All Is Lost (2013) – Robert Redford embodies a very pragmatic kind of heroism here – heroism without posturing. It is his life only that he’s determined to save, and he approaches each succeeding crisis calmly, without extraneous displays of emotion, as a problem to be solved. Like Robinson Crusoe, much of the movie’s fascination is in how the hero does things – the details of his survival. There’s no sustaining sense of Providence here, though: in director J. C. Chandor’s vision, the universe seems to have it in for “Our Man” on the sea, and the tone darkens steadily as his situation worsens, despite all his ingenuity. An opening monologue expresses a very general sense of apology and regret; otherwise, we know almost nothing about Redford’s character. He asserts his identity – taciturn, economical even in gesture – by refusing to bow to his situation. It’s a very pure story of survival. ***

Bernie (2011) – Though it’s framed as a true-crime story (with photos of the actors’ real life counterparts for us to compare and contrast at the end), the main character here is the town of Carthage, Texas, the subject collective memory. The great bulk of the movie is taken up with interviews with ‘locals’ – some real, some played by actors. It’s impossible to tell them apart, which destabilises the movie’s relationship to reality in ways exceedingly apt for an examination of hearsay and public perception. Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine are perhaps a little one-note, but a certain flatness is appropriate for characters conjured into being by their neighbours’ gossip. Matthew McConaughey gives a smart, sly performance as the local D.A., with a hint of mania in his eyes: he’s the human embodiment of the permission we grant ourselves to pry into other people’s lives. ***

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) – Two decades ago, coming out stories – even very good ones, like Show Me Love – followed a single trajectory: the secret was eventually disclosed, and we were left on the high of a tender young love. Adbellatif Kechiche’s film is more ambitious, and much less reassuring: it’s as interested in its heroine’s intellectual development as her dawning sexuality (the movie is dense with literary allusions) and her ecstatic first love falls apart about two thirds through, leaving her to flail about on her own. Adèle Exarchopolous has a marvellously expressive face, and Kechiche fastens on it in fascination: he keeps us very close to Adèle’s experience. The chief failing of the famous long sex scene is that it exchanges Adèle’s point of view for a more objective (male) gaze: the lovers are photographed at a distance, on a brightly-lit white bed that might as well be a plinth in a museum. (Typically for a movie so full of ideas, Kechiche has a male character discourse a few scenes later on the impossibility of comprehending female pleasure.) The movie treats the events of Adèle’s life glancingly: this has the advantage of skipping over scenes that have by now become standard, but it’s sometimes disorienting in terms of the passage of time, and the way that people drift in and out of her life (characters we’ve grown to like simply disappear). The only responsibility it acknowledges is to Adèle’s point of view; even when the movie drags, this closeness is precious. ***

Nebraska (2013) – Like The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s latest film is all about place and inheritance, but it has a more constricted emotional range. Payne makes his people static and small in his black and white landscapes – either vast, flat farmland, or depressed small towns. He’s good at small, wry insights: how companionable taciturnity can be (Bruce Dern’s Woody sitting with the brothers he hasn’t seen in years, watching TV) or how June Squibb’s harshness is intended (at least in part) to protect her soft-hearted husband from those who would take advantage of him. The movie holds few surprises, though. Will Forte, though sympathetic, keeps hitting the same notes of exasperated concern, and the movie respects Woody’s privacy too much: he’s never more than a loveable old codger. Late in the film, Bruce’s daughter Laura Dern strides past in the background, and her dynamism is startling: she shatters this world that Payne has constructed. **

The Wind Rises (2013) – Hayao Miyazaki’s swansong opens with a dream that perfectly expresses the ambivalent glamour of flight: the glorious mobility and the capacity for destruction. His portrait of an aviation engineer in 1920s and 30s Japan is the least fantastic of his movies, but the boundaries between reality and dreams are so porous – the hero’s workday life is constantly shading into visions of flight – that it feels magical anyway. (His depiction of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake is as terrifying as any nightmare.) The movie is comfortable with ambivalence; the characters express their frustration with Japan’s backwardness even as Miyazaki dwells with loving fascination on the details of their pre-industrial existence. It goes badly wrong in its second hour, however, with an insipid romance. Just as it becomes increasingly difficult for the hero Jiro to deny his complicity with Japanese militarism (and the attendant police state), Miyazaki introduces a tubercular heroine out of La bohéme – too pure for this world – and concentrates on Jiro’s work-life balance. It feels like a cop out. ***