Fall has unofficially begun — bringing with it the usual crop of Oscar hopefuls and would-be holiday blockbusters.
The bigger releases — the latest "Harry Potter" movie, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "King Kong" — won't be at your local cineplex until the end of the year. But meatier fare is already creeping back into theaters.
On Friday, "An Unfinished Life" (search), which stars Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez in a film about an estranged father- and daughter-in-law, may be J-Lo's comeback as a serious actress.
A week later, "Proof" (search) hits theaters. The adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a woman who worries she has inherited her brilliant father's madness after his death. Paltrow is garnering Oscar buzz for her role.
Other anticipated September films: "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" (search) (Sept. 16), an animated yarn featuring the voices of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (Sept. 16); Jodie Foster's "Flight Plan" (search) (Sept. 23), ads for which already have audiences on the edge of their seats; Reese Witherspoon's ghost-story romance "Just Like Heaven" (search) (Sept. 16); and "Oliver Twist" (search) (Sept. 23), Roman Polanski's fresh take on the Charles Dickens orphan-boy classic, featuring Ben Kingsley.
October kicks off with "In Her Shoes," (search) (Oct. 7), a tale which follows two sisters, one a knockout (Cameron Diaz) who has leeched all her life off her workaholic sibling (Toni Collette), and the grandma (Shirley MacLaine) who helps them reconnect after a bitter estrangement.
"My character, she's kind of gotten away with her looks, gotten away with her ability to charm people and find her way without having to work," Diaz said. "And she's kind of coming to the end of that rope, as well as having nothing to fall back on, having bitten the hand that's always fed her."
Another high-profile romantic comedy follows a week later: "Elizabethtown" (search) (Oct. 14), Cameron Crowe's flick about life and death starring Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom.
November brings the movie version of the Broadway musical "Rent," (search) (Nov. 11 N.Y./L.A., Nov. 23 wide) and Joaquin Phoenix and Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line" (search) (Nov. 18), a portrait of the early years of the country star who died in 2003.
"I'm not a singer by any means," said Phoenix, who did his own singing (as did Witherspoon). "If it was a fictional character where it was a made-up voice, it might have been harder. But I had a specific voice to go after, so I had to work specific muscles and really work at hitting certain notes. It was nice to have a recognizable voice as a goal."
The New York Post's Lou Lumenick also hears a box office ka-ching for George Clooney's political drama "Syriana" (search) (Nov. 23). Clooney is also getting buzz for his McCarthy-era film "Good Night, and Good Luck" (which opens in limited release Oct. 7).
But certainly November's biggest release is the fourth "Harry Potter" tale: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (search) (Nov. 18). The film casts the young hero (Daniel Radcliffe) in an international wizardry competition that leads him to another showdown with dark sorcerer Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
The British fantasy franchise gets its first English director in Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral").
For all the magical trappings of "Harry Potter," Newell enjoyed injecting a sense of his own classroom days into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"Aside from everything else, these are school stories," Newell said. "In a middle-of-the-road English education, the teachers are embattled, the school is a very kind of anarchic place and a very funny place, as well. Where two sets of people — one of which is becoming adults and one of which is trying to avoid going back to becoming children — clash.
"The anarchy of youth, it is really rich stuff. I loved that. I loved doing the school side of it."
Hollywood's current love affair for fantasy continues in December with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (search) (Dec. 9), adapted from C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series.
The film follows the adventures of four English children in World War II who battle an evil witch enslaving a magical land of giants, talking animals and centaurs. It's directed by Andrew Adamson of "Shrek" fame.
Another huge December release: the long-awaited adaptation of the best-selling novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" (search) (Dec. 9), director Rob Marshall's follow-up to "Chicago." The film stars Ziyi Zhang (search) as a poor Japanese girl who becomes a geisha goddess.
Many people define "geisha" as a high-end prostitute, but Zhang discovered a rich artistic and social fabric behind the geisha culture.
"From my opinion, 'geisha' means a woman skilled in the arts. Like dancing, singing and playing musical instruments," said Zhang, making her first English-language movie after such Chinese martial-arts hits as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero."
"They are also skilled in the art of conversation," said Zhang, who underwent two months of geisha "boot camp" to learn complicated dances, the proper way to wear kimonos and the art of pouring tea.
Other December films getting buzz: "The Producers," (search) (Dec. 21) Susan Stroman's adaptation of Mel Brooks' Broadway show that won a record 12 Tonys, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprising their roles; "Brokeback Mountain" (search) (Dec. 9), a gay-cowboy drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger and directed by Ang Lee; "All the King's Men" (search), starring Sean Penn as the Southern political boss of Robert Penn Warren's classic novel (Dec. 16); Jim Carrey's "Fun With Dick & Jane" (search) (Dec. 21), a remake of the 1977 Jane Fonda comedy written by "40-Year-Old" virgin co-writer Judd Apatow; and Steven Spielberg's "Munich" (search) (Dec. 23), a thriller about the slayings of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
But perhaps the biggest film of the whole fall/holiday movie season is "King Kong" (search) (Dec. 14), directed by "Lord of the Rings" mastermind Peter Jackson and starring Naomi Watts as the beauty who steals the heart of the gigantic primate.
Experts almost unanimously believe that "King Kong" will be the most successful movie released between now and the end of the year, according to the New York Post's Lou Lumenick.
"The 800-pound gorilla on this fall's movie schedule actually stars one," he said.
The Associated Press and the New York Post's Lou Lumenick contributed to this report.