Favorite Autumn Films to Welcome the Season
Autumn... you know it, you love it. The pre-winter-hibernation period is perfect for staying in and catching up on your queue or discovering something new altogether. What follows are some of my favorite re-watches once the air becomes too crisp for a fourth apple-picking session of the season. I’ll save my obligatory Halloween spam for another article, but I will always love Hocus Pocus (1993), Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost (1999), and especially It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966). As the sun sets earlier and earlier, there’s nothing like a pair of thick socks and a wool blanket to keep you cozy for a harvest time screening.
A back-to-school classic for good reason, Dead Poets Society is the last of the great 1980s teenager-centric films. Not quite in the Brat Pack canon of The Breakfast Club (1985) or Pretty in Pink (1986), it addresses heavy issues like institutional academic repression and emotional abuse, but manages to avoid the self-righteous PSA territory of Less than Zero (1987). Although the plot itself isn’t revelatory and many of the literary lines can seem farmed out, the characters and superb acting drive this story. Despite each being white, privileged, and male, their effusive youth and vulnerability can’t be overlooked as they’re forcibly assimilated into adulthood. Perfect for any time during the season, Dead Poets Society will run toggle-coat-hooded through the night of your feelings like a group of sad, randy, nerdy teenage boys. [CW/TW:] Be warned, suicide does occur.
Surprise, it’s Cary Grant again! Not quite a Halloween movie, Arsenic and Old Lace has exactly the right amount of thrills and chills to start off the holiday season. With a pair of adorable, murderous aunties, a cousin who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and a neglected, justifiably fed up new bride, former professional bachelor Mortimer Brewster has enough to worry about. And that’s just until some real bad guys show up. Adapted from the stage, this slapstick comedy has just enough gallows humor for an audience dealing with World War II during its release. Fill up your hot chocolate and be not afraid of spillage, this is an easy watch with zero jump scares.
For this film, leave the cocoa on the counter. Somehow, The Others seems to have evaded many viewers’ notice. If this is the case for you, I’d advise against reading any other reviews as they will undoubtedly contain spoilers. Much like The Innocents (1961), the film’s menacing atmosphere is as dense as the fog that surrounds the family’s massive, echoing home. Nicole Kidman’s performance as a postwar mother at the end of her tether is matched by that of her children, who instead of being canonically creepy, create vibrant personalities as they strain against their stringent mother and their very special needs. More suspenseful than scary, I’ll recommend any film in which the female lead races around with a double-barreled shotgun in a burgundy velvet dressing gown.
All right, I can’t help it. The Blair Witch Project terrified me as a child who grew up in the woods, and I cannot wait for its 20th anniversary screening during Salem Horror Fest this October. Completely forbidden by my parents to see the film in theaters when it opened, I of course watched the VHS in a friend’s basement as soon as humanly possible. A dark room is essential for viewing and if you’re watching on a laptop, use headphones for the full sound effects. The movie often rolls through multiple streaming services during the witching time of year, but if you can find a DVD, make sure to check the Bonus Features for the documentary which was released before the movie premiered. Although Blair Witch isn’t for everyone, its effect on movie production, marketing, and the horror genre itself is undeniable.
Autumn was made for binge-watching and Twin Peaks will always be there, but don’t expect satisfaction. Mysterious, moody, and addictive, the first two seasons are an almost perfect parody of late eighties and early nineties soap operas. You won’t believe the sweaters. What sets the series apart is a sinister undercurrent that becomes stronger as the story progresses, peaking where the show was canceled. A core base of fans made Twin Peaks into a cult classic, and after twenty-five years The Return (2017) confounded a new generation of viewers. Even dipping my toe into the intricate plot will turn this short recommendation into a thesis, but if you’re ready to sink into the season’s darkness, the Black Lodge awaits.
November is the perfect month for melodramatic romance. Any Douglas Sirk film will have you sprawled across your chaise longue or textured rug with deep, overwhelming malaise and you will no doubt look amazing while sobbing. All That Heaven Allows is a rich examination of middle class 1950s society making a huge deal of Jane Wyman’s widow falling in love with Rock Hudson’s handsome, younger gardener. Good for her, right? Wrong. It’s ageist, elitist, and all so well-dressed! Becoming absorbed by Sirk’s films is all too easy for the same reasons we love any kind of simple, straightforward trash television. As entry #95 in the Criterion Collection, this is certainly elevated garbage. Against a backdrop of the changing seasons, this film’s emotional spectrum is as varied as the weather. Guaranteed to make me ball up my tiny fists and weep with rage at the unfairness of it all, sometimes it just feels good to feel something.
A crossover from The Attic’s seasonal What We’re Reading articles, [ed. note: and a bonus to yesterday’s discussion of the elusive writer!] Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is cemented in my autumnal mindset. On Halloween night in 2013, Cambridge’s historic independent cinema The Brattle hosted a signing of the author’s third novel. Not only was I in the presence of the Master herself, but one of the few earnest audience questions she answered was mine. Luckily the theater was dark, as I could feel my cheeks burning. Like her novels, Tartt’s response was well-considered and more than satisfactorily lengthy. In the signing line following her reading, I only then remembered my costume. A friend was throwing a party afterwards, and I was dressed not only in all black, but with giant costume pearls and a golden eye mask on my head. Yes, this pretentious history nerd had decided to go as Simon Schama’s ‘The Embarrassment of Riches.’
Before I could dispense with the more caricature-like accessories, it was too late. I was before her. Stifling the urge to curtsy, I placed my pre-ordered copy of The Goldfinch down on the table, and she thanked me for my “insightful question.” Now there was no hiding my cheeks. I sputtered out something forgettable and embarrassing, but she was as unmoved by this as by my dress-up. She then said with an unexpected but muted delight, “Oh, you use an umlaut for your ‘e!’” Dear readers, I could have died.
The signed book remains one of my most treasured possessions, sitting alongside my well-read and well-loved paperback copy of The Secret History.* At over a thousand pages, The Goldfinch is an experience that I’ve only undertaken once. As when I first read The Secret History in high school, at the end of my undergraduate degree I was primed and ready to be emotionally wrecked again. In this, I was not disappointed. Since that signing six years ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to view the painting at Mauritshuis in The Hague, and have worked professionally as an antique American furniture specialist with the book often in mind. These are bright spots, but very little else has been easy.
Going into a special pre-screening of the film earlier this week, again at The Brattle, I felt remote from that bright-eyed twenty-one year old. The connection of the location only struck me as I was waiting in line. From the trailer and casting, I was optimistic. Those who appreciated the Dickensian nature of the novel may find it too pared down, and those who didn’t read it at all may find it too long and pedantic. For me, it was just right. It’s unusual for an adaptation to appear as I imagined it while reading the book, which is a credit to Tartt’s effusively descriptive prose. Many of the major plot points were addressed; impressive to the length of the novel, even though the film still clocked in at two and a half hours long. It speaks to the film’s quality that I did not feel the time passing.
Leaning over the balcony, I could see where the signing had taken place. From twists and turns and pitfalls, I’ve become a different person since then. Through the film, the story affected me in ways I should have expected, but didn’t because they were not those that had stirred my emotions before. It may be some years yet before I read or watch it again, and by then another decennial Tartt novel may be published and have emotionally taken its payment. Paraphrasing the unforgettable, chaotic good character Boris, that is just life.
*And a cassette audiobook, read by Robert Sean Leonard, a.k.a. Neil from Dead Poets Society. Still one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
**All images provided by Posteritati, unless otherwise indicated.
Zoë G. Burnett is a writer, menswear stylist, and film enthusiast based in Boston, Massachusetts. A born and raised New England Yankee, she feels equally at home in the 7th arrondissement. She is currently editing her first novel. You can read her personal blog here.