Y’know those back to school ads for Staples? The ones that repurpose the Christmas standard “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” to celebrate children going back class? I always hated those ads as a kid. Going back to school was not a time to celebrate. It was a time for grief and mourning.

Not this year. For a film fan, the fall really is the most wonderful time of the year. That’s when the studios and indies unveil their best movies in the hopes of snagging those coveted year-end awards. Fall can’t come soon enough in 2016, because it finally puts an end to a particularly bad summer movie season. To paraphrase one of our Presidential candidates, it’s time to Make Movies Smart Again™. It’s about freaking time.

As we gear up for the fall, the staff of ScreenCrush convened to pick the season’s 20 most anticipated movies. They’re collected below, in order of their upcoming release. They range from movies big enough to hang in the summer to little festival favorites coming soon to arthouses and streaming services around the country. Giant or tiny, they’re the reasons we’ll be of good cheer until January.

The Light Between Oceans

If you want heartbreak, trauma, and raw performances, Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, A Place Beyond the Pines) is your guy. In The Light Between Oceans, the filmmaker brings those themes to a period drama based on M.L. Stedman’s novel of the same name. Set in a post-WWI Australia, the film follows Tom (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel Sherbourne (Alicia Vikander), a couple attempting to start a family at a far-away lighthouse. When a baby who’s been lost at sea suddenly arrives on their shore, the couple think their prayers have been answered and adopt the child. But wait, were you expecting a happy story? This is a Cianfrance movie! The couple eventually learn their daughter is the lost child of a woman from the nearby town (Rachel Weisz). This was also the movie where real-life couple Vikander and Fassbender met, so you can bet their onscreen chemistry is pretty powerful. Could Vikander be looking at her second Oscar nom? (September 2) — Erin Whitney

Blair Witch

When the lights went down at the world premiere of The Woods at Comic-Con, the audience had no idea they were going to be the first to discover one of the most impressive secrets in recent movie history: The Woods was in fact a sequel to the 1999 film that launched the found-footage genre, The Blair Witch Project. It was a publicity stunt worthy of the original Blair Witch, which spent a good portion of its own marketing campaign trying to deceive the public into believing it was actual documentary footage of three missing backpackers. The question then becomes: Is Blair Witch movie worthy of the original Blair Witch? If nothing else, they put the right team in place for an interesting film; director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have collaborated on outstanding indie horror flicks like You’re Next and The Guest. I was interested to see this one when it was still just a Wingard/Barrett jam called The Woods. Now that it’s Wingard/Barrett’s Blair Witch? I’m really excited. (September 16) — Matt Singer

Queen of Katwe

Two words: Lupita Nyong’o. Since rising to fame with 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o has taken roles in action and sci-fi films, including two CGI characters. She’s great in all of those, but Queen of Katwe marks the actress’ first return to a realistic dramatic role since she won her Oscar in 2014. Directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), the Disney film recounts the real-life story of a 10-year-old Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi (Madia Nalwanga), who sets out to become a chess champion. Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother and David Oyelowo stars as a missionary who introduces the young girl to the game. Both Nyong’o and Oyelowo are two of the best actors of their generations, and more than anything I can’t wait to see what the two of them are like onscreen together. Disney’s been on quite the streak this year introducing new young talent in both the lead roles of The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon. Nalwanga may be the next young actor on the rise. (September 23) — EW

The Magnificent Seven

The cast list for The Magnificent Seven offers several reasons to get pumped for Antoine Fuqua’s latest, not the least of which is a Training Day reunion: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ethan Hawke, and badass South Korean star Byung-hun Lee all star in the new remake of the classic Western (itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai). In the midst of the genre’s recent cinematic revival, we’re definitely interested to see what Fuqua does with a rugged and rowdy shoot-em-up, especially after that crazy hardware store scene in The Equalizer. If nothing else, watching all these actors together on the big screen seems like a pretty entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. (September 23) — Britt Hayes

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Despite a few late-career hiccups, a new Tim Burton film is still something to get excited about. His latest effort, based on Ransom Riggs’ inventive children’s novel, looks like the bizarro Burton version of X-Men — and with a screenplay from First Class scribe Jane Goldman and a title evocative of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, that doesn’t feel like a coincidence. Featuring Burton’s usual gothic whimsy, the film stars the consistently fantastic Eva Green as the titular headmistress and Samuel L. Jackson in a villainous role reminiscent of Unbreakable. That casting alone feels like a return to the classic, campy Burton we know and love, and with nary a silly Johnny Depp hat in sight, it’s easy to feel optimistic about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. (September 30) — BH

American Honey

This Cannes favorite, which won the festival’s 2016 Jury Prize, hits U.S. theaters this September. Andrea Arnold’s road movie stars Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, and Riley Keough as traveling magazine salesmen who party hard and aren’t afraid to break some laws to get what they want. Parentless, aimless Star (Lane) meets the magazine crew’s charismatic leader Jake (LaBeouf) and Jake’s eyebrow piercing, and gradually falls in love with him over the course of a road trip that weaves throughout the American Midwest. Among other things, the film features a Walmart dance party, a Confederate flag bikini, and not one, but two "We Found Love" needle drops. (September 30) — Emma Stefansky

The Birth of a Nation

At Sundance all anyone could talk about was Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which got multiple standing ovations and marked the biggest sale in the festival’s history. The film tells the true story of Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt in Virginia. Parker stars as Turner alongside Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, and Aja Naomi King. The film was quickly hailed for bringing an important true story to the screen, and as an awards frontrunner that could counteract the issue of #OscarsSoWhite. But in recent weeks the film has taken on a different narrative, one that’s become impossible to ignore. Since the media has become aware of Parker’s involvement in a 1999 rape trial at Penn State, The Birth of a Nation has been at the center of a still-brewing controversy that’s brought up difficult questions regarding sexual assault and separating art from the artist. The film currently holds a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but it will be interesting to see how the controversy affects its reception at fall festivals, its October release, and its awards potential. (October 7) — EW

The Girl on a Train

Anyone who loved Gone Girl or devours female-led thrillers and murder mysteries should mark their calendars for October 7 and The Girl on the Train. Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), the film is adapted from Paula Hawkins’ novel of the same name and follows a divorced woman, Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), who becomes obsessed with a couple she passes on her morning commute. After waking up bruised and hungover one morning, Rachel has a feeling something bad happened, and soon learns the woman she spied on has gone missing. It’s a mystery set around a woman tortured by her past, and if that doesn’t sell you, the cast will: Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Lisa Kudrow, Allison Janney, Laura Prepon, and Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven). Get excited, and if you’re a book-before-movie type of person, you better head to the nearest bookstore pronto. (October 7) — EW


It’s been ten years since the last Christopher Guest movie, and 13 years since Guest’s last film in his signature faux-documentary style (that would be 2003’s A Mighty Wind). He makes his long-awaited return to the format with Mascots, a feature for Netflix about the world of sports mascots. Like Guest’s Best in Show, the film is structured around a competition; in this case, the World Mascot Association Championships. Also making a long-awaited return: Corky St. Clair, Guest’s character from his 1997 classic Waiting for Guffman, who will reappear in Mascots, along with many members of Guest’s repertory company like Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, and Jennifer Coolidge. Thus far, most of Netflix’s fiction films haven’t held a candle to its television output. A great Christopher Guest movie could really put their movie division on the map. (October 13) — MS

The Accountant

Finally, an action movie about a badass accountant! “You’re going to need to file an extension on your taxes. A long one.” <BLAMMO> All right, probably that won’t happen in this film from Gavin O’Connor (Warrior), but Ben Affleck does star as an action accountant; a math genius who works for some of the most dangerous criminals on the planet. That sort of arrangement has its risks, and in the movie Affleck’s Chris Wolff has to defend himself and his secrets from all sorts of nefarious interests and a crusading Treasury agent (J.K. Simmons). The trailer makes The Accountant look like a dark and intense action film, but I hope Affleck gets at least one solid accounting-related one-liner. Something like “Do you know what CPA stands for? Certified public assassin.” <KABOOM> (October 14) — MS 

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Okay, sure, Christopher McQuarrie didn’t return for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, but Tom Cruise did, and last we checked, that pretty much guarantees a good time at the movies. Cruise’s confident, knuckle-cracking take on Lee Child’s literary protagonist is the perfect antidote to The Bourne Fatigue and perennial dad favorite Jack Ryan, and just about the only thing that makes the wait for the next Mission: Impossible sequel remotely bearable. The Jack Reacher sequel also seems to have everything you could want from a new Tom Cruise action flick (sans McQuarrie): Wild stunts, awesome fist fights, a government conspiracy, and that patented Cruise Charisma. What else do you need? (October 21) — BH


Chiron, played by three different actors over the course of Moonlight, is a young black man living in Miami who's slowly coming to terms with being gay. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Chiron's story is told in three parts: first as a boy growing up in the south of Florida, then as a young man, then as an adult, when he returns to his hometown and finds the man he's had feelings for his whole life. The film stars Trevante Rhodes as Chiron, André Holland as his friend Kevin, and Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harrie, and Mahershala Ali, with four other actors playing Chiron and Kevin at different points in their lives. (October 21) — ES

The Handmaiden

After making his English-language debut in 2013 with the criminally undervalued Stoker, Park Chan-wook returns to his native South Korea for a gorgeous gothic thriller based on Sarah Waters’ acclaimed British novel Fingersmith. Set in 1930s colonial Korea, The Handmaiden follows a woman who attempts to defraud an heiress while working as her personal servant. That may sound like a pleasantly inoffensive plot for a mystery thriller, but the latest film from the director of Oldboy looks every bit as sharp and twisted as his previous efforts — and twice as elegant. (October 21) — BH


Jeff Nichols is one of the most talented filmmakers working today. From Take Shelter to Mud to Midnight Special, Nichols often captures his characters in the midst of tense emotional quandaries. With Loving, Nichols looks to the real-life couple at the center of the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia. Ruth Negga (Preacher, Warcraft) and Joel Edgerton (Midnight Special) portray Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who were arrested in Virginia in 1958 for violating the state’s segregation laws. The film follows the couple as they move to Washington D.C. to fight the legislation in the case that ultimate made laws prohibiting interracial marriages unconstitutional. Beyond bringing a powerful piece of history from the Civil Rights Movement to the big screen, Loving looks like a great showcase for the talents of Negga and Edgerton, actors who both deserve some Oscar recognition. (November 4) — EW

Doctor Strange

Marvel has already turned outlandish concepts and characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man into box-office gold; now they try to get over a hero who is strange from his concept to his name. After surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) injures his hands in an accident, he searches the world for a cure. He never finds one but he does meet the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him the ways of magic and trains him to become Earth’s mystical defender. Cumberbatch is perfect casting for Strange, and the movie, directed by Scott Derrickson, looks like a mix of The Matrix and Inception. Will Marvel pull it off? I don’t have the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto, but I have a hunch they’ve got another eclectic hit on their hands. (November 4) — MS 


Paul Verhoeven’s specific brand of satire definitely isn’t for everyone, but that’s part of what makes his films so special. The director of RoboCop and Showgirls (deal with it) returns with a new thriller about a successful, determined woman who engages in a precarious game of cat-and-mouse with the man who assaulted her. There truly is no one more ideal for the role of the titular character than Isabelle Huppert, who has made a career out of starring in challenging films that often deal in themes of sex and violence. Elle looks like it could be the most perfect marriage of filmmaker, material, and star since Huppert met Michael Haneke. (November 11) — BH

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

You might've heard of this tiny indie picture, Harry Potter, about wizards and magic, although it's a little niche, and kinda under the radar  just kidding. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first spinoff of one of the biggest franchises of all time. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a put-upon British wizard whose trunkful of magical creatures escape into the streets of 1920s New York City, and his new friends Tina (Katharine Waterston) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) have to help him find them all before they spark a war between wizards and Muggles. The creatures look, well, fantastic, and the Gatsby-era atmosphere is wonderfully palpable, with a lighted sign advertising arrow collars in the background of one shot. If the rabid fan response to Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage play is any indication, there's a good chance Fantastic Beasts could be the biggest movie of the fall. (November 18) — ES

Nocturnal Animals

A story within a story, the two intertwined narratives of Nocturnal Animals weave into and out of each other onscreen. The first part follows a woman named Susan, played by Amy Adams, as she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) whom she had left 20 years ago. Her ex asks for her opinion on his story, which she thinks might actually be a thinly veiled threat and a symbolic tale of revenge. The second part of the movie follows the manuscript itself, as Susan's fact and fiction become hard to distinguish from each other. (November 18) — ES

Manchester By the Sea

The Oscar race is still coming into focus, but odds are this drama from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on MeMargaret) will be a major player. Wildly acclaimed at its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Manchester By the Sea stars Casey Affleck as Lee, a handyman who is made the legal guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies. In his Sundance review, former ScreenCrush editor Mike Sampson called Manchester a “heartbreaking exploration of tragedy, loss and regret” and “a tearjerker that earns every drop.” I’m this close to crying already. (November 18) — MS


The year wouldn't feel complete without a Disney movie, and Moana is here to sail us out of the chilly November weather to warmer, sunnier climes. Auli'i Cravalho voices Moana, a Pacific Islander princess with an adorable pet pig, who teams up with the demigod Maui (The Rock, clearly having the time of his life) and Maui's dancing tattoos to sail to a legendary island. We're not totally certain, but she might have some sort of magical powers over water as well. The film also includes the voice talents of Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei the rooster, and Jemaine Clement as a giant self-absorbed crab named Tamatoa, who lives on the island of monsters.  (November 23) — ES