Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) – There are scenes of child abuse in this movie as punishing as anything in Precious, but the tone here is prideful, even celebratory. The ramshackle, multiracial world of The Bathtub seems more like a conceit than a real community, and the movie founders on the distinction between finding the beauty in difficult circumstances (the bedraggled animals and the hovels made out of scraps) and defending a man’s right to raise his daughter (Quvenzhané Wallis) as he chooses, even if that means subjecting her to poverty, danger and rampant alcoholism. The Bathtub’s relationship to the outside world goes largely unexamined – Hush Puppy and her father commit an act of environmental terrorism with no thought for those who will be inundated as a result. The film has been made by people remote enough from poverty to find it picturesque: it’s a cheat. *

The Beaver (2011) – Jodie Foster is the best friend Mel Gibson could possibly have. Not only did she direct this apologia for his very public meltdown, she spends her scenes as Gibson’s wife training her focus on him, helping him along. The movie luxuriates in Gibson’s ravaged, deeply lined face: it’s no stretch to believe that his Walter Black is a man at the end of his rope. The puppet he adopts as his intermediary is blunt-faced, rather ugly: in Gibson’s hands, it is always credible, never cute. Yet the film ultimately belongs to its younger actors – Anton Yelchin, who plays Gibson’s son Porter, and Jennifer Lawrence. Their story runs parallel to Gibson’s, and in it the movie explores the very mixed blessing of inheritance. For Porter, his temperamental affinity with his father is a frustrating, frightening limitation – almost a sentence. ***

Brave (2012) – The similarities to How to Train Your Dragon are instructive: Pixar’s story of an outsider in a hirsute warrior culture is better on every level. What separates this from other stories of women constrained by corsets – Kate Winslet in Titanic, say – is how this constraint is expressed physically. Having seen Merida sail down the castle steps and onto her horse in a single smooth motion, you feel how the expectations of her as a princess limit her possibilities. The gender roles – the men messy and vital, the women above all controlled – are deliciously inverted with the Queen’s transformation: she tries to retain her elegance, her sense of propriety, but keeps being undone by her new body. There are moments of Disney contamination – montages of Merida out in the forest with odes to self-improvement on the soundtrack – but this is a honourable addition to the Pixar canon. ***

Higher Ground (2011) – Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, based on a memoir by Carolyn Briggs, is a wonderfully nuanced depiction of one woman’s evolving spirituality. The tone falters here and there: the milieu is already so stylised (Christian hippies in the 1970s, with the profusion of patterned fabrics that implies) that the heroine’s fantasies come across as odd, and her climactic sermon plays like grandstanding. But the film captures the warmth, the musicality, the habits of thoughtfulness and gratitude in her community, even as it also makes clear the way it keeps its women subservient, the way it cannot tolerate ambivalence. The movie has a gratifying looseness as it traces Corrine’s changing life and thought – gently, over the course of years. ****

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) – The young heroine of Wes Anderson’s movie closely resembles Lana Del Ray as she looks moodily out through a pair of binoculars, her eyes heavily rimmed with blue eyeshadow, and at first it seems like one of Del Ray’s music videos, interested mostly in striking melancholic poses. Anderson’s dollhouse tendencies are back in full force, and the adult actors are very much in their comfort zones – Bill Murray’s rumpled bemusement, Frances McDormand’s frumpish housewife. But the relationship of the young lovers is simple in the best sense, and as they take centre stage their seriousness and their acceptance of one another becomes very touching, their woodland idyll a brief moment of self-sufficiency away from the farcical world of adults. ***