Big Hero Six (2014) – Putting aside its princess formula, Disney makes its best film since Tangled – perhaps even Beauty and the Beast. A large part of its success comes from the simple expedient of putting the sidekick – always the most entertaining part of a Disney movie – centre stage. Baymax is a classic movie robot – up there with R2-D2 and WALL-E – and directors Don Hall and Chris Williams mine his counterintuitive design (he’s not metallic but soft and pillowy, like an airbag) and the inexorable logic of his programming (he sees everything in terms of his healing function) for humour and pathos. In its emphasis on physical comedy the movie recalls the classic animated shorts of the 1930s and 40s; its nuanced storytelling is worthy of The Incredibles. A very pleasant surprise. ****

Boyhood (2014) – The movie opens with a shot of blue skies and Coldplay’s “Yellow” blasting on the soundtrack; it’s basically a square, sunny presentation of childhood. The Coldplay song serves another purpose, however: one of the movie’s chief pleasures is the way it serves as a time capsule of noughties culture, from “Oops! …I Did It Again” to midnight Harry Potter book parties to Obama vs. McCain. It’s The Tree of Life without the cosmic interludes (the philosophy comes in bull sessions with Ethan Hawke as the kids’ father) – there are a few decisive dramatic moments, but mostly time flows on in an unhurried fashion, its passing marked by haircuts and subtle changes in the actors’ faces. The movie’s focus alights – like memory – on commonplace moments that seem representative of whole eras. It’s reminiscent of TV in a good way – its interest in the quotidian, the open-endedness, the nature of our identification with characters over the long haul (it collapses twelve years into three hours) – an impression that’s only heightened by the presence of several actors from Friday Night Lights. It’s wholesome without being idealised – Patricia Arquette especially adds important dissonant notes – glancing and well observed. ****

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – With its patterning of rooms upon rooms, its plush aura of luxury, a hotel is perhaps the ideal setting for Wes Anderson, with enough movement to keep things from feeling too boxy. The spaces here recede into depth – criss-crossed by valets and their clientele – and soar upward, storey after storey. Anderson has complete mastery over his environment: it’s both alive and precisely controlled. As the dandy at its centre, Ralph Fiennes gives a wonderful comic turn, his bon mots sprinkled with profanity, his blue eyes soulful despite all the whimsy. This transatlantic playground – actors thrown together without regard for accent, the silly place names, the miniature sets – is deliberately unreal, and when Anderson tries to darken the mood with the arrival of Fascism it feels a bit jarring. Still, this is one of his best movies. ***

The Imitation Game (2014) – This biopic of Alan Turing deploys most of the clichés familiar from other movies about scientists: the brilliant individual working frustratedly at his desk (director Morten Tyldum folds in footage of Turing running so we understand that his work is exertion); his excited running around on the verge of a big discovery, his less brilliant associates trailing behind him; his sentimental attachment to his invention. The movie’s Turing is singular nonetheless. For once, the genius character’s monomania and indifference to social cues aren’t diagnosed or explained: they’re simply allowed to be. The movie respects Turing’s strangeness: this self-described “odd duck” really seems to operate on a different plane. At the same time we’re made to feel his loneliness and his susceptibility to bullying: being the smartest person in the room is not simply the occasion for actorly show-boating but a condition that presents terrors as well as insights. Benedict Cumberbatch embodies all of this perfectly. ***

Into the Woods (2014) – There’s a basic structural problem with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical – the redundant second act. All the ambiguities it labours – the fatuous, self-infatuated Prince, Cinderella’s doubts about her happily-ever-after, the woods as a liminal space with the potential for both menace and liberation – are there in the first act, only presented with more dash and humour. The second half of this movie adaptation turns grim, denuded of colour, in the manner of a gritty expose. Until then it’s good fun, with its handsome deep-toned colours against a background of browns and greys, its pretty recitative, its ingenious jumbling of familiar fairy tale characters. For a Disney film it preserves much of those tales’ original violence, but as an excavation of their subtext it can’t touch Angela Carter. ***

Mr. Turner (2014) – Mike Leigh is not really interested in telling a story here: the film goes by in a flow of small incidents. This proves a great strength: the movie doesn’t fall into the standard biopic rhythms but involves us on a much more basic level in how Turner lived – his domestic arrangements; how he worked and saw. The world Leigh re-creates has a sociable, easygoing temper: the movie makes room for incidents – like a recital at the home of one of Turner’s patrons or a demonstration by a lady scientist – tangential to its ostensible subject, which nevertheless speak volumes about the (early Victorian) era’s sense of manners, its spirit of inquiry. It’s about an hour too long and becomes much more conventional in its second half, with familiar tropes like the misunderstood artist (his peers and the public cattily put down his later, abstract paintings), the pompous critic (Ruskin here is a lisping prat) and the great man on his deathbed. It’s a pity we don’t leave Turner as we find him – at his work. ***

Whiplash (2014) – Implicit in this film’s presentation of music is the idea that jazz is now repertory, kept alive (like classical music) in white academies. What place creative genius (the hero’s stated goal) might have in such rigid confines is a problem left to one side. The life of an artist here is one of self-mortification, much as it was in Black Swan – Miles Teller plays the drums until his fingers bleed – and at times this is nearly as overwrought as Natalie Portman’s freak-out. The word “artist” doesn’t apply here, exactly – the hero’s education is not the development of a sensibility but rather the cultivation of endurance and a precise technique, like an athlete. The ideas don’t hold together, but writer-director Damien Chazelle is good at physical detail: in a visual language that recalls Requiem for a Dream, he renders practice and performance as processes made up of intense split seconds, spit and sweat and blood. ***

Wild (2014) – In the main part of the movie, as her Cheryl Strayed hikes the Pacific Coast Trail (it’s based on Strayed’s memoir), Reese Witherspoon’s performance is all physical exertion: she tramps along under her heavy pack and pokes at her abrasions. It’s in the flashbacks that Witherspoon’s skill is revealed: at times she looks startlingly young, her face not yet undone by time and grief. Director Jean-Marc Vallée employs dissociation effects similar to those in his Dallas Buyers Club – but more conventionally, in service of those flashbacks. It’s a much less distinctive film. And Strayed’s reflections on the restorative powers of nature have the obviousness of an inspirational calendar. Still, by staying close to the details of the hike – its daily reality – the movie gives you a sense of her ordeal: by its end, you feel that you’ve been through something. ***