Black Panther (2018) – In outline – a superhero from a hermetic culture must decide how to engage with the wider world – this is very similar to Wonder Woman, last year’s blow for comic book diversity, but this is much better executed. Partly it’s the way the movie spends most of its running length in Wakanda, so that its customs and tribal politics have time to signify, rather than hustling us, as Wonder Woman did, into the world we know. (It also means we can enjoy the costumes and production design at leisure.) The screenplay (by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) takes the kingdom seriously and trusts it to hold our interest; where Wonder Woman‘s last third was marred by reveals and context-free CGI that undermined the storytelling to that point, this remains a contest of personalities and ideas to the end, with a climactic battle that meaningfully involves all the major characters. The actors are uniformly strong (except for Andy Serkis, who rivals Sharlto Copley in Elysium for Afrikaans unpleasantness); one of the movie’s pleasant surprises is that, apart from the central pair of Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, most of the significant characters are women, from Danai Gurira’s palace guard to Letitia Wright’s techie kid sister. The generational stuff lands too; this story of royal succession is a family story too, and Boseman and Jordan’s scenes with their ancestors are particularly powerful. If more Marvel movies were like this I would go to see them more often. ***½

The Lost City of Z (2017) – For the first half an hour, this seems handsome and dull, a period drama that’s all hunting parties and stifling English class distinctions, and then, once its hero reaches South America, a series of quotations from Werner Herzog (opera in the jungle, a claustrophobic river voyage, the Europeans’ petty doings juxtaposed with the sublime landscape). But then the white explorer goes home (the film is based on David Grann’s book about the actual British explorer Percy Fawcett), and things become more interesting. Fawcett (well played by Charlie Hunnam, whose good looks bestow an appropriate glamour on his activities) was not a typical European, and the movie has a complex interest in both his personal compulsions (and the impact they have on his family) and of history more generally, of how scientific inquiry fit into an imperial program of domination and commercial exploitation (and, not incidentally, reinforced the whites’ sense of their own superiority). It turns out that director James Gray has adopted his deliberate pace (the movie runs nearly two and half hours, and it feels long) so that he can explore these issues and others (a familiar figure like Sienna Miller’s waiting wife is given a more complex range of reactions than is the norm), and Darius Khondji’s images, dark-toned and golden, are worth lingering over. It’s a sustained inquiry into what, exactly, constitutes civilisation. ***

Molly’s Game (2017) – There’s an interesting tension here between the close-mouthed protagonist, who stakes her identity on refusing to betray confidences, and Aaron Sorkin, the garrulous writer/director who adapted her book. Molly Bloom’s story is rife with opportunities for Sorkin to show off his familiarity with such diverse topics as competitive skiing and high-stakes poker; his Bloom narrates constantly, her explanations juiced with quick cuts and stock footage. (The expertise on display could be spurious; Sorkin has Jessica Chastain talk so quickly that it’s hard to evaluate what she tells us.) This approach tends to encroach on Chastain’s performance: too many of her scenes are mere illustrations of what she tells us in voiceover, rather than scenes that are allowed their own present tense or meaningful interactions between characters. (There’s a moment where Idris Elba corrects one of her recollections that suggests Chastain might be an unreliable narrator a la Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, but Sorkin doesn’t go much further with this possibility.) Sorkin reserves much of his feeling for the scenes with Bloom’s father (Kevin Costner), one of those dangerous parents who use their professional expertise (he’s a psychologist) to undermine their children’s reality. The blundering sincerity of the father-daughter scenes – Costner’s character is an egotist even when taking responsibility, turning up at the eleventh hour to claim that Molly’s entire career is all about him – is exasperating and affecting, like Sorkin himself, who likewise means well while taking up too much space in Bloom’s story. **½

Phantom Thread (2017) – This is both perfectly formed and deeply eccentric: after all, it argues that a little mild poisoning can be good for a marriage, something a couple can enjoy together. It explores two pathologies: the male artist’s belief that he can only work under certain conditions (and that the people around him are obliged to meet them), and Alma’s belief that her only value is in how necessary she is to her man. The richness and exactitude of the writing and acting exposes the relative poverty of so much moviemaking – operating on one level only, straining to express a single idea: the density of each moment here, achieved without the appearance of effort, is nothing short of amazing. In this Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie is, of course, a perfect analogue for Reynolds Woodcock’s gowns. The choices are impeccable, from where Anderson mounts the camera on the tailor’s car to the way Alma’s English breaks down when she is angry to the New Year’s Eve party that teeters between exuberance and chaos. Of course, what Anderson appears to be saying – that Alma is a Delilah who finds fulfilment only when she cuts the hair of her Samson – is pretty dubious, but he mounts his argument so beautifully that you may come to believe that these people are, in their own way, happy. ***½

A Wrinkle in Time (2018) – The quality of the effects here varies: some of the sequences (the cabbage dragon, the flight through the forest) suffer from the basic CGI problem that anything is possible and so nothing matters; some environments (the meadow with the flowers in particular) have the generic prettiness of every Disney fairy land, and others (the suburban cul-de-sac) would be better as physical sets. The best is the simplest: a beach with an infinite crowd of umbrellas and sunbathers and towels, where the jaunty colours quickly become oppressive. The film nevertheless feels intimate, thanks to Ava DuVernay’s direction and her handling of the actors. She emphasises relationships, shooting in close to capture faces and the way characters touch and stand in relation to one another. (In the final encounter between Meg and her father, the shift in their relationship is communicated wordlessly, in the way she looks at and touches him.) For once, the loss of a parent in a Disney film is not simply a way to kick-start the story (there is, apparently, no adventure without bereavement), but rather the story’s motor. It’s meaningful because of the precise way DuVernay captures this particular family, these individual characters. In this she’s assisted by performers like Gugu Mbatha-Raw and, especially, the three children at the film’s centre, Storm Reid, Deric McCabe and Levi Miller. Even when the effects bland out, they keep things grounded. ***