Cinematary Canon #1: Best Movies Set in Autumn
By Zach Dennis, Andrew Swafford, Jessica Carr, John McAmis, Lydia Creech, and Ben Shull
NOTE: The films listed are not ranked by quality, but rather in chronological order.
The Wicker Man (1973) by Robin Hardy
DISCLAIMER: This movie is set in April. It was shot in October and is about the harvest season, though. Send hate-mail to email@example.com, please.
Though the industrialized world may have largely moved on from our agrarian roots, it is undeniable that Autumn’s historical significance has been as harvest season, when the fruits of a community’s labor are reaped and the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature is consummated. Aside from maybe Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, no film captures the communal and agricultural side of autumn better than Robin Hardy’s horror musical The Wicker Man, which follows a pious English cop as he investigates a missing persons case on the fictional land of Summerisle during the lead up to the island’s annual harvest festival. The society depicted here operates as a harmonious hivemind of pagan nature worship and free love, constantly judged by our protagonist as godless depravity. A great sense of moral ambiguity pervades the film, as neither side ever seems entirely unsympathetic or morally correct. It’s a richly layered clash between cultures and a negotiation between generations, and the narrative can be seen as running parallel to the divide between Christendom and so-called paganism--or even between the hippie movement (whose iconic music informs the film’s many acoustic sing-alongs) and their straight-laced parents. In this way, The Wicker Man explores the way faith and superstition both inform and challenge humankind’s appetite--for food, sex, and violence. The film is littered with beautiful images of woodland creatures, stonehenge-like sacred monuments, colorful cherry blossoms, and nude figures dancing and singing folksy hymns in unison, making Robin Hardy’s original Wicker Man a perfect watch for anyone wanting to experience the slightly creepy, old world mysticism that Autumn leaves still whisper of. - Andrew Swafford
The Deer Hunter (1978) by Michael Cimino
Consistent with the other “depressing small town scenarios” found further down this list, The Deer Hunter examines the troubled lives of three blue-collar steelworkers after a tour of duty in Vietnam. The three-act epic spans three hours of stunning cinematography, particularly in the first and third acts when Robert De Niro’s character, Michael, goes hunting in the mountains of Pennsylvania (actually shot in Washington State, though). The lush greenery and winding mountain trails present an escape from the political and violent torment of the War. In a word, it’s “Bob-Rossean.” It’s a place where patriotism is set aside, allowing humanity to confront nature on nature’s terms. Aside from a metaphorical approach to the season, the film nails the aesthetic of a Mid-Atlantic autumn with vibrant reds and deep oranges in the leaves that speckle the soiled streets of Clairton, PA. Also, the ever radiant Meryl Streep dons great sweaters. - Ben Shull
Halloween (1978) by John Carpenter
THE horror franchise named after an autumn holiday (With I guess Thankskilling coming in a close second?). I’m nominating the original Carpenter classic that started it all to the Cinematary canon. Originally just called The Babysitter Murders, Carpenter knew he needed some sort of extra “spook” factor to really make his low-budget indi a success. His producer came to the rescue and suggested setting the story on Halloween eve and changing the title; thus, a legend was born.
I LOVE this movie. It is quick and dirty filmmaking at its most effective. I find the scares to be genuinely frightening, helped in no small part by the iconic score (which Carpenter also did himself!). Though the story may be simple, Halloween is impeccably structured. Carpenter knows how to pace the scares and violence to keep the audience gripped every second. Regardless of how you feel about the slasher subgenre today, I think it is so very worth it to check out the first (and best?).
Most autumn moment: Carpenter and crew had to bring in bags of fake leaves (and reuse, as it turns out leaves are expensive) in order to set dress Pasadena as a Midwest town. Imagine the Shape helping to chase down leaves between scenes. - Lydia Creech
The Big Chill (1983) by Lawrence Kasdan
With a Motown-laden soundtrack sweeter than a certain season-specific spiced beverage, Midwest collegiate football, and Jeff Goldblum, The Big Chill epitomizes the cinematic autumn. A group of college friends are reunited after the suicide of a close friend, bringing them together for a weekend under the roof of the vacation home in which the suicide occurred. Traversing an array of successful careers and failing families, the gathering forces the group to reflect on the present state of their lives as compared to where they thought they would be years earlier. It’s a glaring commentary on the social expectations of the Baby Boomer generation: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll can only alleviate so much of reality, yet what if those things are somehow ingrained into your being? What if those things make you who you are? The film is as comical as it is morbid; cynical as it is wistful. Set in the small town of Beaufort, South Carolina, the locale amplifies nature’s creeping, autumnal death as the perfect background for the protagonists’ various existential crises. - Ben Shull
When Harry Met Sally (1989) by Rob Reiner
It is impossible not to fall into the swimmingly romantic allure of When Harry Met Sally from its opening sequence where the two main characters (played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) meet and don’t really hit it off. The romance is in the texture rather than being overtly in front of them, and that has attributed to the lasting power of this film as one of the most influential romantic comedies of all-time. But another attributing factor has to be its setting in New York City in the fall. There is something unexplainable about leaves falling, sweaters, and warm drinks that speaks to the romantic in all of us, but it helps to have all of that included in a package with Crystal and Ryan tossing lines off one another and just being genuinely funny. At this rate, the romance of this film seems so textbook, but it still allows for us to romanticize those moments that had us swooning and to think of a time of hope. There is something hopeful about the love of When Harry Met Sally and I believe that ties in with the season it is taking place during. Fall lacks the exuberance of summer, the prosperity of spring, and the sadness of winter. Instead, it is about reflection and passion. And what better place to do that in than New York City? - Zach Dennis
Dead Poets Society (1989) by Peter Weir
Peter Weir’s academic drama is one for the books (heh heh). It’s a gripping story about coming-of-age, school, the importance of education, and, famously, seizing the day. A cast of Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and James Waterston are the young academics at the prestigious boarding school Welton. At the beginning of another monotonous term of learning, the students are educated about a simple phrase that’s now synonymous with the film: carpe diem, “Seize the Day.” This phrase, introduced by the late Robin Williams who plays the seasoned, yet quietly rebellious Welton alumnus John Keating, changes the students’ lives in different ways. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) decides to pursue his desire to act, which goes against the plan his father has drafted for his education. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) decides to court a girl against his better judgement (atta boy, Knox!). And Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) is by all accounts just a bystander until his glorious moment of initiating the famous “O Captain, My Captain” scene during the film’s conclusion. The film is an appropriate autumn scene due to its parallels with the season itself. Autumn is a time of great change, much like school for young people (and the semester during which the film is set, especially). The tone of Dead Poets Society is somber and melancholy, something many people experience during Autumn as Winter prepares to inevitably follow in its wake. When the young men participate in their weekly Dead Poets Society meetings, cold fallen leaves crunch under their feet as they leave the school grounds, and their breath swirls as they huddle around a crackling fire. This is a harsher autumn — one where death and frost are abundant — and Weir’s film captures this season and distills it into a beautifully somber academic story. - John McAmis
Good Will Hunting (1997) by Gus Van Sant
The poster for Good Will Hunting is a pretty dead giveaway. The leaves dominate the background while Matt Damon and Robin Williams smile in the foreground, beckoning you to relate this tale to the spoils of the fall. But I think deeper lies a connection to the autumn of our past — school and education. It is unequivocally the trait that best represents our association with the season as the beginning of autumn signaled the end of summer and freedom and the beginning of school and restraint. Good Will Hunting does, for the most part, take place at a university, but it is also the quest for knowledge by Damon’s character that links it to education. It also is a story about a man enjoying his freedom and the call back to reality, which brings its own form of restrictions along. By the end of the movie, the math jobs are keeping Will (Damon) held back and it isn’t until he decides to chase the girl does he regain the freedom he had at the movie’s beginning again. The leaves fall and school begins, but Good Will Hunting embodies the season on a much deeper level — and one we can all relate to. - Zach Dennis
Rushmore (1998) by Wes Anderson
Nothing signals the beginning of fall like going back to school. And for the ambitious teen, Max Fischer, that means returning to his beloved private school, Rushmore Academy. Jason Schwartzman makes his film debut as Max and nails his eccentric personality. Rushmore is director Wes Anderson’s second film, but one where I can see his own personal experiences come through. It’s not hard to picture a young Anderson in the exact same shoes as Max—a kid who clearly doesn’t like taking “no” for an answer; which leads to an interesting love triangle between a first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams) and the father of Max’s schoolmate (Bill Murray). Needless to say, a certain joy comes from watching Rushmore. It isn’t just from watching the leaves change, but also from watching Max come into his own—both as a creative mind and as a budding adult. - Jessica Carr
Hero (2002) by Zhang Yimou
While most autumn films tend to deal with the seasonal holidays or going back to school, I’m nominating a Chinese wuxia film that deals with literally none of that! However, one of the best parts of fall is the brilliant changing colors of the leaves (That seems to be a theme with me), and I think Hero certain fits the bill there. It’s told as a series of stories within stories, with each version getting its own primary color scheme. The effect is visually striking and beautiful. While martial arts films may not be to everyone’s tastes, Hero is quite a bit of fun, and I’d recommend it on a chilly night in.
Most autumn moment: Fallen Masters, Falling Leaves fight sequence. - Lydia Creech
Amélie (2001) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
The wind blows on a cool evening in France and a shy girl wanders the train station in search of a guy who makes her heart flutter. So, Amélie might not immediately come to mind when thinking of a fall movie, but the film relates to the season in more ways than one. The narrator declares, “Its August 28th. In 48 hours, her life will change forever. She just doesn’t know it yet.” And thus begins the journey that propels Amélie to try her best to create happiness for those that surround her. Audrey Tautou channels the embodiment of quirk in her portrayal of Amélie. For some, this movie might be too fanciful, but for me it’s the right balance of comedy and sincerity. The film shows each character and what simple pleasures they enjoy—much like the little things that make fall such a great season. This fall, curl up with a blanket and let the warmness of Amélie wash over you. You’ll be humming the soundtrack until winter comes. - Jessica Carr
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) by Wes Anderson
When you think about autumn, I’m sure you think about mushy pumpkin pies, dying trees, rotten kids during Halloween and the inevitable catching of the flu, right? Here’s a better picture: A quick-talking Fox voiced by George Clooney, a beautiful palette of oranges, yellows, reds, and browns, an intelligent and deadpan script by Wes Anderson, and some of the best stop-motion animation to grace the silver screen. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a cuss of a good time, and it shows the cussing beauty of the autumn season unlike any other cussing film. Many people, critics and audiences alike, rejoiced when they learned of the film’s production — Wes Anderson’s personal cinematic style seems to be made for animation. The colors, the comedy, the walk-and-talk camera, the tactility of the objects and characters — these are Anderson’s trademarks, and they are beautifully incorporated into the world of animation, specifically stop-motion. Fantastic Mr. Fox excels both as an animated feature (Oscar nominated) and an Andersonian experience (the film is Wes’s most critically acclaimed). Moreover, it’s one of the few films to truly capture the autumnal spirit. First and foremost is the film’s color palette which is awash with deep oranges, yellows, and reds. Nelson Lowery, the film’s production designer, lead the team in achieving the autumnal feel through color alone. There’s more to autumn than the colors, though. There’s also Bean’s golden cider and roasted turkeys (that’ll make a nice Thanksgiving), Boggis’s chickens (12 a day keeps the doctor away…wait that can’t be right), and Bunce’s ducks and geese (deliciously injected into donuts). Between the cider, fowl, and colors, Fantastic Mr. Fox paints a deliciously golden orange view of Autumn. - John McAmis
The Falling (2015) by Carol Morley
Changing leaves are changing bodies in Carol Morley’s erotic coming-of-age thriller The Falling, which takes place during 1969 at a British all-girls school tucked deep in within the wooded meadows Wordsworth wrote about. The film follows Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams as the plain friend of a beauty queen, and their relationship is complex--fraught with jealousy and Freudian longing. In the first act, the early bloomer has a sexual awakening that is quickly followed by sudden death in the form of a dancelike fainting spell she never wakes up from, leaving Williams behind to deal with the trauma and unconsummated desire. After Williams begins having possibly-feigned fainting spells herself, the film then becomes a Crucible-like spiral into mass psychosis, with more and more students dealing with the affliction. The tale Morley weaves here is often a dreamy and idyllic one, featuring dozens of slow dissolves between plant life and glimmering lakes (perhaps in the style of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock), as well as a coffeehouse-style soft-rock soundtrack that makes the film incredibly hard to pin down tonally. Occasionally, however, the form matches the girl’s hysteric fits, with blasts of practically subliminal 3-frame inserts that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in cinema. Due to the imperfection of the human eye and the way Morley’s editor (Chris Wyatt) has spliced together the film, different viewers will see different images in this moment, making The Falling a great Fall film to watch with friends before discussing and picking it apart in detail. Not quite a school drama, not quite a bildungsroman, and not quite a descent into madness, The Falling is an elusive and sublime experience laced with horror trappings (including many symbols of the occult) that defies categorization and demands further viewings. But every time you rewatch The Falling, not only will you see different images--you’ll see a different film. - Andrew Swafford