Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in LADY BIRD.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – The design here – post-apocalyptic environments where colour is almost completely excluded, or luxurious digs bathed in yellow – is certainly striking, if a little monotonous. (It’s a little mystifying that Jared Leto and Harrison Ford get the same colour scheme.) The lighting is terrific, with the standout a fight sequence amongst holograms in a Las Vegas showroom that distils the film’s interest in manufactured reality into a few minutes of tense action. Like the original, this is limited by being such a male fantasy of the future: the women (aside from Robin Wright’s hard-bitten cop) are either compliant sexbots or sexy killing machines. (It would be nice to see the dynamic reversed: with his bland good looks, Ryan Gosling would make the perfect boyfriend in the Cloud.) Sylvia Hoeks’ composure suggests more complex reactions (she modulates her voice and expression expertly) – pleasure in the power conferred on her by her employer, resentment of his cruelty, a teasing identification with Gosling – but the movie soon flattens her out. It’s never boring, but it doesn’t add up to much either, and the climactic fight feels makeshift, like the placeholder for a better idea. **½

I, Tonya (2017) – Much of this is shallow by design: the film is interspersed with interviews with each of the principal characters, and the bulk of the action dramatises their recollections, memories long since ossified into stories. The scenes have the flatness of re-enactments, of situations experienced from a single perspective: every so often one of the characters addresses the camera directly, to remind us that this is someone’s version of events. For all the fuss about the slipperiness of truth, however, the movie never seriously entertains the possibility that Tonya Harding was involved in the plot against Nancy Kerrigan, and Kerrigan is almost completely absent – even from Harding’s perspective, as a rival figure on the skating circuit. There’s something touristy, condescending, in the movie’s depiction of Harding’s white-trash milieu – the AM radio soundtrack (usually deployed ironically), the young couple doing wheelies in the dirt, the kitchen that the older Harding fails to clean up for the interviewer’s camera. It doesn’t feel lived in but rather selected for its ‘colour’. The best reason to see the film is Margot Robbie, who sinks into Harding’s strong centre and moves with blunt power on and off the rink. **½

Lady Bird (2017) – What sets this apart from other coming-of-age stories is its specificity, taste and kindness. Greta Gerwig has a gift for selecting telling moments – the ones that lodge in the memory – and her movie proceeds cleanly from one moment to the next, rarely lingering, cutting them free from the flab of reality. The American rites of passage familiar from a hundred other high school stories – college applications, homecoming, the heroine ditching her friends for the cool kids – feel fresh because of this rhythm, and the small ways Gerwig subverts your expectations, foregrounding an unexpected character’s emotions in a situation. She’s especially good at registering the abrupt shifts in the relationship between mother and daughter: the interactions between Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are a maze of love and recrimination that both actors navigate with total precision. Both women have to reckon with Marion’s sense of disappointment, with the difference that her daughter can imagine a way out of it. Sometimes Jon Brion’s score is too cute, but this is a beautiful movie. ***½

The Post (2017) – Steven Spielberg’s newspaper drama shows the limits of skill: the production is mounted with care and thought, but can’t shake off a basic dullness, reflected in its dishwater palette. Spielberg keeps things moving, his camera another participant in the action – sometimes, as in the opening war sequence, giving us quick, obstructed glimpses, other times moving unobtrusively into a space with the actors and panning around to orient us. But the background stuff he choreographs to make the scenes feel lived in – the children running in and out, the TV programs, Sarah Paulson’s art materials – always feels placed rather than found, and obvious, which gives the film a corny, second-hand texture. The cast, a veritable Who’s Who of actors from the prestige TV of the past decade, will likely remind you of their other, better roles (Paulson’s wise wife bustling in with sandwiches is probably the nadir). Only a single moment surprised me in the performances: David Cross, taking someone a pile of documents, smiles as if surprising them for their birthday. Meryl Streep, fiddling with her glasses, and Tom Hanks, at the cantankerous end of his decent-guy range, are overfamiliar, like this unnecessarily boring film. **

The Shape of Water (2017) – Guillermo del Toro’s monster-movie tribute feels more French than 50s Hollywood in its whimsy, its ostentatious sense of unreality – like Jeunet, or Michel Gondry at his most laboured. It’s hardly possible to miss the rippling lights, the swampy colour, or the raft of film references (two of the characters live above a cinema, and they spend much of their time watching old movies on TV), but the effects are stilted, self-important, rarely simple or inevitable in the manner of real movie magic. (The Rogers/Astaire tribute only reminded me of the much better one on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.) The plotting asks us to accept a lot of improbabilities and arbitrary limits, even for a fairy tale. Why are there cameras everywhere in the facility except the lab with its most valuable asset? Is the canal the only place the creature can be released? Del Toro moves his players into position so clumsily that it kept throwing me out of the story. The actors are all effective, if mostly playing to type; it’s good to see Sally Hawkins in the sort of full-scale role she deserves, her best since Happy-Go-Lucky. But it’s lucky del Toro has a gift for violence: without the brutality, this would be as twee as The Artist. **½