Holy Motors (2012) – On one level, this is an actor’s life presented as a glamorous fantasy of mobility and transformation: Denis Lavant cruises the streets of Paris in a white stretch limo, a master of disguise and various styles of performance. He keeps a series of “appointments” across town, each in a different genre. Each time he walks away without consequences, untouched even by death. In some ways Holy Motors recalls Terry Gilliam’s Doctor Parnassus, but unlike that film this is never twee or precious. In large part this is due to Lavant: with his grave manner and grizzled features he’s like one of those fairytale creatures whose magical abilities carry with them a hint of menace. (In one appointment he is literally a monster who dwells in the sewers.) His transformations are magical, as is the assurance with which director Leos Carax moves from mode to mode, from the urban naturalism of a conversation between father and daughter to an underworld hit to a handsome bit of Henry James. Each mode is expertly achieved; each is provisional in a way that draws attention to its artificiality, to the beautiful tricks Carax is playing. It’s a wonderful movie. ****

Ida (2013) – This is a movie where the style draws attention to itself: the misc-en-scene is so spare that every element stands out – a high-heeled shoe placed just so. Director Pawel Pawlikowski rarely moves the camera. His static, carefully composed images are dynamic nevertheless: characters’ faces sit low in the frame, with great expanses of ceiling or sky pressing down on them; they fall or fling dirt into the frame. The style is powerful enough to make the movie’s obvious elements – the mismatched relatives (a blooming, closeted nun and a cynical woman of the world) on a life-changing road-trip; a man literally standing in the grave of history – seem direct rather than shopworn, the fastest way into this world. It can’t redeem the overdetermined final act, however, which methodically nips off each possibility raised by the story – mainly, one suspects, to get Pawlikowski to his final shot. ***

Tiny Furniture (2010) – The set-up – a young woman’s ennui in privileged surroundings – resembles a Sofia Coppola movie, but actor/writer/director Lena Dunham’s take on her moneyed heroine is quite different. Her Aura is a physical affront to her mother and sister’s carefully curated selves – she’s dishevelled, unsure of her next move. The people she moves amongst are too focused on their public personas to listen very well; they perform for each other, and Aura, with her ungainly sincerity, does not fit in. There are bits of Girls in embryo: Jemima Kirke and Alex Karpovsky feature prominently, and Aura keeps her options open to a fault. But it’s blessedly free of a sense of cool. The movie’s keyed to its protagonist and if, like her, it sometimes falls flat – it feels like a first film – its earnestness pays off with moments like the concluding mother-daughter conversation, possibly the best thing Dunham’s ever done. ***

Trainwreck (2015) – An illustration of the gap between TV and film: the sketches on Inside Amy Schumer are more surprising, pungent and formally inventive than anything on display here. Schumer (who also wrote the screenplay) is constrained by the tropes of big-screen romantic comedy and the familiar rhythms of three-act storytelling. Her bid for mainstream stardom also means running for office with the multiplex audience, with the blanding-out that entails: her harsh edges are handed off to side players like Tilda Swinton and Colin Quinn. This iteration of “Amy” (also her character’s name in the movie) has a sentimental friendship with the homeless man on her corner; she dons a cheerleader’s outfit to prove she’s a good sport. The movie’s most interesting element is the tension between Amy and her sister Kim (Brie Larson), who’s presented as a showroom for middle-class domesticity, her husband and son on hand like commercial samples. Kim’s repudiation of their father is at least in part a repudiation of their blue-collar background, and the movie’s best scenes get into this contested family history. It’s dispiriting when Amy bows to her sister’s superior wisdom. **