Fleeting, attractive and temperamental, autumn has a unique set of qualities that make it a favoured season for filmmakers. It signifies abundance but also melancholy; it offers natural beauty but also coldness and dark. Here are 10 great autumnal films to watch while the nights are drawing in.
Massachusetts is practically a byword for autumnal splendour, and Boston natives Matt Damon and Ben Affleck do a great job of showing off their handsome hometown in their debut screenplay. Will (Damon) is an unrecognised genius working as a janitor who’s quick to push away anyone who tries to get close to him. But as he learns to deal with his trauma and trust others, the city starts to look a little brighter. Both South Boston and the MIT campus are lovingly captured by director Gus Van Sant and DoP Jean-Yves Escoffier, and there are some excellent cardigan-beard combinations for Robin Williams’ insightful psychologist.
The setting of Coen Brothers’ third film is an anonymous corrupt city that witnesses a violent turf war between Irish and Italian gangs during the Prohibition era. In the middle is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a savvy gangster navigating friends and enemies while trying to figure out which is which. But it’s on the outskirts of town, in the gorgeous woods of the film’s quasi-spiritual title, where the real drama happens. Collar turned up and hat tilted down, Tom marches the pitiful Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) out in the middle of nowhere to die. Their showdown amidst grey sunlight and brown pine needles is the film’s pivotal scene, and its most enduring image.
David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 hit is not the first horror film to effectively use an autumnal setting, but it might be the most effective since John Carpenter’s Halloween. We open at dusk in middle class suburbia, pumpkins adorning doorsteps and the pavement littered with the season’s first fallen leaves. A young woman bursts from her home in fear, and we are soon caught up in her mysterious terror without understanding it. It Follows uses autumnal melancholy to engender an almost overwhelming sense of dread; the nights are drawing in, and they hold many dangers.
Has London ever looked so oppressively grey as in this 2011 John le Carré adaptation? Like the world of covert intelligence that it portrays, the city is cold and treacherous. The autumnal backdrop perfectly suits the story whereby old structures of nation prove themselves insufficient to meet the challenges of a complex Cold War. At the heart of it all is the stoic George Smiley (Gary Oldman), impeccably dressed in the conservative style of his ilk – all dull trench coats, leather gloves and thick scarves. True to the spirit of the author, there is no hint nostalgia but a very stiff upper lip.
The morbid and sheltered Harold (Bud Cort) is obsessed with death, even to the point of staging extravagant fake suicides. He meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a septuagenarian with a passion for living, and they hit it off immediately. This unlikely love story is steeped in iconic 1970s style, with a lovely autumnal palette of warm oranges, reds and browns perfectly accompanied by Cat Stevens’ cosy folk tunes. Worth watching for the coats alone, Harold and Maude is a hugely influential film pitched somewhere between celebration and mourning, and pulled off with flair.
Widow Amelia (Essie Davis) is still reeling from the death of her husband, and is driven closer to the edge by the burden of dealing with her young son, her own grief, and perhaps a more sinister presence in their house. With its dark colour palette and intensely claustrophobic design, The Babadook presents an autumnal Australia worlds away from the eternal summer most of us picture. Everything about the look of the film suggests coldness and hostility. Recurring images of bare trees against the sky evoke the eponymous tormentor’s fingers, and dark coats worn by guests at a birthday party make the event more resemble a wake. Truly a feel-bad masterpiece.
The first part of Room is set entirely in a tiny shed that, for five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), is the entire world. He and his mother Joy (Brie Larson) have been kept prisoner there for his whole life, their only link to the outside a tiny skylight. When they manage to escape, it’s into an autumnal Ohio far bigger and more complex than Jack could have imagined. The season introduces him to everyday realities that are taken for granted, such as the increasingly dramatic difference between inside and outside. When Joy and Jack eventually revisit the now derelict shed, it’s at the beginning of a cold winter – their traumas are not over, but they are at least prepared.
Though America’s east coast gets most of the attention at this time of year, California has its share of seasonal splendour too. Alfred Hitchcock filmed some of his best in the Bay Area; none more iconic than Vertigo, the sinister thriller perfectly suited to autumnal chill. In one of the film’s more eerie moments, police detective Scottie (James Stewart) and the mysterious Madeline (Kim Novak) visit a misty redwood forest, where Madeline uses a gigantic felled tree to demonstrate that she is possessed by a ghost. It’s an inspired use of a stunning location – the trees are large enough to dwarf even stars as big as these.
With his giddily profane early work, Don Hertzfeldt developed a reputation as a master of strange, darkly comic animation, but 2012’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day wrings surprising emotional depth from his crude stick figures. Our protagonist Bill’s journey through a crippling mental breakdown is immersed in authentic sadness, reflected in the rainfall and bare trees of his minimal environment. The season is signified by very little on screen – perhaps a few leaves or just a sound effect – but the impact is fully felt in the world of the film. It’s unexpectedly and profoundly moving.
Perhaps no one embodies the two sides of autumn better than Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) and his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck). Both are approaching adulthood, and while Cameron is depressive and fearful for the future, Ferris is determined to appreciate the beauty around him while he can. The end of the summer needn’t mean the end of fun – as Ferris demonstrates by turning skipping school into an art form. His joyful romp through Chicago in early autumn lifts even Cameron’s spirits. To paraphrase Ferris: autumn moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Published 9 Oct 2016
By James Clarke
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