In case you haven't heard, these are tough economic times. Wall Street is threatening a double-dip recession Meanwhile, theaters are charging higher prices as if everything is hunky-dory, plus extra for 3-D.
You need some smart advice on where to spend your money. That's where our annual fall movie preview comes in. We're here to separate the bulls from the bears, because any movie can look like a good investment in preview trailers.
Here are 20 films being released between now and Thanksgiving that will beg most loudly for your hard-earned dollars. We'll predict which ones are worth buying, and which ones you should sell off and wait for home video, if then. Release dates are subject to change, as always.
Let's ring that opening bell.
COMING THIS FALL
Warrior, Sept. 9: Here's an insider-trading tip, since I've seen Gavin O'Connor's neo-Rocky underdog tale of mixed martial arts fighters. It's a crowd pleaser, with bone-jarring fights and more emotional depth than expected. Nick Nolte resuscitates his career as the alcoholic father of estranged brothers (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) on a collision course for the title of world's toughest man. Trust me. Buy.
Drive, Sept. 16: Ryan Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt driver moonlighting as a getaway guy when a robbery goes wrong. Cannes Film Festival audiences were wowed by Nicolas Winding Refn's film, a throwback to 1980s noir thrillers such as To Live and Die in L.A. Albert Brooks is getting Oscar buzz as a slimy crook, and I'd watch Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston in anything that isn't Larry Crowne. Buy.
I Don't Know How She Does It, Sept. 16: I'm guessing "it" is Sarah Jessica Parker's ability to topline a movie after Sex and the City 2 and Did You Hear About the Morgans? Parker plays supermom, a Manhattan financial adviser raising three kids, counting her underachieving husband (Greg Kinnear). She could probably use a few cosmopolitans on the rocks. Save some for the audience. Sell.
Dolphin Tale, Sept. 23: The true story of Winter the bottlenose dolphin, with several Hollywood flourishes, was chiefly filmed at her home, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida. Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd are probably upstaged by Winter, playing herself. It looks like a winner, and seeing familiar places and faces in 3-D probably will cover any flaws. Buy.
Moneyball, Sept. 23: Just in time for the major league playoffs comes this quirky baseball story, based on Michael Lewis' non-fiction book about Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his unorthodox methods of building a team. Jonah Hill plays it fairly straight as Beane's stats whiz, and Philip Seymour Hoffman looks perfect as manager Art Howe. Buy.
Abduction, Sept. 23: Taylor Lautner's abs and eyebrows make their screen debut outside the Twilight universe. He plays a high school student who discovers that his parents aren't really his parents. How can you explain that? Check the title. The over/under for how many times Lautner takes off his shirt is four. Sell.
50/50, Sept. 30: Insider-trading tip, Part 2: This is the wise, witty comedy about cancer that everyone expected Funny People to be. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets the diagnosis and Seth Rogen keeps up his pal's spirits in a movie best described as Terms of Endearment with (500) Days of Summer verve. You'll laugh more than cry, and hope you have friends like this. Buy.
The Ides of March, Oct. 7: One of the season's few offerings with solid award-season potential. Oscar winner George Clooney directs and stars as a presidential candidate with a media strategist (Ryan Gosling) being tempted to the other side. Clooney is a much better filmmaker when employing political themes (Good Night, and Good Luck) instead of fluff (Leatherheads). Buy.
Real Steel, Oct. 7: A washed-up boxer (Hugh Jackman) trains a rockin', sockin' robot in a future when machines do our sport fighting for us. It's based on a Richard Matheson short story previously adapted for The Twilight Zone and not the action toy that had 1960s kids figuratively knocking each other's blocks off until their thumbs bled. More like Transformers without the rubble. Sell.
Footloose, Oct. 14: Now the trend of sucking up to children of the '80s has gone too far. Even Kevin Bacon is steering clear of this remake, about a rebellious teenager (who's Kenny Wormald?) teaching an uptight town how to kick off the Sunday shoes. No chance that a soundtrack of the same pop songs performed by mostly unknown country artists will be anything more than a novelty, or that Dennis Quaid can out-villain John Lithgow. Sell.
The Big Year, Oct. 14: The best comedy often comes from odd places, and there's no odder idea for a movie than people spending a year bird-watching. When those people are Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black, the laugh potential increases. This one is flying under the radar (pun intended), and that's intriguing. Until we see a preview trailer proving otherwise, this looks like a good investment. Buy.
Margin Call, Oct. 28: We can't overlook this one under the circumstances. A starry cast featuring two Oscar winners (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons) and an actor who should be by now (Stanley Tucci) play Wall Street fixers in a fictional account of the 2008 economic meltdown. Fictional? After Inside Job and Too Big to Fail tautly told truths? Looks good but doesn't seem necessary. Sell.
In Time, Oct. 28: Justin Timberlake can do a lot of things, but I'm not sure that playing a steely-eyed action hero is one of them. JT co-stars with Amanda Seyfried in a dystopian fantasy about a world in which lives end early unless people work like dogs to buy more time. Wait a minute. This is science fiction? Sell.
Tower Heist, Nov. 4: Check out the hilarious trailer for this one. Ben Stiller plays a high-rise apartment manager whose staff is ripped off by a Bernie Madoff-style shyster (Alan Alda) and schemes to steal $20 million from him. The gang that can't steal straight includes Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Gabourey Sidibe and a bounce-back role for Eddie Murphy. Buy.
Puss in Boots, Nov. 4: Memo to Hollywood: Not all scene-stealers deserve movies of their own. Antonio Banderas (at least his voice) reprises his feline charmer from the Shrek flicks, but I can't imagine where to take his character. Expect plenty of opportunities for Puss to bat those saucer kitty eyes but not much else. Sell.
J. Edgar, Nov. 9: Awards season is around the bend, so it's time for Clint Eastwood to direct another movie. This time he teams with Leonardo DiCaprio for a biography of FBI legend J. Edgar Hoover. Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) isn't likely to gloss over Hoover's alleged closeted life as a homosexual. Buy.
Jack and Jill, Nov. 11: This one already has Razzies written all over it. Adam Sandler plays dual roles as Jack and his twin sister, Jill, who comes to visit and won't leave. If Sandler's whiny imitation of a feminine voice doesn't drive you away, just wait for Al Pacino to show up with a mad crush on Jill. Somebody please break their crowns. Sell.
Immortals, Nov. 11: Or, as I like to call it: Clash of the 300 Barbarian Princes of Persia. A bunch of hunks slip into swords and sandals to impersonate Greek gods at war. We'll get a look at the next Superman, Henry Cavill, and Mickey Rourke sweating and swearing destruction again. Immortals is directed by Tarsem Singh (The Fall, The Cell), who makes breathtaking movies that bore. Sell.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, Nov. 18: Look, just because Twilight producers suffer from Harry Potter envy doesn't mean Stephenie Meyer's concluding book deserves two movies. Vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and mortal Bella (Kristen Stewart) get married, but we'll wait until 2012 to see them spawn. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) serves as werewolf of honor. Sell (but swooning fans won't listen).
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Nov. 18: The classiest production of the season, with Gary Oldman earning early Oscar buzz as British secret agent George Smiley, the creation of novelist John le Carré . Smiley must uncover a mole in the agency, and possible suspects include Oscar winner Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and John Hurt. The Debt recently rekindled my espionage interest, so I'll take a calculated risk on this one. Buy.