Some longtime friends long absent from the screen are returning this fall, which should make for some happy reunions in the nation's movie theaters.
Among those actors who'll be offering their work up for public inspection after especially long absences are Jodie Foster, off screen since 2002's Panic Room; Annette Bening, off screen since 2000's What Planet Are You From? and even Barbra Streisand, AWOL since 1996's The Mirror Has Two Faces.
Babs get the award for returning in the unlikeliest place; she'll be playing Ben Stiller's mother in Meet the Fockers (Dec. 22), a sequel to the 2000 comedy Meet the Parents. Making more conventional returns are Foster in A Very Long Engagement, as a young woman searching for her lost lover near the end of World War I, and Bening, in Being Julia (Nov. 12), as a 1930s diva plotting revenge on an opportunistic lover.
Also this fall, Christmas should be coming a little early for movie audiences. Because the Academy Awards will once again be held in February, rather than in the more traditional March, studios have been pushing up the release dates of their major prestige films, in hopes not only of getting the jump on the competition, but also of putting their movies on voters' minds as early as practical.
While nobody yet is ready to abandon Christmas Day altogether - it is, year after year, one of the heaviest days for film-going - many of the big Oscar contenders are being released earlier than such films have been in previous years.
Among the most anticipated films (read: the ones that will be pushed most heavily for Oscar consideration) are Ray (Oct. 29), from director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman), with star Jamie Foxx already earning considerable buzz for his portrayal of blues-rock legend Ray Charles; Oliver Stone's Alexander (Nov. 5), the director's first non-documentary in five years, with Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, and Colin Farrell as that king of ancient Macedonia they call the Great; Closer (Dec. 3), a drama about two friends more attracted to each other than they ever realized, starring Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen and Jude Law; and Proof (Dec. 24, proof that Christmas hasn't totally been abandoned), with Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hope Davis and Jake Gyllenhaal in a drama about a brilliant but mentally disturbed math professor and his daughter, who may or may not be the real genius.
Most anticipated of all, however, may be Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (Dec. 17), with Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in a film that's already earning buzz as a serious Oscar favorite.
Also, look for two films with major local connections. Ladder 49 (Oct. 1), with Joaquin Phoenix as a firefighter who flashes back on his life and career while trapped in a fire, was shot largely in and around Baltimore last year, while A Dirty Shame (Sept. 24) is the latest in bad taste from our own John Waters.
Finally, look for some potentially interesting remakes and sequels, as big-studio Hollywood continues its reliance on the tried and true when it comes to investing its money. Among the retreads and re-imaginings are Resident Evil: Apocalypse (Sept. 10), with Milla Jovovich back as the memory-challenged virus hunter; Alfie (Oct. 22), with Jude Law stepping into the role Michael Caine made famous; and Ocean's Twelve, with George Clooney in a movie that scores on both recycling fronts, because it's a sequel to a remake (Dec. 10). Now that's sticking to the familiar.
Here's the tentative movie schedule for the rest of 2004, presented with the usual caveat: None of these dates is written in stone.