Previewing a season’s worth of films is like looking at a pile of unopened gifts: the anticipation is almost always more exciting than the revelations. Last spring, Death to Smoochy looked like a snarky, surefire hit, and an unspectacular little ethnic comedy with a no-name cast called My Big Fat Greek Wedding wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen. Looking ahead to this fall, it’s inevitable that at least one unpromising film (The Banger Sisters, anyone?) will actually be good, and at least one highly anticipated film will sink without a trace. What follows is one filmgoer’s highly biased and arbitrary assessment of this fall’s offerings.

September’s most highly hyped studio release is The Four Feathers, in which director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) attempts to do Lawrence of Arabia one better. Heath Ledger’s the Limey leading the Arabs this time in an adaptation of a Victorian potboiler about a 19th-century British misadventure in North Africa. Miramax claims it’s Oscar material. So far it smells more like Horsefeathers.

Checking into the Triangle later this month is the more promising Secretary, an S&M romp with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal also riding on a wave of hype. Late September or early October should see the arrival of 8 Women, young hotshot Francois Ozon’s (See the Sea, Under the Sand) attempt at a French version of a 1930s women’s picture like Cukor’s The Women. The cast alone will sell the tickets: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart and Virginie Ledoyen will all be jostling for their close-ups.

8 Women will have its day in the Triangle, but the fate of the new Nick Broomfield documentary, Biggie and Tupac, is less certain. Broomfield (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Kurt and Courtney) has ruffled more than four feathers in his day, and he seems to have blown up a pillow factory with this investigation of the bi-coastal hip-hop war that claimed two of rap’s biggest stars. The film’s been a sensation on the festival circuit: LA Weekly’s Manohla Dargis wrote, “If the director makes it through the year alive…[he] will have made not just the best film of his career, but one of the gutsier documentaries in memory. All he needs now is a distributor fearless enough to put the film out in the world.” Unfortunately, the film’s original distributor, Lion’s Gate, recently dumped the film, and the rights are now controlled by a tiny outfit in San Francisco. Will Biggie and Tupac light up a Triangle screen? Stay tuned.

It’s also worth mentioning another film that probably won’t get shown here, barring a letter-writing campaign to local art houses: Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love, which has received appreciative, if not uniformly positive, reviews from the critics who have seen it.

October’s Big-Studio-Must-to-Avoid looks to be Red Dragon, in which Anthony Hopkins continues to explore the many moods of Hannibal Lector. As it happens, Jonathan Demme, the director of The Silence of the Lambs, has a new film opening in October called The Truth About Charlie. This remake of the Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant romance, Charade, stars a couple of appealing, not-often-seen performers (Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton). Fans of Anna Karina, Godard’s great muse, lover and wife, will want to know she makes a cameo appearance in this one.

For those who were stunned by the performance of an unknown actress named Naomi Watts in last year’s Mulholland Drive, October’s highlight could well be The Ring, a big-budget treatment of source material from the Japanese cultural underground. The story, involving murders, curses and videotape, seems interesting enough. By now, Watts could probably get her newfound fans to watch her in a remake of Troop Beverly Hills.

Another film with an eagerly awaited follow-up performance is Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Punch-Drunk Love. Here, frat-house bard Adam Sandler makes his Serious Movie debut, starring opposite Emily Watson in a romantic comedy that wowed audiences in Cannes. Supposedly, this film is merely a between-masterpiece quickie for Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights), but A.O. Scott, The New York Times‘ sober-sided lead critic, confessed that Punch-Drunk Love left him in tears. This movie opens in the big cities on Oct. 11, and hits the Triangle the following weekend.

Although it’s due sometime in October, there’s no firm release date yet for Michael Moore’s new gonzo documentary, Bowling for Columbine. This apparently withering look at America’s gun culture won raves and a special prize at Cannes. Of course, the French love to see Americans flagellate themselves, but the film is getting acclaim elsewhere as well. If press reports are to be believed, Marilyn Manson acquits himself quite well as an eloquent analyst of American violence, and there’s a merciless confrontation between Moore and NRA’s president, Charlton Heston–one that may be substantially less amusing now that Heston has revealed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Bowling for Columbine is a sure bet to play here, but October may or may not see three more would-be must-see films. Dour workhorse Paul Schrader has a film called Auto-Focus, which will open in some parts of the country this month. Fans of Hogan’s Heroes may recognize this story of the post-celebrity life of Bob Crane, who was eventually murdered after becoming a pornographer. In an interesting casting choice, Greg Kinnear will play that bundle of fun.

Fans of grimy English realism will also be on the lookout for All or Nothing, British stalwart Mike Leigh’s (Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy) close study of a marriage in a working-class London neighborhood. This film was well-received at Cannes and features Leigh’s trademark improvisational techniques, expert acting and drab settings. United Artists has this one slated for an October release in their most favored markets, but there’s no word on when it will reach the Triangle.

The flashy German director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) offers up what looks to be the season’s biggest Eurotrash guilty pleasure. Titled Heaven, it features Cate Blanchett (standing in for Tykwer’s usual mega-babe, Franka Potente) as a bomber-on-the-run with Giovanni Ribisi, in a previously unproduced script by the Euro-deep, now Euro-dead, Krzysztof Kieslowski (Red, White and Blue). Miramax has kept a tight lid on this allegedly explosive film because of some untimely plot points, but with trailers for Heaven running in Durham’s Carolina Theater, a release appears inevitable.

In October, Miramax will also be releasing Naqoyqatsi, the third and final installment of Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi” trilogy. These meditations on modern living, with evocative scores by Philip Glass, have given two generations of film fans food for thought. Our vigil starts sometime after Oct. 18th, when the film will open in the major markets.

October will also see the arrival of Trembling Before G-d, a widely praised documentary from last year that’s finally getting a local screening. Durham’s Carolina Theater will exhibit Sandi DuBowski’s study of homosexuality within Jewish Hasidic communities starting Oct. 11.

In November Hollywood rolls out its heavy weaponry. Two unavoidable franchises need no further introduction: Die Another Day, the 20th Bond film with Pierce Brosnan and Oscar-winning Halle Berry, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. But several other November titles promise less predictable pleasures. One is Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, with George Clooney in the lead. Although his digital video art-house offering, Full Frontal, recently bombed, for now Soderbergh’s still high in the saddle. His new film is one of the most intriguing (and, to certain cinephiles, blasphemous) studio offerings of the season: an expensive attempt to reshape a notoriously slow and difficult art film into a mainstream product.

Another interesting November release marks the film debut of a certain polarizing artist: Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem. The film is called 8 Mile, and it seems to be a Purple Rain for the hip-hop generation: a tale of a poor and despised white kid’s long, hard trip up from the mean streets of Detroit to become a rich and despised rap star. Bomb or da bomb? You decide on Nov. 8.

Two more of Hollywood’s November releases offer some interest. Brian DePalma may be a washed-up tomato can, but the man who made Carrie, Blowout and The Untouchables could have a punch or two left in him. Working from his own script for a change, he’s offering Femme Fatale, a purportedly sexy and mind-bending film about attractive jewel thieves on the French Riviera. Then, for those who regretted Colin Farrell’s early departure in Minority Report, there’s Phone Booth, a one-gimmick film from Joel Schumacher in which Farrell spends most of his time in the titular vestibule.

The redoubtable Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, Talk to Her, is opening in late November, and it seems to be a continuation of his recent interest in love, loss and grief. What’s different this time is that the focus of the story is on the men. November will also see a platformed release of Far From Heaven, the latest film from Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine). Haynes, who (like Almodóvar) has a taste for the florid 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, is taking his appreciation to a very literal level, with a production design that duplicates the swank, saturated look of such Sirk extravaganzas as Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life.

There are several other indies that may pop up here in November, depending on their performance in larger cities. Most notable among them is Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, which seems to be getting deep-sixed by Miramax. Since the studio’s concerned about the difficult and esoteric subject matter, a 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, the success of a Nov. 29 limited release will probably determine whether Ararat makes it here. Another film to start looking for around Thanksgiving is Frida, a biopic of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Word is that Salma Hayek threw herself into the lead role with such conviction that she even stopped tweezing her eyebrows.

December divides into two categories: Christmas Blockbusters and Oscar Bait. The former includes the second Lord of the Rings installment, The Two Towers. The latter category has The Hours, an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s three-part novel about women in crisis, with a script by David Hare. The cast is a murderer’s row of highly decorated actors, including Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Allison Janney, Ed Harris and Nicole Kidman (who plays Virginia Woolf under heavy prosthetics).

A film that aspires to both blockbusterdom and golden statuettes is Steven Spielberg’s second film of 2002, Catch Me if You Can, a movie about a con artist (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the fed who tracks him down (Tom Hanks). Spielberg’s film will be released on Christmas Day, the same day as Spike Lee’s latest effort, The 25th Hour. Taking a breather from the demands (and, perhaps, the financial risks) of auteurism, Lee is directing this film as a contract job for Disney with a mostly white cast, headed by Edward Norton as a convicted drug dealer enjoying his last night of freedom before heading to the slammer.

Another December film, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, is being touted as Oscar-worthy but won’t open locally until January at the earliest. Winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes, The Pianist stars Adrien Brody as a Polish Jewish musician who hides out from the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. A worthy subject, to be sure, but a small but vocal minority of critics have grumped that the film is too safe and conventional for a man of Polanski’s talents and preoccupations.

Two indie films stand out in the blizzard of December releases. First, there is Adaptation, the newest collaboration of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, the pair responsible for Being John Malkovich. The new film stars Nicolas Cage as a screenwriter named, er, Charlie Kaufman, who is trying to adapt a real-life nonfiction book by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). It’s impossible to say whether this movie will have the sublime revelations of the best moments of Malkovich, or be a navel-gazing disaster, but many people will be dying to find out. Then there’s About Schmidt, a new film from Alexander Payne (Election), an adaptation of two Louis Begley novels about a recently retired man who travels across the country, looking to reconnect with the soul he’d lost long ago. This road movie stars one of the original Easy Riders himself, Jack Nicholson, in a performance that has received excellent early notices.

Finally, there is Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited epic of New York City thug life, circa 1850. Up to now, the film has been tagged as an expensive, old-fashioned boondoggle. By all accounts Scorsese constructed giant sets at the Rome studio Cinecittà, and had A-list screenwriters holed up in posh hotels doing daily rewrites while cast members Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis sat around sipping espresso. Scorsese gives the impression of a man increasingly lost in a nostalgic fog: His next film is a biopic of Dean Martin. But before he completely slips away, it would be most fitting if an Oscar could be bestowed upon this American film titan who presently has exactly zero statuettes on his mantelpiece. For many cinephiles, his new film is the most mysterious and brightly wrapped gift of the season. Gangs of New York will open, and be opened, on Christmas Day. EndBlock