Here’s the thing about fall movies: they often become Christmas movies. For every film that starts in autumn, seventy-five percent end in the throws of snow and sleigh bells. It’s logical, really. Fall is a slippery season, an elusive set of weeks (sometimes days) where the leaves ripen and change, the air begins to sharpen, and the promise of Halloween is right around the corner. But then, just like that, you blink and the world has slipped into a grey-toned purgatory, waiting for that first glimpse of snow. So what, then, marks the difference between a fall and a winter movie? Personal taste, most likely, and that unmistakable gut feeling that guides us all. In keeping with the transitory nature of the season, I’ve listed these films in order of temperature — breezy in the beginning, crisp in the middle, then downright frozen at the end. It’s the perfect catalogue to keep you entertained right up until December.
Days of Heaven (1978)
Let’s start off with a big one, shall we? Days of Heaven is the perfect film for the beginnings of fall, right when the leaves start to change but you can still work up a sweat. A gorgeous, windy piece of filmmaking from the (usually) great Terrence Malick, it follows a young couple and a little girl as they flee 1910’s Chicago and take up work harvesting wheat in the fields of an elusive farmer. It is a romantic film that sways under the weight of its inevitable tragedy, with wide-eyed performances from Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and the great playwright Sam Shepard — plus the most beautiful house ever captured on film. Put this one on while it’s still warm enough to hear the cicadas.
This one is pure September, if September were the most depressing experience of your entire life. Margaret is a film that just barely exists: It was filmed in 2007, then fell into legal purgatory until it was quietly released in 2011 in a cut vehemently disavowed by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan. The extended cut — the correct cut — is now finally available, and it is very much worth the three hour run time. Anchored by a bravura performance by Anna Paquin, Margaret follows a teenager who witnesses a violent accident and becomes consumed with making it right, often to the detriment of everyone around her. It’s a powerfully upsetting experience, at times nearly impossible to watch, but it’s that live-wire emotional truth that keeps the film from going off the rails. It is also an essential post-9/11 film, right up there with Spike Lee’s explosive 25th Hour (also starring Anna Paquin, queen of taste).
Actor Paul Dano’s first attempt behind the camera is a beast to behold, full of self-assured images that linger in the mind like the trail of wildfire. Wildlife centers on Joe, the teenaged son of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), who can only sit and watch as his family slowly crumbles: Jerry, having just lost his job, goes off to fight wildfires, leaving Jeanette and Joe to fend for themselves. It is a story of passion gone awry, and the delicate strings that hold us together, with one of the best scripts of the decade (penned by Dano and writer/actress Zoe Kazan). The atmosphere is chilly, but the fire will keep you warm, even when you don’t want it to.
Mistress America (2015)
Noah Baumbach, king of autumn in New York, goes full-on screwball in this back-to-school classic. Starring Lola Kirke and the great Greta Gerwig as soon-to-be stepsisters, Mistress America is one of most successful comedies of the decade, with dialogue so funny and sharp, you won’t notice when it guts you. It’s mean, it’s wonderful, and it’s full of excellent coats. What more can you want?
Autumn Sonata (1978)
The leaves are changing and the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman is at the height of his powers in the essential face-off, Autumn Sonata. Bergman is a writer’s director, and Autumn Sonata is his best piece of screenwriting: All set in one night, we witness the reunion of mother and daughter (two of our greatest actors, Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann), which doesn’t go quite as planned. There’s a lot of pain between these two, and at times it feels like putting two prize fighters in a room, locking the door, and watching them go at it. It’s brutal, and devastating, and so, so beautiful. “A mother and a daughter, what a terrible combination.“ In Autumn Sonata, it truly is.
Being There (1979)
A man who may or may not be an idiot inexplicably rises to political power in Hal Ashby’s disturbingly prescient Being There. Peter Sellers plays Chance, a simple-minded gardener who finds himself suddenly out of a job — and a home — when his elderly employer dies. With nowhere left to go and nothing to offer except his love for television, Chance takes to the streets, thus beginning a weird, funny, and nowadays disturbing series of events. It is a biting political, philosophical satire, as well as a sweet story about a man who just wants to understand the world he lives in. It’s a journey we can all relate to, in more ways than one.
It’s not October without vampires, and no vampire movie of the last decade screams fall the way Twilight does. I mean, just look at Edward (a very reluctant Robert Pattinson) in that pea coat! It’s the peak of the season! Twilight is a monster of a movie, with a nearly peerless cultural impact, and that in itself is quite the achievement. But amidst the snark and the sparkling and the overbearing romance, it can be easy to forget that Twilight is also just a damn good time. Look at all that moss! The rain! The PNW woods! It’s the perfect lighter faire to break up what is turning out to be quite the run of downers (apologizes in advance, but I am who I am).
Carnival of Souls (1962)
It’s finally spooky season, and it just doesn’t get better than Carnival of Souls. With some of the eeriest horror imagery in memory, Herk Harvey’s B-movie classic is a ghost story for the ages. After being the sole survivor of a brutal car crash, Mary (Candace Hilligoss, all eyes) tries to put the accident behind her. But visions of an eerie man follow her everywhere she goes, and soon she feels herself pulled toward a deserted carnival at the edge of town. While I could’ve gone with more famous picks — Halloween and The Blair Witch Project narrowly missed out — nothing moves the way Carnival of Souls does. There’s mystery, there’s intrigue, there’s spookiness to spare. It’s simply the perfect Halloween pick.
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Directed in lush color and emotion by master of melodrama Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows is a romance about an unlikely pair — Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson — whose age gap threatens the love they cannot help building together. It’s gorgeous stuff, with Technicolor cinematography so tactile, you could reach through the screen and grab it. And it’s a bit of a bummer, too — what’s a romance without some tragedy sprinkled in? But ultimately it’s just a perfect piece of filmmaking, and an always relevant reminder that what’s considered “trash” now might actually be the highest of art.
Red Desert (1964)
Remember what I said about that grey-toned purgatory? It’s here, and it’s name is Red Desert. Ironically, it marks master Italian structuralist Michelangelo Antonioni’s first foray into color filmmaking, which goes to show: just because you’re using color doesn’t mean there needs to be a lot of it. Red Desert is, like most Antonioni outings, a film about isolation, and absence. Monica Vitti (with red hair!) tries to navigate an unknown industrial wasteland, finding herself overcome with anxieties she cannot understand, and surrounded by a world she no longer feels a part of. It’s existential dread for two hours straight, but it’s well worth the sit. Antonioni conjures images so good, they’re supernatural, and Vitti gives her best performance out of many. If you wake up on a foggy morning that just won’t quit, this is the one for you.
The Ice Storm (1997)
It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving for the family at the center of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and absolutely no one is having a good time. Set in 1973 amidst the Watergate scandal, Lee’s chilly, moving film follows the Hood family — wasp-y suburbanites, to the core — as their anxieties mount, secrets slip out, and all the while the worst ice storm of the century waits right around the corner. There is a lot to unpack: a changing political climate, the aftermath of the sexual revolution, the artistic correlation between weather and mental illness (see also: Take Shelter). But despite its many, many layers, The Ice Storm is a film with its heart wide open. Sometimes all you have is your family. Sometimes that can be enough.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
OK, so this one is a little dicey. There’s lots of snow, heavy furs, Leonard Coen crooning in the background while characters warm up around a fire. Does that make McCabe & Mrs. Miller more of a December pick? Most people would probably say yes. But I am not most people and so it’s going on this list, if only for that last week of November when the snow is starting to pile up at your door but it’s not truly winter yet. Robert Altman’s gorgeous Western stars Warren Beaty and Julie Christie as a gambler and a prostitute who become business partners in an up-and-coming mining town. It’s a film about capitalism’s inevitable destruction — we never learn! — and the doomed nature of trying to own something in this mess of a world. Does that mean it’s a downer? Yes. (I warned you.) But damn, is it not one of the most beautiful things ever made, with Beaty and Christie giving all-time great performances, and Altman doing Altman. Light a fire, grab the thickest blanket you’ve got, and let it take you.
So maybe using the title “The New Fall Canon” is a presumptuous move: I am only one person, after all, and that only gets you so far. But it sounded cool so I’m going with it, and you should, too. It’s all about the movies, baby! And these are some real winners, if I do say so myself.