Elizabeth Berkley in SHOWGIRLS.

Elizabeth Berkley in SHOWGIRLS.

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

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. ****

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. ***

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. ***