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All hail October, the finest month for movies

There's something special about October movies, even the ones that don't debut in October.

Steve Jobs is the kind of movie that makes October so special.
Steve Jobs is the kind of movie that makes October so special.
Universal

For practically all of my adult life, October has been my favorite month to go to the movies. It’s not just that the beginning of October marks the start of Hollywood’s end-of-year awards season and the accompanying flood of prestige pictures — though that certainly helps.

It’s that movies released in October have a unique quality that’s hard to find the rest of the year. Indeed, there’s a certain type of film that I’ve come to think of as the "October movie" — a special subgenre that flourishes as summer turns to fall.

October movies are darker, smarter, and edgier than typical Hollywood fare, but they’re not particularly difficult or pretentious; instead, they’re tremendously pleasurable to watch. They sometimes have reasonably large budgets and fantasy elements, though more often they fall in the middle or lower end of the budget range.

But even when they cost north of $100 million to make, they’re not the sort of loud, populist, effects-driven popcorn blockbusters that have long dominated the summer months, nor are they the slightly more serious variants that increasingly litter the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas window.

October movies are usually dramas or thrillers, but can occasionally be comedies, too. They aren’t sequels or franchise starters, but they’re often adaptations based on popular or critically acclaimed books. They tend to come off as literary, but accessible rather than precious or "arty" — think Stephen King, not Don DeLillo.

Basically, they’re smart, original, upper-middlebrow movies for adults that don’t skimp on entertainment value.

There are so many great October movies!

Gone girl

Gone Girl is a sterling example of the October movie.

20th Century Fox

This October is full of movies that qualify. Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a perfect example: It’s a meticulously crafted scientific survival adventure, as harrowing as it is engaging, and a big-budget adventure film where the special effects exist to serve the story. It’s a thoughtfully made movie that’s incredibly enjoyable to watch, but never feels like it’s pandering.

Movies that fit that last description are coming out all month long. Before the beginning of November, we’ll see Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a taut, somber Cold War spy story starring Tom Hanks and co-written by the Coen brothers; Room, a tense, claustrophobic, and emotionally raw thriller built around a pair of astounding performances and based on Emma Donoghue’s prize-winning novel; Crimson Peak, the latest from glossy horror auteur Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth); and Steve Jobs, a slick, moody, structurally daring take on Apple’s founder written by voluble super-scribe Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) and directed by British stylist Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later).

Part of what connects these movies is the high level of cinematic craftsmanship. Even if you don’t particularly like them (Sorkin, especially, has plenty of critics), it’s hard to deny that they’re all high-quality productions. And with the exception of Room, they’re all the products of modern masters, highly respected film artisans with long track records of work that is both critically praised and widely, or at least intensely, loved.

These are the kinds of movies that you see just about every October. Last year gave us David Fincher’s Gone Girl and David Ayer’s Fury, as well as Nightcrawler and John Wick from lesser-known filmmakers. The year before that saw Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, and Ridley Scott’s The Counselor. October of 2012 was somewhat weaker, but still saw the release of Ben Affleck’s eventual Best Picture winner, Argo, and Cloud Atlas, an ambitious, expensive failure from the Wachowskis that at least aimed for all the qualities that make a great October movie.

Going back over the past 15 years of October releases, it’s easy to spot the films that make it such a great month at the multiplex. Movies as varied as Christopher Nolan’s magician’s puzzle-box The Prestige (2006), Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing music-video-esque anti-drug PSA Requiem for a Dream (2000), Antoine Fuqua’s intense bad-cop crime movie Training Day (2001), Quentin Tarantino’s first volume of Kill Bill (2003), Martin Scorsese’s profane gangster romp The Departed (2006), and David Fincher’s bleak riff on the founding of Facebook, The Social Network (2010) all fit the bill.

You’ll notice I’ve named a few David Fincher movies. That’s because he practically defines the form — in part because several of his movies have had October release dates, but also because even his non-October films — pictures like Zodiac, Panic Room, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — still manage to feel like October releases.

The October movie isn’t an entirely recent phenomenon, either. I recall first noticing the greatness of the October release schedule in 1999, my freshman year in college, when Fight Club, Three Kings, and Being John Malkovich — all of which remain personal favorites all these years later — came out within weeks of each other. But it goes back further than that: Pulp Fiction came out in October of 1994, Swingers in 1996, Gattaca in 1997, American History X in 1998. Some of these are great movies, and some merely fine examples of the form, but they all share the essential October movie vibe.

October movies are different from other end-of-year award-season films

Bridge of Spies Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks stars in Bridge of Spies, one of this year's finest examples of the October movie.

Dreamworks Pictures

I know what you’re thinking. It’s clear enough how these movies differ from typical bombastic summer fare: There are no superhero films on this list.

But aren’t all of these essentially the same kinds of movies that get released in November and, especially, December, as part of the award-season glut?

Not quite. It’s true that the last two months of the year also see a large number of well-made original films aimed at adults. But the avalanche of Christmastime Oscar hopefuls all tend to announce their award-worthiness far more aggressively. For December movies, the most important thing is, well, to be important. For October films, the most important thing is to be interesting and entertaining.

Take Bridge of Spies, for example. While it parallels many of Spielberg’s films in a variety of ways, its closest cousin is probably Munich, which hit theaters in December of 2005. Like Bridge of Spies, Munich is an expertly crafted historical thriller set against the backdrop of 20th-century geopolitical conflict. But Munich was far more interested in drawing politically charged historical parallels; its stark final shot, which peers ominously at the New York skyline before coming to rest on a still-standing World Trade Center, made the movie’s 9/11 subtext explicit. Bridge of Spies, by contrast, is far less focused on making on-the-nose points about contemporary politics (though you can certainly find them if you’re looking), and much more concerned with telling a strong, stirring story.

Even when October movies aren't good, they're memorable

Cloud Atlas Tom Hanks

Cloud Atlas is a great example of a memorably flawed October movie. (Also, Tom Hanks sure seems to turn up in a lot of these.)

Warner Bros.

There’s something else that connects all true October movies, too — a certain darkness, a blackness and bleakness of spirit that makes them stand out from much of the rest of award-season fare. You might think of it as the October edge, and it’s a big part of what differentiates October movies from much of the award-season Oscar bait that follows, which tends to be more saccharine, more showy, or more self-important — or sometimes all of the above.

That edge, combined with the consistently high levels of craftsmanship on display, means that in many cases, even bad movies released in October are bad in memorable, intriguing ways.

I already mentioned Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis’ adaptation of David Mitchell’s time-hopping nesting doll of a novel, which relied on a cast of stars to play multiple roles across six interlinked timelines. Although the $100 million literary sci-fi film was ultimately a failure, it was nonetheless a fascinating, massively ambitious project. In a very different way, the same thing can be said about a movie like Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), a gritty, gory, spastically edited riff on media violence and reality television. In no conventional sense is it good movie, but it’s a strikingly crafted, surprisingly interesting one.

True October movies are the exception, not the rule

Ex Machina

Robot saga Ex Machina was an October movie that was released in April.

A24

Not every movie released in October is truly an October movie in the sense that I’m describing. Among other things, the end of October tends to see its share of crude, low-budget horror releases (the endlessly numbered Saw films), as well as plodding action vehicles aimed at the older-guy set (Taken 2, Escape Plan). October release weeks are clogged with bad comedies and cloyingly quirky high-concept junk as well.

On the flip side, not every movie that meets the definition is released in October. Ex Machina was released in April of this year, but could easily have come out this month. The same goes for Michael Mann’s moody hacker movie Blackhat, which hit theaters in January this year. In previous years, there have been films like No Country for Old Men and The Insider, both of which came out in early November yet still channeled the spirit of the October movie.

But October is where these movies are found most often, and why I always look forward to it so much — especially after the cinematic wasteland of late August and early September, where studios like to dump post-summer duds.

At the same time, there’s also something frustrating about the concentration of these sorts of films in a single month: The fact that Hollywood releases smart, accessible, well-executed movies aimed at adults for a few weeks every year is proof that it can be done relatively reliably and consistently.

But for much of the year it simply isn’t, as studios chase ever bigger, and more predictable, paydays from youthful franchises with more mass appeal. I like those movies as much as the next former child comic geek, but I often wish there were more options. As much I love seeing movies in October, they’re also a reminder of what a shame it is that Hollywood doesn’t make these movies all year round.