Although the puzzling under-performance of several major blockbusters brought an unexpectedly quiet end to the summer movie season, Hollywood has saved several highly-anticipated tent-poles for its fall/winter line-up. From the "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" to the next chapter in Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" trilogy, the rest of 2013 should have a mix of all-but-guaranteed blockbusters and a few fun surprises.
The World's End (Aug. 23)
Cult icon Edgar Wright — who directed the well-loved zombie/horror romcom "Shaun of the Dead" and the cop movie satire "Hot Fuzz" — returns to the big screen with "The World's End," another genre-bending comedy starring Wright's frequent collaborator, Simon Pegg. Pegg plays Gary King, a man who stubbornly refuses to grow up and tries to get a group of friends from his youth to return to their hometown for a pub crawl. The goal is to hit 12 different pubs, ending at a pub called the World's End. Unfortunately, the friends discover the name of the last stop on their pub crawl is eerily prophetic, because the world actually may be ending. The film already is generating positive buzz (92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and while this is actually the second apocalyptic ensemble comedy this year (following Seth Rogen's "This Is the End"), I think Wright will be able to put a fresh, sci-fi spin on the concept.
Gravity (Oct. 4)
This film, about astronauts marooned in space, is already earning early Oscar buzz for star Sandra Bullock. Bullock plays a medical engineer on her first Space Shuttle mission, accompanied by an experienced astronaut (George Clooney). When a horrific accident destroys their shuttle, they are unable to communicate with Earth and must rely on each other to survive. The trailer for the film is tense and harrowing; few things are more terrifying than the thought of being stranded all alone in space, and the film's 3D IMAX format should magnify that sense of terror for the audience. The challenge for the movie will be to keep audiences engaged if the film's plot is primarily Bullock and Clooney drifting through space. I'm intrigued by the film's concept, and I'm curious to see if director Alfonso Cuarón can pull it off.
Ender's Game (Nov. 1)
Although the book "Ender's Game" was published in 1985 and has since become a science fiction classic, it's taken a while to bring it to the big screen. It's an excellent book with a great surprise ending, but I do think it could be challenging to capture the story on film. The story is about a boy named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) who is recruited to join a futuristic military group defending Earth from an alien race known as the Formics. Ender is singled out for special training as a potential commander, and he comes to realize the fate of the entire human race has been placed on his shoulders. The trailer for the film looks good; the special effects seem to be of high quality, and Butterfield is backed by a strong supporting cast, including Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis and Harrison Ford.
Thor: The Dark World (Nov. 8)
Marvel has yet to produce a true flop from its line-up of individual "Avengers" films, and "Thor: The Dark World" appears to be another success to add to its list. The "Thor" sequel takes place a year after "The Avengers" and features Thor (Chris Hemsworth) fighting a primeval race planning to plunge the entire universe into darkness. Thor once again seeks the help of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and even his estranged adoptive brother/former enemy Loki (Tom Hiddleston). While I'm sad previous director Kenneth Branagh won't be returning for the sequel (I thought he did an excellent job balancing the sci-fi/fantasy/Shakespearean tones of the material), new director Alan Taylor's work on "Game of Thrones" should serve him well here. And as a fun bonus for "Doctor Who" fans, Christopher Eccleston, who played the ninth regeneration of the Doctor, will play the Dark Elf Malekith.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Nov. 22)
While I'm pretty sure "Star Trek: Into Darkness" will remain my favorite movie of 2013, "Hunger Games: Catching Fire" could give it a run for its money. The trailers released so far for "Catching Fire" have been amazing; they're exciting and simmering with tension, teasing the audience but not giving too much away. Based on the second book in the series, "Catching Fire" follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she deals with the fall-out of her victory in the Hunger Games. Across the country of Panem, rumors of revolution are brewing, and Katniss is becoming the symbol for that rebellion. Political leaders recognize she is dangerous, and they come up with a scheme to put her back in the arena as a tribute. Although the first book in the "Hunger Games" series is my favorite, I think "Catching Fire" has the potential to be an even better movie than its predecessor.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Dec. 13)
Although mild-mannered hobbit Bilbo Baggins remarks "I do believe the worst is behind us" at the end of the first "Hobbit" film, "An Unexpected Journey," fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's original novel know the adventure is really just beginning. This time, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the band of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) will battle giant spiders and escape from treacherous elves on their continuing journey to steal back the dwarves' treasure from the dragon Smaug. The first "Hobbit" film was a fun, rousing adventure, but like "Catching Fire," I think "The Desolation of Smaug" has the potential to be an even better film. The movie should have several nice action set pieces, and will introduce a cast of new and familiar characters, including Orlando Bloom's Legolas from "Lord of the Rings."
While it's tough to predict this far out what films will be nominated for that coveted gold statuette, here are some of the movies that are already generating Academy Awards buzz: "August: Osage County," Dec. 25, about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family whose lives begin to unravel, starring Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch; "The Monuments Men," Dec. 18, a World War II era drama featuring an ensemble cast who try to save artwork from the Nazis, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and Daniel Craig; "Captain Phillips," Oct. 11, based on the true story of a man held hostage by a group of Somalian pirates, starring Tom Hanks; "Saving Mr. Banks," Dec. 20, a true story about the controversy behind the scenes of Disney's "Mary Poppins," starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson; and "12 Years a Slave," Oct. 18, about a free man who is kidnapped and forced into slavery, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender.
So, what films are you most looking forward to this fall and winter? What do you think will be the biggest blockbuster? What are your early picks for Oscar contenders?