The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) – There’s something self-serving and a little sour in the way Terry Gilliam conceives of himself here as a Prospero whose magic is wasted on an unappreciative public, but the anachronistic theatre he creates is so richly detailed that his fable ends up succeeding anyway. (It helps that he cast Christopher Plummer as his avatar: he brings a grave sense of showmanship to the role of the Doctor.) At times, the Doctor’s fabulous, inert tableaux vivants suggest a sneaky self-criticism on the part of the director: Gilliam has always had trouble making his inventions signify. The fantasy sequences reveal something of the boys-only sources of his humour: the women here are not quite real, either middle-aged grotesques or a single ingénue (Lily Cole) replicated across time. In the end though, the movie’s plea on behalf of the imagination is backed up by its proliferation of imagery. Gilliam’s joy in making things is everywhere apparent. ***

The Immigrant (2013) – At first, with its images of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side bathed in Gordon Willis light, this seems like a retread of The Godfather. (Later in the film, his face swollen from a beating, Joaquin Phoenix does a mush-mouthed Brando impression.) It proves to be its own thing, though: it burrows down into the tawdry netherland between burlesque and sex work. It’s full of vivid details: the newly arrived Ewa (Marion Cotillard) encountering a banana for the first time, biting through the skin; a strip show that travesties the immigrant experience, Ewa pressed into the role of the Statue of Liberty. The melodramatic plot – Phoenix and Jeremy Renner competing for Ewa’s affections – seems to belong to the period (it’s set in the early 1920s), but as its contrivances impose themselves the film becomes increasingly mechanical and clunky. (At times, Cotillard’s suffering seems so overdetermined that she could be in a Lars von Trier movie.) It’s unequal to the actors and the vivid world James Gray creates here: the story gets in the way. ***

Interstellar (2014) – The movie opens with a convincing depiction of an Earth in its terminal stages: the dust-choked cornfields are specific, archetypically American and handsome to look at all at the same time. (The horizons of this world have shrunk to the purely local: it’s right that most of the action should be confined to a single farm.) This ruined world is so convincing that the merely personal concerns of the astronauts once they take off – reunion with daughters and lovers – seem petty, even ludicrous. With the survival of the human race at stake, what are we to make of a hero who’d rather turn around and go home than go on with his mission? (This could be good material for a comedy, but laughs are the last thing on Christopher Nolan’s mind.) For all the talk of wormholes and extra dimensions, the message is basically the same as Titanic‘s: Their Hearts Will Go On. The frequent nods to 2001 – the walking obelisks, the light shows, Matthew McConaughey floating like a baby in space – only highlight how much more successfully Kubrick’s film evoked the universe’s mystery and immensity. **

Pain and Gain (2013) – Michael Bay’s movie begins with Mark Wahlberg literally attached to the image of a muscle man – he’s doing sit-ups in mid-air. This sums up perfectly what follows: the movie conveys both a giddy sense of male self-infatuation – Miami here is a playground of flesh, male and female bodies objectified alike – and the limitations of mastering your body (turning it into a fantasy object does not make your life a fantasy). The multiple narrators give it a garrulous energy: the characters are so intent on self-advancement, so comically ready to turn to crime, that the movie plays like a cartoon. (It’s like a meathead American Hustle.) In its body-culture context, this cartoon quality seems right. Anthony Mackie has some good, eccentric moments and The Rock proves himself a droll comedian: his Paul has a hard time squaring his self-image as a born-again Christian with his criminal activity. (In the end that faith proves an invincible armour against guilt.) The movie is surprisingly witty. ***