The Best Movies to Watch This Fall
Noted film critic Bill Newcott, creator of AARP’s “Movies for Grownups,” offers his picks for the coming season.
Murder on the Orient Express (Nov. 10)
Kenneth Branagh (who also directs) stars as Hercule Poirot in the second big-screen version of Agatha Christie’s classic. When a train passenger (Johnny Depp) is killed in his compartment, Poirot gets to work probing an all-star cast of suspects, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, and Judi Dench.
Darkest Hour (Nov. 22)
For those who complained that Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster Dunkirk failed to give sufficient context for Britain’s defining event at the outset of World War II, here comes Darkest Hour, the compellingly human story of how Winston Churchill summoned his country’s resolve when all seemed lost.
Gary Oldman gives the performance of the year — and perhaps of his life — as Churchill, thrust into the position of prime minster at the very moment Hitler is absorbing all of Europe under the Nazi banner. Alcoholic, physically frail, and haunted by his disastrous military experience in World War I, he’s a guy who dreamed of being prime minister his whole life … only not under such dire circumstances.
No sooner has Churchill moved into 10 Downing Street than virtually the entire British army finds itself stranded on a beach in Dunkirk, just across the English Channel but out of reach of transport ships, which are being relentlessly bombed by German planes. Besides facing external threats, Churchill is almost immediately undermined by outgoing prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Marigold Hotel co-star Ronald Pickup) and the weaselly Lord Halifax (Game of Throne’s Stephen Dillane), who has designs of his own on the prime minister’s office. These two desperately want to negotiate with Hitler and are more than willing to hand over Europe if he’ll just keep his mitts off Dear Old Blighty.
Oldman’s Churchill, battling depression and personal demons, barely has the strength to summon his own courage, much less instill it in his countrymen. But in a truly enchanting — and, I’d guess, wholly fanciful — scene, he finds himself riding a crowded London underground train where, to his utter astonishment, he finds the brave words of ordinary folks inspiring him to do the right thing.
The greatness of immortal leaders, Darkest Hour tells us, is generated not from within themselves, but from the wisdom and vision of those they lead. A powerful lesson for Winnie, and one worth remembering 77 years later.
The Current War (Nov. 24)
How’s this for a crackerjack movie idea: Thomas Edison goes to war with George Westinghouse over how best to deliver electricity to the masses: AC or DC.
What, you’re not at this moment frantically dialing Fandango to reserve your tickets? Well, it’s surprising how much mileage writer Michael Mitnick (TV’s Vinyl) and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) get from the premise — and how compelling Benedict Cumberbatch (Edison) and Michael Shannon (Westinghouse) are in their roles.
Every schoolkid knows (or should know) the story of how Edison experimented with thousands of possible filaments for his light bulb before hitting on the one that could burn for hundreds of hours. But getting light bulbs into America’s homes was one thing; pushing the necessary electricity through wires into every U.S. neighborhood was quite another. Edison’s preferred direct current system required transformers every couple of miles, but was so safe you could press your hand to a bare wire and not get shocked; Westinghouse’s alternating current could travel hundreds of miles but, if handled without insulation, would cause instantaneous death.
And so the drama unfolds, the two men feuding from afar, sniping at each other in the press, secretly envying each other’s unique elements of genius. Cumberbatch’s Edison has the boyish charm that endeared the inventor to America, masking an all-consuming ambition. As a Westinghouse, Shannon presents a guy who is more businessman than visionary, a gentleman appalled by his rival’s dirty play (Edison convinces the State of New York to execute a prisoner via AC current and then goes about declaring that the man had been “Westinghoused”).
If you’re wondering who won the AC-DC debate, be my guest and stick a finger in the nearest wall socket. For a gentler and more appealing charge, experience the enlightening history of The Current War.
The Shape of Water (Dec. 8)
Imagine E.T., only instead of outer space, the alien is from beneath the sea, and instead of a little boy named Elliot, the hero is a mute middle-age cleaning woman named Elisa, and instead of hiding in a closet, the alien stays in Elisa’s full bathtub.
As in E.T., the alien is the subject of a U.S. government search that is likely to end in his death and dissection. Unlike E.T., there’s quite a bit of nudity and just a smidge of alien-human sex.
Those are the ingredients of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, at once a nearly beat-for-beat remake of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic and also a uniquely grown-up fable of forbidden love, high adventure, and magical images. From the opening shot — Elisa’s dream of living underwater, her apartment furniture bobbing about as if the place were a submerged Titanic stateroom — del Toro immerses us in his unique brand of Fantasyland… forbidding and irresistible, dangerous and delightful.
Sally Hawkins (Maudie), ratcheting up her Adorable Quotient to DEFCON 1, stars as Elisa, a meek and mute laborer who operates a bucket and mop at a top-secret government research laboratory along with her adoring partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Behind one heavily fortified sliding door, they encounter a most unusual research subject: a Creature from the Black Lagoon-type character with whom Elisa strikes up a tentative after-hours friendship.
It’s not much of a relationship at first, just some informal sharing of hard-boiled eggs. But soon they’re conversing in sign language and listening to Benny Goodman records together, and when Elisa learns that a cruel-hearted military scientist (Michael Shannon) is planning to cut the critter open to see what makes him tick, she engineers a brave and daring escape plan.
Once Beauty and the Beast are alone in that apartment, well, that’s when the similarities to E.T. take a momentary leave of absence.
Shannon, whose performances here and in The Current War embody his startling versatility, plays the heavy with Big Bad Wolf ferocity, his performance tempered by some revealing glimpses of his unhappy home life. Richard Jenkins, always a welcome sight, turns up as Elisa’s artist neighbor, a struggling illustrator whose own tentative search for affection inevitably ends in cold rejection. The two men’s hollow lives add to the poignancy of the film, infusing it with a sense of yearning, a melancholy Elisa just might be able to break through with her most unusual love.
Visionary as always, del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) brings his uniquely Mexican celebration of the fantastic and grotesque to bear in The Shape of Water. Next up: His take on that darkest of fairy tales, Pinocchio. I can’t wait.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Dec. 15)
When we glimpsed Luke Skywalker at the end of 2015’s The Force Awakens — 32 years after his previous appearance in Return of the Jedi — he was just sort of standing around atop a cliff. We’re guessing Luke (Mark Hamill) will have a lot more to do in this follow-up, including, we hope, a reunion with his sister, Princess Leia (played by the late Carrie Fisher in her final role).
This article is featured in the November/December 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Follow Bill Newcott at saturdayeveningpost.com/movies or at his website, moviesfortherestofus.com.