Jaeden Lieberher in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL.

Jaeden Lieberher in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL.

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. ****

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. ****

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. **

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. ****

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. ****