Les Misérables (2012) Tom Hooper’s movie rescues the musical form from both the calculated polish of musical theatre – the perfect enunciation and the telegraphed emotions – and the compressed, airless sound of Glee. It restores a colloquial directness to the singing. Hooper’s extreme close-ups might not be the most imaginative way of shooting his actors’ soliloquies, but they give them a probing, interrogatory quality, the actors testing themselves against their experience and the camera’s watchful lens. They respond with palpable thoughtfulness: the songs are not ritualised ‘big numbers’ but seem to occur to the actors like an unfolding thought. (The movie’s fascination with faces gives it too a silent-movie sensibility thoroughly appropriate to its melodramatic plot.) Not everyone in the cast is equal to this approach – Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried are too busy concentrating on hitting their notes to be very expressive – and there are elements (like the comedic lowlifes) that don’t really come off. But I think this is the best movie musical since Chicago. ***

Life of Pi (2012) – In the early passages of the film, Ang Lee finds an analogue for the embroidery of his storytelling hero in digital technology: both director and narrator reserve the right to exaggerate, intensify, and otherwise improve on reality. As he relates stories from his childhood, Pi’s unreliability – the sense that he is testing his audience’s gullibility, to see how much it will accept – is a large part of his charm, and Lee matches him with perfectly composed shots of zoo animals, comic books that open out into galaxies, heaving seas for the parting of adolescent lovers. Unfortunately, once Pi (Suraj Sharma) is on the boat with the tiger, the story takes on the thinness of a parable. Nothing exists for itself; it’s all in the service of the intended lesson. Lee tries to counter this with all manner of maritime wonders: flying fish, a luminescent whale. But it’s like flipping through a beautifully illustrated textbook: no matter how lovely the pictures, you’re still in school. ***

The Sessions (2012) – This movie – about a disabled man’s quest for sexual fulfilment with a ‘sex surrogate’ – is curiously prudish: it’s not above scoring laughs at the expense of sexually active disabled people. As in many films by writer-directors, Ben Lewin’s bad ideas – the shaggy-haired priest played by William H. Macy, who drops by with a six-pack to show what a regular guy he is – are lovingly preserved. As the surrogate, Helen Hunt sheds her clothes with the simplicity that is her key attribute as an actor: in the course of the film her calm repertoire of erogenous zones with clients gives way to a surprising level of emotional involvement, the way sex sometimes can. In some ways, John Hawke is not very likeable as the paralysed hero – there’s a querulous edge to his self-deprecating humour. He’s demanding despite his high, unstressed voice, with an unexamined relationship to the people he pays to look after him: he entertains fantasies of beautiful women shedding tears over him. His sense of entitlement sours the film. **

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – David O. Russell’s movie captures the claustrophobia of mental illness: the curtailment of adult prerogatives, the constant well-meaning supervision by friends and family, the regime of medication and counselling and magic phrases repeated over and over to keep the chaos at bay. Bradley Cooper – freshly released from mental hospital – is hemmed in, even visually (the close-ups are almost as tight as Tom Hooper’s in Les Misérables), and we spend the movie tensed for his next explosion. It’s as intense a portrait of impacted male rage as Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like that movie, Playbook seeks to combine this portrait with some of the tropes of romantic comedy. Russell assigns Cooper a woman as combative as he is: Jennifer Lawrence, whose own experiences with mental illness have made her impatient with readymade sentiment. She pursues, ignores, and goads him out of his funk; the jumbling of modes isn’t entirely successful, but you can’t help rooting for them. ***

Young Adult (2011) – Diablo Cody (who also wrote Juno) keeps the Gen-Y mannerisms to a minimum this time. We (and Mavis, the predatory YA writer played by Charlize Theron) overhear teenage conversation in snatches; Mavis plunders their argot for her latest novel. Theron gives a startling, funny performance: Mavis is savage in her boredom, contemptuous of her surroundings, even as she nurses a hopeless crush on her high-school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). She’s electrifying. The movie is smart and well-observed about small-town claustrophobia and the way our adolescent selves – the roles assigned to us at school – can continue to define us. Director Jason Reitman gives it a clean, sharp visual sense. ****

Life of Pi (2012) – In the early passages of the film, Ang Lee finds an analogue for the embroidery of his storytelling hero in digital technology: both director and narrator reserve the right to exaggerate, intensify, and otherwise improve on reality. As he relates stories from his childhood, Pi’s unreliability – the sense that he is testing his audience’s gullibility, to see how much it will accept – is a large part of his charm, and Lee matches him with perfectly composed shots of zoo animals, comic books that open out into galaxies, heaving seas for the parting of adolescent lovers. Unfortunately, once Pi (Suraj Sharma) is on the boat with the tiger, the story takes on the thinness of a parable. Nothing exists for itself; it’s all in the service of the intended lesson. Lee tries to counter this with all manner of maritime wonders: flying fish, a luminescent whale. But it’s like flipping through a beautifully illustrated textbook: no matter how lovely the pictures are, you’re still in school. ***

The Sessions (2012) – This movie – about a disabled man’s quest for sexual fulfilment with a ‘sex surrogate’ – is curiously prudish: it’s not above scoring laughs at the expense of sexually active disabled people. As in many films by writer-directors, Ben Lewin’s bad ideas – the shaggy-haired priest played by William H. Macy, who drops by with a six-pack to show what a regular guy he is – are lovingly preserved. As the surrogate, Helen Hunt sheds her clothes with the simplicity that is her key attribute as an actor: in the course of the film her calm repertoire of erogenous zones with clients gives way to a surprising level of emotional involvement, the way sex sometimes can. In some ways, John Hawke is not very likeable as the paralysed hero – there’s a querulous edge to his self-deprecating humour. He’s demanding despite his high, unstressed voice, with an unexamined relationship to the people he pays to look after him: he entertains fantasies of beautiful women shedding tears over him. His sense of entitlement sours the film. **

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – David O. Russell’s movie captures the claustrophobia of mental illness: the curtailment of adult prerogatives, the constant well-meaning supervision by friends and family, the regime of medication and counselling and magic phrases repeated over and over to keep the chaos at bay. Bradley Cooper – freshly released from mental hospital – is hemmed in, even visually (the close-ups are almost as tight as Tom Hooper’s in Les Misérables), and we spend the movie tensed for his next explosion. It’s as intense a portrait of impacted male rage as Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like that movie, Playbook seeks to combine this portrait with some of the tropes of romantic comedy. Russell assigns Cooper a woman as combative as he is: Jennifer Lawrence, whose own experiences with mental illness have made her impatient with readymade sentiment. She pursues, ignores, and goads him out of his funk; the jumbling of modes isn’t entirely successful, but you can’t help rooting for them. ***

Young Adult (2011) – Diablo Cody (who also wrote Juno) keeps the Gen-Y mannerisms to a minimum this time. We (and Mavis, the predatory YA writer played by Charlize Theron) overhear teenage conversation in snatches; Mavis plunders their argot for her latest novel. Theron gives a startling, funny performance that never goes soft: Mavis is ruthlessly unsentimental even as she nurses a hopeless crush on her high-school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). She’s savage in her boredom, contemptuous of her surroundings: Theron is electrifying. The movie is smart and well-observed about small-town claustrophobia and the way our adolescent selves – the roles assigned to us at school – can continue to define us. Director Jason Reitman gives it a clean, sharp visual sense. ****