Birdman (2014) – A superhero is an apt metaphor for a Norman Mailer-type male artist obsessed with potency and his sense of himself as exceptional. Alejandro González Iñárritu and his co-writers find a host of meanings in Michael Keaton’s masked alter-ego, from snarky commentary on the Marvel movie marketplace to the lovely lyricism when he takes flight over Manhattan. The movie works on your nerves: most of the characters are italicised versions of recognisable theatre types (playing the sole civilian, Amy Ryan is lovely oasis of calm) – the brat fresh out of rehab, the self-serious Actor, the contemptuous, patrician critic – and the camera moves with them through a claustrophobic backstage warren, the drum score urging them on, into pissing contests and desperate pleas for validation. It’s obvious, but the acid comedy is often very funny. The movie’s attitude to suicide, however – which it shares with its model, Black Swan – is troubling. It’s a different sort of cliché – the Romantic one that equates artistic fulfilment with madness and death – and Iñárritu’s handling of it feels glib and unearned. ***

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – Like Birdman, Oliver Assayas’ movie offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of the place where celebrity and theatre intersect, shot in intimate long takes and replete with topical references to the Marvel era. However, it does so to entirely different effect: where the roving camera in Birdman‘s cramped backstage environs is out to give you the dirty truth about its characters, Assayas prefers to leave his meanings open. He structures his film like a play, complete with acts and long scenes in contained environments; like a playwright, he locates drama in the interactions between his characters. The fact that the movie concerns the rehearsals for a (nonexistent) play could have sent it down a meta-fictional rabbit hole, but the unaffected, intense teamwork of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart imbues it with reality and stakes. In the course of the film their identities become mutable; the dissolution of self is not (as in Birdman) a glamorous apotheosis but a professional hazard to be faced and defied. ****

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – In the crowd of goons pursuing Charlize Theron there’s an electric guitarist in red velvet and a gimp mask; he swoops in a loose harness, his instrument ejaculating fire. He’s an emblem for this noisy, rococo movie, with its ravening appetite for the grotesque. The title is a feminist bait-and-switch: it’s Theron’s film, with Tom Hardy’s Mad Max brought along as a helpmeet. (Theron dominates so completely that I wondered why George Miller didn’t drop his nominal protagonist.) Its most daring quality is the way it forgoes narrative: it’s two hours of continuous action, with only the barest nods to character and motivation, and its onrush has a thrilling, almost abstract force. Even a simple fistfight in the sand is staged with so many elements in play – a hose, a number of guns, and an enormous pair of bolt-cutters – that it becomes a whirling contraption. At the times the movie suggests Baz Luhrmann, if Luhrmann employed his pet techniques – the densely packed misc-en-scene, the florid performances in full close-up – not to ingratiate himself with audiences but to knock us flat. Miller delivers an expert pummelling. ****

Selma (2014) – Ava DuVernay’s movie has a stately rhythm that seems keyed to Martin Luther King’s oratory; the period recreations never seem static but add sensory richness to its flow. It’s as interested in how King constructed his persona (we see him rehearsing his sermons, calculating the way his actions will play in the media) and his strategic calculations regarding Lyndon Baines Johnson as it is in his moral seriousness. It offers a dynamic, multifaceted portrait of a great man. David Oyelowo is as compelling in his private moments with his wife as he is leading the marches at the film’s centre. I could quibble with some of DuVernay’s choices – her reliance on slow motion in the passages of violence tends to undermine rather than intensify their impact – and there are moments in Paul Webb’s screenplay where a scene’s narrative function is too obvious, but this is historical drama that never feels like school. It’s physical and grave, controlled and full of fire. ***