Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in CAROL.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in CAROL.

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. ***

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. ****

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. ****

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. ***