Ben Affleck in ARGO.

Ben Affleck in ARGO.

Argo (2012) – I wondered at first why Ben Affleck chose to contextualise the Iranian hostage crisis with a series of storyboard panels (the Shah’s shapely wife bathing in milk, etc.) but it turns out to make perfect sense: this is a comic-book version of history, one that allows for colourful plots and last-minute rescues and blue-dyed Wookiees even as it insists on its basis on reality by never straying far from contemporary news footage. (The closing credits pair photos of the actors with those of the real-life participants: see, Affleck is saying, they even look alike.) Even though he’s the protagonist, Affleck doesn’t register here as an actor the way he did in The Town: his CIA agent is a verb, not a person with conflicts. Still, it’s his fleetness as a director that gives the movie its momentum, its breathless pace. It’s the best sort of pulp. ***

The Master (2012) – It’s possible to get lost in the sheer physical beauty of this movie: the sailors wrestling on the beach could be Thomas Eakins’, while Paul Thomas Anderson trumps Mad Men with a single long shot following a salesgirl around the floor of a 50s department store. The palette, blue and yellow, suggests a view of the past both sharp and warm. Yet the fact that the visuals dominate as much as they do points to a vacuum at the centre of the film. We bring our knowledge of Joaquin Phoenix’s time in the wilderness to his performance here as surely as we did to Mel Gibson’s in The Beaver. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader describes Phoenix – indulgently – as an “animal”, and he has the intensity (and volatility) of an attack dog: he forces his voice to the back of his throat until it becomes an inarticulate growl, and when he’s locked up he bucks and roars in his cage. Hoffman gives the more impressive performance: he’s as capable of rage, but his powers as an actor are marshalled. For all the similarities to There Will Be Blood, though – the loner’s vexed relationship with a figure of faith – The Master never quite coheres around these two. ***

Robot and Frank (2012) – Cunningly, this comedy is set in the near future, so that the technological advances register on the periphery – just enough make the world a little strange. The robot assigned to look after Frank Langella’s forgetful old jewel thief resembles Eve from Wall-E, but it has none of Eve’s precision or alarming speed. It’s more like a pedantic nurse, moving ponderously around the house, fussing over Langella’s diet, making sure he goes to bed on time. Frank’s profession suggests a caper movie, and it is that in part: the robot becomes his accomplice on a series of heists. But the movie’s main concern is probing the relationship between man and machine: what does it mean to live with something that’s more than an appliance but less than human? Frank calls it his “friend”. ***

Skyfall (2012) – Easily the best of the Daniel Craig Bonds. Craig no longer seems quite such a brooding poser: his blue-eyed impersonality here takes on some of the melancholy of an obsolete machine. This gives the movie a certain chill: there’s little of the expansive sophistication we associate with 007. For entertaining perversity, we have a couple of Komodo dragons and Javier Bardem. The way Bardem’s character is conceived is a throwback in the worst sense – camp mannerisms equated with menace – but he makes it work with his soft voice and eerie composure. For a side order of ham, we have the marvellous Albert Finney as a Scottish gamekeeper. The stunts are not disconnected episodes but serve to advance the plot, which gives the movie a gripping forward momentum: what it loses in bonhomie it gains in impact and immediacy. ***