Annihilation (2018) – With its obvious debts to Aliens (a military expedition picked off one by one) and Avatar (the purple – in both senses – prettiness of the alien environment), this adheres to Hollywood formula more than Ex Machina, but inflects it in interesting ways, like the all-female squad or the way the alien arrival is conceived as a biological process rather than a race or a conscious being. Unfortunately, the ending is Hollywood in the worst sense, the least interesting response possible to the issues raised – burn it all down to return things to the status quo, with a wink of doubt at the end. It renders the whole movie less interesting in retrospect; it’s especially disappointing in a writer/director like Alex Garland, celebrated for thinking outside the box. Until the last twenty minutes, though, it’s a superior genre movie: Garland handles his actors well, whether letting them play to type (Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s no-nonsense leader) or using them in unexpected ways (Gina Rodriguez has fun with the gung-ho physicality of her character). The flashbacks to Natalie Portman’s happy marriage, the loss of which propels her into the unknown, are more specific and better acted than the norm. (I’d miss waking up next to Oscar Isaac too.) The disorderly environments, poised somewhere between beauty and decay, are always worth looking at: many of them look as if they’ve been dressed by Sheila Hicks. It’s a shame that all this skill isn’t employed in service of a better developed idea. **½

First Man (2018) – The most interesting thing about this account of the moon landing is how ambivalent it is about technology. Damien Chazelle makes the connection early on between the machines Neil Armstrong is strapped into and the radiation machine pointed at his daughter: it has become a movie law that no one goes into space without first suffering a bereavement, but Chazelle does interesting things with the cliché. Human bodies are roughly joined with machines they can barely control, machines that make them vomit and burst into flames, in a process that is sometimes a literal entombment. It does sometimes feel like the whole movie consists of shaky close-ups of Ryan Gosling’s eyes, but this violence inflects the sublime space vistas, the moments when everything goes right, so that it’s a much less triumphal film than one might expect. Its deliberate pace feels apt for a film that’s so much about process, but it sometimes borders on tedium, and it can be hard to tell all the terse white mid-century guys apart. Claire Foy gives the standout performance because her character expresses emotion; there’s a moment when, receiving a visitor, she holds half a dozen feelings – worry, anger, dislike, the need to be polite – in the corner of her mouth. This is a solid, thoughtful film, Chazelle’s best. ***

Roma (2018) – Alfonso Cuarón’s film opens with the hypnotic image of soapy water washing over a tiled floor like waves, reflecting the sky in its brief moments of stillness. It turns out that we’re watching the heroine Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) clean the dogshit from her employers’ driveway, and Cuarón walks a careful line throughout the film, finding the beauty in Cleo’s routine without forgetting that it’s work. The film captures what it’s like to be responsible for someone else’s house – the way your consciousness becomes an inventory of the contents of each room, so that you register even small changes, and of the jobs that remain to be done, so that you move from one task to another in one continuous movement. But it’s not only a portrait of domestic work and of Cleo’s place within the family that treats her like family when it suits them and at other times renders her invisible; it’s a social panorama as well. The film expands in both directions from the bourgeois household at its centre, to include both the very rich (a Jean Renoir-inspired Christmas party at a brother’s country house, brimming with surreal details) and the poor (when Cleo goes looking for a boyfriend who has ghosted her and steps from a bus into a world of mud). Cuarón makes all this vivid not just with his gorgeous, detailed images, but with the immersive sound design, which places the audience in the action, so that waves or gunfire or the frenzied activity in a hospital ward seem to be happening around you. It’s as impressive a technical feat as Gravity (astronauts are a motif throughout, as befits a story set in the early 1970s); with his run since Y tu mamá también in 2001, Cuarón’s status as the greatest director currently working in film seems clear. ****

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – A good argument for post-human cinema. It turns out my problem with Marvel movies is not their overreliance on CGI but their reliance on people: the actors performing with foolish seriousness in front of green screens hobble them, limiting their visual possibilities and saddling them with their peculiar cheesy earnestness. By jettisoning actors, this Spider-Man frees itself from those problems. It’s able to approximate the dense visual language of comics: the images packed with captions that comment on the action; the way the screen splits at moments of stress, or to tell multiple stories; the way it defies our earthbound human perspective as it follows the hero over the surface of buildings or through trees, turning every which way; the combination of jarringly different styles of drawing. It helps too that the story breaks with the standard structure building towards a cataclysm (averted, of course, because of the hero’s intervention): here the world-changing event happens early, and the rest of the film deals with its consequences. It’s limber and hip, without congratulating itself too much on its meta self-awareness, and it hits its emotional marks harder than any Marvel movie outside Black Panther. The family drama is well drawn – there’s a beautiful scene with father and son on either side of the door, which becomes the line between their two panels – and the adolescent range of emotions that constrains most superheroes are a lot more sympathetic when they’re experienced by an actual teenager. The film skilfully connects Miles’ new powers with the mortifications of puberty, and there are moments when he is pitifully vulnerable and small, still a child. In this genre, the absence of humans allows the movie to better express human feelings. ***½

A Star Is Born (2018) – Bradley Cooper’s movie wants you to know how destabilising fame is, and how claustrophobic. It starts at a big open-air gig, the first of many, and as the camera circles Cooper’s Jackson Maine you can feel him struggling to provide a centre of gravity, both for himself and the elaborate spectacle he’s created. From there it’s cars, bars and dressing rooms; part of the grace of his first date with Lady Gaga’s Ally is that, sitting with her in a parking lot, he is finally outside. It feels like a just depiction of fame, without hysteria or self-pity, and this is typical of Cooper’s control as an actor (he doesn’t downplay the ugliness in his character – that his recognition of Ally’s talent is a gift he sometimes wants to take back), writer (it’s a shapely, concise movie – I wanted more detail on certain things, like the family relationships, but never less) and director. Like Eminem in 8 Mile, Lady Gaga is playing a version of her own creation myth: performer languishes in obscurity because of her unconventional looks, only to triumph because of the force of her talent. Ally’s story is less well imagined than Jackson’s, and I wondered why she becomes that particular kind of pop star when nothing in her tastes (she covers Edith Piaf and has Carole King on her bedroom wall) or style or the alt-country scene she comes up in suggests that. (It seems a very generic idea of being a ‘pop star’.) But Gaga has a very easy, straightforward screen presence, and her rapport with Cooper helps sell the love story that holds the two star stories together. ***