WARNERBROSPICTURES Two of Hollywood’s biggest stars set out to explore outer space in 'Gravity.'
Two of Hollywood’s biggest stars set out to explore outer space in ‘Gravity.’

The defining word of this past blockbuster season was “disappointment.” While the slate of films that came out this summer was never expected to be inspiring, especially when compared to last year’s lineup, disappointment, ranging from mild (Iron Man 3) to moderate (Man of Steel) to extreme (Elysium), seemed to be the pervasive feeling around cinemas this summer.

The fall generally brings a shift in studios’ priorities from making money to winning awards and making money. And while the true Oscar bait  usually start arriving around December, the fall months tend to showcase films that aren’t quite slam-dunk nominees. Whether it be a less-prestigious genre, an unproven director or off-putting content, what pushes films out of the prime early-winter weekends can be what gives them their allure.

The most striking example of this is Gravity, which comes out Oct. 4. The first film by Alfonso Cuarón since 2006’sChildren of Men, one of the best movies of the past decade, Gravity has a simple premise: Two astronauts, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, are stranded in space. Apparently, the movie is not the extended metaphor or character study one would imagine but instead a taut, straightforward thriller.

Fortunately, Cuarón is no ordinary director. Expect him to exploit the immense horror of space  — its silence, its size — to full effect; as a virtuoso director considered to be the master of the tracking shot (one without any cuts), Cuarón has never had a playground as exploitable as the final frontier.

Although Gravity should be the star of the fall movie season, it is by no means the only standout.Captain Phillips — the first film for shaky-cam pioneer Paul Greengrass since the unmemorableGreen Zone — tells the story of the hijacking of a cargo ship by Somalian pirates and the ensuing rescue. The trailer shows an impressive amount of moral ambiguity, and there is considerable Oscar buzz for both Tom Hanks in the titular role and first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who plays the leader of the pirates. The movie is set to be released Oct. 11.

If all were right in the world, the consistently impressive Idris Elba would already be a full-fledged movie star. He finally has the chance to carry a movie in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, where he plays the South African leader in his anti-apartheid revolutionary and guerrilla-warrior days. This movie will be out in limited release in late November, but it is expected to be expanded nationwide some time afterward.

A final highlight is 12 Years a Slave. An incredible cast — headed by the underrated Chiwitel Ejiofor as a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery and Michael Fassbender as his cruel master — promises to be the most accurate depiction of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. Notably, director Steve McQueen is the first black filmmaker to direct a major movie on the subject.

Other movies, such as Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and Spike Lee’s Oldboy, should be on your radar as well. Any Scorsese film automatically deserves consideration, and the trailer hints at strong performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey, who may pick up an Oscar nomination after a world-beating 2012. Lee may seem to be a strange choice to direct a remake of the seminal Korean film, but his foray into action, 2006’s Inside Man, was by and large a success.

The combination of ambition and quality is what makes the fall movie season unique, and 2013 seems to have it in spades. If you don’t want to be lost come Oscar season, make the trek down to K Street and check these movies out.

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