Hustlers (2019) – This is a textbook example of how a female point of view can transform even very familiar stories. The narrative strategies that writer and director Lorene Scafaria employs – the story’s events recounted to a journalist in flashbacks, the old hand introducing the neophyte (and us) to the world of the club, the good-times montages – are familiar to the point of cliché, but the emphasis is different, chiefly because of the friendship at the film’s centre. The relationship between Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez has complexities – it’s a girl crush, a mother-daughter dynamic and a business partnership, a relationship that’s both warm and calculated – that it’s hard to imagine a male director capturing. The movie inverts the power relationship between men and women: there are no significant male characters, and it is the men who are objectified – first as clients, and then later as marks – the women who are complex protagonists. This objectifying gaze transforms our experience of people: the men become interchangeable white faces, the credit cards tumbling out of their trouser pockets. The movie takes this one step further and suggests that the flattening of other people, the denial of their humanity, is an essential part of capitalism because it allows us to exploit them with a minimum of guilt. Scafaria does not elide the queasy parts of the women’s scheme (one member of the group can’t stop throwing up): the men are objectified but not caricatured, and drugged they have the vulnerability of any defenceless body. We watch the women harden themselves to this, as they once hardened themselves to conserve a sense of self as strippers and in shitty retail jobs: at no point, under capitalism, can they be full, feeling human beings. When, at the end, Lopez compares the US to a strip club it does not seem like overreach. ***½

The Irishman (2019) – Scorsese’s latest is the masculine mirror image of Hustlers: an ex-con recalls their crimes, revelling in the details of how they were planned and committed; the crimes are intimately connected with United States history, perhaps a metaphor for the nation. Where in Hustlers the men are interchangeable marks, the most eloquent contribution a woman makes here is her refusal to engage. De Niro’s Frank Sheeran claims to do what he does for his family, but his real intimacy is with his bosses. Sheeran’s monologue is appropriately slippery: at the outset it seems his private thoughts, then a brag to us in the audience and later a confession to a priest; all that’s left to him is an insider’s empty pride in knowing how it went down. The movie never drags: it has the feeling of a fat nineteenth century novel, where the apparent digressions create a sense of abundant detail, of life that continues outside the frame of the story. Where Steven Spielberg thinks telling a serious story means draining his images of colour, Scorsese uses beauty to intensify his meanings: he glories in the mid-century details, and the moments of violence are voluptuous in a way that make you suspect that for Sheeran, apparently so controlled, spilling blood is a hedonistic experience. The three central performances are all expert, all controlled – even Pacino, who brings a wonderful musicality to his private speaking voice, the pitch rising and falling. The end-of-life framing promises something bereft, a sense of diminution, but Sheeran’s spiritual poverty, the thinness of his feelings, and how little the things he killed for matter still hit pretty hard after living with him for three hours. Playing with gangster imagery (often his own), as he has throughout the film, Scorsese leaves him in an inversion of the final image of The Godfather, sitting behind a half-open door in a room no one wants to enter. ***½

Jojo Rabbit (2019) – There’s a scene midway through Jojo Rabbit very similar to the one that opens Inglourious Basterds, and the contrast in stakes and execution crystallised what I found limp and lacking about Taika Waititi’s movie: the curious lack of tension and the toothless version of Nazism he presents. Quentin Tarantino also set himself a tonal minefield to walk through, but his moral compass was surer; by lampooning every Nazi we meet, Waititi gives us the false reassurance that there was nothing in the Nazi message that ordinary people responded to, nothing permanently corrosive about living in a totalitarian society. The movie’s ostensible subject – the war in the little boy’s conscience – is really no contest; his attachment to Hitler is just a delusion to be dispelled. Waititi’s analysis goes no deeper than connecting the Hitler cult with Beatlemania. The humour is very antipodean, a sort of adolescent attraction to taboo subjects at a safe distance from their consequences; often the movie feels like an extended skit, but without the potential for danger and darkness that Key and Peele brought to the form. There are gifts on display: Waititi gets fresh, unaffected performances from the child actors, and Scarlett Johansson’s attempts to construct a different imaginative world for her son are affecting, her crisp clowning communicating a love of life without making too big a deal of it. But mostly this is a well-intentioned misfire, so nervous about its subject that it makes Nazism seem goofy and inoffensive, the dialogue littered with cute anachronisms to further lower the stakes. **

Marriage Story (2019) – This is a square version of the director’s breakout The Squid and the Whale, without the child’s-eye view that made that movie interesting and strange. Here the adults are seen on their own banal terms, and their stubborn normality leaves little room for what has long been Noah Baumbach’s specialty: our appalling lapses at moments of stress, the sudden grotesqueries that rattle our sense of who we are. Everyone here is on their best behaviour, as if the movie itself were proving its fitness to a child protection officer: strenuously fair, the weirdness ironed into cute quirks. That dullness is there too in Baumbach’s tasteful naturalism, rehearsed within an inch of its life; you can practically see him wind the keys in his actors’ backs at the beginning of scenes, and diagram the perfect blocking. It’s there in Randy Newman’s sweet, spare score, and in the contrast between the expensive California light that floods Scarlett Johansson’s new life and the yellow light in Adam Driver’s bachelor spaces. The actors all hit their marks within these confines (as always, Alan Alda is a highlight) but the gentility of Baumbach’s approach makes it almost impossible for them to do anything surprising: we register the skill of Johansson’s transitions from tears to smiling recollection and back again, or Laura Dern’s confiding body language as she sets out to win a new client, just as we register the skilfully placed details in Baumbach’s screenplay, but for all its fidelity to ‘life’ there’s no spontaneous discovery, no madness or surprise. **½

The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – Not bad but nothing special either, this completes the process, begun in The Last Jedi, of adapting Star Wars to the Disney mode of storytelling. This new instalment is basically indistinguishable from a Marvel movie: a bustling pageant of candidates for spin-offs, the busy, bloodless combat further leavened by quips that are more tics than expressions of humour. Obviously, this is not my kind of movie, and I’m not its target audience. There are a few bits that have the old Star Wars B-movie feeling (the quicksand sequence, the tiny mechanic, Richard E. Grant’s entertaining villainy) and there are a few touching reunions with ghosts. But mostly this feels sloppily made, J. J. Abrams forcing the pace to try and impose a sense of energy and rhythm: the actors stride towards the camera or the camera beats a hasty retreat from them, and the editing allows nothing to linger. (It reminded me of the forced exuberance of Mamma Mia!, where director Phyllida Lloyd adopted a similar strategy.) It kind of works: the movie carries you along until it’s over, the sound effects zapping you into arousal. But there’s an inattention to emotional beats that’s puzzling in Abrams, who has always seemed to understand the movies he cribs from: when Chewie is apparently killed and C-3PO has his memory wiped, the moments are so limp, the other actors’ reactions so flat, that you can only assume they will soon be undone; Rey barely responds to the long-teased revelation of her parents’ identity, and Finn keeps teasing a secret that he never reveals. Nothing really seems to matter, which for both corporation and audience is a kind of a safety. Both want to know exactly what they’re getting with each new product: confident that our feelings are unlikely to be challenged or even engaged, we can sit back and enjoy the (Disney) ride. **