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The catastrophic crises contrived to drive Hollywood’s summer movies make me yawn: sociopathic supervillains, alien invasions, frantic felines and genocidal space marauders. All that pre-adolescent nonsense finally slipped into the rear-view window on Labor Day, and the theaters (mostly) reverted to the control of adults. If you’re ready for genuine high-stakes drama, meaningful moral dilemmas and real lives in the balance, the silver screen beckons.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s thriller 'Snowden. '
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s thriller ‘Snowden. ‘ (Photo: Jürgen Olczyk )


Opens Sept. 16

Happy birthday to perennially angry young man Oliver Stone, who turns 70 the day before his biopic on whistleblower Edward Snowden opens. Here’s hoping Stone resisted the low-hanging fruit of anti-government agit-prop and the genre allure of paranoid thrillers to craft a behind-the-scenes story of Snowden, an everyman (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who risked everything to do the right thing. Plenty of people still despise Snowden for his 2013 exposure of the breadth of NSA spying, even after documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour revealed the former analyst to be neither a traitor nor an egomaniac but a rational computer geek fluent in moral code. Perhaps they’ll see Snowden as a bookend to Stone’s earlier portrait of a controversial patriot, Born On the Fourth of July.

Ann Magnani
Ann Magnani

Anna Magnani

Sept. 24 at the Castro
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Sept. 25 – Dec. 4 at the Pacific Film Archive
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As a prelude to the annual Pageant of Possible Pretenders to Meryl Streep’s Throne — also known as the Academy Award nominations for Best Actress—you are enjoined to refresh yourself at the fount of torrential, passionate acting. “Anna Magnani — A Film Series” thunders the walls of the Castro with four astonishing performances by the Italian force of nature in Rome Open City (1945), Bellissima (1952), The Rose Tattoo (1955) and The Passionate Thief (1960). With your appetite thus whetted, the Pacific Film Archive wheels out the main course the next day: “Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema.” You’re familiar with the phrase “the camera loves” this or that performer. Magnani devoured the camera, and the screen.

 Armie Hammer as "Samuel Turner," Nate Parker as "Nat Turner" and Jayson Warner Smith as "Earl Fowler" in 'The Birth of A Nation.'
Armie Hammer as “Samuel Turner,” Nate Parker as “Nat Turner” and Jayson Warner Smith as “Earl Fowler” in ‘The Birth of A Nation.’ (Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.)

The Birth of a Nation

Opens Oct. 7

Nat Turner was owned by a less-cruel-than-usual Virginia cotton grower whose wife deemed it admirable to teach the boy to read, but just the Bible and only certain sections. In writer-director-actor Nate Parker’s telling, Nat was radicalized in his twenties by seeing the horrific mistreatment of slaves by other white land owners and by discovering the Old Testament’s passages condemning slavery. The Birth of a Nation is an incendiary film with religious overtones that invites various interpretations and critiques. It deserves to be widely seen, and its depictions of violence in 1820s America widely discussed, given the ongoing disgrace of police shootings of unarmed African-Americans almost two centuries later.

Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Ackerman's 1975 tour de force 'Jeanne Dielman'
Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Ackerman’s 1975 tour de force ‘Jeanne Dielman’

Modern Cinema

Oct. 7–23
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The just-completed expansion of SFMOMA included a renovation of Phyllis Wattis Theatre and the addition of a dedicated entrance, correcting an original design flaw that complicated standalone film screenings. The museum and the San Francisco Film Society (presenters of the S.F. International Film Festival) inaugurate the refreshed screening room with three packed weekends of rare, vintage, cult and classic movies. A slew of beloved titles by Janus/Criterion icons from Bergman to Fassbinder screen Oct. 7 – 14 under the rubric “Haunted by Cinema,” with “Haunted Cinema” (Oct. 21 – 23) encompassing otherworldly films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Ugetsu. Sandwiched in between, Thai filmmaker and ghost lover Apichatpong Weerasethakul is saluted Oct. 13 – 16 with an in-person retrospective augmented with works by Renoir, Bunuel, Polanski and Erice.

Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) in Kelly Reichardt’s 'Certain Women'
Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) in Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Certain Women’ (Photo: Nicole Rivelli/ Courtesy of IFC Films. )

Certain Women

Opens Oct. 14

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) is less interested in plot than character, which means she embraces levels of sensitivity and subtlety that are simply beyond most filmmakers. Reichardt relishes placing female characters in positions of uncharted responsibility, then seeing how they deal with both explicit and ingrained male obstruction. She adapts and weaves the short stories of Montana author Maile Meloy this time out, in collaboration with longtime cohort Michelle Williams, the great Laura Dern, the underrated Kristen Stewart and newcomer Lily Gladstone. (Did I overlook the men in the cast? Dear me.) Certain Women debuted at Sundance and plays the prestigious New York Film Festival before opening theatrically.

Mahershala Ali in 'Moonlight'
Mahershala Ali in ‘Moonlight’


Opens Oct. 28

With his wonderful San Francisco-set directorial debut, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), Florida-to-Bay Area transplant Barry Jenkins broke out in a way that only a tiny handful of local narrative filmmakers ever had. His long-awaited follow-up, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, follows a gay black man from childhood into adulthood, from Miami’s bullying streets out to the wider world. The theme of black men loving black men, and James Laxton’s gorgeous photography, puts me in mind of Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs’ sensual and uncompromising 1989 declaration of independence, manhood, sex and poetry.

Merry Levov (Hannah Nordberg) and Swede Levov (Ewan McGregor) in American Pastoral.
Merry Levov (Hannah Nordberg) and Swede Levov (Ewan McGregor) in American Pastoral.

American Pastoral

Opens Friday, Oct. 28

A film (or three) with a literary pedigree is as sure a sign of fall as football and leaf-strewn sidewalks. Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut with a wrenching adaptation of Phillip Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, smartly surrounding himself with actor’s actors David Strathairn, Peter Riegert, Molly Parker, Rupert Evans, Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Connelly. The British matinee idol also stars as Seymour “Swede” Levov, a successful New Jersey factory owner whose self-assured, midcentury grip on the American Dream is broken by ‘60s radicalism that arises in his own family. The release of American Pastoral just before Election Day is not wholly accidental. Halloween horror aside, fall movies are more than entertainment.

Fall Movie Guide: Women and Men on the Verge 15 September,2016Michael Fox


Michael Fox

Michael Fox has written about film for a variety of publications since 1987. He is the curator and host of the long-running Friday night CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute,  an instructor in the OLLI programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.