Boyhood (2014) – The movie opens with a shot of blue skies and Coldplay’s “Yellow” blasting on the soundtrack; it’s basically a square, sunny presentation of childhood. The Coldplay song serves another purpose, however: one of the movie’s chief pleasures is the way it serves as a time capsule of noughties culture, from “Oops! …I Did It Again” to midnight Harry Potter book parties to Obama vs. McCain. It’s The Tree of Life without the cosmic interludes (the philosophy comes in bull sessions with Ethan Hawke as the kids’ father) – there are a few decisive dramatic moments, but mostly time flows on in an unhurried fashion, its passing marked by haircuts and subtle changes in the actors’ faces. The movie’s focus alights – like memory – on commonplace moments that seem representative of whole eras. It’s reminiscent of TV in a good way – its interest in the quotidian, the open-endedness, the nature of our identification with characters over the long haul (it collapses twelve years into three hours) – an impression that’s only heightened by the presence of several actors from Friday Night Lights. It’s wholesome without being idealised – Patricia Arquette especially adds important dissonant notes – glancing and well observed. ****

Joe (2013) – Unlike Mud (with which it shares Tye Sheridan as the boy protagonist) or Winter’s Bone, the white-trash details in David Gordon Green’s Southern Gothic feel like set decoration rather than elements of a convincing world. Likewise, Nicholas Cage’s Joe is a compendium of tough-guy clichés: he knows how to cut a perfect steak from a deer carcass and pull shotgun pellets out of his shoulder; his girlfriend’s main function is wonder plaintively if they will ever go out on a dinner date. There’s a sense that everyone involved is trying to be as rococo as possible with the perversity: Joe visits the local whorehouse for a blowjob while his dog mauls the madam’s German shepherd downstairs; one drunk beats another to death for a bottle of sugar wine; a mute girl is menaced in the back of a truck by a man in a bunny mask. It’s an unlovely mixture of the outré and the sentimental (Joe as reluctant father figure, as devoted dog owner, as doomed outsider), and in its lack of emotional logic it soon becomes ludicrous. *

Margaret (2011) – Kenneth Lonergan’s film cultivates a curious flatness of tone. The characters and their world – a privileged Manhattan teen who makes her involvement in a bus accident all about her, her brittle actress mother, the estranged relatives who leap at the chance of a lucrative lawsuit – seem the stuff of snarky satire, but Lonergan looks on with a steady, uninflected gaze that invites empathy rather than derisive laughter. Anna Paquin’s performance as the spoiled, manipulative protagonist is a case in point: so articulate that she trips up trying to find the right words, emotional in a way that blinds her to the feelings of others, sending confused sexual signals in every direction, her interactions are often excruciating. Lonergan’s plain naturalism, however, presents her on her own terms – even finds something to admire in her flailing attempts at emotional authenticity. The downside to this plainness is that the frequent attempts at stylised urban imagery – crowds in slow motion on the sidewalks, pans across the New York City skyline – fall flat. (The Altmanesque sound design, which swamps the characters’ dialogue with surrounding conversations, is more successful.) Intended to remind us of the insignificance of the film’s human drama, they come across as padding. ***

We Are the Best! (2013) – Lukas Moodysson’s new film recalls his earlier triumph Show Me Love in both setting (the Swedish suburbs) and subject (the coming of age of three teenage girls), but it’s much lighter in spirit. Where in the earlier film Moodysson gave full play to his heroines’ moments of anguish – the anxieties and humiliations of adolescence were immediate and painful – here he holds them at a humorous distance, with the implicit assurance that everything will turn out all right. (The early eighties setting and the girls’ love of punk culture also recall Karl Ove Knausgaard.) The girls and their families are effortlessly drawn – the charismatic Klara, with her mohawk and big expressive eyes; Bobo, her introverted, sometimes resentful best friend; and Hedvig, the wary, older girl they rope into their band. The movie conveys the excitement these girls feel in identifying with an aesthetic, and shows their funny, fumbling attempts to apply it to their own experience (fed up with gym class, they write a punk anthem entitled “Fuck the Sport”). It’s a beautiful film. ****