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The key movies to look out for at this year’s fall film festivals, according to our awards expert

Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet in "Dune"
Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet in “Dune,” which will world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and play in IMAX theaters during the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures)

After a 2020 fall film festival season that saw events diminished, canceled or going completely virtual, I’d like to say that we’re finally returning to a sense of normalcy now that Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York are upon us. And, yes, all four of the fall’s big festivals will be up and running, sporting robust slates of movies (some of them holdovers from last year), parties, tributes and stars walking the red carpet.

There also will be vaccination requirements, masks and, in Telluride, a mobile antigen and PCR testing unit, which I’ll be sure to visit right after working up the courage via repeated stops at the festival brunch’s Bloody Mary bar.

But let’s not think about that. Let’s focus on the movies!

Yes, the last Oscars were just four months ago. But there’s no shortage of intriguing awards season hopefuls premiering at these festivals, even if some of the year’s higher-profile titles — Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Soggy Bottom,” Steven Spielberg’s take on “West Side Story,” Adam McKay’s dark comedy “Don’t Look Up” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” and Ridley Scott’s eye-candy family drama “House of Gucci” — won’t arrive until the holidays.

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A handful of other fine films — Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket,” Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero,” Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun” and Julia Ducournau’s twisted Palme d’Or winner “Titane” — emerged at Cannes.

But here are the prime newcomers we’ll be seeing at festivals — fully vaccinated and masked — in the coming weeks. And while some release dates have not yet locked in, all are expected in theaters (and many also on streaming or VOD) by the end of the year.

“Belfast”
Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed this personal story of growing up in Northern Ireland in the late ’60s amid the Troubles. The cast of this black-and-white film includes Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds and newcomer Jude Hill.

“Benediction”
Biographical drama on the life of British poet Siegfried Sassoon, known for capturing the horrors of World War I combat, from director Terence Davies (“The House of Mirth”). Jack Lowden (“Small Axe”) stars.

A man sitting in a chair, aiming a handgun.
Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell in “The Card Counter.”
(Focus Features)

“The Card Counter”
Filmmaker Paul Schrader (“First Reformed”) doesn’t want to get into specifics about his latest, calling it “a mix of the World Series of Poker and Abu Ghraib.” If that doesn’t pique your interest, perhaps the cast will: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe.

A black-and-white still of a man and a young boy, sitting on the floor.
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in “C’mon C’mon.”
(Tobin Yelland / A24)

“C’mon C’mon”
Filmmaker Mike Mills’ follow-up to the openhearted “20th Century Women” tells the story of a radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) embarking on a road trip with his precocious nephew (Woody Norman). Expect connections to be forged, droll humor offered and, yeah, probably a tear or two. Also: It’s in black-and-white.

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“Cyrano”
Yes, Cyrano, as in De Bergerac, but without the nose and starring Peter Dinklage, reprising his star turn in the off-Broadway musical that the New York Times called “somber and monotonous.” Maybe director Joe Wright will liven things up?

Two teenagers run on a track.
Nik Dodani as Jared, left, and Ben Platt as Evan in “Dear Evan Hansen,” a filmed version of the Broadway hit.
(Universal Pictures)

“Dear Evan Hansen”
Another musical, one you probably know and possibly love. This one has Ben Platt reprising his turn in the starring role, even though he’s 27 years old and the title character is a teenager. Does that matter? We’ll soon find out. (I mean, Olivia Newton-John turned 29 when she made “Grease.”) But the songs are good, and its examination of mental illness remains relevant.

Two men stand on the outer surface of a spaceship.
Josh Brolin, left, as Gurney Halleck and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”
(Warner Bros. Pictures)
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“Dune”
Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve rides the sandworm, attempting to bring a satisfying version of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi/fantasy opus to the big screen (and HBO Max). David Lynch, understandably, may have no interest in seeing it, but he’s pretty much alone in that regard. Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin are part of the sprawling ensemble.

“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”
The hysteria surrounding Benedict Cumberbatch has abated since the height of “Sherlock,” but perhaps this biographical drama, in which he plays an English artist known for his surreal paintings of cats with huge eyes, could change that. If nothing else, it sounds like the most Cumberbatchian casting imaginable. Claire Foy co-stars as the Wife, but hopefully the role offers more for her to do.

A woman on a white couch with many pillows.
Jessica Chastain portrays Tammy Faye Bakker in the film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
(Searchlight Pictures)

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”
Jessica Chastain will get the Toronto tribute treatment pegged to her starring role playing the teary televangelist wife of convicted fraudster Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield).

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“The Guilty”
It may not be an awards play beyond acting, but who doesn’t want to see a nerve-jangling Antoine Fuqua thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ethan Hawke?

“The Hand of God”
Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) draws on threads of his life growing up in Sicily for this family drama, which (not to jinx it or anything) probably will win the Golden Lion at Venice.

“King Richard”
Will Smith plays the demanding father and coach of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams in what looks to be the kind of crowd-pleasing showcase for Smith that he hasn’t enjoyed in decades. Aunjanue Ellis also has a plum role playing the girls’ mother — and coach — Oracene Price.

A blond woman with a '60s hairstyle and peach-colored dress gets into a London taxi.
Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith in Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho.”
(Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features)
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“Last Night in Soho”
Edgar Wright’s psychological horror film likely won’t show up at the Oscars, though Anya Taylor-Joy singing Petula Clark’s “Downtown” sounds like an awards-worthy moment in and of itself.

“The Lost Daughter”
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a passion project adaptation (she wrote it too) of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, an unsettling and unflinching thriller about a middle-aged divorced woman who turns inward after meeting a young mother and her daughter while on vacation. Gyllenhaal homed in on “exploring these secret truths about motherhood, sexuality, femininity, desire.” Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson star.

Two women hug in a kitchen.
Milena Smit, left, and Penélope Cruz in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers.”
(Iglesias Más / Sony Pictures Classics)

“Parallel Mothers”
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest reteams him with Penelope Cruz in a melodrama following two women, a generation apart, who find themselves forever linked by their brief time together in a Madrid maternity ward. Newcomer Milena Smit stars opposite Cruz.

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A man wearing a hat stands in a field of grass with mountains in the background.
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog.”
(Kirsty Griffin / Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog”
More Cumberbatch! But, more significantly, it’s Jane Campion’s first film in 12 years (though I’m sure you enjoyed her two seasons of the BBC crime-drama “Top of the Lake”). Here Cumberbatch plays a sadistic ranch owner who doesn’t take kindly to his brother (Jesse Plemons) marrying a young widow (Kirsten Dunst). The film will premiere at Venice and play at Telluride, Toronto and New York (the only fall title playing all four), indicating distributor Netflix’s belief that it’ll dazzle the festival crowd.

A young woman seated at a table bathed in sunlight streaming through a window in the movie "Spencer."
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in “Spencer.”
(Neon)

“Spencer”
After examining Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie,” filmmaker Pablo Larraín takes on another iconic woman, with Kristen Stewart playing Princess Diana at the moment she decides to ditch Prince Charles.

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“The Tragedy of Macbeth”
Something wicked this way comes as Joel Coen updates the Shakespeare classic with Denzel Washington starring as the title character and reigning Oscar winner Frances McDormand playing his cunning wife. Another black-and-white entry. (That’s three. Get ready for the trend pieces!)


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