In trying to handicap the Labor Day-till-Christmas movie season, there’s always a useful bit of perspective to be found in perusing the results of the year to date. This year, there have been no seismic shifts in the filmic environment, but a couple of rather subtle developments deserve note, and they cluster around the two films that, on the major-studio and the indie levels respectively, have been 2001’s most notable successes: Shrek and Memento.

Shrek turned out to be the Little Monster That Could, and for that it deserves congratulations. No, I’m not about to alter my unenthusiastic view of DreamWorks’ somewhat self-contradictory kiddie fable, but it proved to be a milestone for a couple of reasons that merit recognition. First, it took digital animation to new heights of technical achievement, and proved that audiences are eager for the form’s further development. Yet it would obviously be a mistake to credit the movie’s huge success to its computer-generated visual wizardry. Quite the contrary, in fact.

According to any source you consulted, whether the opinions of friends or industry experts, Shrek struck gold because people liked its story and characters. They liked them so much, in fact, that they went to the movie over and over again, and told their friends, and then went some more. It used to be that a lot of movies inspired this kind of enthusiastic dedication, but in the summer of 2001, Shrek was nearly alone in kindling it. And that points us toward what was, in the broadest sense, the season’s big story.

Week after week, Shrek‘s popularity built rather than dwindled, and that made it the exception that proved the newly emerging rule: Big Hollywood movies open huge on their first weekend, then suffer drastic earnings drops immediately thereafter. Why do they open so spectacularly? Well, some have big stars or derive from cartoon franchises or what have you, but the deepest reason is singular: Audiences are no longer motivated by the movie but by the hype. They go because it’s become a social given that many Americans will follow the throng and see whatever the flashiest, most expensive TV ads tell them to go see that weekend. Actually liking the movie, as people liked Shrek, has become an anomaly, a curiosity.

Memento, the Little Noir That Could, accomplished a similar feat on the independent level, though word of mouth and a long roll-out were more important to it than TV ads. Famously, no indie distributor elected to take a chance on Christopher Nolan’s dark, backward-wending crime drama, so its producers released it themselves. And you know what? People went, and kept going, and told their friends about it–because they liked it. Most especially they liked its complex, ornate, dauntingly enigmatic story.

The happier lessons offered by both of these phenomena are that a) movies can succeed with viewers above and beyond the hype that surrounds most films’ releases currently, and b) an appealing story still trumps stars, auteurs and what-have-you. The less happy lesson, though, may be the one that we need to keep in mind as we face the fall season. Clearly, as movies that people actually like become rarer and rarer, the industry’s deepening cynicism decrees that its strategies increasingly focus on making money on opening weekend, with campaigns driven by TV ads.

Want to strike a blow this fall for a healthier movie environment, one that produces more films of the actually likable sort? Then, art films apart, don’t attend any movie on opening weekend. Wait and see whether it’s supposed to be good, and avoid the junk that’s meant to lure in TV-addicted boobs regardless of quality. That said, let me allow many of the films described below (a very selective preview of a busy season, please note) indeed sound good. But we’ll see how many join Shrek and Memento in the winner’s circle. Most likely, it will be very few.

The Hollywood Season
Given the studios’ tendency to release at year’s end the films they expect to do well in the Oscar races, September and October can seem like a graveyard of also-rans. Yet in recent years, early fall releases like American Beauty and Almost Famous have proved so strong among prize-givers that the season’s first half has gained new respectability as a launching pad for ambitious films.

Among the contenders this September, Hearts in Atlantis comes from a Stephen King novel and stars Anthony Hopkins as a mysterious boarder who befriends a boy who’s having trouble growing up. Shine‘s Scott Hicks directs. Another dark, suspense-minded tale, Gary Fleder’s Don’t Say a Word, has Michael Douglas as a psychiatrist engaged in a battle of wits with a nutcase who kidnapped his daughter. Crime is also central to Training Day, which stars Ethan Hawke as a rookie cop who comes to suspect that his partner, Denzel Washington, is crooked.

The early season also has its share of promising comedies. In Zoolander, a spoof of the fashion industry, Ben Stiller, who co-wrote and directed the film, plays a high-flying supermodel. Novocaine, a comedy with a decided dark streak, centers on Steve Martin as a dentist who gets caught up in a web of drugs and murder; Laura Dern and Helena Bonham Carter co-star. On a more upbeat note, Hardball features Keanu Reeves teaching baseball to kids from Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project.

As October rolls in, Robert Redford plays an imprisoned general thrown into conflict with tough warden James Gandolfini in Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle. In K-Pax, a drama with a New Age aura, Kevin Spacey’s a guy who claims to be an extraterrestrial, and Jeff Bridges is the psychiatrist assigned to bring him back to earth. Spiritual uplift likewise figures into Irwin Winkler’s Life as a House, which stars Kevin Kline as an architect who decides to rebuild his house and his family life at the same time.

On a grittier note, Collateral Damage gives us Arnold Schwarzenegger battling South American terrorists in a political thriller directed by The Fugitive‘s Andrew Davis. From Hell, about the hunt for Jack the Ripper, stars Johnny Depp as the law officer tracking Britain’s paradigmatic serial killer. Crime played for laughs is the keynote in Barry Levinson’s Bandits, which casts Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett as an unlikely trio of robbers. And Riding in Cars with Boys, directed by Penny Marshall, has Drew Barrymore as a party girl faced with the challenge of teen motherhood.

October also offers a couple of set-in-France costume dramas: The Affair of the Necklace features Hilary Swank as a larcenous aristocrat of the ancien régime, while the latest remake of The Count of Monte Cristo hinges on swashbucklers Guy Pearce (Memento‘s memory sieve) and Jim Caviezel.

The year’s final two months are, of course, where the heaviest hitters are expected, and this year it’s no secret that the big battle will involve two family-oriented literary adaptations that draw on the magical mythologies of olde Europe. Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, starring young newcomer Daniel Radcliffe, has the temporal edge, arriving the week before Thanksgiving. Its yuletide competition, The Fellowship of the Ring, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, has the advantage of wizardly director Peter Jackson, along with a cast that includes Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen.

The season’s home stretch also brings a slew of highly touted adult-oriented films. Gangs of New York, a longtime dream project for director Martin Scorsese, teams Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis in rowdy pre-Civil War Manhattan. Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, gives an American setting and pop-culture spin to Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabár’s mind-bending thriller, Open Your Eyes. In A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe plays schizophrenic Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., under the direction of Ron Howard. Biography also provides the dramatic grist in Michael Mann’s Ali, in which Will Smith takes the role of the heavyweight champ formerly known as Cassius Clay.

On the serious-action front, Brad Pitt and Robert Redford are teamed in Tony Scott’s Spy Game, an espionage thriller set in the Middle East. Director John Woo unpacks his arsenal for Windtalkers, a World War II combat drama set in the Pacific and starring Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater. Brad Pitt is also on hand, along with George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon, in Ocean’s 11, Steven Soderbergh’s updating of the 1960 Vegas heist tale.

On the season’s lighter side, Rushmore director Wes Anderson returns with The Royal Tenenbaums, the tale of a wacky Manhattan family that includes Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston and Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller. Paltrow also stars in the Farrelly brothers’ latest lowbrow laffer, Shallow Hal, which was filmed in the Charlotte area. In Joel Schumacher’s Bad Company, Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock are mismatched spies. Comedy of a more sentimental sort, meanwhile, is featured in both The Majestic, starring Jim Carrey as a blacklisted screenwriter who takes on a new identity, and Lasse Halstrom’s The Shipping News, which has Kevin Spacey as a journalist returning to his hometown.

Finally, the fantastical gets its due in two other late-year films. The Time Machine, starring Guy Pearce and Jeremy Irons, adapts H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi tale. And Monsters, Inc., the season’s big digital animation offering, will attempt to give Shrek a run for its money; it’s from Pixar, the creators of Toy Story.

Foreign and Independent Fare
The fall’s art-house offerings aren’t quite as easy to forecast as their major-studio rivals, because their arrival depends on variables like how they fare at the national level and what local theater owners think will please their patrons. And I don’t claim any kind of clairvoyance in these matters. Last year at Labor Day, I saw the first screening of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and figured it would be a big disappointment to its distributor. Instead, it became the highest-grossing foreign-language movie ever.

That said, it seems safe predict that Triangle audiences will soon see a couple of indie releases that are doing well at the national level. Ghost World, an offbeat comedy, comes from Crumb director Terry Zwigoff and cartoonist/writer Daniel Clowes. And Together, also a surprise hit with critics, is a comedy about a ’70s commune by Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson.

Another title that eminently deserves a local playdate, Zhang Yimou’s poignant drama of memory, The Road Home, has my vote as the year to date’s best fictional foreign language film. It marks a welcome return to form for mainland China’s most celebrated director.

Oddly, of the upcoming films I’ve seen, two of the best concern middle-aged men with a yen for teenage boys. Michael Cuesta’s Sundance-acclaimed L.I.E. features a brilliant performance by Brian Cox and stunning debuts by young actors Paul Franklin Dano and Billy Kay, while Barbet Schroeder’s mordant Our Lady of the Assassins locates its risky passions in bloody Medellin, Colombia.

Among the indie releases opening later in the fall, several have major auteur names attached. Mulholland Drive, a characteristic plunge into surreal freakiness for David Lynch, shared this year’s Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival with another fall release, the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, a noir takeoff starring Billy Bob Thornton and James Gandolfini.

David Mamet follows State and Main with Heist, a crime comedy featuring Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito. And Slacker director Richard Linklater has not one but two festival-acclaimed films headed into release: Waking Life features a new animation technique and a loose, expansive narrative, while Tape is a digitally shot chamber piece starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard.

In the area of foreign-language films, it looks like the fall’s big story may be a resurgence in French cinema. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s romantic comedy, Amelie, has been France’s big hit of the year and hopes to duplicate that success here. Recognizing the Gallic rebound, the New York Film Festival will open with Va Savoir, the latest comedy by New Wave veteran Jacques Rivette. New films by other French auteurs, including Rivette’s New Wave colleagues Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, will also be featured in the festival and head into the distribution pipeline in the coming months.

Finally, Christmas week will bring the latest from one of America’s feistiest independents, Robert Altman. There’s already great buzz on Altman’s first British costumer, Gosford Park, an upper-crust mystery that he describes as “Ten Little Indians meets Rules of the Game.” It stars Michael Gambon, Jeremy Northam and Helen Mirren. EndBlock