Joy (2015) – David O. Russell announces his intention to make a soap opera at the outset, and he follows through – the outsize characters with single traits, the way Russell arranges them in static groups, the recycled sets (most of the film takes place in a house and a garage). It’s not clear what he means to achieve with this approach, though, and the movie is like a soap in the worst sense: we’re stuck with people incapable of development or growth, locked by their creators’ skin-deep conception in an interminable loop of behaviour. The people around Jennifer Lawrence’s heroine are so unpleasant, and her response to them so mild, that her passivity becomes exasperating. When one of them rebukes her as not tough enough it seems an accurate description. The best part of the movie is set at a home shopping network: Russell never condescends to the medium, and Bradley Cooper’s network boss – who sees opportunity everywhere – is a capitalist mystic. Still, this movie takes forever getting nowhere. **

Magic Mike XXL (2015) – This is as stripped-down a quest narrative as Fury Road, and in its emphasis on female pleasure almost as feminist. Where the absence of story in George Miller’s film was about aerodynamics – building a chase with maximum forward momentum – here it’s about approximating the rhythms of friends on a road trip. We hang out with Mike (Channing Tatum) and his fellow dancers as they squabble in their tour van or sit by a beachside campfire. The bogus conflict between dancing and small-business respectability is gone: the spectre of aging hangs over these men, but the emphasis is on their intimacy and rapport. As on any good road trip, there are unexpected digressions, and it’s here that the movie’s different conception of stripping becomes apparent: it’s not self-aggrandising, men taking the stage, but in service of – a sort of tribute to – their female clients. These men are sexiest when pleasing women, and the movie makes the case that it’s a sort of vocation. ***

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – The real opposition in Star Wars was never between the Jedi and the Sith, or even the light and dark sides of the Force: it was between a technological superpower and a ragtag group of survivors. George Lucas’ failure to understand the dynamics of his own story wrecked his prequels, those deadly essays on intergalactic politics; J. J. Abrams’ ready grasp of them makes this the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. Abrams is a great mimic: where his Super 8 tapped the suburbs’ capacity for terror and enchantment like prime late-70s Spielberg, here – as in the original trilogy – he captures the exhilaration of underdogs discovering their capacities. He’s aware of the politics of representation – the heroes here are a white woman, a black man and a Latino – without it once feeling token or humourless. Daisy Ridley is as fresh and determined as a young Keira Knightley, with the same disarming grin; Oscar Isaac is heir to Han Solo’s handsomeness and charm. The movie is dense with allusions to and variations on the original films: it’s an act of knowledge and love. ****

Tomorrowland (2015) – A real head-scratcher. The film is nostalgic for a world that never existed – Disney’s theme park imagining of the future in the 1950s and 60s as a gleaming technological utopia – without acknowledging the actual American imperium it reflected, or the anxieties and exclusions of that age. Writer/director Brad Bird rebukes our present for failing to maintain Disney’s sense of the future as benign, in the person of his heroine Casey (Britt Robertson), whose refusal to countenance any negative emotion makes her seem almost inhuman. Bird brings his trademark fluidity and punch to the set pieces, and the second hour, once Bird is done laying out his thesis about hope and despair, careens through disparate settings in a fairly entertaining way. But the parasitic relationship between Tomorrowland and our world – it seems to draw off our brightest and best without giving us anything in return – is never really explored, and the film’s ‘optimism’ is so strained, so pinched and ungenerous, that it’s more like a species of denial. **