Burton films come with insta-buzz attached, but will this one deliver? The man's lost his mojo lately. "Dark Shadows" was a dud, and "Alice in Wonderland" was a hollow mess. But this seems like such a gimme for a filmmaker who has a knack for making us root for the eccentric underdog.
Opening: Oct. 12
The story: In this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story set during the late '70s-early '80s U.S. hostage crisis in Iran, a daring, seemingly cuckoo plan is hatched to retrieve six hostages who escaped from the U.S.
The buzz: Very high. Affleck the filmmaker and the actor keep getting better and better, and "Argo," in which he directs and stars with Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston, may be that hot ticket to finally land the actor a best directing Oscar nom.
Opens: Oct. 26
The story: Lana and Andy Wachowski (the "Matrix" films) and Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") tackle David Mitchell's 2004 best-seller, an incredibly complex, mind-bending work that follows several characters from the days of the sailing ships to the far future.
The buzz: The early trailers have attracted a lot of attention; the book has a devoted following, and the film is loaded with top talent, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent. The film's screening at the Toronto Film Festival sharply divided the audience, but just about everyone admired the visuals.
Opens: Oct. 26
The story: Drawn from the true story of late Bay Area writer Mark O'Brien, who spent most of his life in an iron lung as the result of polio, the film follows O'Brien (played by John Hawkes) as he seeks to lose his virginity with the blessing of his priest (William H. Macy) and a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt).
The buzz: The movie has been on the Oscar radar since it won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The trailer is terrific, suggesting a smart romance-comedy, and Hawkes and Hunt are on most lists of possible acting Oscars nominees.
Opens: Nov. 9
The story: The film covers the final four months of President Abraham Lincoln's life, as depicted in Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 best-seller, "Team of Rivals." At the heart of the story: Lincoln's political and military strategies that ended the Civil War in a Union victory.
The buzz: "Lincoln" has Oscar written all over it. It is the kind of inspiring historical drama that Academy voters love. It's directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by award-winning playwright Tony Kushner. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, who always gets Oscar attention and -- at least in the photos released so far -- bears an uncanny resemblance to Lincoln.
Opens: Nov. 9
The story: It's time for more Bond ... James Bond. In this 23rd film in the franchise, Daniel Craig returns as a bruised and battered 007.
The buzz: Oscar winner Sam Mendes takes over the director's reins, and the always-watchable Javier Bardem is the new bad guy. The trailer leaves the distinct impression that this is even darker Bond than the previous Craig ventures into the character.
Opening: Nov. 16
The story: Director Joe Wright ("Atonement") and heralded playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard tinker and tailor Tolstoy's classic 1877 novel so it fits mostly in the theater. Say what? Rest assured, gentle readers, the plot about a married Russian woman (Keira Knightley) coming undone due to an affair with an officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) appears to be intact. We think.
The buzz: So-so. Early reviews -- it opened in England already -- mostly agree that while the production is flat-out gorgeous and will make period-piece fans swoon, that quirky theater device isn't winning too many devotees. Still, we remain curious.