Movies A-Z

In the tradition of Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide and Peter Bogdanovich’s movie catalogue, here is a collection of film reviews in two hundred words or less. It’s not meant to be exhaustive – more a filmgoing diary.

*  The rare film that I actively hate.
**  An ordinary film with some redeeming features.
*** A good film whose limitations keep it from being great.
**** A movie I recommend unreservedly.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) – Steven Spielberg’s movie is so faithful to its source material that it preserves even the painful bits, like the laboured comedy of the twin English detectives (there’s a tedious sub-plot involving their bumbling pursuit of a pickpocket); it captures Hergé’s distinctive blend of amateur sleuthing and Boy’s Own Adventure. It might be a bit light in the storytelling department; it’s really a series of (fabulous) set pieces strung out on a line, its abrupt ending awkwardly laying the ground for a sequel. But the motion-capture technology imbues those set pieces with a lively sense of anything-is-possible, from the sequence that see-saws from Saharan dunes to a pitched pirate battle on the Caribbean to the extraordinary single shot that follows heroes, villains and a wafting piece of paper down a North African hillside. ***

All Is Lost (2013) – Robert Redford embodies a very pragmatic kind of heroism here – heroism without posturing. It is his life only that he’s determined to save, and he approaches each succeeding crisis calmly, without extraneous displays of emotion, as a problem to be solved. Like Robinson Crusoe, much of the movie’s fascination is in how the hero does things – the details of his survival. There’s no sustaining sense of Providence here, though: in director J. C. Chandor’s vision, the universe rather seems to have it in for “Our Man” on the sea, and the tone darkens steadily as his situation worsens, despite all his ingenuity. An opening monologue expresses a very general sense of apology and regret; otherwise, we know almost nothing about Redford’s character. He asserts his identity – taciturn, economical even in gesture – by refusing to bow to his situation. It’s a very pure story of survival. ***

American Hustle (2013) – It does indeed start like Goodfellas, with its depiction of a child discovering a taste for petty crime and the his-and-hers narration, but the mood here is completely different – altogether more seductive and cajoling. This is not a jaded mobster and his wife speaking from bitter experience but a pair of cons who depend on their ability to charm people: they make us, the audience, their marks. The movie is, among other things, a celebration of the mutability of identity. The principals are constantly adjusting their personas according to the circumstances, and their transformations give the movie wonderful fizziness and brio. The actors respond by reinventing themselves: Christian Bale disappears into his character’s tubby physicality and exchanges his usual glum intensity for genial warmth, while Amy Adams gives a ferocious, dexterous performance (one moment she’s a luscious fake aristocrat, the next she’s howling in triumph in a toilet stall). The movie wins you over entirely to these disreputable people: it’s a terrific con. ****

Amour (2012) – The elderly couple at the centre of this film (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are civilised, private people, and though Michael Haneke does not spare us the unpleasant details of Riva’s decline, he respects that privacy – he doesn’t touch us for sympathy. The people stay remote: Haneke de-emphasises them at the outset by making us locate them in a crowded theatre. After Riva suffers a series of strokes, it’s left to Trintignant to demonstrate his devotion to her by performing the duties of a nurse. We experience, with him, the crushing routine of wheelchairs and spoon-feeding and wet beds – all without any chance of reprieve, while his wife steadily becomes less herself. Haneke sends you out of the theatre in silence, with a numbing sense of loss: it’s an unsparing depiction of becoming old and infirm. ***

Aquarius (2016) – Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film opens with a party sequence that rivals the famous one in Fanny and Alexander for warmth and the precise way it sketches family relationships. With the assured, steady way he moves the camera, his zooms, his attention to faces and feet, his gift for fixing images with pop songs, Filho suggests a less hectic Scorsese, in a way that seems related to the warm Brazilian pop he favours (as opposed to Scorsese’s love of Phil Spector). This is not only a stylistic triumph, however: like Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, this presents a complex portrait of a woman in her 60s (the marvellous Sonia Braga) – her instinctive solitude, her sexuality, her prickly relationships with family. It’s a social panorama of fast-changing Recife: Braga’s Clara is a member of the ruling class, and the movie does not shy away from the way she takes her privilege as her due. It’s also a profound meditation on the way that memory collects in places and things. I suspect it’s a masterpiece. ****

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. ***

Arrietty (2010) – This Studio Ghibli adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers is full of ingenious reversals of scale. There are two protagonists – the tiny eponymous heroine and an ordinary human boy – and we leap from one perspective to the other. The boy needs a quick eye to catch even a glimpse of the Borrower family, while Arrietty can see only segments of his face at a time. It’s full of witty contrivances too (the Borrowers’ home is put together out of scraps from the human household above) and there are moments of awe and terrified exposure. Due to some gaps in the screenplay, however, the movie lacks a satisfying emotional logic: the housekeeper’s pursuit of the little people seems arbitrary, and the boy’s failure to defend them leaves the ending very flat. ***

Arrival (2016) – Like The Martian, this concentrates on process – it’s about the effort to understand the language of a recently arrived race of aliens – but it has the sense of mystery and grandeur that Ridley Scott’s movie lacked. Often the process is not very clear – after a big build-up, Amy Adams looking fearful on her long ascent into the aliens’ spaceship, her first encounter with the aliens is weirdly truncated, as if we wouldn’t find it interesting, and there’s far too much staring at whiteboards. It turns out the alien encounters are only a background to Adams’ private drama of bereavement: like Interstellar, Denis Villeneuve’s film neglects the cosmic possibilities of the situation to concentrate on individual feelings. This is yet another space story that dwells on the death of a loved one – in this case Adams’ daughter. It has become a lazy way to imbue space with human emotion. The mood carries you along, though: the camera raked up on a diagonal, watching the skies even inside; the mute elegance of the ships, hovering like mysterious Apple products in the sky; the way the film plays with the perception of time. **½

The Artist (2011) – Michel Hazanavicius’ silent movie tribute deploys cliché as delightfully as Amelie – in this case to celebrate our shared culture as moviegoers. The quotes are everywhere, from Penelope Ann Miller’s Jean Hagen impression to the borrowed Bernard Herrmann; even the bits I couldn’t trace back to other sources (the knees-down dancing duet, Berenice Bejo’s business with the hero’s jacket) felt so classic, so immediately familiar, that I was sure they must come from somewhere. Occasionally these bits transcend their corniness, but mostly the movie is quite shallow – a trifle. “Artist” is the wrong word for Jean Dujardin’s character (it falsely inflates what he does); The Entertainer would be a more apt title. The closing revelation – there’s a reason why Dujardin resists the onset of talkies – suggests a realm of immigrant experience that might have given his trials more resonance. Hazanavicius uses it as a cute twist. ***

The Assassination of Jesse James (2007) – Andrew Dominik has a bad case of the Nick Caves. (Cave actually shows up at one point as a balladeer, and his lugubrious piano and bass with Warren Ellis is all over the soundtrack). His aestheticised frontier doesn’t offer up much in the way of insight – just as Brad Pitt, for all his finicky grace notes (adjusting his bandanna during a hold-up, playing with snakes) doesn’t get much further into the famous outlaw than pale exhaustion. There’s something kind of boxed-in and arbitrary about Dominik’s mythopoeia, with the gauzed-in compositions and the storybook narration. Casey Affleck is the best thing about it – he’s alarmingly pretty at times, and affecting too, with his choked voice and outraged green eyes. **

Atonement (2007) – With this movie, Joe Wright has mastered Stephen Daldry-style effectiveness – there are the same cut-up bits of gesture, tricks with diegetic sound (the typewriter taps its way in and out of the score), and Daldry’s assured fracturing of time and perspective. Wright really pulls out the stops, and for the first hour I enjoyed the deliberate staging and the dense, obvious symbolism (broken vases, insects trapped inside windows). But the war section reveals the limits of his facility, as the horrors depicted (the field of dead girls, the rather showy single take along the beach) become so much set decoration for James McAvoy’s wan, grimy face. ***

Avatar (2009) – From the contrast it sets up between the harmonious warrior culture of the Na’vi and the technological militarism of the Americans (embodied by Stephen Lang in his robotic exoskeleton – also an Avatar, but one that employs brute force rather than intuition), to its matter-of-fact (and largely unsexualised) presentation of an action heroine to the way movement is intoxicating to its paraplegic hero (we feel, with him, the exhilaration of movement and size) to the way it asks us to identify with the insurgents in its war-in-Iraq allegory, Avatar is, for a James Cameron film, extraordinarily complex. It also, as no other movie has in years, restored me to a child-like state of wonder. Cameron’s world on Pandora has Day-Glo intensity without turning gaudy, suppleness and grace without being soppy, ferocity that does not brutalise the audience. It’s his masterpiece, and one of the best films of the decade. ****

The Aviator (2004) – Martin Scorsese’s film presents Howard Hughes as the underdog, despite the fact that he was born wealthy: New England blue bloods are always snubbing him and talking his latest venture down. It’s essentially a reprise of DiCaprio’s Jack from the holds in Titanic, right down to the scene where his lover’s family talks down to him at the dinner table. His Hughes lacks personal magnetism – his drives lack urgency and so does his obsessive behaviour. Worse, his achievements lack grandeur. Hughes may have spent years and millions of dollars in making the movie Hell’s Angels, but from what we see here it doesn’t look like much of a movie. We’re clearly meant to admire Hughes, but Scorsese and DiCaprio never make it clear why we should. **

The Babadook (2014) – Jennifer Kent’s movie uses subjectivity brilliantly. It begins with Essie Davis floating in a blank, dream space, broken glass drifting past her like diamonds, and it never settles into a stable relationship with reality. At first our sympathies are all with Davis’ embattled mum, alone with a disturbed child (Noah Wiseman) who acts out violently one moment and clamours for her attention the next. He seems almost demonic, and as he screams and screams there’s nothing she can do to pacify him. The people around them – teachers, Davis’ sister, a supervisor at work – seem like unhelpful caricatures, but as Davis becomes increasingly disturbed, we realise that her perceptions may well be distortions. Suddenly, we fear for the boy more than the mother, while staying inside her point of view, inhabiting her madness. The movie may banalise the monster by relating it so explicitly to Davis’ bereavement – it’s too pat an explanation – but Kent denies us the out of believing it’s all in her mind, or even that it can be destroyed. ****

Babel (2006) – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga’s only rival as bad trip merchants is probably Lars von Trier, and there’s something redundant about the way they put their characters through their paces. As far as I could make out, the point of this two and half hour movie is that bad things happen to everyone, but at least Americans can call in the helicopters. The movie isn’t smarmy in the manner of von Trier – Inarritu and Arriaga don’t sneer at any of their characters (not even the Americans). Their suffering has weight. And there’s a tenderness and a capacity for pleasure that’s new in their work – the wedding in Mexico is the best thing in the movie, and there’s a lovely scene involving Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt and a bed pan. ***

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition (2016) – The opening half hour of director Zack Snyder’s restored cut comprises sequences in three different genres: a disaster movie evoking the dust and confusion of 9/11, a war film set in the African desert, and a horror film complete with women held captive in a basement dungeon – which begs the question of what this movie intends to be. The answer is a salute to Christopher Nolan – specifically The Dark Knight – with its dark palette, its deliberate pace in setting up its various players, and its preoccupation with whether Batman has the right to be Batman. Up until the two hour mark it’s pretty absorbing on those terms, but the last hour is a total miscalculation, from the anticlimactic, vaguely homoerotic tussle between the two heroes (Batman carries Superman over the threshold and flings him on a bed of rubble) to the way Snyder jettisons two hours of careful storytelling in favour of a monster that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie to the completely unnecessary (and temporary) death of a major character so the movie can end on a note of bogus gravity (not one funeral, but two). Very disappointing. **

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – There are scenes of child abuse in this movie as punishing as anything in Precious, but the tone here is prideful, even celebratory. The ramshackle, multiracial world of The Bathtub seems more like a conceit than a real community, and the movie founders on the distinction between finding the beauty in difficult circumstances (the bedraggled animals and the hovels made out of scraps) and defending a man’s right to raise his daughter (Quvenzhané Wallis) as he chooses, even if that means subjecting her to poverty, danger and rampant alcoholism. The Bathtub’s relationship to the outside world goes largely unexamined – Hush Puppy and her father commit an act of environmental terrorism with no thought for those who will be inundated as a result. The film has been made by people remote enough from poverty to find it picturesque: it’s a cheat. *

The Beaver (2011) – Jodie Foster is the best friend Mel Gibson could possibly have. Not only did she direct this apologia for his very public meltdown, she spends her scenes as Gibson’s wife training her focus on him, helping him along. The movie luxuriates in Gibson’s ravaged, deeply lined face: it’s no stretch to believe that his Walter Black is a man at the end of his rope. The puppet he adopts as his intermediary is blunt-faced, rather ugly: in Gibson’s hands, it is always credible, never cute. Yet the film ultimately belongs to its younger actors – Anton Yelchin, who plays Gibson’s son Porter, and Jennifer Lawrence. Their story runs parallel to Gibson’s, and in it the movie explores the very mixed blessing of inheritance. For Porter, his temperamental affinity with his father is a frustrating, frightening limitation – almost a sentence. ***

Beginners (2011) – The film’s way with cute detail reminded me of Amelie – with the crucial difference that Mike Mills’ little slideshows do not attempt to sum people up, but rather reach back to an irrecoverable past. The past – in the form of Ewan McGregor’s father and mother – paradoxically keeps insisting itself, his memories of them butting in to his romance with Mélanie Laurent. The movie wears its quirks (McGregor and Laurent meet at a costume party dressed as Sigmund Freud and a street urchin; there’s a dog that talks with the aid of subtitles) lightly, in part because the characters’ playfulness is only just keeping a larger sense of sadness at bay. As McGregor’s father, Christopher Plummer is wonderful – in his seventies and just out of the closet, he’s full of surprise and delight at his new capacity for pleasure. ****

Bernie (2011) – Though it’s framed as a true-crime story (with photos of the actors’ real life counterparts for us to compare and contrast at the end), the main character here is the town of Carthage, Texas, the subject collective memory. The great bulk of the movie is taken up with interviews with ‘locals’ – some real, some played by actors. It’s impossible to tell them apart, which destabilises the movie’s relationship to reality in ways exceedingly apt for an examination of hearsay and public perception. Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine are perhaps a little one-note, but a certain flatness is appropriate for characters conjured into being by their neighbours’ gossip. Matthew McConaughey gives a smart, sly performance as the local D.A., with a hint of mania in his eyes: he’s the human embodiment of the permission we grant ourselves to pry into other people’s lives. ***

The BFG (2016) – Steven Spielberg’s special grasp on childhood was never universal, but rooted in the American suburbs. When he tries – as in Hook – to adapt English stories, he produces a twee sense of unreality. This is not as bad as that misfire, but neither is it good. Indebted visually to the Harry Potter franchise (a nocturnal world of warm lights and deep shadows), it sands off the rough edges of the Roald Dahl original (the giants are more comic bumblers than monsters) even as it skimps on the magic (we see the BFG at work only once). The use of motion capture for Mark Rylance’s BFG seems gratuitous: the giant’s kindly face is human – that of an ideal grandfather – and the digital manipulation adds little in expressiveness. Ruby Barnhill is a good, idiosyncratic child actor: her Sophie is officious, as if in training to take over her orphanage, and almost without physical fear. The best sequence builds to a fart joke involving the Queen. **

Big Hero Six (2014) – Putting aside its princess formula, Disney makes its best film since Tangled – perhaps even Beauty and the Beast. A large part of its success comes from the simple expedient of putting the sidekick – always the most entertaining part of a Disney movie – centre stage. Baymax is a classic movie robot – up there with R2-D2 and WALL-E – and directors Don Hall and Chris Williams mine his counterintuitive design (he’s not metallic but soft and pillowy, like an airbag) and the inexorable logic of his programming (he sees everything in terms of his healing function) for humour and pathos. In its emphasis on physical comedy the movie recalls the classic animated shorts of the 1930s and 40s; its nuanced storytelling is worthy of The Incredibles. A very pleasant surprise. ****

Birdman (2014) – A superhero is an apt metaphor for a Norman Mailer-type male artist obsessed with potency and his sense of himself as exceptional. Alejandro González Iñárritu and his co-writers find a host of meanings in Michael Keaton’s masked alter-ego, from snarky commentary on the Marvel movie marketplace to the lovely lyricism when he takes flight over Manhattan. The movie works on your nerves: most of the characters are italicised versions of recognisable theatre types (playing the sole civilian, Amy Ryan is lovely oasis of calm) – the brat fresh out of rehab, the self-serious Actor, the contemptuous, patrician critic – and the camera moves with them through a claustrophobic backstage warren, the drum score urging them on, into pissing contests and desperate pleas for validation. It’s obvious, but the acid comedy is often very funny. The movie’s attitude to suicide, however – which it shares with its model, Black Swan – is troubling. It’s a different sort of cliché – the Romantic one that equates artistic fulfilment with madness and death – and Iñárritu’s handling of it feels glib and unearned. ***

Blades of Glory (2007) The most straightforward – and least verbal – of Will Ferrell’s movies is also his least successful. Ferrell’s specialities are the champion’s mysticism that he both kids and endorses and the verbal riffs that become steadily more surreal the longer he harps on them, and we don’t get enough of either – though there is a great bit where he goes on about his whalebone brush. There’s too much lazy storytelling-through-montage, and promising characters, like Jon Heder’s adoptive father, that aren’t developed. But there’s a wonderful chase with the adversaries hobbling along on their skates, and the skating itself is just the kitsch apotheosis I was hoping for. **

The Bling Ring (2013) – For once, Sofia Coppola’s rich kids are not plagued by ennui; they enjoy their (and other people’s) privileges as much as the little princess Coppola played in Life Without Zoe, the vanity project she made with her father. The difference is that here she cops to the kids’ brattiness – the sense of entitlement that comes with their privilege. Their appetites give these girls a vulgar drive. There’s something intoxicating, too, about Coppola’s vision of Los Angeles as a place of limitless opportunity, where the doors are unlocked and the luxurious consumer goods (which the kids, keen readers of the style pages, are well qualified to appreciate) are there for the taking. Emma Watson’s aspiring reality TV star is good fun – she revels in her notoriety – but it’s Katie Chang as the ringleader who gives the most arresting performance. Her lack of affect is fascinating: she commits her burglaries with a subtly disturbing Mona Lisa smile. ***

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) – Two decades ago, coming out stories – even very good ones, like Show Me Love – followed a single trajectory: the secret was eventually disclosed, and we were left on the high of a tender young love. Adbellatif Kechiche’s film is more ambitious, and much less reassuring: it’s as interested in its heroine’s intellectual development as her dawning sexuality (the movie is dense with literary allusions) and her ecstatic first love falls apart about two thirds through, leaving her to flail about on her own. Adèle Exarchopolous has a marvellously expressive face, and Kechiche fastens on it in fascination: he keeps us very close to Adèle’s experience. The chief failing of the famous long sex scene is that it exchanges Adèle’s point of view for a more objective (male) gaze: the lovers are photographed at a distance, on a brightly-lit white bed that might as well be a plinth in a museum. (Typically for a movie so full of ideas, Kechiche has a male character discourse a few scenes later on the impossibility of comprehending female pleasure.) The movie treats the events of Adèle’s life glancingly: this has the advantage of skipping over scenes that have by now become standard, but it’s sometimes disorienting in terms of the passage of time, and the way that people drift in and out of her life (characters we’ve grown to like simply disappear). The only responsibility it acknowledges is to Adèle’s point of view; even when the movie drags, this closeness is precious. ***

Blue Jasmine (2013) – Plot has never been Woody Allen’s strong point: there’s often an expository dullness to the way his movies lay out their stories. That’s the case here: rather than allow Jasmine’s back-story to emerge from her interactions with her sister and her new milieu, Allen keeps giving us flashbacks to her previous, wealthy life, labouring the same obvious contrast with her present. If this is Allen’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Jasmine is Blanche Dubois, she’s Blanche without mystery. The movie basically adopts Stanley’s view of her – as a destructive phony. She’s transfixing nonetheless because of Cate Blanchett’s performance. Jasmine has a compulsive need to explain herself – to have others agree with her image of herself – and as Blanchett talks and talks and talks, haggard, usually with a drink in one hand, she’s good campy fun. ***

Boyhood (2014) – The movie opens with a shot of blue skies and Coldplay’s “Yellow” blasting on the soundtrack; it’s basically a square, sunny presentation of childhood. The Coldplay song serves another purpose, however: one of the movie’s chief pleasures is the way it serves as a time capsule of noughties culture, from “Oops! …I Did It Again” to midnight Harry Potter book parties to Obama vs. McCain. It’s The Tree of Life without the cosmic interludes (the philosophy comes in bull sessions with Ethan Hawke as the kids’ father) – there are a few decisive dramatic moments, but mostly time flows on in an unhurried fashion, its passing marked by haircuts and subtle changes in the actors’ faces. The movie’s focus alights – like memory – on commonplace moments that seem representative of whole eras. It’s reminiscent of TV in a good way – its interest in the quotidian, the open-endedness, the nature of our identification with characters over the long haul (it collapses twelve years into three hours) – an impression that’s only heightened by the presence of several actors from Friday Night Lights. It’s wholesome without being idealised – Patricia Arquette especially adds important dissonant notes – glancing and well observed. ****

Brave (2012) – The similarities to How to Train Your Dragon are instructive: Pixar’s story of an outsider in a hirsute warrior culture is better on every level. What separates this from other stories of women constrained by corsets – Kate Winslet in Titanic, say – is how this constraint is expressed physically. Having seen Merida sail down the castle steps and onto her horse in a single smooth motion, you feel how the expectations of her as a princess limit her possibilities. The gender roles – the men messy and vital, the women above all controlled – are deliciously inverted with the Queen’s transformation: she tries to retain her elegance, her sense of propriety, but keeps being undone by her new body. There are moments of Disney contamination – montages of Merida out in the forest with self-improvement ballads on the soundtrack – but this is a honourable addition to the Pixar canon. ****

Brick (2005) – What my friend Clinton refers to dismissively as “a movie for people who watch movies.” It’s a strange, stilted film noir enacted by high school students (led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who all talk the same pointlessly cryptic hardboiled language. The movie does have a sense of its own absurdity – the kingpin’s mother hands out drinks to the small army of hoods in her kitchen – and some of it is funny, like the chief heavy with his white singlet and his hopped-up way of moving. But it doesn’t have a strong reason for existing. **

Bridesmaids (2011) – This Kristen Wiig vehicle (which she co-wrote) is a bit of a lost opportunity. The best scene – the bridesmaids causing havoc on a plane to Las Vegas – suggests the comedy about female friendship that might have been. The performers (Maya Rudolph, Ellie Kemper, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Melissa McCarthy) are all lively, and the dynamic – a group of not-very-compatible women thrown together by a wedding – is rich in comic possibilities. (Rose Byrne is perfect as the rival for Wiig’s BFF status.) These possibilities are lost, however, in the movie’s chick-flick focus on Wiig’s romantic tribulations – she’s the standard disappointed singleton, with Chris O’Dowd her standard quirky love interest. By the end, the other members of the bridal party have become merely functional, McCarthy showing up to administer a lecture/pep talk simply because the chick-flick formula demands it. I like the genre, but this could have been more. ***

Brokeback Mountain (2005) – I only liked Brokeback Mountain, which considering the gay epiphanies it generated seemed an inadequate response. I think this comes down to its source in the writing of E. Annie Proulx. The short story on which the film is based is written in the sort of terse, close-mouthed style in which the silences are meant to reverberate with all sorts of unspoken feelings. Then one of the characters will say something like, “Brokeback got us good,” and you’re supposed to be bowled over by the rough eloquence. Other people take pleasure in Proulx’s hard, simple lines: for them, her style boils things down to their essentials. When it comes to art, though, I’d rather have a stew than a stock cube. Ang Lee, who directed Brokeback, preserves Proulx’s style. This is the movie’s strength or its limitation, depending on your point of view. ***

Broken Flowers (2005) – Bill Murray has become something of a modern Jacques – the clown we love for pulling sad faces. The difference, of course, is that Murray’s characters are intensely solipsistic – and so deadpan that the least flicker carries emotional weight. Here he goes on the road to find his long lost son – and encounters an incredible roster of ex-girlfriends, including Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy and Jessica Lange. Jim Jarmusch invites us to laugh at Murray’s isolation and then he brings us to understand what it means, all in his offhand manner, without seeming to do anything at all. There’s matter indeed in this sullen clown. ****

Candy (2006) – The good thing about Luke Davies’ novel is its junkie fervour – the narrator riffs on drug use like a performance poet. When his girlfriend wants to try heroin, it’s a consummation: it brings them closer together. As it’s been re-conceived by Neil Armfield it’s a much more conventional story about misguided lambs. It’s divided into three parts called “Heaven”, “Earth” and “Hell” – which suggests a descent – but what’s dysfunctional in their relationship is there at the beginning of the film. It’s a curiously static movie – things are good for a while and then bad and then good and so on, and it doesn’t come to very much. The best reason to go and see it is Heath Ledger: he’s wonderful in it. **

Captain Phillips (2013) – The title misrepresents the movie; for the first hour, it’s as interested in the pirate played by Barkhad Abdi as Tom Hanks’ American sea captain. Their perspectives alternate, the camera following the two men around as they perform their duties – Hanks punctiliously, secure in his authority, little caring how his orders are received; Abdi not so much the captain initially as the most dogged amongst his fellows in pursuing the opportunity presented by Phillips’ big, barely-defended ship. Much of the drama that follows is in Abdi attempting to assume that mantle, to assert his authority. The third act becomes a rather predictable affirmation of American naval superiority – we spend a lot of time in the company of a third captain whose bridge is bathed in the blue, technological light of decision – but the movie’s heart is in the encounter between Hanks and Abdi. ***

Carol (2015) – Where Far from Heaven begins in the branches of a tree, looking down on suburbia, Todd Haynes’ new film opens on a grate and moves up to take in the big city: it’s a chillier, more urban film. The change in tone reflects the different characters of Haynes’ leading ladies: where Julianne Moore’s transparency laid bare her experience of the stultifying suburbs, Cate Blanchett’s gracious manner is so exaggerated that it draws attention to her performance of gender. The 50s story – from Mad Men to The Master – is basically a genre unto itself now, and Haynes is across the period details without offering up many stylistic flourishes. Stretches of the movie – particularly those depicting Rooney Mara’s life in the city – are quite bleak; this isn’t a film that’s out to seduce you. This extends to the love relationship at its centre. Phyllis Nagy’s script is clear-eyed about the imbalance of power between the two women: the gap in age and class leaves Mara’s Therese always the junior partner. It’s a thoughtful film that keeps you at arm’s length. ***

Cartel Land (2015) – Matthew Heineman’s closeness to his subjects – vigilante movements on either side of the US/Mexico border – proves a mixed blessing. As he shows Dr. Mireles – leader of the Autodefensas – speechifying, at work in his medical practice, relaxing with his family, Heineman seems to be participating in the creation of a folk hero; the Autodefensas’ armed raids on the Knights Templar drug cartel are shot for excitement, as an adrenalin rush. You could argue that Heineman’s approach captures the appeal of such movements, and the picture becomes more complicated in the film’s latter stages. But these armed insurgents with their law and order rhetoric are not so different from ISIS (we see the good doctor order a man’s execution for sporting the wrong tattoo), and for too much of its running time this movie comes dangerously close to endorsing them. **

Certain Women (2016) – Spare, sad, somewhat inert, with closed-off, frostbitten people in the style of Alice Munro or E. Annie Proulx, this is one of those realist works where the silences are supposed to communicate volumes. It’s divided into three segments, and doesn’t catch until the third, where a Montana stablehand (Lily Gladstone) awkwardly woos a visiting teacher (Kristen Stewart). Gladstone’s unfamiliar face is more expressive in this context than those of her more famous co-stars (the other segments are built around Laura Dern and Michelle Williams). The details of her work with horses have a beauty and specificity that counter director Kelly Reichardt’s depressive tendencies (Reichardt even allows a few moments of humour). The movie opens up visually too: where characters in the first two segments are isolated in ugly rooms or have their frames invaded by other people’s feet or Kindles, here the images take in the immense beauty of the Montana landscape. It’s a shame it’s only one-third of the film. ***

Changeling (2008) – The feminist implications of the Christine Collins story are obvious – an inconvenient woman who opposes her specifically female knowledge (a mother’s feeling for her son) to that of the male hierarchies of police force and madhouse, and triumphs. But Clint Eastwood’s “women’s picture” is not a good movie. A lot of this is down to the screenplay, which employs every Midday Movie cliche in the book, from the confession relayed in flashback to the ladylike heroine cursing at a crucial moment to the eventual courtroom vindication. The biggest problem, though, is how it conceives of grief. Eastwood has Angelina Jolie run the gauntlet, performing her feelings at every opportunity. It’s not hard to intuit the particular horrors of a kidnapping for the people left behind – fearing the worst without knowing it. But Changeling coarsens rather than intensifies these perceptions – its feelings are generalised and crude. **

The Childhood of a Leader (2015) – Directors from Bertolucci to Haneke have tried to locate the origins of fascism in the nursery, and unfortunately this is no The Conformist or The White Ribbon. The line it draws between domestic and political tyranny is too pat, its depiction of the miserable, withholding rich a cliché. From the stilted discussions of the Versailles treaty to the way the camera occasionally lingers on extras moving awkwardly in the background, the woodenness here seems at least partly intentional – as if director Brady Corbet is mocking his own historical pageantry – but it’s hard to tell to what extent, or what purpose. Tom Sweet is certainly a singular child actor, with his weird air of preoccupation and his long blonde hair (people keep mistaking him for a girl): the movie’s most effective moments follow him as he roams like a feral cat through his family’s big cold mansion. Still, like the story he learns to read in French, this is only ever an exercise. **

The Class (2008) – The kids in Laurent Cantet’s movie are smart enough to question the assumptions on which the classroom operates – from the use of “honky” names in blackboard examples to the usefulness of old grammatical forms to the appropriateness of personal disclosure in a “self-portrait” project – so that their teacher Marin (Francois Begaudeau, on whose book the film is based) is not just trying to communicate knowledge but justifying his content and his methods. Unable to take a respect for authority for granted, Marin’s class is a constant series of negotiations, taking questions from the floor, opposing his will to those of his pupils. (This absence of agreed values is visible also in the interactions between teachers and parents: everything is up for discussion.) Yet, when Marin makes a mistake, he proves to be just as inflexible as his students in his refusal to apologise or to admit responsibility. You leave the movie with a sense of qualified heroism. ****

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – Like Birdman, Oliver Assayas’ movie offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of the place where celebrity and theatre intersect, shot in intimate long takes and replete with topical references to the Marvel era. However, it does so to entirely different effect: where the roving camera in Birdman‘s cramped backstage environs is out to give you the dirty truth about its characters, Assayas prefers to leave his meanings open. He structures his film like a play, complete with acts and long scenes in contained environments; like a playwright, he locates drama in the interactions between his characters. The fact that the movie concerns the rehearsals for a (nonexistent) play could have sent it down a meta-fictional rabbit hole, but the unaffected, intense teamwork of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart imbues it with reality and stakes. In the course of the film their identities become mutable; the dissolution of self is not (as in Birdman) a glamorous apotheosis but a professional hazard to be faced and defied. ****

Coeurs (2007) – The people in Alain Resnais’ adaptation of the Alan Ayckbourn play are so exquisitely boring – the drunken ex-soldier taxing the barman with his presence, two people in a real estate office laughing too long and too hard over a lame sexual pun – that they become rather delightful, and the lighting and climactic snow effect are artfully handled. But, from the flower one character wears on her blind dates to the supposedly “risqué” videos made by another, it’s so hopelessly old-fashioned that it loses much of its credibility as observation. ***

Contagion (2011) – Probably the least sensational disaster movie ever made – a genre to which Steven Soderbergh’s film plainly belongs, with its all-star cast and its suspension of the usual rule about famous people not dying in movies. (It derives much of its frisson from killing off some of these people; the first thing we see is a clearly sick Gwyneth Paltrow.) Soderbergh is chiefly concerned with procedure – with the health professionals who work to understand the origins of the epidemic and to contain its spread. This renders it a bit distant emotionally: it’s shot in greens and yellows and set in the depths of winter to cool it even further. The gestures towards character – Jennifer Ehle’s visit to her sick father, Matt Damon’s relationship with his daughter – add little depth to the global cast of characters. The film makes good paranoid use of all the inadvertent contact we make in public, but it’s finally a bit uninvolving. Oddity: Jude Law’s impersonation of Julian Assange. ***

Creed (2015) – Director Ryan Coogler makes excellent use of long takes: the first shot begins in the corridor of a juvenile prison and then moves to the canteen, where a fight is taking place. It’s a strategy that Coogler uses again and again, usually from the perspective of Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), who doesn’t feel at home anywhere – who enters every space feeling like a stranger. It’s a terrific passport into this world, climaxing with the first big fight, a beautifully choreographed single shot with the camera moving like a third fighter. It gives the human interactions too an appealing, low-key rhythm. Creed is as savvy a reboot of a beloved classic as The Force Awakens; like that movie, much of the impact here comes from the way it pairs a new protagonist with his aged predecessor, hitting familiar beats while ceding centre stage to a black actor. These movies are expanding the definition of pop heroism (much as Stallone did in the 70s), changing how it looks and its point of view. ***

The Croods (2013) – Dreamworks’ first really first-class animation, this story of cavemen forced to adapt explores evolution from every angle – an early sequence in which the competition for scarce resources becomes an inter-species football match, the feral fascination with which the heroine responds to her first experience of fire, the way the family’s physical environment is continually collapsing around them. Its nuclear family set down in prehistory suggests The Flintstones, but the movie is interested in exploding routines, not suggesting a comfy continuity. The pratfalls have you laughing in delight even as they advance the theme – they make humans’ precarious grip on our environment funny. ****

A Cry in the Dark (1988) – Also known as Evil Angels. Explaining for an American audience, Fred Schepisi gets details of Australian life that no-one else has recorded, like the rituals of sightseeing at Uluru (watching the sunset in the front seat of the car, the lighted campsite in a sea of darkness) or the way that Sam Neill’s loquacity – the way he slips into preacher mode – makes him suspect to his countrymen. Schepisi never caricatures the chattering Australians who act as a sort of chorus, either – they’re all precisely observed. Meryl Streep is extraordinary – tender, hard-nosed and petulant by turns. ***

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) – David Fincher distances his fable from the Forrest Gumps of this world with his meticulous framing: he heightens his images, isolating a few key elements, rather than going for a busy naturalism. (The images of the little tugboat could be right out of Lemony Snicket.) This frees us to experience Brad Pitt’s computer-assisted transformations as a kind of magic. The only problem is that the human material – the love story that’s ostensibly at its centre – is not very compelling (though Cate Blanchett does her art-world prattling very nicely), so that, like West Side Story, the whole enterprise ends up feeling a little hollow. ***

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) – This account of how a man diagnosed with HIV defies the medical establishment to secure the treatment he needs is shaped as a little-guy-goes-up-against-uncomprehending-bureaucracy story, but it only rarely lapses into formula. Partly it’s the vividness of director Jean-Marc Vallée’s re-creation of 80s Dallas (from the rodeo to its gay fringes); mostly it’s the astonishing performance of Matthew McConaughey. It’s not just the physical transformation: his Ron Woodroof evolves before our eyes, from a hedonist realising that the old sources of pleasure are no longer available to him to an entrepreneur with a gift for theatre and a sure instinct for the loopholes in the system. Everything he does is surprising but perfect: his reserves of physical grace (from his loose-limbed escape from his debtors to his gallantry and swagger with the doctor played by Jennifer Garner); the notes he hits of fury, sorrow, shy self-acceptance. Vallée’s direction captures the experience of losing control of your body and mind; we’re keyed to the moments of dissociation by a high-pitched whine. There’s very little music (when Vallée brings it in late in the film, it’s intrusive) and this focuses us on the details of Ron’s environment, keeps us close to his experience. It’s a terrific movie. ****

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – Much Wes Anderson’s best film. It starts with Bill Murray – Anderson’s emblem – running for and missing the eponymous train, and it’s as though the director is waving goodbye to his movie past. There’s a more complicated tone along with the new mobility: the detailed compositions are played for laughs as well as pathos, and Anderson has a more satirical perspective on his rich kid fuck-ups. (There’s a wonderful set of matching luggage that follows the brothers everywhere – an emblem of their privilege as well as their emotional problems.) Meanwhile, it’s a toss-up which is funnier: Jason Schwartzman’s doleful, low-affect clown or Adrien Brody’s pained sensitivity. ****

The Dark Knight (2008) – Christopher Nolan keeps the many threads of his story well in hand: the repeated cross-cutting is very effective, establishing a Gotham City where there are more fires than the authorities can put out, a city spiralling out of control. He clears a space around Heath Ledger’s Joker every time he appears: Ledger subordinates the movie to his rhythms, slows it down, licking his lips and bringing his bleary eyes to bear on anyone foolish enough to address him. Nolan tries to solve the basic problem with the Batman franchise (the villains are always so much more compelling than the hero) by getting Christian Bale to wrestle with his right to be a superhero. All the ethics-of-vigilantism stuff struck me as a bit wrong-headed in a movie that operates on this Bond-gadgetry level: it’s certainly a drag. In as much as this movie has ideas, it’s a failure: but then there’s always Ledger or a shot of Batman posed high on a building like part of the city architecture just around the corner. ***

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – The movie opens in the ape colony, and depicts the apes in their language, on their terms: it seems almost like a work of anthropology. Their vocabulary of signs and grunts and gestures (and the occasional English word, for emphasis) has an expressiveness that’s rare in sound movies. When the film cuts to a human perspective – the party of explorers with an assortment of types familiar from a hundred B-movies (the hero, the prick who makes himself obnoxious so that we won’t regret his death, the lone female) – it seems like a failure of nerve. Their clunky, conventional dialogue is especially egregious when set beside the eloquence of the apes. Like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the film puts us in the curious position of rooting against our own species: what a pity it didn’t go all the way with this and present the story solely from the apes’ perspective. There’s a perceptible lift whenever the movie returns to Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his nemesis Koba (Toby Kebbell). The latter is a particularly vivid villain: riding into battle, his teeth bared, he’s an incarnation of chaos. ***

Demolition (2015) – With his blackouts and his good, fast cutting, Jean-Marc Vallée has a gift for dissociation, and this starts well, sketching a whole marriage in the space of a car ride, nailing the weird moments of clarity following trauma. But then Jake Gyllenhaal’s grieving husband starts writing a series of confessional letters to a vending machine company, and the stupid conceits pile on: from Gyllenhaal’s tic of disassembling things to Naomi Watts’ manic pixie dream girl to, I kid you not, a merry-go-round in need of repair. Vallée’s informal framing – he goes for obstructed views and a slightly shaky camera so that we seem to catch things accidentally, as bystanders – at least has the virtue of soft-pedalling this stuff. With his self-satisfaction, the smirk that breaks out at odd moments, Gyllenhaal certainly makes a convincing Wall Street type, but his man-child clowning is not as charming as it’s meant to be. **

The Departed (2006) – Another faintly depressing late-period Scorsese movie. The Departed is very effective and it’s certainly a lot more dynamic than The Aviator, but you don’t feel much about it when it’s over. (There may be too many surprise revelations – the last minutes are so full of people coming out as mobsters and/or copping a bullet in the head that the crowd I saw it with laughed at each new twist.) There’s one bit where DiCaprio pursues Damon through a Chinatown that’s beautifully stylised – there are great puffs of smoke and shadows cast on walls and DiCaprio’s reflection split into hundreds of pieces in the shards of a mirror. And the climax comes sooner than you expect so that before you realise it it’s on top of you and everything’s lit up by gunfire. Martin Scorsese still has his marvellous impatience. I can’t help wishing that it was in the service of something more than a genre exercise. ***

The Descendants (2011) – This deathbed comedy mines a rich vein of humour in the gap between what the characters actually feel and what they think they ought to feel. The emotional discontents tumble out involuntarily in scene after awkward scene. Alexander Payne is particularly good at limning family relationships: George Clooney’s daughters (Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley, who give the standout performances) are prickly with him one moment, protective of him the next. The sense of place is as important as it was in Sideways, though it’s used very differently: Clooney’s opening narration insists on the ordinariness of Hawaii, and for the most part that’s what we see – grey skies, airports, shabby suburban houses. Where in Punch-Drunk Love Paul Thomas Anderson used Hawaii to signify romance and escape, Payne insists on its less attractive realities. His movie is bracing and good. ***

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) – For a movie supposedly based on a real intern’s experience at a fashion magazine, The Devil Wears Prada has a lot in common with Suddenly 30. There’s the same sudden immersion in the world of high fashion. There’s the same scruffy boyfriend – always on hand to shake his head sorrowfully at how much the heroine (Anne Hathaway) has changed. There’s the same disillusionment and eventual return to homely values. As a fantasy it’s perfectly constructed – we’re given a glimpse of the world of high fashion and then reassured that it’s not really worth having. But, for my money – Meryl Streep notwithstanding – Suddenly 30 has the edge. **

District 9 (2009) – I thought at first that Neill Blomkamp’s channel-surfing construction – the film is put together out of TV news footage, webcams and talking heads – was both overheated and lazy, with the constant interviews with ‘experts’ a particularly easy way of fixing his meanings in place. But like Brian De Palma’s Redacted, the different kinds of footage are a part of the characters’ reality, especially once we bunker down with Sharlto Copley and his corporate employers – they narrate themselves to themselves, as a matter of course, all the time. There are striking similarities to Avatar in the antihero’s immersion in an alien culture – and though the Johannesburg ghetto is the opposite of Pandora visually, it’s just as sharply realised. The movie gets better as it goes along – Copley winningly ordinary, his character not necessarily improved by his ordeal. ***

Django Unchained (2012) – Unusually straightforward for a Tarantino movie – the movie rarely deviates from the movements of its two heroes – this is also less complex in its jokiness, less felt than Tarantino at his best. Despite the mythological underpinnings he gives Django’s quest to rescue his wife, their reunion when it comes is glossed over hastily, Kerry Washington given little to do but look scared. The film does turn darker in its second half, as we witness the atrocities committed by Leonardo DiCaprio’s plantation owner, but Jamie Foxx’s character never assumes the reality (or stature) of, say, Melanie Laurent’s vengeful heroine in Inglourious Basterds. What we’re left with are Tarantino’s entertaining wrinkles – Christoph Waltz’s courteous horse, the grumbling posse of Klansmen, Tarantino himself showing up with an Australian accent – and his riotous gore. ***

La Dolce Vita (1960) – The film’s moralism has not aged well – particularly the final party, designed to show the depths to which its hero (Marcello Mastroianni), now a roué in a cravat and white jacket – has sunk. Transvestites! How shocking! We also have to take as a given Marcello’s wasted potential as a ‘serious’ writer (Fellini has a friend remonstrate with him in a church to underline the point) because he does not display any talent in that direction or even especial powers of insight. He is a social ornament, a handsome blank; the fashionable society of the Via Veneto seems precisely the right environment for him. The movie contains a number of classic sequences, however – particularly the surreal circus that springs into life around two children who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary in a tree. Floodlights are trained on the straggly plant in question, and in the ensuing melee there is a mixture of credulity and gleeful exploitation that speaks volumes about faith in a media age. ***

Don Jon (2013) – At first, the Saturday Night Fever tropes – the dancefloor as erotic hunting ground, the white singlets, the love interest with airs – seem overfamiliar, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s canny screenplay has a way of surprising you, planting details (like Scarlett Johansson’s computer literacy) that pay off later, making sharp points about religion and the packaging of romantic fantasy and class (there’s a terrific scene where Johansson’s Barbara is incredulous that her boyfriend does his own cleaning – it makes him a plebe). As director, Gordon-Levitt manages to convey his main character’s erotic imagination. His Jon is a connoisseur of porn, and like all connoisseurs he is discriminating about what he consumes. Yet porn images keep inserting themselves, in subliminal flashes, into his everyday experience in a compulsive way at odds with his knowledgeable voiceovers. Jon gets stuck on particular images – he fixes on parts of his hookups’ bodies in isolation, turning them into images – and they spring to his mind unbidden. It’s a very accomplished debut. ***

Don’s Party (1976) – David Williamson’s play doesn’t waste any time stripping back his characters’ illusions and disappointments – they’re all right there on the surface from the beginning. It’s kind of fascinating to watch something with so little subtext – it seems to go with the easy nudity and the hot suburban colours. If Bruce Beresford’s film is also a little crude and unrelieved, so is the environment it’s depicting. ***

Doubt (2008) – John Patrick Shanley takes a “point and shoot” approach to his directorial debut: he barely moves the camera, and when he tries for big effects (such as the visualisation of one of the sermons), it doesn’t quite come off. Still, this makes for a visual austerity wholly appropriate to the convent setting. It also leaves plenty of room for the four major performances – all of which turn unexpected corners, from the way Philip Seymour Hoffman’s progressive priest claims his patriarchal privileges when it suits him to Amy Adams’ timid nun benefiting from her superior’s cunning and focus on discipline. In a few brief minutes, Viola Davis takes quiet endurance to almost unbearable lengths. As the “dragon”, Meryl Streep brings a theatrical kick to her pursed lips and waspish put-downs – but she also honours the moral compass at work beneath the campy façade. ****

Dreamgirls (2006) – When the musicians in Dreamgirls want to express their unhappiness with the way Motown has pressed the soul out of black music, their chosen mode of expression is a second-tier Broadway musical. It’s a doubtful argument anyhow: Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder both managed to get what they wanted out of Motown, and to accuse Diana Ross of not being soulful enough is to short-change her expert lightness. The dialogue is awful and the staging is worse, even though writer/director Bill Condon was also responsible for Gods and Monsters and the screen adaptation of Chicago. Beyoncé Knowles doesn’t appear to be an actor, but then on this evidence neither does Jamie Foxx. Blame the writer: they’re given nothing to play. Jennifer Hudson starts out like gangbusters. This turns out to be a problem: she has nowhere left to go. **

The Earrings of Madame de … (1953) – Max Ophuls’ movie is flat-out gorgeous – from the opening, where the camera examines, with Danielle Darrieux, the contents of her expensive wardrobe to her long dance, through a series of balls and dresses, into love with Vittorio De Sica. Darrieux plays a society woman undone by her use of feminine wiles: she starts out pretending helplessness with a series of lies and fainting fits, and finds herself trapped, both by her feelings and her past behaviour. Ophuls’ direction is unfailingly subtle and intelligent, from the way the eponymous earrings change hands to the intense feelings communicated between the principals without their ever departing from the laws of politeness. ****

An Education (2009) – Lone Scherfig’s movie (based on a script by Lynn Barber and Nick Hornby) puts you in the place of its teenage protagonist, a sixteen-year-old (Carey Mulligan) who finds herself drawn to a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard): you feel the pull of her glamorous, disreputable suitor even as you fear for her innocence. Mulligan is enchanting: there’s a sharp intelligence to go with the gaucherie, the schoolgirl French and her slow acceptance of her beauty. Her parents seem crudely drawn at first, but their response to the affair – the way the possibility of a good marriage overrides other considerations – is surprising and complex. A small movie, but on its modest terms a very good one. ***

Elephant (2003) – Character is incidental in Gus Van Sant’s account of a high-school shooting. The names of a number of teenagers are flashed briefly on the screen: we’re left then to follow them down school corridors. There are very few scenes in the shaped, dramatic sense. The kids are not all that articulate, and you may find yourself becoming attached – in the absence of other information – to their mannerisms and physical attributes. Van Sant encourages such a basic level of identification that when the killings begin it affects you in a way unlike other movies. At the same time – for all the apparent simplicity of his surface – Van Sant is very deliberate in his effects. He goes to work on us. One of the boys wears a red sweatshirt emblazoned with a white cross, just in case we’d forgotten he’s a walking target. ****

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) – The treatment here is pure kitsch – Mary with her creepy black-clad handmaidens, Philip’s hopping bird-step and his blank, doll-like queen, Clive Owen and Abbie Cornish tangling in the firelight. But director Shekhar Kapur won’t go all the way with it, and the pseudo-historical pedantry neuters any potential fun. Owen’s outsized virility gives the movie a much-needed charge. When his Walter Raleigh comes striding into court, streaked with grime, his teeth brilliantly white, you want to applaud – because at least he knows what sort of movie he’s in. **

Elle (2016) – The plot outline – a woman (Isabelle Huppert) with good reason to distrust the police attempts to discover on her own the identity of the masked man who raped and continues to stalk her – doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of what Paul Verhoeven is up to here. Yes, it’s a thriller with the requisite twists and the heroine alone in her house at night, but it’s also a harsh comedy about sex in middle age (Huppert meets with a lover whose disregard for her feelings is almost as total as her rapist’s), a portrait of her extended family, and a profound meditation on the roles we play with our sexual partners, and how trauma figures in the imagination of survivors. The movie opens formally, the sudden sound of broken glass like a bell announcing the action: it’s both ferocious and controlled. The sex – whether rape, consensual, or somewhere in between – packs real, transgressive heat, disrupting the categories. Huppert’s Michèle insists on her own individual responses; she resists any sort of label. It’s an extraordinary performance. This is Verhoeven’s masterpiece. ****

Enchanted (2008) – There’s a lot that doesn’t work in Kevin Lima’s movie: the musical numbers aren’t really thought through and the ending (with Susan Sarandon’s endless cackling references to the fairy tale genre) is awful. It succeeds mainly on the strength of its performers: Amy Adams, whose gorgeous simplicity rivals Daryl Hannah in Splash (and has a warmth and a flouncing helplessness that’s all her own) and James Marsden as the fatuous prince, who’s inherited Errol Flynn’s satirical approach to his own handsomeness. ***

Encounters at the End of the World (2007) – Werner Herzog identifies so freely with the eccentric inhabitants of the Antarctic stations that what might seem overly cute – and condescending – instead seems like a very human response to the sublimity of the landscape. (There’s a lapse in taste only once, when Herzog keeps his camera for longer than is kind on the silent discomfort of a crackpot workman.) His documentary is enormously (and unexpectedly) funny – though often there’s a catch in the laughter, like the headstrong penguin that wanders off alone “to certain death” or the science-fiction terms in which a diver describes his work, which turn out to be entirely accurate. ****

Enough Said (2013) – Julia Louis-Dreyfus demonstrates more warmth and range than she ever has before, and her interactions with James Gandolfini yield a pleasure that has been in short supply in recent movies: the fluky crackle of star chemistry. Nicole Holofcener has made the first good romantic comedy in quite some time. Her preoccupations with the snarls of family relationships and the small dilemmas of upper-middle class life are on display, to mixed effect: Louis-Dreyfus’ relationship with her daughter, pitched perfectly somewhere between intimacy and exasperation, is one of the best things in the movie, but there’s a subplot revolving around Toni Collette’s dissatisfaction with her maid that feels trite and superfluous. Mostly, though, the movie is sharp and funny and well-observed, with pleasure in the details, from Catherine Keener’s Nancy Meyers-perfect house to the mimosas Gandolfini serves in jam jars. ***

Evening (2007) – Evening isn’t based on a Michael Cunningham novel, but as adapted by him and Susan Minot it might as well be. It’s sub-Cunningham, with all his pet obsessions – the gay artist not meant for this world, the love triangle, the special guest appearance by a figure from the past. Meryl Streep comes off best because she has the sense to put a little asperity into her lines: everyone else gets lost in the mush. It’s especially embarrassing to watch Vanessa Redgrave act all blank and hopeful with her big blue eyes. **

Ex Machina (2015) – This technological Bluebeard suggests what A.I. might have been if it weren’t so sentimental about the relationship between robots and humans. It has the simplicity and cruelty of a fairy tale: Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robot at its centre, is victim, heroine and destroyer. As Nathan, the Bluebeard who manufactures his wives, Oliver Isaac is a fascinating tech creep, aggressively casual in his bare feet, manipulating social situations like algorithms. Caleb (Domhnall Gleason), the employee Nathan invites into his Bond villain’s lair, is a different kind of geek: he’s ineffectual, mild, hoping this will pass for decency. Writer/director Alex Garland performs a clever moral recalibration over the course of the movie: what at first seems like an experiment in gleaming, glassed-in spaces is shown to be a species of torture. Sympathetic as he is, Caleb participates willingly, secure in his human superiority: he deserves his comeuppance (the movie’s improved by its ending) as richly as does Nathan. ****

The Eye of the Storm (2011) – What makes this adaptation of Patrick White’s novel anachronistic also makes it unique. It depicts an Australian elite – Europe-identified, its country holdings subsidising its life in the city – that’s very different to the style of wealth today, the nearest this country has come to an aristocracy. It’s stagy, deliberately so (the film crosses to actual theatres on several occasions), with its plushly furnished rooms and the characters’ carefully prepared entrances – only appropriate in a story in which one of the protagonists (Geoffrey Rush) is an eminent actor. Fred Schepisi and screenwriter Judy Morris capture White’s sensibility – his insistence on physical grossness (worms; wounds; Rush’s sleeve dragged through his meal), his characters’ attenuated emotions – but the film may leave you wondering how relevant the impotence and self-disgust is to anyone outside their very special set of circumstances. ***

54: The Director’s Cut (2015) – The movie’s debt to Saturday Night Fever was always obvious: Mark Christopher’s restored version proves a worthy successor to that disco classic. Christopher’s portrait of the dancefloor gets at its utopian aspects – its inclusiveness and its potential for self-invention (the floor at Studio 54 is like a masque ball) – and the holy feeling when the music and the drugs are just right. It’s aware too of its excess and its potential for exploitation, and how stubbornly differences of class and gender persist outside that magic space. The movie’s examination of the power of male beauty and its limitations is uncomfortably apt when it comes to the career of Ryan Phillippe. He’s at the height of his prettiness here, and the film’s gay sensibility is in the camera’s frank worship of that beauty as much as his character’s newly explicit bisexuality. The climax – an avalanche of disasters at the dawn of the 80s – still feels a bit on the nose, but this film reanimates an era. ***

Flushed Away (2006) – Dreamworks shows its hand here in the careless use of pop songs, the cutesy references to other movies and, most fatally, in the story. It’s yet another animated movie in which a loner – in this case an indulged pet rat lost in the sewers beneath London – has to learn the value of friends and family. The cast-iron American rhythms just about destroy what has always been Aardman’s chief strength – unforced English whimsy – but there’s still some pleasure to be had in the design. It’s impossible to dislike the Aardman snaggle-teeth and the big fixed eyes, and the villain – a toad voiced by Ian McKellen – made me laugh every time he moved his thick rubbery lips. **

Forbidden Lies (2007) – Norma Khouri’s involvement in this wonderful documentary takes it to a whole other level. You come, in a perverse way, to admire her range as a performer – her giggling impersonation of a coy virgin at the literary festival, her tears over the supposed abuse at the hands of her father. Even as you watch Khouri revise her story when confronted with the lies she’s told, she continues to draw you in emotionally – you understand why she was so widely believed. We, along with director Anna Broinowski, are implicated in the con and it’s utterly compelling. ****

45 Years (2015) – Like François Ozon’s Under the Sand, this is a gay director’s tribute to a great actress; like Ozon, Andrew Haigh is fascinated with Charlotte Rampling’s economy, her reserve, her face. The camera looks on as Rampling’s character tries to process her husband’s mounting obsession with a long-dead girlfriend, as she seeks refuge in their cosy routine. Rampling’s native elegance comes under increasing stress, and Haigh watches fascinated as that mask flickers – at what she can communicate with small movements of her eyes and mouth. The film is likewise economical: it’s a week in the life of a long-married couple, shopping trips and walking the dog and conversations at the kitchen table. The green English landscapes have a slight blue chill. Haigh places nothing between his star and us, and Rampling convinces us that this week has transformed her sense of herself and her marriage. ****

For Your Consideration (2006) – Christopher Guest’s new movie fails as satire because it lacks a sense of reality: you never believe in it as an account of how a bad movie is made, or how actors behave, or how publicity operates in Hollywood. (No matter how wild the behaviour is in Best in Show or A Mighty Wind, the thing the characters are passionate about – whether dogs or folk music – is accorded a certain amount of dignity.) Taking on the movies as a subject has brought out an exaggerated (and perhaps slightly defensive) clownishness in Guest’s famous ensemble of actors: there are few surprises in the parade of agents and entertainment reporters. **

Frances Ha (2013) – In many ways – in its New York hipster milieu especially – this movie resembles Girls (Adam Driver shows up), but it has important differences in tone. One is its sense of its place in the world; where Hannah and her creator Lena Dunham set out, only half-jokingly, to be “the voice of their generation,” Frances’ talent and ambition are more modest. The film maps mid-twenties experiences like career confusion and the dissolution of share houses and friendships that take on the intensity of romantic relationships. It’s curious that Greta Gerwig made Frances a dancer: she has loads of physical enthusiasm but very little grace. Frances blunders through life. Her awkward emotionality becomes very touching: she can’t help being honest, and it sets her apart from her peers with more securely constructed personas. ***

Frantic (1988) – You can feel Roman Polanski’s pleasure in making Paris as unromantic as possible. Harrison Ford’s wife disappears from their hotel room while he’s in the shower, humming “I Love Paris”. The natives Ford encounters either misunderstand him, attempt to extort money from him, or chortle in a worldly fashion, thinking it’s a matter of infidelity. Polanski even makes Paris look like shit, all overcast weather and buildings past their prime. The movie is tense, though, and you get a vivid sense of Ford’s isolation. ***

Frost/Nixon (2008) – The story of a shallow man (Michael Sheen) who rises to the occasion, Ron Howard’s film at least does not mythologise the methods (or motives) of television journalism: it’s mostly a matter of career calculation and brinksmanship with the networks. It’s structured to feel like television, with the talking heads of the participants recalling events long after the fact: in this sense it’s a good match of form and content. It’s hard to sympathise much, though, with the financial woes of the hero as he stays in a series of luxurious hotels, and Peter Morgan’s screenplay fails to come to grips with Richard Nixon. The disgraced president is written mostly as a “turn”: his early money-grubbing is presented as a cute quirk, before we bask in his shrewdness and eminence. It’s strictly from the outside, and it limits the impact of his eventual apology. ***

Fucking Amal (1998) – Also known as Show Me Love. This Swedish movie – about two girls who fall in love in an atmosphere of teenage drinking and absentee parents – is just about perfect. It shows how hysterical and false American movies on similar subjects are – Thirteen comes to mind – with their whipped-up problems and their air of moral panic. There are all kinds of irresponsible behaviour on show here but everyone – parents and teenagers – is basically good hearted. Lukas Moodysson wrote a script that’s remarkably even-handed, funny and observant, and he has those same virtues as a director – the camera looks on dispassionately. It’s likely the details you’ll remember – the way one of the heroines fends off an amorous boy with a toilet brush, or the solemn music the other puts on for a self-harm episode. ****

Gone Girl (2014) – Shorn of its two distinctive voices, the implausibilities of Gillian Flynn’s plot are exposed: I didn’t buy the ending of the book, either, but in Flynn’s screenplay adaptation the Dunnes’ poisonous arrangement feels emptily clever – glib. It’s unworthy of an author with so much to say about gender and the American economy in recession and the way we participate in other people’s lives through the media. David Fincher allows us plenty of leisure to dwell on these shortcomings: his approach as director is altogether too classy for the material, the colours tasteful blues and yellows and browns, the compositions unvaryingly stable (with blackouts for drama), the pacing measured, Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch’s music burbling ominously in the background. The role of Nick is a new male type – bemused, stubbornly opaque, his easy-going good nature armour against the emotional demands of others – and it makes a virtue of Ben Affleck’s limitations as an actor, his self-satisfaction, his whiteness. It’s the role he was born to play. Amy, however, is reduced to mere villainess. **

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) – George Clooney co-wrote and directed Good Night, and there are no big scenes – it’s all of a piece. As played by David Strathairn, Ed Murrow is a stiff-backed man, serious and rather remote – and it’s his spirit that informs the picture. It’s rather startling to watch him deliver his editorials, with their formal language and their presumption of the audience’s intelligence – they makes 50s TV seem like a golden age. Though Good Night is only 90 minutes long, there’s an awful lot for the audience to take in, and Clooney leavens the main thrust of the movie with cuts to old cigarette ads and a series of songs, beautifully sung by Dianne Reeves. On its own modest terms, the film is just about perfect. ****

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – With its patterning of rooms upon rooms, its plush aura of luxury, a hotel is perhaps the ideal setting for Wes Anderson, with enough movement to keep things from feeling too boxy. The spaces here recede into depth – criss-crossed by valets and their clientele – and soar upward, storey after storey. Anderson has complete mastery over his environment: it’s both alive and precisely controlled. As the dandy at its centre, Ralph Fiennes gives a wonderful comic turn, his bon mots sprinkled with profanity, his blue eyes soulful despite all the whimsy. This transatlantic playground – actors thrown together without regard for accent, the silly place names, the miniature sets – is deliberately unreal, and when Anderson tries to darken the mood with the arrival of Fascism it feels a bit jarring. Still, this is one of his best movies. ***

Gravity (2013) – It’s easy to forgive the moments of Hollywood philosophising (George Clooney’s condescending pep talk is the worst offender) because at its best, this movie is existentialism made flesh: human identity asserted by small acts against a background of darkness. I expected it to be impressive – Emmanuel Lubezki’s images have a sober beauty – but I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. Alfonso Cuarón has the confidence in his material that Danny Boyle didn’t, quite, with Sunshine: he trusts that we will find the astronauts’ expertise fascinating. Most of the movie’s drama is in their work, in the way they negotiate their environment. Sandra Bullock is perfect as the heroine: her very ordinariness encourages us to identify with her on the most basic level, as a human whose panicked breathing is exhausting her oxygen supply, as a body made clumsy by its cumbersome suit. She becomes an exemplary figure lightly, without making a big deal of it. This is a great film. ****

Grindhouse (2007) – Robert Rodriguez’s jokiest movie is also his best: his particular mixture of sentimentality and splatter, of solicitude for his scantily-clad heroines and complicity in their exploitation, benefits from being so intentionally silly. His Planet Terror never lets up, and the gross-out effects (there’s much squeezing of bloody pustules) are made vivid by little filigrees of perversity (my favourite were the anaesthetist’s three colour-coded needles). It’s such a roaring, over-the-top success that Tarantino’s Death Proof – with its endless girly chatter – is a bit of an anticlimax. I like the feminist upending of the genre (the female victims pursue and destroy their would-be killer), but by defying our expectations so thoroughly (where’s the action?) Tarantino displays a different kind of perversity. ****

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – This is essentially a retread of Star Wars, with Chris Pratt as the Han Solo rogue turned reluctant hero. Since the movie expresses a more general nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1970s and 80s – Pratt’s ship is decorated with Alf badges and troll dolls, his space adventures set to a 70s mix tape – this is a good fit. The movie approximates the original Star Wars trilogy’s cheerful unpretentiousness more nearly than George Lucas’ prequels did, adding its own splashy sense of colour (highlighter yellow and lava lamp purple) and vulgar sense of humour (the foul-mouthed raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper). It spends blessedly little time on world-building: it’s like an overstimulated child, lurching from one bright thing to the next. ***

Hairspray (2007) – When Tracy the plus-size heroine stops in the middle of the opening number to feed a couple of rats, it goes beyond puerile kidding of the wholesome fifties because Nikki Blonsky’s verve and optimism really do seem indestructible. The movie succeeds by tempering its (not very acute) satire with affection – you’re really dazzled by the teen idols’ impossibly white teeth, and John Travolta strikes a difficult balance between exaggerated helplessness and real dignity. There are problems – Michelle Pfeiffer’s villainess doesn’t come off, and it’s a mistake to make Tracy the author of the civil rights march – but I didn’t stop smiling for the duration. ***

Happy Endings (2005) – Don Roos seems to have a fixed deck of characters, and they appear here again, lightly shuffled from their last appearance in The Opposite of Sex. The scheming minx is played this time by a knockout Maggie Gyllenhaal – there’s also the brittle, dissatisfied older woman (Lisa Kudrow, who had the same role in Sex) and the gay men viewed with a complete lack of sentimentality. Roos is like Todd Solondz in that he has no illusions about his characters’ most venal motives, but he doesn’t put them down like Solondz: they’re allowed to have good impulses too. The characters’ scheming gets them into a mess of half-truths and elaborate plans, which Roos then detonates. The movie is hilarious and affecting. ****

Happy Feet (2006) – This is a musical on the Moulin Rouge model – in other words a blanding out of once-great pop songs. George Miller is rather too impressed with the possibilities of 3D technology as well – the camera goes whirling over the ice just because it can and there are too many chases that seem designed explicitly for easy transfer to the Happy Feet video game. But all the way through there are moments that connect – from the tottering movements of the infant penguins to the exhausted shaman with the plastic rings stuck around his neck. ***

Happy Together (1997) – Though it vividly captures what it’s like to live and work on the margins of a foreign culture – the film’s gay protagonist (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) works as a bar tout and dishwasher in Buenos Aires – Wong Kar-wai’s film so thoroughly excludes the possibility of pleasure that it finally seems perverse; blinkered rather than illuminating. He shows us an Argentina of desolate highways and urban backstreets, much of it shot (by Christopher Doyle) in a grainy, bleached black-and-white, and Leung’s relationship with Leslie Cheung is so dysfunctional that it’s exasperating. Leung is a grouch, Cheung a tease whose chief pleasure in being with Leung seems to be the opportunity to infuriate him. There’s no indication that they ever were happy together, and so their bickering becomes as tiresome as a friend who complains about a toxic boyfriend without doing anything about him. **

The Heartbreak Kid (2007) – This Ben Stiller vehicle manages one great gross-out gag: the way things keep getting stuck in his new wife’s deviated septum. But mostly it’s a demonstration of how far the Farrelly brothers (and Stiller, with his protective sense of himself as star, his gym-fit body and the bits of reassuring I’m-a-nice-guy shtick) have drifted in the genre they helped found. Will Ferrell this isn’t. *

Heart of a Dog (2015) – Paying tribute to her mother, her dog, and her famous husband, Laurie Anderson’s words are funny and wise (she’s especially sharp on the selfishness of grief, the way we impose our own preoccupations on the memories of those we’ve lost). Her tone as performer is bewitching and complex, serene on the surface but studded with moments of gnomic humour. Unfortunately, Anderson’s images don’t match the power of her words and delivery. Too often they’re merely illustrative – like an avant-garde slideshow – or clichés like the sky glimpsed through branches or droplets of water running down glass. She achieves some nice effects with surveillance footage, however, and the videos of her dog at the piano are a hoot. ***

Hell or High Water (2016) – The depressed small town setting – the oil rigs and empty shops, the bleached pastel colours, the gas station revealed in a casual pan to the right to be perched above an infinite plain – is so potent that, like the bayou in True Detective, it overmasters the story that Taylor Sheridan has contrived in the foreground. (Director David Mackenzie may overdo the ironic use of billboards – the robber brothers driving past signs that read DEBT and FAST MONEY.) It’s a problem when a film’s bystanders are more compelling than its protagonists; the waitresses and loitering old men are originals, the wily, slow-moving sheriff (Jeff Bridges) and the volatile jailbird brother (Ben Foster) definite types. It’s the sort of film that might have starred Bill Paxton back in the 90s: one reason for its wide acclaim is that this kind of small-scale crime drama is now a rare breed. It does become more affecting as it goes along, the bond between the brothers deepening, and the final heist and its aftermath are tense and exciting. ***

The Help (2011) – Though it purports to depict the experience of African-American servants, Tate Taylor’s film is not from a black perspective – its heroine is not Viola Davis’ Aibileen but the plucky white girl played by Emma Stone. We spend an inordinate amount of time watching Stone overcome the self-doubt occasioned by her looks and her family’s resistance to her forceful personality. This might make good commercial sense (in terms of reaching white audiences) but as a result the film consigns Davis and Octavia Spencer’s characters to the periphery – refuses to acknowledge their reality – as surely as the ’60s Mississippi it critiques. Spencer is very entertaining however, and Davis has a harsh intensity – a wounded gaze that can barely contain her outrage – that stays with you. **

Her (2013) – Spike Jonze creates a vision of the future that’s like a depopulated issue of Monocle magazine: sparse crowds of hipsters wander around in high-waisted trousers, bathed in white light. The public spaces we see never quite chime with the aerial shots of Shanghai, the director’s L.A. of the future: the world of the movie is unconvincing. The flashbacks too to Joaquin Phoenix capering with his ex-wife are too stereotyped to connect, too standard an image of “fun”. The movie is gratifyingly goofy, however: Chris Pratt is his usual loveable self, and there are good running gags about the video games that Phoenix and his friends play and design. Phoenix’s relationship with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) keeps evolving on both sides: the movie is thoughtful about our relationship with technology. But it never quite shakes a certain dryness: it’s never more than the working out of an idea. ***

Higher Ground (2011) – Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, based on a memoir by Carolyn Briggs, is a wonderfully nuanced depiction of Christian life. It has its weaknesses: the milieu is already so stylised (hippies gone over to God in the 1970s, with the profusion of patterned fabrics that implies) that the heroine’s fantasies come across as odd, and her climactic sermon plays like grandstanding. But it captures the warmth, the musicality, the habits of thoughtfulness and gratitude in her community even as it makes clear the way it keeps the women in it subservient, the way it cannot tolerate ambivalence. The movie has a gratifying looseness as it traces the evolution of Corrine’s life and thought – gently, over the course of her life. ****

Hill of Freedom (2014) – This precious, pretentious movie, with its pointlessly scrambled timeline, is yet another Valentine to male passivity, where the protagonist’s glum indecision proves irresistible to everyone around him. Moro (Ryo Kase) is in Seoul for the declared purpose of finding a lover he met on a previous visit. However, it’s only late in the film that he actually goes to visit her apartment. He’d rather moon around in her general vicinity: everyone he encounters seems to find this adorable. Because Moro is Japanese and speaks no Korean, most of his interactions are in English (the second language that he and the locals have in common): the halting conversations that result are certainly an apt rendering of expat experience, but they’re still a drag to sit through. It’s an infuriating movie. **

Hitchcock (2012) – Sacha Gervasi’s movie about the making of Psycho has a cheerful telemovie quality: celebrity impressions (Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh) and clunky expository dialogue (“North by Northwest was a big hit, Mr. Hitchcock! Shouldn’t you give up while you’re ahead?”). It’s enjoyable because it doesn’t take itself too seriously: the movie opens with Hopkins addressing us directly, as if it were an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hopkins gets the fat man’s careful sense of composure, the pursed lips, the calculating eyes: his Hitchcock is always gauging his effect on other people. The marital drama is a bit of a muddle, and Hitchock’s fantasy engagement with the killer on whom Psycho was based isn’t really developed, but the movie is so easygoing it’s easy to let these flaws pass. It’s sort of an achievement to make the making of the prototypical slasher film so lulling. **

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) – Like the second Star Wars trilogy, the Hobbit films are a pointless elaboration of a beloved pop myth. The world here has much in common with Lucas’ prequels: the dreary preoccupation with imaginary politics, the trite romance, the token ‘strong’ female character in a male universe. For a very expensive movie, it looks quite cheap: visually, it has the flat sharpness of behind-the-scenes footage shot on a cheap digital camera. The images have little richness or tone. Peter Jackson’s obviousness as a director recalls Baz Luhrmann: he shoots his actors almost exclusively in close-up, eliciting performances of pantomime broadness. (The characters frequently turn away mid-conversation to gaze solemnly into the distance, before turning back for a dramatic rejoinder.) This might have worked had Jackson pitched the story (as Tolkien did) for children: in trying to imbue it with Lord of the Rings‘ grandeur he’s made a movie that’s both silly and self-serious, grandiose and inconsequential. **

Holy Motors (2012) – On one level, this is an actor’s life presented as a glamorous fantasy of mobility and transformation: Denis Lavant cruises the streets of Paris in a white stretch limo, a master of disguise and various styles of performance. He keeps a series of “appointments” across town, each in a different genre. Each time he walks away without consequences, untouched even by death. In some ways Holy Motors recalls Terry Gilliam’s Doctor Parnassus, but unlike that film this is never twee or precious. In large part this is due to Lavant: with his grave manner and grizzled features he’s like one of those fairytale creatures whose magical abilities carry with them a hint of menace. (In one appointment he is literally a monster who dwells in the sewers.) His transformations are magical, as is the assurance with which director Leos Carax moves from mode to mode, from the urban naturalism of a conversation between father and daughter to an underworld hit to a handsome bit of Henry James. Each mode is expertly achieved; each is provisional in a way that draws attention to its artificiality, to the beautiful tricks Carax is playing. It’s a wonderful movie. ****

How Much Do You Love Me? (2005) – The premise of Bertrand Blier’s new film – a man wins the lottery and offers a high class prostitute one hundred thousand Euros a month to live with him until the money runs out – may sound too close for comfort to Indecent Proposal. It’s the kind of “outrageous” idea that leaves a movie nowhere to go. So it’s a pleasure to report that Blier’s prankish sense of humour saves the day. He uses abrupt shifts in lighting and a giddy number of arias on the soundtrack to signal a shift from reality to fantasy. As the movie goes on the distinction between the two becomes more and more unstable. Monica Bellucci has to inhabit both worlds and she does it splendidly. ****

The Hurt Locker (2008) – Kathryn Bigelow captures with extraordinary vividness the narrow focus of a team of bomb experts in Iraq. It opens with a robot rattling over a few metres of fraught territory, and it’s a perfect metaphor for what they do – concentrating on small goals so intensely absorbing that the larger question of their presence never comes up. Like Bigelow’s Point Break, this is a movie about men who get a kick out of living on the edge. But then the use of humans as weapons complicates things: digging a bomb out of a dead body, Jeremy Renner not only defuses a weapon, but also re-asserts its human dignity. Suspenseful and moving. ****

I Am Legend (2007) – Will Smith is very good at showing the effects of his solitude and the constant state of danger: it’s there in the pained concentration in his forehead, the slight embarrassment in his interactions with shop dummies. But the climactic siege seems inadequate to the glimpses of a Manhattan populated solely by deer, or the careful detailing of the hero’s routine: it’s standard zombie movie stuff, with a kid and a woman of faith thrown in for moral uplift. Given an extra star for Emma Thompson’s (momentary) participation. ***

Ida (2013) – This is a movie where the style draws attention to itself: the misc-en-scene is so spare that every element stands out – a high-heeled shoe placed just so. Director Pawel Pawlikowski rarely moves the camera. His static, carefully composed images are dynamic nevertheless: characters’ faces sit low in the frame, with great expanses of ceiling or sky pressing down on them; they fall or fling dirt into the frame. The style is powerful enough to make the movie’s obvious elements – the mismatched relatives (a blooming, closeted nun and a cynical woman of the world) on a life-changing road-trip; a man literally standing in the grave of history – seem direct rather than shopworn, the fastest way into this world. It can’t redeem the overdetermined final act, however, which methodically nips off each possibility raised by the story – mainly, one suspects, to get Pawlikowski to his final shot. ***

The Ides of March (2011) – From the outset – when a sound-check is rendered portentous by the booming sound of spotlights being trained on Ryan Gosling – actor/co-writer/director George Clooney gives you plenty of time to absorb his obvious ideas. (When the campaign of the Democratic presidential candidate played by Clooney runs into trouble, Clooney the writer/director has his actors sit in a plane beset by turbulence.) The leftist orientation and the focus on politics behind the scenes are reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin – but Sorkin spoken at a glacial pace and shot from a series of fixed camera positions. The silly skulduggery of the second half is actually an improvement; until then the movie is worthy and dull. **

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) – There’s something self-serving and a little sour in the way Terry Gilliam conceives of himself here as a Prospero whose magic is wasted on an unappreciative public, but the anachronistic theatre he creates is so richly detailed that his fable ends up succeeding anyway. (It helps that he cast Christopher Plummer as his avatar: he brings a grave sense of showmanship to the role of the Doctor.) At times, the Doctor’s fabulous, inert tableaux vivants suggest a sneaky self-criticism on the part of the director: Gilliam has always had trouble making his inventions signify. The fantasy sequences reveal something of the boys-only sources of his humour: the women here are not quite real, either middle-aged grotesques or a single ingénue (Lily Cole) replicated across time. In the end though, the movie’s plea on behalf of the imagination is backed up by its proliferation of imagery. Gilliam’s joy in making things is everywhere apparent. ***

The Imitation Game (2014) – This biopic of Alan Turing deploys most of the clichés familiar from other movies about scientists: the brilliant individual working frustratedly at his desk (director Morten Tyldum folds in footage of Turing running so we understand that his work is exertion); his excited running around on the verge of a big discovery, his less brilliant associates trailing behind him; his sentimental attachment to his invention. The movie’s Turing is singular nonetheless. For once, the genius character’s monomania and indifference to social cues aren’t diagnosed or explained: they’re simply allowed to be. The movie respects Turing’s strangeness: this self-described “odd duck” really seems to operate on a different plane. At the same time we’re made to feel his loneliness and his susceptibility to bullying: being the smartest person in the room is not simply the occasion for actorly show-boating but a condition that presents terrors as well as insights. Benedict Cumberbatch embodies all of this perfectly. ***

The Immigrant (2013) – At first, with its images of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side bathed in Gordon Willis light, this seems like a retread of The Godfather. (Later in the film, his face swollen from a beating, Joaquin Phoenix does a mush-mouthed Brando impression.) It proves to be its own thing, though: it burrows down into the tawdry netherland between burlesque and sex work. It’s full of vivid details: the newly arrived Ewa (Marion Cotillard) encountering a banana for the first time, biting through the skin; a strip show that travesties the immigrant experience, Ewa pressed into the role of the Statue of Liberty. The melodramatic plot – Phoenix and Jeremy Renner competing for Ewa’s affections – seems to belong to the period (it’s set in the early 1920s), but as its contrivances impose themselves the film becomes increasingly mechanical and clunky. (At times, Cotillard’s suffering seems so overdetermined that she could be in a Lars von Trier movie.) It’s unequal to the actors and the vivid world James Gray creates here: the story gets in the way. ***

I’m Not There (2007) – Todd Haynes’ one insight into Bob Dylan – that his refusal to be pinned down allows him to renew himself as an artist – throws this biopic out of whack. Haynes focuses on Dylan’s reception rather than his musical achievements. The movie ranges from marital strife (Heath Ledger) to hip evasion and bullshit (Cate Blanchett) to empty myth-making (Richard Gere), but whenever one of the Dylans take the stage the movie falls apart, because they get nowhere near his wit, charge or charisma. The wall-to-wall Dylan on the soundtrack begins to sound like a rebuke. **

I’m Still Here (2010) When we first see the ‘new’ Joaquin Phoenix, he’s a figure in a blue hoodie, shuffling around his dark backyard. He paces back and forth, muttering to himself – it’s several minutes before he shows his face to the camera. The sense that this is camouflage hangs over Casey Affleck’s entire movie – Phoenix’s performance as bum conceals rather than illuminates. For an identity game, the disguise he adopts – shambling through live performances, mistreating the people who clean up after him – is extraordinarily unpleasant. Whatever Phoenix’s (and Affleck’s) intentions, the impression it leaves you with is that of a year wasted. *

The Incredibles (2004) – The design is nothing short of miraculous: the characters are so perfectly what they are that you felt it would be a diminution to have them played by live actors. Bob Parr’s bulk is wonderfully expressive – you feel physically how oppressive life in the suburbs is to him when you saw him wedged into his little car or forced to defer to his boss. And there was no more elegant moment in movies that year than when Elastic Girl sails over the rooftops into the sun. The movie’s conflicts are not fully digested either – even after the happy ending the violence of Bob’s inability to adjust to ordinary life stays with you. Along with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this was the best movie of 2004. ****

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – Harrison Ford is worn out and humourless in a way that could conceivably work for an older Indiana, but it doesn’t play that way: he’s rather at odds with the spirit of the picture, which is inclined to kid the implausibility of the scrapes he gets into (there’s even a chorus of giggling prairie dogs). The contrast between Ford and Shia LaBeouf – working overtime with his pocket knife and comb – could not be more pointed. Still, this rattles along at a fairly entertaining clip. ***

Inglourious Basterds (2009) – Quentin Tarantino continues to indulge his inner film student as his dexterity increases – where the heroines’ stalking of the villain in Death Proof felt too much like a feminist thesis, here the audacity of his re-writing of history (the Nazi elite slain by a Jewish woman and a black man) is part of the excitement, as is his obsession with the film medium (the denouement takes place in a cinema with film, literally, a weapon). He pulls off his endless conversations as well – included, as always, not just to build tension but for their own sweet sake – thanks in large part to Christoph Waltz, who commandeers his every scene as imperturbably as Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Affectionate stereotypes abound – my favourite is Mike Myers’ brief appearance as a British officer – and by the time of the climax, there are so many strands in play that you wonder if Tarantino can pull them all together. He does. It’s a smashing film. ****

Inland Empire (2007) – I thought that David Lynch pissed away his Mulholland Drive, with the repeated fracturing of identity at the end – and that’s the starting point for this new movie. There’s no doubting that Laura Dern has the goods – there’s an extraordinary moment when she delivers a monologue at a read-through – but Lynch switches tack on us so many times that he destroys all possibility of emotional involvement. We’re left with the lesser pleasures of kitsch – girls doing “The Locomotion” in formation, Dern’s endless death scene in the red light district. A real perversity. **

Inside Out (2015) – In which Pete Docter combines the emotional punch of his celebrated life-spanning montage in Up with the multiple worlds of Wreck-It Ralph. It combines emotional acuity with a headlong sense of invention: once Joy (Amy Poehler, in what is basically a reprise of her Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation) and Sadness set off on their journey around the brain, the movie rarely covers the same ground twice but finds new ways to represent (among other things) dreams, the selectivity of memory and monsters dwelling in the subconscious. It’s a meditation on the processes of thought that’s also a crowd-pleaser; the movie’s ingenuity pays off emotionally as its conceits play across the face of a plainly distressed 11 year-old girl. My only reservation was that it’s more exciting conceptually than it is visually: the brain’s surfaces are plasticky, generic – like some mass-produced toy – and the emotions’ command centre looks like the dashboard of a car. Still, this belongs in the upper reaches of the Pixar canon. ****

Interstellar (2014) – The movie opens with a convincing depiction of an Earth in its terminal stages: the dust-choked cornfields are specific, archetypically American and handsome to look at all at the same time. (The horizons of this world have shrunk to the purely local: it’s poetically right that most of the action should be confined to a single farm.) This ruined world is so convincing that the merely personal concerns of the astronauts once they take off – reunion with daughters and lovers – seem petty, even ludicrous. With the survival of the human race at stake, what are we to make of a hero who would rather turn around and go home than go on with his mission? (This could be good material for a comedy, but laughs are the last thing on Christopher Nolan’s mind.) For all the talk of wormholes and extra dimensions, the message is basically the same as Titanic‘s: Their Hearts Will Go On. The frequent nods to 2001 – the walking obelisks, the light shows, Matthew McConaughey floating like a baby in space – only highlight how much more successfully Kubrick’s film evoked the universe’s mystery and immensity. **

Interview (2007) – Though it goes on too long – becomes a self-perpetuating actor’s machine, with a very actorly notion of conflict-as-truth – Steve Buscemi’s Theo van Gogh remake is also a reminder of how little a movie needs to sustain your interest. Two actors, footage assembled from three cameras – it has a tense intimacy that’s pretty bracing. The way that Buscemi opposes his slumped, slob’s indifference to Sienna Miller’s assured sense of her actor’s equipment, the way that her gracious manner is both ingratiation and defence – both of them are wonderful. ***

In the Loop (2009) – In some ways, it feels like cheating to set this satire in the muddled, middle ranks of the bureaucracy – they’re not in a position to do anything. Except that they are – and when these vain, incompetent, endlessly calculating people end up at the UN, doctoring the case for war, it’s frightening how inadequate they are to their historical moment. The film is nonetheless very funny and brilliant verbally – the swear words inventive and the insults deadly accurate. ****

Into the Inferno (2016) – The great thing about Werner Herzog’s documentaries is their discursive freedom: a film ostensibly about volcanos might take in a sudden side trip to a team of scientists sweeping up bones in the Ethiopian desert or a state-sanctioned tour of North Korea, and why not? His films have the restless, lateral quality of thought. Actually, the North Korean excursion makes perfect sense: the movie is as much about the belief systems various societies construct around volcanos’ naked power as it is the spectacular footage of that power in action. The geological processes volcanos expose and their destructive potential make our lives on the crust seem provisional, and Herzog zeroes in on the ways that people live with that knowledge. It’s as much a philosophical enquiry as a nature documentary, delivered with Herzog’s deadpan sense of humour. ****

Into the Wild (2007) – Sean Penn carries his identification with his adolescent hero a little too far: the parents are gross caricatures (he places William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden in the frame so that they seem stupid Tweedle-Dee figures), and because Penn lets Emile Hirsch mug at the camera, all the shots of Alex under his improvised shower or running with wild horses suggest self-infatuation rather than communion with nature. Penn (unsurprisingly) has a good eye for actors though, and the people Alex encounters on the road (particularly Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook) are moving and precisely observed. ***

Into the Woods (2014) – There’s a basic structural problem with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical – the redundant second act. All the ambiguities it labours – the fatuous, self-infatuated Prince, Cinderella’s doubts about her happily-ever-after, the woods as a liminal space with the potential for both menace and liberation – are there in the first act, only presented with more dash and humour. The second half of this movie adaptation turns grim, denuded of colour, in the manner of a gritty expose. Until then it’s good fun, with its handsome deep-toned colours against a background of browns and greys, its pretty recitative, its ingenious jumbling of familiar fairy tale characters. For a Disney film it preserves much of those tales’ original violence, but as an excavation of their subtext it can’t touch Angela Carter. ***

Invictus (2009) – Morgan Freeman’s Mandela is inseparable from his own persona – warm, wise, gently amused. And the screenplay’s idea of character insight has him staring at himself in the bathroom mirror: the movie has all the stiffness of a historical re-enactment. (It’s something a jock teacher might show to his General Studies class.) But it gets at the emotional content of sport quite nicely – the climactic final gave me that good football feeling. ***

The Iron Lady (2011) – Phyllida Lloyd’s movie starts well, with its startling presentation of Thatcher as a bewildered old lady in a convenience store, and Meryl Streep is superlative at communicating the elderly Thatcher’s dogged attempts to stay in the present tense – one stiff-hipped step at a time – and the seductive power of her memories of her dead husband. As a political biography it’s a complete failure, however – there’s no sense of deliberation, process or context, just Streep making one speech after another about her inflexibility or looking beleaguered in the back seat of a car. Its resemblance to Iris (right down to the casting of Jim Broadbent as the supportive husband) also highlights moviemakers’ disquieting habit of depicting powerful, gifted woman not at their peak but at a moment of infirmity. The film does justice to old age but not to Thatcher, its supposed subject. ***

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008) – This movie depends on the controlled release of information about the prodigal sister played by Kristen Scott Thomas, but it never feels like an emotional striptease. Partly it’s the way each revelation changes our perception of what’s come before (Scott Thomas’ bad temper with her sister’s child becomes alarming and then, later, the occasion for pity) and partly because it reflects her strangeness to her sister (Elsa Zylberstein), as well as her numbed relation to her own experience. Scott Thomas has a fierce, wearied elegance: it’s when she’s alone – washing the dishes, her face to the camera, or peering into a fire – the price of that composure plays out on her face. It’s a beautiful performance. ****

Joe (2013) – Unlike Mud (with which it shares Tye Sheridan as the boy protagonist) or Winter’s Bone, the white-trash details in David Gordon Green’s Southern Gothic feel like set decoration rather than elements of a convincing world. Likewise, Nicholas Cage’s Joe is a compendium of tough-guy clichés: he knows how to cut a perfect steak from a deer carcass and pull shotgun pellets out of his shoulder; his girlfriend’s main function is wonder plaintively if they will ever go out on a dinner date. There’s a sense that everyone involved is trying to be as rococo as possible with the perversity: Joe visits the local whorehouse for a blowjob while his dog mauls the madam’s German shepherd downstairs; one drunk beats another to death for a bottle of sugar wine; a mute girl is menaced in the back of a truck by a man in a bunny mask. It’s an unlovely mixture of the outré and the sentimental (Joe as reluctant father figure, as devoted dog owner, as doomed outsider), and in its lack of emotional logic it soon becomes ludicrous. *

Joy (2015) – David O. Russell announces his intention to make a soap opera at the outset, and he follows through – the outsize characters with single traits, the way Russell arranges them in static groups, the recycled sets (most of the film takes place in a house and a garage). It’s not clear what he means to achieve with this approach, though, and the movie is like a soap in the worst sense: we’re stuck with people incapable of development or growth, locked by their creators’ skin-deep conception in an interminable loop of behaviour. The people around Jennifer Lawrence’s heroine are so unpleasant, and her response to them so mild, that her passivity becomes exasperating. When one of them rebukes her as not tough enough it seems an accurate description. The best part of the movie is set at a home shopping network: Russell never condescends to the medium, and Bradley Cooper’s network boss – who sees opportunity everywhere – is a capitalist mystic. Still, this movie takes forever getting nowhere. **

Julieta (2016) – Leave it to Pedro Almodóvar to turn an Alice Munro adaptation into a series of quotations from Hitchcock: Eve Marie Saint flirting with Cary Grant in North by Northwest, Tippi Hedren arriving in a seaside town, Rossy de Palma’s homage to Mrs. Danvers. Attempting a different register, telling a story with different stakes – a mother who pines after a daughter who has cut all contact with her – Almodóvar can’t help tricking it up with bits of old thrillers. Sometimes he’s too predictable: his good taste in furnishings, for example – a book of Cecil Beaton photographs here, a Francis Bacon there – feels less like a proud parading of influences this time than a spread in a lifestyle magazine. But this doesn’t get in the way of the feelings at the film’s centre: this remains a simple story, well told. ***

The Jungle Book (2016) – The animals here live somewhere in the uncanny valley. It’s not the disconcerting impassivity of human actors altered by motion capture – the animals are expressive, especially the scarred Shere Khan. It’s hard to say what it is exactly – whether the weird volume of the animals’ precisely rendered fur, their slightly dead eyes, or the famous voices issuing from their snouts – but something isn’t quite right. It follows most of the beats of the 1967 animation – including some things that don’t fit tonally, like the songs – but the approach is quite different. It’s darker and a lot more dynamic, particularly in the first half hour: it’s disappointing when, with the arrival of Bill Murray’s Baloo, the movie settles down into familiar Disney rhythms. It even loses its nerve visually: suddenly there are pink flowers everywhere, and cute animal sidekicks. The best parts of the movie feature animals – like the elephants – that aren’t saddled with human personalities: they suggest the wildness that might have been. **

Juno (2007) – At first this seems like another entry in the Zach Braff school of filmmaking – hushed, cutesy music with simple piano figures and deliberately dumb rhymes, flip self-conscious dialogue and more quirks than you can poke a stick at (the living room furniture moved from lawn to lawn, the lone Asian girl picketing the abortion clinic, etc.) But from the flickers of panic in Ellen Page’s eyes as she climbs in Michael Cera’s lap to the moment when Jennifer Garner kneels down in the mall, the actors find the truth in their situations, and the movie becomes more and more affecting. Page in particular is wonderful – sceptical, trenchant, good hearted. ***

Jurassic World (2015) – Rather than exploring the narrative possibilities of dinosaurs on the loose in a park fully populated by tourists, this sequel goes for a lazy rehash of the original. Once again the focus is on a makeshift family with a couple of lonely kids at its centre, as if this were the only way to make dinosaurs interesting. Added to this is a truly retrograde attitude to gender: the heroine (Bryce Dallas Howard) is made to feel like a terrible person for working long hours and her P.A. is killed in lingering fashion (she’s passed from pterodactyl to pterodactyl) for being an inattentive child-minder. The movie even manages the difficult feat of making Chris Pratt – striking manly poses with a bottle of Coke in his hand – unappealing. The reverence with which Spielberg unveiled his digital bestiary is long gone: there’s precious little wonder on offer here, only a sour sense of cynicism. *

Kenny (2006) – With this movie, the Jacobson brothers rehabilitate the Aussie bloke in pop culture. They present him with his democratic temperament and absence of bullshit and gift for outlandish slang intact, but also with an abiding gentleness and none of the Aussie bloke’s traditional prejudices. In this Kenny Smyth is different to his father – played with a combination of ferocity and physical frailty by the Jacobsons’ real dad. The scenes pointing up the gap between the generations are the best in the film. There are a few sops to the audience but then, that’s what got it into the cineplexes. ***

Kill Bill 2 (2004) – It doesn’t deliver the pop rush of the first movie, but there are images – like Uma Thurman standing in the doorway of the church – that deepen the emotional appeal of the whole. The scenes where The Bride is reunited with her daughter are supposed to do the same thing but Thurman’s performance doesn’t rise to the occasion. Daryl Hannah is great fun with her eye-patch, pointed black boots and the mean way she purses her lips. ***

The Kingdom (2007) – This is really three movies – a Washington insider picture, a police procedural and a shoot-’em-up rescue mission – and the attempt to straddle genres dissipates some of its impact. There’s good, nervy camerawork: director Peter Berg keeps you aware of how vulnerable the American team sent to investigate a bombing in Jordan is, from every angle. There’s a fixation with kids, as emblem of (imperilled) innocence: Jamie Foxx pays so many visits to the children of fallen comrades that he might as well be in childcare. Character is by shorthand too – Chris Cooper avuncular, Jennifer Garner steely but sensitive – but then character here is beside the point. Instant personas are one of the things stars are good for. ***

King Kong (2005) – Yes, it’s much too long – the passage to Skull Island is especially slow – but I think this stems from Peter Jackson’s generosity and his nerd’s enthusiasm. He simply wants to show us as many things as possible. The surprising thing – and the thing that makes this, along with Broken Flowers, the movie of 2005 – is the number of modes in which he succeeds. The New York bustle of the opening – and the mad glint in the eyes of Jack Black’s movie entrepreneur – is as exciting (and as deeply felt) as King Kong taking on two dinosaurs at once or the worms that swallow men whole. The clincher though is the romance between Kong and the luminous Naomi Watts. The relationship between Beauty and Beast is unexpected and tender. ****

The Kite Runner (2007) – There are plenty of nice details here – from the Afghani rich boy’s inability to enjoy his privilege to the walk he takes with his fiancee, her mother trailing along a few feet behind. As the father, Homayoun Ershadi has a quiet dignity that becomes very affecting. But for all Marc Forster’s good intentions – filming it with subtitles can’t have been an easy choice commercially – this is a pretty trashy piece of work. The way the protagonist’s cowardice and passivity are dramatised is pure Hollywood, and the eventual return home, with ominous guitars on the soundtrack and a villain out of Indiana Jones, is just awful. A classic bit of miscalculation – too arty for the multiplexes, too crass for the arthouse set. **

Knocked Up (2007) – For about an hour, Judd Apatow so far exceeds the expectations set by his 40 Year Old Virgin that I found myself holding my breath. His new movie isn’t Steve-Carell-with-a-hard-on funny, but deeply, discordantly funny. The humour comes from the sharpness of the observation – from the older sister’s need to be attractive when she hits a bar, or the gruesome morning-after conversation of the mismatched parents-to-be (Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl). And there are moments – as when Heigl’s mother calmly advises her to “get rid of it” – that aren’t funny at all. It gets lost in the second half – there’s some very second-hand battle-of-the-sexes stuff and a poorly dramatised break-up – but still, this movie shows just how far mainstream comedies can go. ***

Last Tango in Paris (1972) – Bertolucci’s famous collaboration with Brando leaves me cold. The editing – too-fast, elided in odd places – is vivid, as is the general weirdness (the cackling concierge and so on). I like the way that Brando becomes banal to Maria Schneider once they leave the mythological space of the apartment – a pathetic drunk, exposing himself in a ballroom. But even when Brando is reaching for truth in the famous bedroom monologues, it’s humiliation and excrement and physical violence, and you wonder, is this all you have to show us? **

Leatherheads (2008) – Once again, George Clooney sets his movie in the past, but unlike Good Night, and Good Luck this one comes across as a museum piece, with more relationship to style (the gold-toned cinematography, Randy Newman’s score poured on like ragtime syrup) than to humour (the fast banter – not to mention all the running about – seems like an affectation rather the expression of the characters’ impulses). It’s a shame, because the performers – especially Renee Zellweger and John Krasinski, who manages to make his football hero’s decency interesting – have a lot of charm. **

The Lego Movie (2014) – What Wreck-It Ralph should have been. It uses Lego’s different sets of imagery (the Wild West, pirates and so on) as a licence to roam through different worlds with a vertiginous sense of freedom. The directors understand Lego’s material qualities perfectly – the way it’s simultaneously rigid and static (each piece fixed in place) and endlessly adaptable (the bricks can be broken and reassembled) – and they exploit them to the hilt. This gives the movie a headlong sense of invention (the worlds are literally broken up and put back together according to the characters’ needs) even as it places quotation marks around the too-familiar story of the everyman singled out to save the world. I was ambivalent about the movie’s meta twist – it felt a little too clever – but even the twist is smart and observant about the different ways children and adults approach play. It’s much better than a merchandising opportunity needs to be: it communicates a real sense of love. ***

The Libertine (2004) – It’s interesting to see how different the effect of Johnny Depp’s standard effects is here – the petulance, the mincing walk, the way he puts the other actors in a scene at a distance. At the start his character says in monologue, “I don’t want you to like me,” and you don’t. He plays a playwright during the reign of Charles II who compulsively gives offence to those around him, including his monarch. Director Laurence Dunmore shoots London in a green-brown murk: this is a dirty film in every way. The whoring and carousing doesn’t seem as contrived as it usually does in period movies – it has real drive – and, despite some late attempts to elevate Depp’s self-destruction into a sort of cultural heroism, there’s a hard intelligence to the writing. ***

Life of Pi (2012) – In the early passages of the film, Ang Lee finds an analogue for the embroidery of his storytelling hero in digital technology: both director and narrator reserve the right to exaggerate, intensify, and otherwise improve on reality. As he relates stories from his childhood, Pi’s unreliability – the sense that he is testing his audience’s gullibility, to see how much it will accept – is a large part of his charm, and Lee matches him with perfectly composed shots of zoo animals, comic books that open out into galaxies, heaving seas for the parting of adolescent lovers. Unfortunately, once Pi (Suraj Sharma) is on the boat with the tiger, the story takes on the thinness of a parable. Nothing exists for itself; it’s all in the service of the intended lesson. Lee tries to counter this with all manner of maritime wonders: flying fish, a luminescent whale. But it’s like flipping through a beautifully illustrated textbook: no matter how lovely the pictures are, you’re still in school. ***

Lincoln (2012) – Hitchcock once praised Steven Spielberg as the first movie director who “doesn’t see the proscenium arch”. Spielberg’s new movie opens with his star sitting beneath one; it’s a curious, old-fashioned picture, the director so in thrall to Tony Kushner’s words that he moves the camera only for corny reaction shots or to close in reverentially on Daniel Day-Lewis’ monologues. It’s a big square historical re-enactment, on sets with all the period trimmings, and though it’s entertaining to watch good actors bat Kushner’s four-syllable words around, the whole enterprise feels like one of Lisa Simpson’s school pageants. Day-Lewis certainly has gravitas, and his stiff-jointed, slightly stooped physicality is memorable, but he doesn’t take you very far into the great man: it’s a performance of exteriors. **

Lions for Lambs (2007) – This movie is like an ill-advisedly political Oscar acceptance speech. There’s no doubting director Robert Redford’s good intentions, but the mode of expression – two long “dialogues” between an all-wise professor (Redford, in a particularly vain bit of self-casting) and an apathetic student, and between a journalist (Meryl Streep) and a smoothie Congressman (Tom Cruise) – is so static (the whole movie is a series of talking heads – no one even goes for a walk), so diagrammatic, so unlikely to reach an audience not already sold on its liberal pieties that he probably should have just said his thank yous. *

Little Children (2006) – Todd Field adapted Tom Perrotta’s novel with the novelist, and it seems Perrotta couldn’t bear to part with some choice bits of his narrative voice. The voice-over narration here condescends to the characters and labours what is already explicit in the dialogue. The only scene that has any suggestive power – because it’s not explained for us – is where the convicted paedophile goes swimming at the local pool and the water clears in a panic. I rather suspect that the paedophile’s there for dramatic heft – otherwise all we’d be left with is Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson deciding whether or not to fuck and Jennifer Connelly looking pained. **

Lo and Behold (2016) – Werner Herzog’s obsession – in his documentaries as in his fiction films – is with eccentric visionaries, regarded with a gaze so steady that it can sometimes feel cruel. In this exploration of the origins and potential of the Internet, he finds plenty of eccentrics in the world of tech, but from the first scientist he interviews – a man who goofs a moonwalk down a campus corridor before launching into an excited description of the first computer to computer conversation – the people here are eloquent and self-aware enough that it doesn’t feel exploitative. Many of them end up sounding like mystics. Herzog cites statistics about the huge volume of data we produce daily: it’s an area that’s already beyond human comprehension. He acknowledges this with the film’s magpie structure: ten chapters exploring it from different angles, from robots’ superior capacity for learning to the hazards posed by solar flares. It’s a fascinating movie. ****

Looper (2012) – Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt retain some of the hard-boiled affectations of their earlier collaboration, Brick: Gordon-Levitt’s assassin is a hard man in a hard town, with a stripper who won’t agree to be his girlfriend and anachronistic taste in clothes. Fortunately, this time there’s much more going on. It’s an unexpectedly intense bit of time-travel fiction, a sort of Terminator in reverse: it turns on the slaying of a child who will grow up to be an evil dictator. There are bravura sequences like a time traveller from the future registering the wounds inflicted on his younger self (the healed scars of amputations replace limbs until there is almost nothing left of him). Much of the movie is set out in the Kansas cornfields: like Firefly, it connects past and future worlds in a way that feels satisfyingly original. You can sense Johnson’s pleasure in thinking through the possibilities of the genre. ***

Love and Other Drugs (2010) – For the first time, Jake Gyllenhaal cops to the come-on in his adorable blue eyes – his Jamie Randall is a practised charmer. The tone of Edward Zwick’s movie, though, is all wrong – the Randall clan is never credible as a family, with a slob brother thrown in because every comedy should have a Zach Galifianakis. Anne Hathaway is the only one who resembles a real person (and the only reason to see the film) – prickly, her cynicism willed, her defiance shading into terror. **

Lucy (2014) – Luc Besson packs more metaphysics into 90 minutes than Interstellar did in three hours, and more entertainingly to boot. At first the regular intrusion of wildlife footage seems like weird padding, but it anticipates the extension of the heroine’s consciousness: as she accesses more of her brain capacity, the traditional boundaries between human and environment collapse. Not to overstate the movie’s seriousness: it starts out like a backpacker’s nightmare (an amusingly trashy Scarlett Johansson runs afoul of a drug cartel in Taiwan) and Besson delivers regular gunfights and chases. But its brainpower conceit lifts it out of predictability: soon it’s less a revenge fantasy than a little Tree of Life. Johansson is terrific as the superior being – whether waving away baddies or rattling off profundities. ****

Madagascar (2005) – For once the Dreamworks look is appropriate: the zoo animals marooned in the wild are composed of sharp polygons that flatten them, alienate them from the jungle backgrounds. The film has the usual Dreamworks problem though: compulsive jokiness. Directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath are too busy with ironic juxtapositions of music and image and references to other movies to bother with a coherent storyline. *

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – In the crowd of goons pursuing Charlize Theron there’s an electric guitarist in red velvet and a gimp mask; he swoops in a loose harness, his instrument ejaculating fire. He’s an emblem for this noisy, rococo movie, with its ravening appetite for the grotesque. The title is a feminist bait-and-switch: it’s Theron’s film, with Tom Hardy’s Mad Max brought along as a helpmeet. (Theron dominates so completely that I wondered why George Miller didn’t drop his nominal protagonist.) Its most daring quality is the way it forgoes narrative: it’s two hours of continuous action, with only the barest nods to character and motivation, and its onrush has a thrilling, almost abstract force. Even a simple fistfight in the sand is staged with so many elements in play – a hose, a number of guns, and an enormous pair of bolt-cutters – that it becomes a whirling contraption. At the times the movie suggests Baz Luhrmann, if Luhrmann employed his pet techniques – the densely packed misc-en-scene, the florid performances in full close-up – not to ingratiate himself with audiences but to knock us flat on our arses. Miller delivers an expert pummelling. ***

Magic in the Moonlight (2014) – It’s perverse at this point to expect too much of a Woody Allen movie: they’re summer-camp theatricals, a group of famous actors converging on some glamorous holiday spot to toss off wan bon mots. Emma Stone stands limply, her arms dangling, as though unable to work up much enthusiasm; Colin Firth overcompensates, enunciating and pulling faces. The nostalgia is a given, but the movie is old-fashioned in the worst sense: Stone’s character is seen solely in terms of her effect on Firth’s “great artist” (as he is regularly acclaimed by the other characters) and man of reason (at one point Firth shows Stone his big telescope). The film becomes steadily more tedious as Firth, his interior life all speeches, talks and talks. It’s both pompous and enervated. **

Magic Mike XXL (2015) – This is as stripped-down a quest narrative as Fury Road, and in its emphasis on female pleasure almost as feminist. Where the absence of story in George Miller’s film was about aerodynamics – building a chase with maximum forward momentum – here it’s about approximating the rhythms of friends on a road trip. We hang out with Mike (Channing Tatum) and his fellow dancers as they squabble in their tour van or sit by a beachside campfire. The bogus conflict between dancing and small-business respectability is gone: the spectre of aging hangs over these men, but the emphasis is on their intimacy and rapport. As on any good road trip, there are unexpected digressions, and it’s here that the movie’s different conception of stripping becomes apparent: it’s not self-aggrandising, men taking the stage, but in service of – a sort of tribute to – their female clients. These men are sexiest when pleasing women, and the movie makes the case that it’s a sort of vocation. ***

Maleficent (2014) – With its relatively shapely (and concise) narrative arc, Disney’s latest revisionist fairy tale is an improvement on Oz the Great and Powerful – though no match for its model, Snow White and the Huntsman. It’s yet another Disney film that strips magic of any true otherness or danger: the main body of the movie presents that sentimental cliché, the grouch redeemed by her love for a child. Maleficent’s fairy realm is designed in garish pinks and purples: it’s a place of mud-fights and goblins with goo-goo eyes. Angelina Jolie looks terrific with her horns and sculpted cheekbones, but she’s not called upon to supply anything more than her stately presence. She can’t match Charlize Theron’s malevolence as the Queen in Snow White, nor her complex identification with that movie’s younger heroine: that kind of ambiguity simply doesn’t exist in the Disney universe. The film is depressingly simpleminded. **

Mamma Mia! (2008) – Abba’s songs function dramatically only a handful of times – the daughter’s mounting confusion during “Voulez-Vous”, Meryl Streep’s climactic “The Winner Takes It All”. The rest of the time the principals go running gaily down to the pier pursued by a crowd of gesticulating locals. The scenes work on the same principle – the actors dash off mid-dialogue to take up positions amongst some new island scenery. It’s a pretty crude way of keeping the energy levels high (and the movie wants to be more “fun” than it is), but it’s not wholly ineffective. Streep’s careful line readings add some much needed finesse, and Julie Walters and Christine Baranski both score. **

A Man Escaped (1956) – Like Robinson Crusoe, the hero of Robert Bresson’s film (a member of the French Resistance imprisoned during the Second World War) endures his loneliness by focusing his entire being on the arrangements he makes for his survival. We become as intent as Fontaine (François Leterrier) on the details of his preparations for escape – the planks he chisels from his cell door, the blankets he twists into ropes. By limiting our perspective to what Fontaine can see and hear, Bresson forces us to experience something of his sensory deprivation, his maddeningly partial knowledge (the gunshots that may or may not signal the death of a friend) and the interminable passage of time. The Nazi warders’ orders are not translated for us: it is brutally obvious what they mean. At the same time (again, like Robinson Crusoe), the film has a spiritual dimension: expressed physically in the high-set cell window that directs Fontaine’s gaze upwards, to heaven, and in the terse camaraderie of the prisoners. ****

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) – Dziga Vertov’s movie proudly boasts that it’s without actors or a scenario. Yet it has a hero: the intrepid man of the title, in his cap and breeches, who clambers onto railway tracks, chimney stacks – whatever it takes to capture his images of modern life. That life is machine-like, even in its moments of leisure – the Russians exercise in formation, and the footage of athletes is infused with a Muybridge-like fascination with how bodies work. Camera trickery – the woman in the editing room has the power of animation and suspension over the people caught on film – is alternated with disarmingly frank footage of everyday life (like a front-on view of a baby slipping out of its mother). It’s a terrific exploration – and celebration – of the medium. ****

Margaret (2011) – Kenneth Lonergan’s film cultivates a curious flatness of tone. The characters and their world – a privileged Manhattan teen who makes her involvement in a bus accident all about her, her brittle actress mother, the estranged relatives who leap at the chance of a lucrative lawsuit – seem the stuff of snarky satire, but Lonergan looks on with a steady, uninflected gaze that invites empathy rather than derisive laughter. Anna Paquin’s performance as the spoiled, manipulative protagonist is a case in point: so articulate that she trips up trying to find the right words, emotional in a way that blinds her to the feelings of others, sending confused sexual signals in every direction, her interactions are often excruciating. Lonergan’s plain naturalism, however, presents her on her own terms – even finds something to admire in her flailing attempts at emotional authenticity. The downside to this plainness is that the frequent attempts at stylised urban imagery – crowds in slow motion on the sidewalks, pans across the New York City skyline – fall flat. (The Altmanesque sound design, which swamps the characters’ dialogue with surrounding conversations, is more successful.) Intended to remind us of the insignificance of the film’s human drama, they come across as padding. ***

The Martian (2015) – Ridley Scott’s movie points a way out of NASA’s PR doldrums: a reality TV show centred on astronauts. This is what the movie resembles: its succession of challenges, the ‘candid’ behind-the-scenes footage at NASA headquarters, and Matt Damon’s compulsive recording of video diaries. It’s oddly cosy for a survival story, mostly lacking a sense of peril: it never approaches the excitement or the sense of a spiritual test of Gravity or All Is Lost. It’s rather the bureaucracy in space that Kubrick anticipated in 2001. Scott doesn’t present it satirically, as Kubrick did, but on its own terms, with the dullness that implies. The Martian landscapes are handsome, but these people do not experience it with any sense of wonder. The large cast is flattened out in an illustration of NASA’s policy of employing only dependable, unimaginative people as astronauts: Damon and his colleagues are more expressive than an inanimate carbon rod, but they aren’t much more interesting. **

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. ***

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) – Robert Altman brings an extraordinary clarity of vision to this account of life on the American frontier. His movie is somehow able to encompass both its squalor – the pale, dishevelled whores, the muddy streets, Julie Christie in her opium fog – and moments of great delicacy, like the courtliness with which a man receives his mail order bride, or the blinding white skies. Warren Beatty is perfect as boasting McCabe, who likes being the big man in a small town and allows a gunfighter myth to persist around him – only to find himself unprepared when a pack of amoral killers ride into town. I had “Sisters of Mercy” in my head for days. ****

Melancholia (2011) – For once, Kirsten Dunst’s child-actor thinness – she’s perpetually playing for response – is perfect; her Justine play-acts, giving each person around her what she thinks they want, to mask her numbness and estrangement. The impending catastrophe – the huge blue planet on a collision course with Earth – allows her to drop these pretences, and thus comes as a relief. Melancholia is a good deal more sumptuous than Lars von Trier’s previous films – both in its setting in the higher reaches of the bourgeoisie and its luxuriant imagery of the apocalypse; at the same time, his handheld camera continues its restless interrogation of his actors. For once, it doesn’t feel like he’s toying with his audience (or his heroine): it’s heavy going, but it’s probably his most deeply felt movie. ****

Miami Vice (2006) – Without a doubt the artiest TV remake ever. Michael Mann pares the crime genre down to its essentials, so that Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell’s detectives become a pair of silent knights cruising around in Mann’s patented late-night blue-green light. Sometimes this pays dividends – at one point, during an interview, Farrell gets lost looking out the window at the ocean – things you wouldn’t get in another movie. There is a plot, but Mann isn’t interested in character as such, and so the actors don’t really make an impression (with the exception of Gong Li, who manages to be inscrutable, tender and slightly intimidating all at once). As a mood poem it verges on Malick. ***

Michael Clayton (2007) – Tony Gilroy’s movie is stunningly made – the folding in of dialogue, the skilful cross-cutting communicating a world where all the characters are inextricably linked. The air of moral ambiguity is all the more impressive for being so thoroughgoing (the movie’s only moral compass, Tom Wilkinson, is half-mad) and so subdued (it seems keyed to Tilda Swinton, who asserts her authority without ever raising her voice.) At the centre is George Clooney as a legal “janitor” – he cleans up other peoples’ messes while trying to keep his own compulsions under control. ****

Midnight in Paris (2011) – Woody Allen’s movie trades heavily on Paris’ charm: the opening few minutes – a series of streetscapes accompanied by one of the tinny old recordings Allen favours – could be a tourist ad. The film is a curious mixture of David Williamson and Doctor Who. It recalls Williamson in its facile use of types (Owen Wilson’s fiancée and in-laws are lampooned as crass Americans abroad), with a few contemporary references thrown in for topicality (they’re Republicans, to boot); Doctor Who in its approach to history as a dress-ups trunk to rummage in (the broadly-played impersonations of various famous Parisians) and its corny jokes about time-travel (snapping up a few cheap Matisses while you’re there, etc, etc). Despite its superficial resemblance to Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, it’s a much lesser movie – basically an apology for nostalgia, with another Allen substitute at its centre. It’s pleasant, but nothing more. **

Midnight Special (2016) – With its preoccupation with parallel worlds and the exceptional children who can perceive them, Jeff Nichols’ movie resembles both Tomorrowland and Stranger Things, but I think it’s better than either. It has its own beautiful nighttime look, the lights of motels and highways and cars barely asserting themselves against the enclosing darkness. It’s a model, too, of integrating special effects into a realistic world: as in Close Encounters, the supernatural events occur to regular people in a small-town context, and have a special freshness and wonder for that reason. (It’s a world away from the routine DC/Marvel CGI destruction derbys.) Perhaps Michael Shannon’s particular brand of intensity is a little too familiar in Nichols’ distinctive South: Nichols could do with a change of personnel, with a lead actor less closemouthed and dour. But this has a warm spirituality that’s new in his work, and it’s enough to sustain the characters through the bittersweet ending. ****

A Mighty Heart (2007) – Angelina Jolie goes at her role so simply, with such assurance and poise, that you wish she spent more time acting and less as tabloid fodder. In a lot of ways, Michael Winterbottom’s film is like United 93 – procedural rather than dramatic, it contents itself with re-enacting the traumatic events in question. It’s so prosaic that the meaning of the title – Marianne Pearl’s refusal to become embittered by her experiences – is not pushed home as it might be. But then, I think this is also Winterbottom’s tact. It’s a strangely light movie – the filmmakers’ good intentions are so manifest (and so much the point of the movie) that the refusal to dramatise becomes a mark of integrity. ***

Milk (2008) – In which Gus Van Sant performs a community service by memorialising the gay rights movement of the 1970s and (with Sean Penn) presenting a gay hero who combines idealism with political nous, camp mannerisms with enormous physical courage. Van Sant contextualises with extensive use of archival and news footage: he brings the period very close (conservative rhetoric has changed little in the intervening years) while pointing up the differences (the ferocity and risk of the protests are very different to today’s docile marches). There’s not a banal moment in the performances: the large supporting cast work together as generously as the activists they play. Meanwhile, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black do not burlesque or attempt to explain away their Dan White: there’s a strange, fascinating opacity to Josh Brolin, a mystery they acknowledge. ****

Million Dollar Baby (2004) – The best thing about Million Dollar Baby is its starring performance. There’s a simplicity to Hilary Swank’s effects: she looks the other actors in the eye and delivers her lines. She listens too. When she trains with Clint Eastwood, it’s a pleasure just to watch her eyes move: they dart from Eastwood’s face to his body, taking in his words and what he is doing. (Eastwood benefits from the attention: she brings out something wry and gentle and rather charming in him.) The movie itself is very old fashioned: there’s not a detail out of place. Early in the film we see Clint Eastwood going to daily mass: we’re meant to see that his character has other dimensions. But then later in the movie he has a crisis of conscience and needs to consult religion. You can see what’s coming a mile off, including the big plot twist. ***

Les Misérables (2012) Tom Hooper’s movie rescues the musical form from both the calculated polish of musical theatre – the perfect enunciation and the telegraphed emotions – and the compressed, airless sound of Glee. It restores a colloquial directness to the singing. Hooper’s extreme close-ups might not be the most imaginative way of shooting his actors’ soliloquies, but they give them a probing, interrogatory quality, the actors testing themselves against their experience and the camera’s watchful lens. They respond with palpable thoughtfulness: the songs are not ritualised ‘big numbers’ but seem to occur to the actors like an unfolding thought. (The movie’s fascination with faces gives it too a silent-movie sensibility thoroughly appropriate to its melodramatic plot.) Not everyone in the cast is equal to this approach – Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried are too busy concentrating on hitting their notes to be very expressive – and there are elements (like the comedic lowlifes) that don’t really come off. But I think this is the best movie musical since Chicago. ****

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) – Brad Bird’s new film lacks The Incredibles‘ intellectual dimension – its wrenching drama of heroism denied – but it shares its witty approach to action. It’s a pure, glittering toy of a movie, from its delight in – and personification of – gadgetry (my favourite was the perverse little glove that taunts Tom Cruise as he scales the outside of a building) to its casual globe-trotting (the movie takes in Budapest, Moscow, Dubai and Mumbai) and Bird’s virtuoso use of both silence (the sequence in the Kremlin basement) and ironic detail (the Dean Martin that provides the soundtrack for a prison break). Bird piles on the elements in each of his set pieces so that you laugh at his audacity even as you’re perched on the edge of your seat. It’s tremendous fun. ****

The Mist (2008) – Frank Darabont goes to some effort to establish the reality of his small-town supermarket: this pays off once the mist (and the monsters) starts moving in. It’s an unusually tense and believable thriller (with Thomas Jane giving a capable Hanks-everyman performance), most of the tension deriving from the disagreements between those trapped inside. The scare effects vary in quality – there’s a set of the hokiest monster tentacles I’ve ever seen – but (perhaps taking his lead from the weather conditions) Darabont suggests as much as he shows. ***

Mr. Turner (2014) – Mike Leigh is not really interested in telling a story here: the film goes by in a flow of small incidents. This proves a great strength: the movie doesn’t fall into the standard biopic rhythms but involves us on a much more basic level in how Turner lived – his domestic arrangements; how he worked and saw. The world Leigh re-creates has a sociable, easygoing temper: the movie makes room for incidents – like a recital at the home of one of Turner’s patrons or a demonstration by a lady scientist – tangential to its ostensible subject, which nevertheless speak volumes about the (early Victorian) era’s sense of manners, its spirit of inquiry. It’s about an hour too long and becomes much more conventional in its second half, with familiar tropes like the misunderstood artist (his peers and the public cattily put down his later, abstract paintings), the pompous critic (Ruskin here is a lisping prat) and the great man on his deathbed. It’s a pity we don’t leave Turner as we find him – at his work. ***

Monsieur Verdoux (1947) – Chaplin’s soapboxing (as at the end of The Great Dictator, he feels the need to lecture us directly) on the moral equivalence of murder and war feels tacked on – there’s been little, beyond the occasional shot of him holding a newspaper, to suggest that Verdoux is a man of ideas. Chaplin never takes the easy way out though, by making his murderousness cute or loveable: it’s funny (the black smoke from the incinerator, the invincible Martha Raye) but also suspenseful (the woman he takes in from the street) and invested at times with a horrible beauty (Verdoux pausing in the moonlit hallway). It’s when he strikes that his exaggerated delicacy of movement, his effete self-satisfaction come into focus: it’s the priss in him that makes him such an effective killer. ****

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) – The young heroine of Wes Anderson’s movie closely resembles Lana Del Rey as she looks moodily out through a pair of binoculars, her eyes heavily rimmed with blue eyeshadow, and at first it seems like one of Del Rey’s music videos, interested mostly in striking melancholic poses. Anderson’s dollhouse tendencies are back in full force, and the adult actors are very much in their comfort zones – Bill Murray’s rumpled bemusement, Frances McDormand’s frumpish housewife. But the relationship of the young lovers is simple in the best sense, and as they take centre stage their seriousness and their acceptance of one another becomes very touching, their woodland idyll a brief moment of self-sufficiency away from the farcical world of adults. ***

A Most Violent Year (2014) – The gangster tropes – the Godfather cuts between different acts of violence, the formal meeting of family heads, Oliver Isaac’s Al Pacino cadences – prepare you for Isaac’s upright industrialist to do a Michael Corleone and enter the underworld, repaying violence with violence. When he resists those pressures – refuses that familiar narrative – it gives the movie freshness, even when it’s reproducing clichés. It’s a fascinating character study: the rectitude of Abel the self-made man derives more from fastidiousness (he’s always perfectly groomed) than a sense of justice or honour. Bradford Young’s cinematography is gorgeous: the wintry industrial landscape rendered in cool pastels, the figures moving in wide uncoercive frames, part of their environment. There’s a feeling of inevitability to the images, whether an injured man in profile or the camera calmly following as three men flee on foot through stalled traffic. It’s an uncommonly rich film. ****

Mustang (2015) – Flooded throughout with soft, golden light, with its five heroines lying about indolently – as if drugged by their youth and beauty – creating in their self-absorption a private universe, this in many ways resembles a Sofia Coppola movie. The difference is that these sisters are literally prisoners in their home in rural Turkey, after their free-spirited horsing around offends the mores of their community. We see everything from the perspective of the youngest sister, and in some ways the film is limited by its child’s point of view. The grandmother who confines them (Nihal Koldaş, in a fine performance) is an ambiguous figure – she seems to pull on her headscarf more to placate her neighbours than from any sense of piety – but such subtleties are passed over in what becomes a fairly straightforward escape story – a fairy tale, complete with an evil uncle and a nice young man who comes to the rescue. ***

Mutual Appreciation (2005) – Andrew Bujalski’s second feature isn’t up to his first – the undistinguished black and white photography muffles its impact, and its slacker musician hero (Justin Rice) isn’t as plangent or appealing as Kate Dollenmayer in Funny Ha Ha. The fact that Bujalski again casts himself as the boob smacks of an unhealthy masochism – if he’s not careful he’ll turn into Woody Allen. **

My Winnipeg (2007) – It’s the obsessive quality I like best about Guy Maddin’s film: it helps to explain its misogyny (the women are either tight-faced “biddies” or gross madams), so transparently related to his fixation with his mother. I love the dogged, literal way he acts out scenes from his childhood, how he sounds like a crank when bemoaning the demolition of old department stores and stadiums, the train bearing him through town like the hero in I Vitelloni (though Maddin circles rather than leaves). It’s a risky act of self-exposure – it could very easily be self-indulgent – but it succeeds because it’s so funny and so personal, like a tour guide who keeps tripping up on junk from his subconscious. ****

Nebraska (2013) – Like The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s latest film is all about place and inheritance, but it has a more constricted emotional range. Payne makes his people static and small in his black and white landscapes – either vast, flat farmland, or depressed small towns. He’s good at small, wry insights: how companionable taciturnity can be (Bruce Dern’s Woody sitting with the brothers he hasn’t seen in years, watching TV) or how June Squibb’s harshness is intended (at least in part) to protect her soft-hearted husband from those who would take advantage of him. The movie holds few surprises, though. Will Forte, though sympathetic, keeps hitting the same notes of exasperated concern, and the movie respects Woody’s privacy too much: he’s never more than a loveable old codger. Late in the film, Bruce’s daughter Laura Dern strides past in the background, and her dynamism is startling: she shatters this world Payne has constructed in which roles are fixed. **

The New World (2006) – Malick’s account of the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas is like a thousand other movies featuring thwarted lovers – except this one’s fed through the Malick processor. This means that we get a lot of Q’orianka Kilcher gambolling through long grass. We get a lot of Colin Farrell looking pensive in the filthy British settlement or reaching out a hand to stroke Kilcher’s face. We get a lot of sunlight reflecting on water and a lot of waving grass. What we don’t get are scenes or a satisfying exchange of dialogue; it lacks the tension between physical beauty and violence that made The Thin Red Line such a distinctive movie. **

Night of the Living Dead (1968) – One of George Romero’s innovations in making this low-budget shocker was changing our relationship to movie violence: we don’t fear it because of our identification with the characters, but look forward to it. It is what we’ve come for. Thus we get repeated glimpses of the farmhouse owner’s half-eaten skull and the zombies munching gleefully (and gratuitously) on barbecued remains. Partly this breaks up the monotonous goings-on inside the house (without a few good shocks the movie would be as boring in its low-affect as Paul Morrissey) – but also there’s a disconnect when it comes to the deaths (which may come down to ineptitude in acting and staging). There’s no feeling of necessity to them: they just seem to happen. The movie is as implacable and expressionless as the undead. **

1900 (1976) – It takes a while to get used to how stylised this is – the line of farm labourers sharpening their scythes in unison, the white horse garlanded with flowers led into a wedding reception. There are problems too – the expressions of worker solidarity are especially wooden, and Donald Sutherland becomes too much the wild-eyed villain in the second half. But Bernado Bertolucci’s four-hour epic – it’s set in Italy in the first half of the twentieth century and covers the struggle between workers, Fascists and the landowning class – is extraordinarily rich. Burt Lancaster shrugs off the dignity of his aristocrat in The Leopard (his padrone here is senile and corrupt), Dominique Sanda has an amazing charge as the loopy woman of fashion who marries Robert De Niro and after a while you begin to get high on Bertolucci’s effects – on his daring. ****

99 Homes (2014) – This story of how a man, evicted from his home by a predatory real estate agent, learns to take advantage of people in the same situation has its weaknesses: from the opening of the film, which contrasts one such eviction with Andrew Garfield’s honest work as a builder, it’s schematic – a bit pat. The protagonist’s family exists mainly to bear frightened witness to his moral slide, leaving the film basically a two-hander, and Garfield’s eventual crisis of conscience feels a bit arbitrary. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani gets at our emotional investment in the places where we live, however: the evictions are true violations. The film’s main originality is in Michael Shannon’s performance as the devil agent: with his e-cigarette, he’s contained, his emotions pulled inside so as not to expend any more energy than necessary. His evictions are not marked by any special cruelty; neither does he seem to derive much pleasure from the fruits of his work, the mistresses and mansions. Shannon dries out the villainy, turns it into an almost impersonal (market) force. ***

Noah (2014) – There’s a certain rightness to seeing the original end-of-the-world scenario given the blockbuster treatment. It idealises nothing: Russell Crowe’s Noah sees his life as a hunter-gatherer as a vocation, as husbandry – nature inspires his tenderest feelings – but the scenes of he and his sons scrounging in the blasted Icelandic landscape might be an illustration of Hobbes’ phrase “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Not even consciousness can be maintained for very long: the movie keeps fading to black. Darren Aronofsky renews the familiar story by concentrating on its genocidal aspects. It’s relentlessly brutal and grim – floating corpses rather than the olive branch and dove, the mad patriarch (with an increasingly tenuous connection with God) the arbiter of which lives deserve saving. Even when it departs from Genesis, it’s in the Old Testament’s murderous spirit. ***

No Country for Old Men (2007) – The first thing you notice about the Coen brothers’ adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy is the silence: there’s practically no music. (I was aware of every creak and rustle in the cinema around me.) This isolates the images so they become awesomely simple – the crime scene ancient in the darkness, the motel air vent glittering under Josh Brolin’s torch. The three men are all skilled hunters, adept at reading tracks – all men in the old sense – but it’s Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff who stays with you. He’s the only one who processes the carnage – the only one who functions as more than an animal. ****

Notes on a Scandal (2006) Judi Dench gives one of those rare performances – like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest – where the elements of camp (her marvellously snide voiceover narration, the scene where she kneels sobbing with a trowel in the back garden) only increase the emotional impact. The movie is a little bit unsure as to what style it should be in – Philip Glass’ overwrought score pushes it, with Dench, in the direction of plush melodrama, while the screenplay (by Patrick Marber, who did Closer) and Cate Blanchett’s note-perfect performance seem to be aiming for Hanif Kureishi-style social realism. It’s one of those cases though where cross-purposes only increase the fun: it’s the most entertainingly fruity movie I’ve seen in some time. ****

The Notorious Bettie Page (2006) – As the fifties pin-up girl, Gretchen Mol manages to convey a simplicity of character without making her a dummy: you believe Bettie gets a kick out of posing in bondage gear. Mol and director Mary Harron suggest that the cameras allow her to be more herself: her playfulness handling a riding crop is what’s missing from her attempts as a ‘serious’ actress. The attempts at a fifties black and white pastiche are not always very exact, but when Bettie moves to Florida and there’s a shift into colour, it’s ravishing. ***

Once (2007) – John Carney’s busker musical is charming – if inconsequential and a little stilted. A lot of it suggests the lazy music videos that bands make when they’re out on tour – footage of smiling musicians at work in the studio, a girl walking down the street listening to her headphones – and a lot of it is poorly staged. But sometimes Carney will go for a big effect – the camera floating out of the window while the girl sits at her piano – and it has a special sweetness and naivete because of the more general ineptitude. **

Orlando (1992) – For Virginia Woolf’s playful frisking through the history books, Sally Potter substitutes the old movie double-standard: employing pageantry for its value as spectacle (lots of lamplight and symmetrical compositions and falsetto singing) while scoring easy points off the nobles at its centre as gross hypocrites. The movie is split into themes (“Love”, “Politics”, etc.) with wide-eyed Tilda Swinton learning a potted, reductive moral from each one – when the great thing about Woolf’s hero/ine is precisely her elusiveness. There’s some wit in the casting: Quentin Crisp makes a great, wattled Queen Elizabeth, and Billy Zane’s adventurer is pure Mills and Boon. **

The Orphanage (2008) – The question of what induces the heroine (Belen Rueda) to return to the scene of her orphaned childhood (and by extension, her relationship to the spirits haunting the place – her peers) is neglected in favour of a lot of Gothic details (the cloudy-eyed old woman, the deformed child made to wear a sack), a lot of running around to florid music, and rather too many different kinds of film footage. The film, however, is much improved by its ending. Geraldine Chaplin has an entertaining cameo as a high-collared old medium. ***

Our Little Sister (2015) – In broad outline – abandoned by their mother, a group of siblings must get on in her absence – this is similar to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous film Nobody Knows, but the treatment here is totally different. These characters are never in jeopardy; even those who die do so in an orderly fashion, attended by their loved ones. It’s closer in tone to a ‘woman’s picture’ like How to Make an American Quilt, preoccupied by female relationships and taking in boyfriends and work and the passing of knowledge between generations. To this genre Kore-eda brings his luminous sense of faces and the small details of household life – his gift for noticing. His unstressed style doesn’t punch up or falsify the big moments, the way a Hollywood version might. Though it turns a bit flabby in its second half, its warmth and specificity are very pleasurable. ***

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) – Contrary to most of the movie’s notices, James Franco tries rather hard as the titular humbug. He reminded me of Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge: an actor temperamentally unsuited to razzle-dazzle struggling valiantly to overcome his miscasting. The character doesn’t come off: there’s no showbusiness in Franco’s soul. It’s a problem, but there’s a larger one. One of the distinctive virtues of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books is that it assigns all the real power to women: it’s women who rule, women who possess real magic. The witches here are either defined by their relationships to men (the Wicked Witch as spurned lover) or spend the movie deferring to them (it never seems to occur to Glinda that she might assume the throne): Baum’s matriarchy becomes a standard boys’ adventure story – the object of which is the improvement of James Franco’s character. It’s yet another fairytale corrupted by Disney values. **

Pacific Rim (2013) – Guillermo del Toro’s movie borrows heavily from its tent-pole peers (Avatar and Transformers especially) but it captures a twelve-year-old boy’s sense of the world better than any of them. The giant robots are literally operated by the boy hero’s emotional projections; sex is either awkward glances in the dorm or sublimated in martial-arts combat. Except for the token female (to keep things hetero), the world is essentially male. The limitations of this point of view are obvious, but del Toro adopts it so sincerely that it comes across as sweet naïveté. He is assisted in this by the unpretentious, detailed kitsch of the production. Del Toro goes to the trouble of building sets, costumes, and monsters, and if the results sometimes look glaringly fake in high-definition video, their materiality paradoxically confers a vivid sense of reality (the monsters are slimy to the touch; we feel the weight and the snap of the soldiers’ armour). ***

Pain and Gain (2013) – Michael Bay’s movie begins with Mark Wahlberg literally attached to the image of a muscle man – he’s doing sit-ups in mid-air. This sums up perfectly what follows: the movie conveys both a giddy sense of male self-infatuation – Miami here is a playground of flesh, male and female bodies objectified alike – and the limitations of mastering your body (rendering it a fantasy object does not make your life a fantasy). The multiple narrators give it a garrulous energy: the characters are so intent on self-advancement, so comically ready to turn to crime, that the movie plays like a cartoon. (It’s like a meathead American Hustle.) In its body-culture context, this cartoon quality seems right. Anthony Mackie has some good, eccentric moments and The Rock proves himself a droll comedian: his Paul has a hard time squaring his self-image as a born-again Christian with his criminal activity. (In the end that faith proves an invincible armour against guilt.) The movie is surprisingly witty. ***

Pather Panchali (1955) – In many respects, Satyajit Ray is Stanley Kubrick’s opposite: his style is so unobtrusive that in his debut he seems simply to be recording life in a Bengali courtyard. But then Ray will hit you with sequences that so perfectly distil the family’s dynamics (the crown made out of silver paper that expresses both Apu’s imagination and his sense of entitlement as the boy – he’s a little prince) and larger tensions between tradition and modernity (the visual shock of the train approaching through a field of wheat) that you realise the artist’s shaping that has gone into the material all along. It’s an even-handed, generous movie: even the family’s scold of a neighbour shows some redeeming kindness. ***

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) – Tim Burton succeeds in doing what Robert Altman attempted in his Popeye – bringing a cartoon sensibility to live action. Burton finds his exaggerations in the roadside detritus of America (the massive green-and-red-lit dinosaurs) and, perfectly, on Hollywood soundstages. The slapstick (Pee-Wee diving into Francis’ bath) and the suspension of the laws of physics are just as funny and as charming as they’re meant to be. ****

Persepolis (2007) – “I had lived through revolutions, but it was a banal love story that nearly killed me.” There is something anti-climactic about Marjane Satrapi’s movie: we expect more than this from the defiant, imaginative child Marjane, with her vivid, pop-out views of Iranian history. We expect a protagonist in that history – we expect a heroine – and instead we get a troubled adolescent. It’s an autobiographical limitation (a more fictional approach – and a character less obviously based on her own experience – could give us something larger, more transcendent), but it’s also honest: Satrapi gives us the perspective of an intelligent, privileged Muslim woman, torn between East and West. Given the obstacles this movie describes, that’s a considerable achievement. ***

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) For the first hour there’s an excitement in the sheer number of plots and characters in the third Pirates of the Caribbean – you wonder how it can possibly be resolved – and a lot of it is enjoyably hokey, like the melee in a rickety Chinese harbour or the pirate’s toe snapping off in the Antarctic cold. But the filmmakers lose control of the plot strands – there’s rather less of Johnny Depp than one would like (not to mention Keith Richards), and the big moments slip by without providing much emotional release. Tidiness and concision are not important in a blockbuster: it is important, though, that it hits its emotional marks. A disappointment. **

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) – Okay, so this is the second instalment in a trilogy and we all know second instalments have problems: they tend to go on a bit and the ending is inconclusive. So what? You could say the same thing about The Empire Strikes Back and it’s the best Star Wars ever, a confident elaboration of its original. The second Pirates of the Caribbean might pile up the episodes in place of a coherent story – but the episodes themselves are memorable and beautifully shaped. Plus you have the pop sophistication of the conception – piracy here is a category of existence that the characters are constantly slipping in and out of – which somehow only heightens the romance and high adventure. The love triangle is pretty good too. ***

Popeye (1980) – Robert Altman’s comic-book adaptation is a strange failure of a film, not just visually (the drab, colourless town) and in terms of its comedy (there’s an odd, laboured obviousness to its re-enactments of cartoon violence) but in human terms, too. The muttering locals do not register as individuals, and the venality and cowardice of the Oyls is not charming but unpleasant – they seem not quite right in the head. Robin Williams tries his best. **

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009) – Precious reproduces many of the cliches of the troubled teen genre – the self-involved mother, the tough but caring teacher, the fantasy life that compensates for the protagonist’s grim reality. Where it differs from, say, Thirteen, is not in any special insight into its characters or force of expression – though Gabourey Sidibe is an original presence with her narrowed eyes and her truculent, tank-like bulk, and Mo’Nique’s shifts in mood are just as disorienting and scary as they’re supposed to be – but in the sheer awfulness of Precious’ circumstances. Violence is heaped upon the emotional and sexual abuse, and though this worst-case scenario does have a crude power, it’s not especially illuminating. **

The Prestige (2006) – Despite all the contraptions and the stuff about doubles and the girls in spangled corsets, Christopher Nolan’s movie is lacking in the razzle-dazzle department – in the slapdash charm we associate with conjurers. It’s rather monotonously tense and grim. Hugh Jackman suggests what might have been when he plays his character’s alcoholic look-alike: his shambling and his stage diction have an energy the rest of the movie lacks. (For once Jackman’s background in musical theatre is a plus.) He makes Christian Bale’s careful intensity look rather silly – because Bale, like Nolan, is taking these magic tricks much too seriously. **

Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – The whimsical elements in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film – the organ left in the middle of the road, Shelley Duvall on the soundtrack, Emily Watson’s enormous eyes – are perfectly balanced against Adam Sandler’s astonishing performance. There’s so much tension in his downtrodden salesman that you feel the moments when he’s thwarted, unable to communicate, as intensely as his violent outbursts. You begin to care very deeply for Sandler’s character – praying he’ll able to curb his anger while understanding what prompts it. So when Anderson suggests there might be a woman for him – and flies them both to Hawaii – it’s absurdly romantic and deeply moving. One of my favourite movies. ****

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – The people who made this movie seem determined to pull the teeth from the socioeconomic horrors it depicts: there are platitudinous voiceovers and a terrible homespun score. It probably makes good commercial sense, but it violates Will Smith’s detailed, deeply felt performance. (At one point his character gets out of a cab without paying the fare. For him this is deeply humiliating, but the scene’s played for laughs, with a wildly gesticulating Middle Eastern driver.) Smith is a wonderfully physical presence here. He barely stops moving for the duration: with his long legs and his shoulders working in his one good suit he wins you over with his hustle and drive. ***

The Queen (2006) – Peter Morgan’s screenplay is so adroit that at first I wondered if it was merely clever. But then there’s the moment where, sitting alone on her estate, the Queen is confronted with a deer, and I realised that I was holding my breath even as I was admiring the elegance of the conceit. Stephen Frears’ movie is funny on all sorts of levels – I loved the way the Blairs’ rough and tumble home life (Cherie burning the fish fingers, Tony taking calls in his football jersey) is contrasted with the Windsors’ – and it doesn’t make a caricature out of any of its principals (not even Prince Philip). Helen Mirren is everything you’ve heard. ****

Rashomon (1950) – Akira Kurosawa’s movie is amazing on many levels – in the bold contrasts in space (the wrecked building beset by rain, the clear geometry of the court and the dappled light of the forest), and in the way the different accounts of what happened out in the woods complicate your responses. You may find yourself nostalgic for the simplicity of the initial account, where there is just a bandit and his victims. Toshiro Mifune is hammy but vivid, reaching out to scratch himself. ****

Ratatouille (2007) – There was a time when Dreamworks trailed behind Pixar. With Ratatouille – another movie about a rat with airs, released months after Flushed Away – the dynamic was reversed. Similar scenes in the two films are instructive – when the Pixar rat is swept into the sewers, it has an authentic terror that’s beyond the reach of the Dreamworks version. Director Brad Bird has it in him – has the imaginative power – to do great things. Unfortunately, his work here is fairly pedestrian – the remote control stuff with the human chef is not very satisfying, and there’s an inane subplot cautioning the audience against stealing. **

Redacted (2007) – There’s so much ambivalence about the act of filming in this movie (a budding filmmaker seizing on a rape as good material, the reporter sticking her microphone in the face of grief) that Brian De Palma’s shifts between different kinds of footage acquire a moral dimension, as if he were trying to fit the climactic (actual) photos of Iraqi victims into a way of seeing. The acting sticks out as acting at times (especially in the interrogation and security camera footage, which make different claims to ‘reality’), but the actors do succeed in showing the difficulty of maintaining a moral compass in such a deeply confusing environment. ***

Rescue Dawn (2007) – Werner Herzog’s movie opens with (presumably Dirk Dengler’s) dream of omnipotence – a plane passes slowly over a series of rice paddies, and as it releases bombs the smoke trails up in long streamers. That the rest of the film is so harshly subjective – Dengler denied the pilot’s lordly separation from the facts of war – only increases its power. Unlike the other men Herzog has pitted against the jungle, Dengler is neither a madman nor a dreamer – his only madness is the fixity of his will to escape and survive. For once, Christian Bale’s stolidity – the literalness of his transformations as an actor – is just right. It’s the performance of the year. ****

Results (2015) – The director of Funny Ha Ha is still fascinated by indecision, but it plays differently with this older set of characters. They’re not so much keeping their options open as stuck in patterns, with painful histories to live down. At the outset the movie seems equally interested in its three leads, but it soon skews to the two men: its comparative lack of curiosity about Cobie Smulders’ Kat (she disappears for a long stretch before being parachuted in at the end) is the movie’s main flaw. Smulders makes a strong impression anyway, with her self-control that so easily gives way to anger. Andrew Bujalski’s stroke is to situate these lost people in the fitness industry, with its earnest sense of self-improvement: his characters are striving for perfection even as they go nowhere. Guy Pearce is particularly funny as an Australian gym owner. ***

Revolutionary Road (2008) – In some ways it’s not surprising that Sam Mendes’ film was snubbed by the Academy: its protagonists believe themselves to be exceptional, too good for the suburban life. It’s not a very sympathetic (or American) sentiment. Yet, this is precisely what makes it differ from other portraits of the stultifying suburbs – it’s not their surroundings that are the problem, but the individual temperaments of the characters. (The arc is unusual, too: the movie starts with a marriage already in the pits and goes from there.) Kate Winslet’s April is a frustrated performer: when she screams during one of her pitched battles with her husband, she pauses, thrilled with the effect. DiCaprio is just as good: in his business life, his shoulders get fixed and his eyes narrow in calculation, but then with his wife he can be completely boyish and undefended. It’s hard to watch, but as a character portrait it’s electrifying. ****

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – The actors are fairly tiresome (James Franco sleepwalks through, his eyes half shut, while John Lithgow overdoes his senile bewilderment), there are gaps in logic (it takes Franco’s girlfriend five years to find his home laboratory – hidden behind a folding screen) and the flat functionality of most of the human characters is a bit of a drag. I kept wanting to get back to Andy Serkis’ Caesar – his watchfulness, his shrewd analysis of his environment, his offended sense of dignity. It’s the apes in this movie that have fully differentiated personalities; which is only appropriate in a story that asks us to applaud their radicalisation. The filmmakers (director Rupert Wyatt; screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) couldn’t have known how timely this story would be (at the time of its release, another disenfranchised community had just rampaged through the streets of London), but that context complicates our responses to the movie and gives it an extra shot of relevance. ***

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”. ***

Room (2015) – The movie uses its extreme situation to explore basic questions of identity – how our sense of reality is shaped by the stories we’re told, the way we invest our environment with emotion. Five year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) misses his place of captivity when he escapes it, and it’s no wonder: in that tiny space he can endow each object with cosmic significance (director Lenny Abrahamson makes the shabby furniture seem totemic), meanings that are lost in the wider world’s jumble of places and things. You could argue that the movie oversimplifies the impact of trauma: Jack’s recovery is depicted as fairly straightforward, a matter of being surrounded by kindly adults. It doesn’t sentimentalise the central mother-son relationship, though: it is to some degree (even if unavoidably) unhealthy, and Brie Larson puts plenty of sour notes into her performance – her impatience with their unbroken intimacy, her readiness to use her son as a prop, her mania for control. ****

Safe (1995)Even Toorak women get the blues. Or, in this case, a rash – Julianne Moore is Carol, a Los Angeleno housewife who becomes mysteriously ill when exposed to car fumes and dry cleaning chemicals. (She gets a nosebleed after a perm.) Safe is a hollow-life-of-the-rich movie. Todd Haynes does nothing to distance Safe from the way of life it surveys. He’s fixated with his numb heroine – Moore is in every scene, at the centre of the frame. If Carol had obligations – a job, for instance – or if she couldn’t afford her disabling sensitivity to chemicals there would at least be some dramatic tension. Safe is dead on arrival. **

Saturday Night Fever (1977) – As Tony Manero, John Travolta is such a strong presence that the movie’s weaknesses – the awkwardly staged scenes (the bits on the Brooklyn Bridge, the attack on a rival gang) and the stock elements (the doomed best friend, the disillusioned priest, the girl with airs) – simply cease to matter. His dancefloor prowess gets much of its charge from the frustrations of his day-to-day life: we need the release of his preening and strutting almost as much as he does. And the way he looks in those black undies! ****

The Science of Sleep (2007) Michel Gondry’s new film is much lighter than Eternal Sunshine, but since it’s about infatuation rather than love this is only appropriate. It’s about Gael Garcia Bernal’s crush on the girl next door (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who has a lovely unforced, angular presence) and it’s very true to the way that fantasy and waking life interpenetrate when one person is all you can think about. Gondry has the lightness and grace to keep juggling his effects: they’re never held too long or pressed too hard for meaning. Bernal is very Chaplinesque, even down to the suit, and he may be played a few too many ways for comic pathos – as foreigner, as artist, as loser in love – but he also supplies the movie with its emotional reality. He grounds Gondry’s wonderful circus. ****

Scoop (2006) – Scarlett Johansson comes with an inbuilt air of sophistication: it’s hard to imagine an actor less suited to the role of an open-mouthed American girl abroad. She puts a lot of effort here into fiddling with her glasses and chewing her lip and though I was grateful for the energy she supplies, I didn’t believe it for a moment. Hugh Jackman, playing an aristocrat, fares better: he parlays his natural theatricality into chivalrous good manners and is really charming. Meanwhile, when Woody Allen, playing a shoddy magician, appears before a crowd, his every movement gets waves of applause. London doesn’t seem to have done much for his sense of reality. **

The Sea Hawk (1940) – Very little has changed in the sixty years that separate this Errol Flynn swashbuckler from Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s interesting how pleasing a single actor’s tic can be in this context, how it can become the whole performance – Claude Rain’s marvellously thick black eyebrows, raised in arch amusement, or the girlishness of Flora Robson’s Queen as she conceals her smile behind a fan. I like the fussiness of Flynn’s derring-do, the immaculate pants and the rolled up shirts. The pageantry is agreeably jokey, but the fighting – particularly the Hawk’s raid on a Spanish galleon – is dense and genuinely exciting. ***

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) – In some ways – the thwarted romance, the dogged lone detective – Juan J. Campanella’s film is very old fashioned, but his images are so powerful, the rhythm of his long takes so assured, that the familiar tropes never feel like clichés. It’s gorgeous, and the beauty has content: the red lamp that communicates how little has changed over decades; the single shot of a murder victim that instantly establishes why the hero is unable to let this particular case go; the social comedy of a tussle between prosecutors in the halls of justice; the bravura sequence at the stadium. It’s so rich visually that it’s easy to overlook the easy way Campanella moves between present and past, fact and fiction; he’s aided in this by his leads (Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil), who suggest the burden of years with a minimum of makeup. Perhaps the ending isn’t up to everything that’s preceded it, but this is a great movie. ****

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) – In Ben Stiller’s adaptation, James Thurber’s henpecked husband becomes a numbed-out worker bee in a changing corporate environment. As a director, Stiller goes for stillness and symmetry: each shot is exquisitely composed, with Stiller-the-actor pinned in place, often in front of a field of graphics. He has trouble finding a tone for Walter’s fantasies: where in Thurber the dreams of manly potency are plausible clichés, here they wobble uncertainly between comic book heroics and outright farce. The film rights itself, however, once Walter sets out on his adventures (and the movie departs from Thurber’s conception of him): it’s Stiller’s mid-life crisis movie, in which the hero beats his ennui by climbing back on his skateboard. YOLO. ***

Selma (2014) – Ava DuVernay’s movie has a stately rhythm that seems keyed to Martin Luther King’s oratory; the period recreations never seem static but add sensory richness to its flow. It’s as interested in how King constructed his persona (we see him rehearsing his sermons, calculating the way his actions will play in the media) and his strategic calculations regarding Lyndon Baines Johnson as it is in his moral seriousness. It offers a dynamic, multifaceted portrait of a great man. David Oyelowo is as compelling in his private moments with his wife as he is leading the marches at the film’s centre. I could quibble with some of DuVernay’s choices – her reliance on slow motion in the passages of violence tends to undermine rather than intensify their impact – and there are moments in Paul Webb’s screenplay where a scene’s narrative function is too obvious, but this is historical drama that never feels like school. It’s physical and grave, controlled and full of fire. ***

The Sessions (2012) – This movie – about a disabled man’s quest for sexual fulfilment with a ‘sex surrogate’ – is curiously prudish: it’s not above scoring laughs at the expense of sexually active disabled people. As in many films by writer-directors, Ben Lewin’s bad ideas – the shaggy-haired priest played by William H. Macy, who drops by with a six-pack to show what a regular guy he is – are lovingly preserved. As the surrogate, Helen Hunt sheds her clothes with the simplicity that is her key attribute as an actor: in the course of the film her calm repertoire of erogenous zones with clients gives way to a surprising level of emotional involvement, the way sex sometimes can. In some ways, John Hawke is not very likeable as the paralysed hero – there’s a querulous edge to his self-deprecating humour. He’s demanding despite his high, unstressed voice, with an unexamined relationship to the people he pays to look after him: he entertains fantasies of beautiful women shedding tears over him. His sense of entitlement sours the film. **

Shadows (1959) – John Cassavetes’ film about the adventures of three black siblings in New York bohemia runs for less than ninety minutes but feels much longer. Most of the pleasures are incidental or fleeting – the atmosphere of the clubs and literary parties comes across pretty strongly, and there are good moments, like the three beaten-up buddies leaning on one another exhaustedly. But mostly it walks a queer line between improvisational looseness and incompetence: there are impossible pauses, and you can’t tell if Lelia Goldoni’s shrill affectations are her own or the character’s. **

Shame (2011) – Steve McQueen’s film about a New York sex addict pushes its pathetic fallacy much too hard. Michael Fassbender’s sex life is bleak and anonymous and so too is his environment – the apartment with its blank white walls and gleaming appliances, his (unspecified) job in social media. It’s classy desolation, Harry Escott’s score all the time louring, the film’s syntax periodically fractured to emphasise Fassbender’s alienation and his sense of repetition. There are striking things in it nevertheless – Carey Mulligan’s rendition of “New York, New York” in extreme close-up, the shy way that Nicole Beharie displays her body when undressing for the first time in front of a lover, Fassbender’s haggard mask on his climactic bender. **

The Shining (1980) – The triumph of mood over indifferent storytelling. The people make little sense: Jack Nicholson’s facial tics are already so alarming in his job interview that there’s no way management would entrust him with the hotel over winter (especially given its history); the lack of any sane starting place makes his performance a little monotonous. But it’s fascinating how Stanley Kubrick turns the Gothic genre on its head: the supernatural occurrences are fuelled not by female hysteria (or even the boy’s psychic ability) but a frustrated male’s sense of entitlement. The rhythms are so beguiling that you begin to understand Jack’s fascination with the place: the silence around the dialogue, so that the conversations seem to take place outside of time; the camera’s stately movement through kitchens and corridors; the apparition in the bathtub inexorably drawing back its curtain. It seems right that the climax should take place in a maze: Kubrick’s movie is likewise a reverie that turns in on itself. ***

Shopgirl (2005) – Shopgirl is about men who don’t pull their weight in relationships. It’s an apology – both to the girl in question and for the middle-aged guy who lets her down. It’s based on Steve Martin’s novella: he wrote the screenplay, and he also stars as Ray Porter, a millionaire businessman. A girl (Claire Danes) behind the counter at a department store catches his eye: they begin an on-again, off-again relationship. Unfortunately Martin has written Mirabelle so that she’s entirely undefended: in his determination not to exonerate Ray he fails to keep her late-adolescent emotions in any sort of perspective, and so what could be the basis for a good comedy about sexual expectations is both soft headed and somehow wrong. **

Showgirls (1995) – From the first, long shot following the heroine onto the highway, Paul Verhoeven uses his camera to explore tacky environments, from expertly choreographed tours of a casino floor and its dressing rooms to the hot pink inferno of a strip bar. Elizabeth Berkley gives one of those compelling bad performances that end up succeeding in spite of themselves: she’s both emotionally thin and totally committed, in a way that makes sense of her scattershot character. Her performance comes together in her dancing, which seems to come from the same place as her sudden fits of rage: she approaches the stage like a warrior, every muscle tensed, moving in violent spasms. She ends up a literal Amazon, going to war with her breasts exposed. Like Nomi, the film is rarely what you expect: it introduces hackneyed elements like ‘art’ versus ‘selling out’, or the lesbian villainess (Gina Gershon), only to take them in surprising directions. Richly deserves its cult status. ***

Shortbus (2006) – John Cameron Mitchell’s new movie is a bit too ingratiating for its own good. It centres on a group of New Yorkers who are all having sexual problems of one sort or another. They congregate in a “salon” called Shortbus, a place where people can have group sex in flattering lighting and generally be a bit precious about their promiscuity. As for the sex – well it is cheeky and very matter of fact and mostly concentrated in a burst in the first ten minutes. It’s a cultural provocation – as the whole movie is meant to be – but the opening is the only time in the film that Mitchell seems to have a sense of perspective (and humour) about what he’s doing. The rest of the time it’s all tearful admissions like “I’ve wanted the same things since I was twelve years old.” You just about drown in the tender self-regard. **

Sicko (2007) – I think Michael Moore is always going to rub me up the wrong way – again he narrates his movie as if he were reading to a child, with that note of glib, adolescent cynicism that cheapens everything. Again, he cobbles things together without giving us time to reason the connections. But the slovenliness is part of the point – it’s what makes him popular, and thus important. As always, it’s the ordinary people who connect most strongly. Their experiences – a man forced to choose between fingers, a hospital dumping homeless patients outside a shelter – are inarguable. **

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – David O. Russell’s movie captures the claustrophobia of mental illness: the curtailment of adult prerogatives, the constant well-meaning supervision by friends and family, the regime of medication and counselling and magic phrases repeated over and over to keep the chaos at bay. Bradley Cooper – freshly released from mental hospital – is hemmed in, even visually (the close-ups are almost as tight as Tom Hooper’s in Les Misérables), and we spend the movie tensed for his next explosion. It’s as intense a portrait of impacted male rage as Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like that movie, Playbook seeks to combine this portrait with some of the tropes of romantic comedy. Russell assigns Cooper a woman as combative as he is: Jennifer Lawrence, whose own experiences with mental illness have made her impatient with readymade sentiment. She pursues, ignores, and goads him out of his funk; the jumbling of modes isn’t entirely successful, but you can’t help rooting for them. ***

The Simpsons Movie (2007) – Fairly sensibly, the movie is structured just like a Simpsons episode – the opening plot that turns out to be a red herring for the main story. (It’s a great strategy: the multiple stories help give the show its pleasantly crowded feeling and its distinctive freedom. When the sitcom beats do come, they don’t feel coercive, because they’re not the only thing going on. It also prepares you for the constant puns and non sequiturs.) It’s just on a much larger scale, in delicious colour. The jokes never let up, and there are moments – like Marge’s distraught video monologue – that take these familiar characters to new places. ***

Sin City (2005) – Robert Rodriguez’s movie is very silly. The heroes – drawn from Frank Miller’s comics – with their film noir tics and their vigilante code of justice bear no relation to any sort of reality. This is fortunate, because the crimes these heroes are driven to avenge are mostly sexual, and if you were at all inclined to take them seriously the movie would be offensive. As it is, you can sit back and enjoy Rosario Dawson’s lips curling in pleasure as she sprays the Mob with bullets, or the man who drips yellow goo when shot. It induces a sort of vertigo when a film manages to be so stylish and so dumb. ***

A Single Man (2009) – There are a few touches that feel a bit florid – Colin Firth immersed in water at the beginning, the way the colour burns hot every time he encounters someone vivid – but Tom Ford’s direction is, for the most part, a model of restraint. His approach is keyed to his grieving protagonist: Ford respects the gay professor’s reticence. Whether in the bathroom or the vault, he is locked away. Firth is extraordinary: shorn of his Mr. Darcy poise, his face is completely altered, the flesh loose, his eyes wounded. ****

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. ***

Sleepy Hollow (1999) – The last good Tim Burton movie. Sleepy Hollow is a lot of fun – the victims’ severed heads go flying up with an airy exuberance. It’s basically a whodunit with supernatural trappings – there are the planted clues and the high-camp scene where the villain explains how and why they did it. Johnny Depp is a charming sleuth, with his pinched high voice and his fainting spells. He’s proof that nerds are capable of heroism. ***

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan use the standard suspense of the game-show format (one of the tensest moments is when the hero phones a friend – who has forgotten his phone), but the possibility of sudden riches (and the social mobility it signifies) registers differently because of what of we see of the hero’s background. (It’s also neatly paralleled in his brother’s life of crime.) It’s a violent, noisy film: in Boyle’s attempt to capture Mumbai, close ups of kids in flight jostle with sudden bird’s-eye views of the slums and key moments loop and speed up and slow. It’s a portrait of a city that’s as insistent as it is multifarious, and it makes quibbles about the occasional gaps in the storytelling seem genteel and beside the point. I particularly liked the way white audiences are the butt of much of its humour. ***

Something’s Gotta Give (2003) – Diane Keaton has never looked better. It’s a shame then that she needs to hear it so often from her co-stars. In the course of Something’s Gotta Give, Keaton receives so much admiration, looking dewy-eyed and a little disbelieving, that you may begin to resent her. It’s the kind of star performance that seals her off from the other actors. This is the Nancy Meyers speciality: her characters go on about their insecurities so obsessively that they never listen to anyone else. **

Spotlight (2015) – Forty years ago, All the President’s Men set the tone for most subsequent conspiracy stories: phone taps and telephoto lenses, inscrutable office buildings, late-night meetings in parking garages. Tom McCarthy’s film breaks with those paranoid atmospherics and in some ways is scarier for it: this conspiracy lays in plain sight, a sort of social compact in Catholic Boston, and the people responsible are not shady functionaries but pillars of the community. The tone is so straightforward that Mark Ruffalo’s big moment of outrage (he reprises his choked Larry Kramer from The Normal Heart) feels like grandstanding. McCarthy achieves something like the clarity of good journalism; he and the (uniformly excellent) players subordinate themselves, as reporters do, to the story. ****

Spy (2015) – The tone of the James Bond franchise is so close to parody anyway that this broad comedy works surprisingly well as an example of the globetrotting capers it’s spoofing. Paul Feig doesn’t always make the most of his terrific cast – Allison Janney doesn’t get to do much more than drop the occasional cuss word – and the gags aren’t always thought through the way they are on the comparable Amy Schumer sketch “Plain Jane”. The humiliations piled on Melissa McCarthy by her employer feel a bit egregious, especially given her super-competence as an agent: it’s the lazy idea that because McCarthy is fat she must also be physically gross. It’s good, silly fun, though, with moments of violence that keep you off-balance. (A sneeze with fatal consequences sets the tone early on.) Jude Law is perfect casting as the self-infatuated 007 type and Rose Byrne and her massive pile of hair steal every scene they’re in. ***

Stage Beauty (2004) – Nearly as terrible an examination of sexual politics as Gigli. Its basic thesis is that a confused transvestite only needs the love of a good woman to “make a man of him again”. Stage Beauty is full of things that are meant to be pungent but are only grimace-inducing. And the scene in which Claire Danes shows Billy Crudup how good natural loving can be is a total embarrassment. *

Starship Troopers (1997) – The riotously crass recruitment videos that open the movie suggest a satirical take on militarism that isn’t followed through: it rapidly becomes a story of glad submission to military discipline, and gun-toting heroism. That is, unless presenting the story entirely from the perspective of teenagers brainwashed by that culture isn’t the sharpest satirical cut of all: the joke is on us too in the audience for how readily we accept the same lies. It’s a slippery film, one moment depicting the army as a utopia where men and women shower together as equals, without sexual tension, dressing its officers in Nazi black the next, and mostly, director Paul Verhoeven succeeds in having it both ways. Despite the exploitative vibe, it’s strikingly good on the gender front: many space adventures could learn from its wide range of female characters, all with separate paths through the action. It is also (and hence its inclusion here) an excellent monster movie: the aliens are all sharp edges, all the better to pierce and slice through human flesh. ***

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – J. J. Abrams has become the man we trust to reanimate our boyish enthusiasms, and this sequel is a typically knowledgeable engagement with/inversion of The Wrath of Khan. If anything it’s a little too sensational: it could use a few moments of repose. The relationships border on romance: the new recruit is stripped down to her panties just to remind us that Kirk has heterosexual drives, but from the way McCoy can’t seem to keep his hands off Kirk to Kirk’s touching hands with Spock at a crucial moment, all the important emotional attachments are between our boy heroes. Their adolescent limitations are also the limitations of the action franchise form: there’s no real place for women. ***

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – The real opposition in Star Wars was never between the Jedi and the Sith, or even the light and dark sides of the Force: it was between a technological superpower and a ragtag group of survivors. George Lucas’ failure to understand the dynamics of his own story wrecked his prequels, those deadly essays on intergalactic politics; J. J. Abrams’ ready grasp of them makes this the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. Abrams is a great mimic: where his Super 8 tapped the suburbs’ capacity for terror and enchantment like prime late-70s Spielberg, here – as in the original trilogy – he captures the exhilaration of underdogs discovering their capacities. He’s aware of the politics of representation – the heroes here are a white woman, a black man and a Latino – without it once feeling token or humourless. Daisy Ridley is as fresh and determined as a young Keira Knightley, with the same disarming grin; Oscar Isaac is heir to Han Solo’s handsomeness and charm. The movie is dense with allusions to and variations on the original films: it’s an act of knowledge and love. ****

Steve Jobs (2015) – This mostly plays to Aaron Sorkin’s strengths – the glamour of people who are good at what they do, his gift for synthesising large amounts of information and spitting it out as screwball repartee. Danny Boyle is a good match for him too: their motors both run fast. The (literally – it could be a play) three act structure is a welcome break with the biopic format, but it’s also somewhat repetitious: in the third act Sorkin has Jobs (Michael Fassbender) crack a joke about how everyone in his life picks on him ten minutes before each product launch. The bigger problem is that the conflicts don’t really develop – Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) is still hanging out for a thank you 15 years after we meet him – and so a certain stasis sets in, as the characters keep having the same conversations. It’s a fascinating, ambivalent portrait of Jobs nonetheless – a man who liked to think of himself as an artist but reserved his greatest excitement for sales figures, the visionary who saw computers as an expansion of human capacities, but only on his terms. ***

Superbad (2007) – A lot of this is like an unfolding nightmare, bad choice after bad choice: it stays very close to the terror of our first sexual experiences. Part of its originality (apart from its cheerful vulgarity) is the complete absence of adults – even the cops (Bill Hader and Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the screenplay) are big joy-riding kids. As the heroes, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera apply the precise judgements of nerds to porn, or particular girls: at the same time we see how much of this is defensive (particularly with Hill), a bulwark against social humiliation. It’s gruelling as much as funny. ***

Swing Time (1936) – There’s something very charming about the paper-thin elegance of the milieu here – English gentleman gamblers and a grand piano in the corner of Ginger Roger’s hotel room – and the relaxed corniness of the humour. Victor Moore has wonderful out-of-it comic timing and a cracked, hoarse voice: his dance with Helen Broderick is the perfect comment on the effortless Rogers/Astaire routine that precedes it. The “Mr. Bojangles” sequence dates it in a more problematic way: there’s no malice in it, but the racial caricature is still pretty gross. ***

Take Shelter (2011) – A wonderful movie about the edge of apocalypse. Michael Shannon’s face, with its heavy brow and deep-set eyes, looks prematurely aged; he’s like a more stolid Christopher Walken. Shannon is very convincing as a man trying to manage his nightmare visions – quietly intense, trying to keep it together. It’s only late in the film, when he explodes at a community dinner, that you realise the contained power of his performance. We share some of his visions, and the imagery – rain that’s thick and brown like oil, the household furniture that hangs mid-air in eerie suspension – is more powerful for being somewhat mysterious. When a storm does arrive, our perspective on Shannon’s character changes; it comes almost as a relief. Disaster has vindicated him; suddenly he’s prepared, capable, not crazy. ****

Tales (2014) – Rakhshan Bani-Etemad may have devised the structure of her film – a series of small portraits of Tehran – to evade the Iranian censors, but it results in a scope (the different stories cut across class and gender) and a panoramic sense of place reminiscent of Altman’s great ensemble dramas. The set-ups are exceedingly simple (often we’re stuck with the characters in a moving vehicle), which emphasises the eloquence with which these people narrate themselves and their hardships. The transitions between stories are elegantly handled: the narrative baton sometimes passes almost imperceptibly, our focus transferred from one character to another in the course of a scene. The way peripheral characters come to the centre (and vice versa) puts these stories in context. It’s simple in the best sense – beautifully designed. ****

Tangerine (2015) – With its mouthy, abrasive heroine (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and its restless sense of movement (the characters spend the whole movie in transit), this is a worthy successor to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (it even shares that movie’s lushly coloured title sequence and one character’s frustrated ambitions as a nightclub performer). Writer/director Sean Baker’s interest in outsize personalities and sex work also recall Warhol, but this is a long way from The Factory’s awkward objectivity: Baker hypes the material with dance music and quick zooms and cuts. The film moves at its heroine’s livewire pace and has its own golden, gaudy look. It’s a warm, unblinking portrait of street life: the self-dramatisation, the sardonic, appraising way the personalities regard one another, the sudden outbursts of violence and tenderness. ****

Terminator 2 (1991) – Edward Furlong to Arnold: “Jesus Christ. You were going to kill that guy, weren’t you?” Arnold: “Of course. I am a Terminator.” You can’t argue with logic like that: the Tin Man might not have a heart but he does have mission parameters. Schwarzenegger is the human embodiment of this sort of movie, and as always it’s his small gift for irony – the pained smiles and wooden intonation – that sets him apart from the Seagals of this world. He sends up his own inexpressiveness. The T-100’s position as outdated technology has become rather poignant with the passing of time: James Cameron’s attempts to wow you with up-to-the-minute special effects are very much last year’s model. **

They Drive by Night (1940) – Raoul Walsh’s movie about the lives of truckies takes a rather bewildering left turn from Warner’s social realism (good tense sequences with drivers falling asleep at the wheel, the awkward, rather touching scene where Ann Sheridan’s no-nonsense waitress shares a hotel room with George Raft) to out and out camp, in the person of Ida Lupino (whose corrupt baby doll features are contrasted with good, wholesome Ann.) This is not without its rewards – you’re not likely to forget Lupino’s Lady Macbeth routine with the garage doors. ***

There Will Be Blood (2008) – Like Patrick White in The Tree of Man, Paul Thomas Anderson sets out to tell a very basic story: one man’s opposition to – and triumph over – the land. He succeeds in lending the search for oil both mythic and emotional significance. Daniel Day-Lewis’ terse strength – his beginnings as a lone prospector – makes his shrewdness as a businessman and his eloquence as a public speaker more impressive. Daniel Plainview has stature – stature that is not diminished by his human failings or the acuity with which Anderson gets him to open up in the second hour. If this great movie has a fault – apart from its awful, flippant ending – it’s the failure to extend Paul Dano’s preacher the same degree of imaginative sympathy. ****

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman’s performance takes a while to heat up – his Smiley is so recessive initially that he seems barely present – but as the movie progresses he allows himself a few more expressive moments (play-acting a meeting with his Soviet nemesis) and you begin to understand that his careful shepherding of self is a survival strategy. The film has moments of brutality (an abrupt execution, a couple of mutilated corpses) that throws a very different light on the drab civility of the British Secret Service: this may be another bureaucracy, but it’s one with startling discontents. Director Tomas Alfredson preserves the cool palette and elegant approach to violence that he demonstrated in Let the Right One In. It’s the office atmosphere though that’s finally most moving: the relationships between old colleagues that are paralysed by mistrust and double-dealing. ****

Tiny Furniture (2010) – The set-up – a young woman’s ennui in privileged surroundings – resembles a Sofia Coppola movie, but actor/writer/director Lena Dunham’s take on her moneyed heroine is quite different. Her Aura is a physical affront to her mother and sister’s carefully curated selves – she’s dishevelled, unsure of her next move. The people she moves amongst are too focused on their public personas to listen very well; they perform for each other, and Aura, with her ungainly sincerity, does not fit in. There are bits of Girls in embryo: Jemima Kirke and Alex Karpovsky feature prominently, and Aura keeps her options open to a fault. But it’s blessedly free of a sense of cool. The movie’s keyed to its protagonist and if, like her, it sometimes falls flat – it feels like a first film – its earnestness pays off with moments like the concluding mother-daughter conversation, possibly the best thing Dunham’s ever done. ***

Tomorrowland (2015) – A real head-scratcher. The film is nostalgic for a world that never existed – Disney’s theme park imagining of the future in the 1950s and 60s as a gleaming technological utopia – without acknowledging the actual American imperium it reflected, or the anxieties and exclusions of that age. Writer/director Brad Bird rebukes our present for failing to maintain Disney’s sense of the future as benign, in the person of his heroine Casey (Britt Robertson), whose refusal to countenance any negative emotion makes her seem almost inhuman. Bird brings his trademark fluidity and punch to the set pieces, and the second hour, once Bird is done laying out his thesis about hope and despair, careens through disparate settings in a fairly entertaining way. But the parasitic relationship between Tomorrowland and our world – it seems to draw off our brightest and best without giving us anything in return – is never really explored, and the film’s ‘optimism’ is so strained, so pinched and ungenerous, that it’s more like a species of denial. **

Towelhead (2008) – In some ways (the closed suburban ecosystem, the middle-aged man’s fixation on a nubile teenager, Thomas Newman’s overfamiliar musical palette), this seems like self-parody on the part of Alan American Beauty Ball, and there are moments of too-tidy insight (“It was my blood”, or the good liberal neighbours (played by Matt Letscher and Toni Colette) put there to show us what a healthy attitude to race and sex looks like). Ball’s approach to character is very even-handed, though – no-one in the movie is a caricature, not even the good patriotic American who also happens to be a child molester. His treatment of the teenage heroine is fresh, too: her confusions are both explicitly sexual and in a normal range of emotion (as opposed to Thirteen, which diagnosed Evan Rachel Wood’s behaviour as a problem.) She is not a problem or a victim but someone who has desires and a dawning awareness of her own – an awareness that is preyed on by the adults around her. ***

Toy Story 3 (2010) – From the opening sequence, so true to the way children jumble characters and worlds in their play, to the political overtones of the day care centre – the hard slog of the new arrivals underwriting the privileged existence of the few – this is an extraordinarily rich movie, beautifully conceived. It echoes the previous Toy Story, both in its preoccupation with obsolescence and in its constant movement, but I think it goes further: once it reaches the dump we experience the horror of being, literally, junk. It probes the toy/child relationship, too, in a way that makes the second film’s focus on collectors seem clever rather than deep. Facing Andy’s impending adulthood, Woody has arrived at (or is anyway working towards) a love without any expectation of return – a parent’s love. The movie of the year. ****

Trainwreck (2015) – An illustration of the gap between TV and film: the sketches on Inside Amy Schumer are more surprising, pungent and formally inventive than anything on display here. Schumer (who also wrote the screenplay) is constrained by the tropes of big-screen romantic comedy and the familiar rhythms of three-act storytelling. Her bid for mainstream stardom also means running for office with the multiplex audience, with the blanding-out that entails: her harsh edges are handed off to side players like Tilda Swinton and Colin Quinn. This iteration of “Amy” (also her character’s name in the movie) has a sentimental friendship with the homeless man on her corner; she dons a cheerleader’s outfit to prove she’s a good sport. (“I’m cool with it.”) The movie’s most interesting element is the tension between Amy and her sister Kim (Brie Larson), who’s presented as a showroom for middle-class domesticity, her husband and son on hand like commercial samples. Kim’s repudiation of their father is at least in part a repudiation of their blue-collar background, and the movie’s best scenes get into this contested family history. It’s dispiriting when Amy bows to her sister’s superior wisdom. **

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) – What redeems this movie is how close to the surface the rapt teenage is in Michael Bay. He’s the boy who tries to make his silly robot story serious and impressive by writing it into history (the movie invokes Chernobyl and the Apollo moon program); the boy whose idea of a strong female character is Frances McDormand with her hair pulled back. This is not a man who cynically courts a mass audience; this is a man whose tastes passionately coincide with those of that audience. Character matters so little in this movie – apart from Optimus and Sentinel Prime, we barely distinguish between the different robots – that the (sensational) action set pieces become almost abstract. A lot of fun. ***

The Tree of Life (2011) – One of the greatest movies ever made about childhood. Terrence Malick captures the way we actually remember it – not in coherent episodes but in intensely apprehended moments, like Jessica Chastain cooling her feet with the garden hose or the older boy’s feeling of envy and exclusion as his younger brother accompanies their father (Brad Pitt) on guitar. Even the cosmic sections – the film veers from Texas in the 1950s to the very beginning of time, with the not-terribly-illuminating insight that we’re pretty small in the scheme of things – are so beautiful that they succeed in inducing a state of awe. It’s not perfect – it’s about twenty minutes too long – but it’s hard to imagine seeing a better movie this year. ****

The Tribe (2014) – Formally, this Ukrainian film – performed entirely in sign language – is very striking. The long, dispassionate takes – the characters are kept always at a distance – are expertly staged, as the camera roams through the school for the deaf that is the film’s setting. The use of sound – the background of vehicles and footfalls – intensifies the silence of the human interactions. The style has an almost hypnotic effect. The movie falls down, though, in its lack of human sense. The school is so isolated from the hearing world (none of the children appear to have parents or any external connection) that it seems more like a conceit than an actual place. The central drama – a teenage pimp’s bid to own one of the prostitutes under his supervision – is caveman stuff passed off as tender teen romance. In the end, the film’s unrelieved grimness feels like a limitation. **

2 Days in Paris (2007) – In which Julie Delpy treats us to her Woody Allen impression – compulsively verbal, with frazzled hair, she peers myopically at Adam Goldberg through a pair of glasses. (There is, of course, a moment when she puts her hair back and contacts in and we’re supposed to be dazzled at the transformation.) There’s an awful lot of cute sexual talk (mostly from her parents) and Goldberg doesn’t have much room to move as the crabbed, (relatively) inhibited American boyfriend. It has some of the relaxed, discursive feeling of Before Sunset, though – the same emphasis on conversation and the approximation of a walking pace. ***

Two Days, One Night (2014) – The Dardenne brothers’ film has a wonderfully simple design: its heroine Sandra (Marion Cotillard) goes door to door, asking to be readmitted to her former life after a prolonged mental illness. It’s grounded by Cotillard’s unshowy, precisely rendered portrayal of a woman trying to pull herself out of depression: the terrible vulnerability to setbacks, the raw nerves, the refuge in sleep. “I don’t exist,” she tells her husband early on; in the course of her odyssey through the ugly Belgian suburbs, seeking out her colleagues one by one, she rediscovers her personhood. The Dardennes honour the working class characters by depicting them as individuals: each colleague, though encountered only briefly, inhabits a space that has the richness of lived experience, and the sense of a story that abuts the heroine’s own. It’s the best kind of naturalism. ****

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – One of the reasons Stanley Kubrick is so highly regarded among directors is that he never lets you forget he’s directing: the perfect compositions, the stately pace, the actors moved around like chess pieces – his style calls attention to itself. The film is overlong and wooden in parts (particularly the ape-man prologue) but the way it visualises space paved the way for all subsequent science fiction. Kubrick sees it satirically, as a future outpost of American office culture (on their way to view the obelisk, the bureaucrats fuss over a selection of sandwiches); he hears it as a silent immensity, punctuated only by the astronauts’ breathing. If the people are ciphers, it’s because they’re dwarfed by the vastness around them; if the climactic lightshow is a disappointing representation of infinity, it’s also a measure of the movie’s ambition. ***

Up (2009) – Despite some deft touches (the montage summarising the old man’s marriage; the exchange in which the boy discloses his unhappy family life; the implacable big bird, which suggests the Roadrunner in its avidity, its refusal of logic and mute cheerfulness), Up is not up to Pixar’s best. The storytelling combines the sentimentality of Cars with a rather callous bias towards youth (the boy’s impulsive solicitude for the creatures they encounter is treated as sacrosanct, while he never has to acknowledge the house’s significance for the old man), and the villain is (for Pixar) unusually one-dimensional. **

Up in the Air (2009) – I thought Diablo Cody was chiefly responsible for Juno‘s overweening combination of the slick and the folksy, but clearly director Jason Reitman, who co-wrote the script for Up in the Air, is no dab hand at it himself. There are plenty of phoney moments, from the reality-TV handling of the wedding to George Clooney’s abandonment of the podium at a crucial moment. And the movie’s thrust – which makes a problem of Clooney’s perpetual bachelorhood – is inherently sentimental. How you respond to it will probably depend on your feelings toward Clooney – it’s tailored to his persona like one of his elegant suits. But the three major characters – Clooney, Vera Farmiga as his female equivalent and Anna Kendrick as the junior employee he takes on the road – all show unexpected reserves of kindness, and there are sequences, like the night all three sneak into a corporate party, that are as magical as they’re meant to be. ***

A Very Long Engagement (2004) – This is similar in many ways to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, with Audrey Tatou following clues rather than leaving them and Jeunet’s potted introductions – the characters sketched out for us in a few choice details. What’s surprising is how different the effect of his mannerisms is when applied to the story of two lovers’ separation during the First World War: Tatou’s unreasonable hope and her soldier boyfriend’s blank blue-eyed stare are very moving. ****

V for Vendetta (2006) – After the trailer – Natalie Portman getting her head shaved and looking defiantly at her interrogators – I was anticipating a gaudy Guantanamo fantasy. And there is something a bit gauche and doll-like about the way that her character is put in the way of danger. But the movie is surprisingly restrained – violence is suggested rather than shown – and complex in its moral sensibility. The hero – with his cultivated voice – is an ambiguous figure, and the movie teases out the distinction between the need to overthrow John Hurt’s tyranny and V’s more narrowly personal vendetta. The best comic book adaptation I’ve seen in a while. ****

Videodrome (1983) – This is a period piece in a way David Cronenberg couldn’t have anticipated: it depends for its effects on the materiality of videocassettes, which pucker and boil like a nightmare of flesh. (The streaming culture we now inhabit expressly eliminates the physical: images are abstract transmissions.) Cronenberg doesn’t condescend to the sleazy TV environment: one of the movie’s pleasures is its dead-on reproduction of TV talk shows, ‘exotic’ soft-core porn and corporate floorshows. James Woods is the perfect emblem for this world, with his pockmarked face – handsome one moment and seedy the next – and his scenes with Deborah Harry anticipate the full-blown queasy romanticism of The Fly. Cronenberg’s draggy style – so uninflected that it can seem null when he tackles other genres – is perfect here: the horrors linger, all the more effective for being seen so steadily. ****

The Visitor (2008) – There aren’t many surprises in Thomas McCarthy’s material (this is another movie in which a emotionally constipated old man is imposed upon by strangers – and awakened by the contact) and every detail is laid carefully in preparation for a later payoff (the piano as continued presence of the hero’s dead wife, The Phantom of the Opera as marker of the American good life). It’s saved chiefly by the performances (and McCarthy’s relatively complex approach to character) – as the academic, Richard Jenkins does his white man’s embarrassment in the presence of rhythm very nicely. The drummer’s (Haaz Sleiman) unaffected friendliness is also an adaptive mechanism – as an illegal immigrant, it’s important that people like him – while his girlfriend’s (Danai Gurira) proud boredom with their landlord borders on hostility. And as the interloper’s mum, Hiam Abbass has real elegance and dignity. ***

Volver (2006) – This is no Talk to Her or Bad Education, but it’s full of good things that no one else would think of, like the room full of women in mourning who converge on Penelope Cruz’s sister, their black fans buzzing like flies. Asked to play a ghost, poor Carmen Maura is left looking rather stupid, but Cruz is a revelation. She has a chance here to be busy and gallant and tearful and she plays it to the hilt. ***

Waltz with Bashir (2008) – Animation does not serve the interview format well: the stylised handsomeness of Ari Folman’s (autobiographical) director-hero seems self-serving and the talking heads of his subjects are never as expressive as the human faces they simplify – they’re never more than masks. A great deal of this movie is as static (if not as precious) as Waking Life. But the soldiers’ wartime memories are exceedingly vivid, their actual impressions (the music booming out from the pleasure boat, the yellow flares descending over the city) just as heightened and surreal as their fantasies and distortions (the soldier floating on a naked woman). It’s interesting that the director ambushes the audience with real footage in the same way as De Palma in Redacted: it expresses a feeling that art is inadequate to the (wartime) reality it attempts to describe. ***

We Are the Best! (2013) – Lukas Moodysson’s new film recalls his earlier triumph Show Me Love in both setting (the Swedish suburbs) and subject (the coming of age of three teenage girls), but it’s much lighter in spirit. Where in the earlier film Moodysson gave full play to his heroines’ moments of anguish – the anxieties and humiliations of adolescence were immediate and painful – here he holds them at a humorous distance, with the implicit assurance that everything will turn out all right. (The early eighties setting and the girls’ love of punk culture also recall Karl Ove Knausgaard.) The girls and their families are effortlessly drawn – the charismatic Klara, with her mohawk and big expressive eyes; Bobo, her introverted, sometimes resentful best friend; and Hedvig, the wary, older girl they rope into their band. The movie conveys the excitement these girls feel in identifying with an aesthetic, and shows their funny, fumbling attempts to apply it to their own experience (fed up with gym class, they write a punk anthem entitled “Fuck the Sport”). It’s a beautiful film. ****

Whiplash (2014) – Implicit in this film’s presentation of music is the idea that jazz is now repertory, kept alive (like classical music) in white academies. What place creative genius (the hero’s stated goal) might have in such rigid confines is a problem left to one side. The life of an artist here is one of self-mortification, much as it was in Black Swan – Miles Teller plays the drums until his fingers bleed – and at times this is nearly as overwrought as Natalie Portman’s freak-out. The word “artist” doesn’t apply here, exactly – the hero’s education is not the development of a sensibility but rather the cultivation of endurance and a precise technique, like an athlete. The ideas don’t hold together, but writer-director Damien Chazelle is good at physical detail: in a visual language that recalls Requiem for a Dream, he renders practice and performance as processes made up of intense split seconds, spit and sweat and blood. ***

Wild (2014) – In the main part of the movie, as her Cheryl Strayed hikes the Pacific Coast Trail (it’s based on Strayed’s memoir), Reese Witherspoon’s performance is all physical exertion: she tramps along under her heavy pack and pokes at her abrasions. It’s in the flashbacks that Witherspoon’s skill is revealed: at times she looks startlingly young, her face not yet undone by time and grief. Director Jean-Marc Vallée employs dissociation effects similar to those in his Dallas Buyers Club – but more conventionally, in service of those flashbacks. It’s a much less distinctive film. And Strayed’s reflections on the restorative powers of nature have the obviousness of an inspirational calendar. Still, by staying close to the details of the hike – its daily reality – the movie gives you a sense of her ordeal: by its end, you feel that you’ve been through something. ***

The Wind Rises (2013) – Hayao Miyazaki’s swansong opens with a dream that perfectly expresses the ambivalent glamour of flight: the glorious mobility and the capacity for destruction. His portrait of an aviation engineer in 1920s and 30s Japan is the least fantastic of his movies, but the boundaries between reality and dreams are so porous – the hero’s workday life is constantly shading into visions of flight – that it feels magical anyway. (His depiction of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake is as terrifying as any nightmare.) The movie is comfortable with ambivalence; the characters express their frustration with Japan’s backwardness even as Miyazaki dwells with loving fascination on the details of their pre-industrial existence. It goes badly wrong in its second hour, however, with an insipid romance. Just as it becomes increasingly difficult for the hero Jiro to deny his complicity with Japanese militarism (and the attendant police state), Miyazaki introduces a tubercular heroine out of La bohéme – too pure for this world – and concentrates on Jiro’s work-life balance. It feels like a cop out. ***

Win Win (2011) – Thomas McCarthy gives us another of his unconventional families – though this time it’s a suburban family that makes room for new members rather than a clutch of disparate individuals that come together. One of its strengths is the way it resists the standard American narrative of success (especially given its sports genre; its protagonist (Paul Giamatti) coaches a high-school wrestling team): it’s about accommodating yourself to reality, with all the surprises and disappointments that implies. Giamatti does something unforgivable early on, then spends the rest of the movie demonstrating his fundamental decency; as his wife, Amy Ryan makes her capability seem fierce and a little insane. Each of the characters turns corners, and the rumpled believability of Giamatti and Ryan’s life together is a marvel. ****

The Wrestler (2008) – One of the surprises about Darren Aronofsky’s film is the warmth of its depiction of the wrestling world – the friendly way the men clasp hands and compare the results of their fitness routines, the consensual working out of boundaries before they go into the ring (“Go easy on the staple gun.”). It’s that warmth as much as the ritual performance of physical prowess that makes it so hard for Mickey Rourke’s Ram to walk away. In that world he’s esteemed: in that world he has stature. (One of the pleasures of the film is how we pick up on the extent of his past glories through peripheral detail, action figures and Nintendo games.) Everyday life makes different demands: bullied by his supermarket manager, locked out of his trailer, it’s hard to disagree with his daughter’s assessment that he’s a “fuck up”. It’s a wonderful movie. ****

Young Adult (2011) – Diablo Cody (who also wrote Juno) keeps the Gen-Y mannerisms to a minimum this time. We (and Mavis, the predatory YA writer played by Charlize Theron) overhear teenage conversation in snatches; Mavis plunders their argot for her latest novel. Theron gives a startling, funny performance that never goes soft on itself: Mavis is ruthlessly unsentimental even as she nurses a hopeless crush on her high-school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). She’s savage in her boredom, contemptuous of her surroundings: Theron is electrifying. The movie is smart and well-observed about small-town claustrophobia and the way our adolescent selves – the roles assigned to us at school – can continue to define us. Director Jason Reitman gives it a clean, sharp visual sense. ****