Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – The movie opens in the ape colony, and depicts the apes in their language, on their terms: it seems almost like a work of anthropology. Their vocabulary of signs and grunts and gestures (and the occasional English word, for emphasis) has an expressiveness that’s rare in sound movies. When the film cuts to a human perspective – the party of explorers with an assortment of types familiar from a hundred B-movies (the hero, the prick who makes himself obnoxious so that we won’t regret his death, the lone female) – it seems like a failure of nerve. Their clunky, conventional dialogue is especially egregious when set beside the eloquence of the apes. Like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the film puts us in the curious position of rooting against our own species: what a pity it didn’t go all the way with this and present the story solely from the apes’ perspective. There’s a perceptible lift whenever the movie returns to Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his nemesis Koba (Toby Kebbell). The latter is a particularly vivid villain: riding into battle, his teeth bared, he’s an incarnation of chaos. ***

Lucy (2014) – Luc Besson packs more metaphysics into 90 minutes than Interstellar did in three hours, and more entertainingly to boot. At first the regular intrusion of wildlife footage seems like weird padding, but it anticipates the extension of the heroine’s consciousness: as she accesses more of her brain capacity, the traditional boundaries between human and environment collapse. Not to overstate the movie’s seriousness: it starts out like a backpacker’s nightmare (an amusingly trashy Scarlett Johansson runs afoul of a drug cartel in Taiwan) and Besson delivers regular gunfights and chases. But its brainpower conceit lifts it out of predictability: soon it’s less a revenge fantasy than a little Tree of Life. Johansson is terrific as the superior being – whether waving away baddies or rattling off profundities. ****

Maleficent (2014) – With its relatively shapely (and concise) narrative arc, Disney’s latest revisionist fairy tale is an improvement on Oz the Great and Powerful – though no match for its model, Snow White and the Huntsman. It’s yet another Disney film that strips magic of any true otherness or danger: the main body of the movie presents that sentimental cliché, the grouch redeemed by her love for a child. Maleficent’s fairy realm is designed in garish pinks and purples: it’s a place of mud-fights and goblins with goo-goo eyes. Angelina Jolie looks terrific with her horns and sculpted cheekbones, but she’s not called upon to supply anything more than her stately presence. She can’t match Charlize Theron’s malevolence as the Queen in Snow White, nor her complex identification with that movie’s younger heroine: that kind of ambiguity simply doesn’t exist in the Disney universe. The film is depressingly simpleminded. **

Two Days, One Night (2014) – The Dardenne brothers’ film has a wonderfully simple design: its heroine Sandra (Marion Cotillard) goes door to door, asking to be readmitted to her former life after a prolonged mental illness. It’s grounded by Cotillard’s unshowy, precisely rendered portrayal of a woman trying to pull herself out of depression: the terrible vulnerability to setbacks, the raw nerves, the refuge in sleep. “I don’t exist,” she tells her husband early on; in the course of her odyssey through the ugly Belgian suburbs, seeking out her colleagues one by one, she rediscovers her personhood. The Dardennes honour the working class characters by depicting them as individuals: each colleague, though encountered only briefly, inhabits a space that has the richness of lived experience, and the sense of a story that abuts the heroine’s own. It’s the best kind of naturalism. ****

Whiplash (2014) – Implicit in this film’s presentation of music is the idea that jazz is now repertory, kept alive (like classical music) in white academies. What place creative genius (the hero’s stated goal) might have in such rigid confines is a problem left to one side. The life of an artist here is one of self-mortification, much as it was in Black Swan – Miles Teller plays the drums until his fingers bleed – and at times this is nearly as overwrought as Natalie Portman’s freak-out. The word “artist” doesn’t apply here, exactly – the hero’s education is not the development of a sensibility but rather the cultivation of endurance and a precise technique, like an athlete. The ideas don’t hold together, but writer-director Damien Chazelle is good at physical detail: in a visual language that recalls Requiem for a Dream, he renders practice and performance as processes made up of intense split seconds, spit and sweat and blood. ***