Shame – 7.8

This was a minimalist movie, like, say, a Donald Judd sculpture: stark, clean lines, eerily beautiful, solid and ambiguous in meaning. The opening shot established the director’s style – monochromatic (usually blue), intense, with long, slow takes. The epitome was Carey Mulligan singing “New York, New York.” Not only did she sing at half-speed, but the camera let her sing the entire song, something you’ll never see in today’s cinema, geared toward the MTV 2-second-attention-span generation. One felt assaulted by the end, and not from the frequent sexual couplings. Every minute was a challenge to understand Brandon’s emotions, what he was thinking, what his addictive illness was. This Michael Fassbender character would have been an ideal patient for the Michael Fassbender character I saw two movies ago.

Young Adult – 7.5

Charlize Theron was sensational as a case of arrested development, the fast blonde whose life peaked senior year in high school. She was also, I’m advised, a convincing alcoholic. Beyond that, there was not much of a story and only one other interesting character, Matt, the schlubby guy who viewed high school from the opposite end. The movie’s sensibility recalled its precursor, Juno, but whereas that was a tale of affirmation, this was a downer – mildly amusing with lots of good Minnesota touches – but still a downer.

The Dangerous Method – 7

Most interesting as a history lesson in the lives and characters of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, so I hope the screenwriters did their research. Top billing, however, went to Keira Knightley, who certainly did a lot of acting, although I could have done with less jaw-jutting as a sign of repressed tension. Fassbender, Mortenson and Cassel were all exquisite as pioneer psychologists; their own personal hangups and foibles left one as unclear as ever as to the merits of psychoanalysis. The movie itself was such a total talkie that its origin as a stage play was obvious. As a play it might even have been better.

My Week with Marilyn – 7.9

A totally sweet story, conceived in innocence and told as such. There were no villains (just some buffoons), no tension or melodrama; every character was worth the time and every scene was fun to watch. Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench, as Laurence Olivier and Sybil Thorndike, reminded us what great actors the British are, and the less-famous TK in the lead was wholesomely ingenuous and believable in a hard-to-believe role. That leaves Michelle Williams as Marilyn, perhaps an impossible part to play. She conveyed a multi-sided, ambiguous American idol with great skill: was she strong or weak, cunning or naive, practiced or natural? All that was clear was that Marilyn commanded attention, but this is where the simulacrum fell short. Still, without shooting too high – after all, this week was at best a most minor footnote in Marilyn’s life – this film gave us some insights an lots of pleasure.

Hugo – 7

A sumptuously beautiful film, but a beauty that had nothing to do with nature and everything to do with the hermetic world of the cinema. I suspect a true cinephile would have recognized an allusion in every character, every shot of Martin Scorsese’s homage to George Melies, silent film, and the French cinema. For the moderately interested, like me, Hugo commanded respect and admiration, but neither love nor rapture. It was a gorgeous and clever pastiche, but when it was over there was relief in exiting the claustrophobic world of Hugo and Ben Kingsley’s train station and breathing the real air outside.

The Descendants – 7

This George Clooney vehicle started slowly then gradually built to a moderate walk – an apt metaphor since the film had two scenes of Clooney running, something his agent should guard against. There were travelogue scenes of Hawaii and an unconvincing subplot about the disposal of a Hawaiian estate, but the film’s thrust was the coming together, or healing, of Clooney’s initially dysfunctional family. For me, the nugget that made the movie watchable was the maturation of 17-year-old Alexandra, who began as a brat then turned into a young adult when her father started to treat her as one. Her sidekick Sid also grew, from preposterous to understandable. But the movie depended on Clooney, and he never seemed engaqing or terribly realistic as a father, cuckolded husband, lawyer or wearer of Hawaiian shirts.

Take Shelter – 7

I barely noticed Jennifer Chastain in Tree of Life and scarcely recognized her in The Help, but by the time I caught on to her in Take Shelter I was blown away by her acting skills, by the empathy she communicated. Michael Shannon’s may be the more bravura performance – I have no idea how realistic his descent into paranoid schizophrenia in one week was – but for me Chastain was the anchor of the story, the piece that kept it from swirling away like the murmuration of starlings we saw in the Texas sky.

Margin Call – 8.5

This is, I suspect, as good a movie as we will get about the financial meltdown of 2008. While not an accurate picture of any one company or situation, there seem to be real-life precedents for almost everything in the film, starting with the basic dilemma: do I have any moral obligation not to sell someone a security I know to be worth a lot less than I am asking? The all-night executive meetings, the internal politicking, the smoothly aloof ceo, the sudden layoffs, the destroyed marriages – these all rang true from the newspaper and book accounts I’ve read. Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons had broad roles that were almost overplayed, but not quite; Simon Baker and Paul Bettany were impeccable; Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore were solid. But the real stars were Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley, who played underlings caught in the vortex as thoroughly convincing 23- and 28-year-olds, respectively. Kudos, too, to the background music, which kept the tension ratcheted on high the whole way.

The Way – 6.5

A most pleasant walk, with beautiful scenery and some interesting characters, especially (for me) Joni Mitchell-lookalike Deborah Kara Unger. Martin Sheen is always good company, too, and the searching for his son in a movie directed by his real-life son Emilio Estevez added poignancy. While there were a number of unlikely melodramatic incidents to keep the plot moving, none was overdone to the point of spoiling the lowkey mood of the piece. In short, the entire walk was enjoyable, and a good substitute for doing it myself. If I give it a low grade, it is mainly due to the film’s own low ambitions.

The Big Year – 3

As a birder, I felt compelled to watch this film, to see what the rest of the world was learning about birding (although only two other people were in the theater with me). The good news is that “competitive birding” takes a big hit: it comes across as obsessive, unseemly and not a whole lot of fun. The bad news is that this is a terrible film, a waste of time were it not for the incidental pleasure one gets from movie-star-watching, in this case Jack Black, Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, Rosamund Pike, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest. The actual scenes of birdwatching are, not surprisingly, given the cast, totally absurd. In fact, the only moment with which I identified found Steve Martin leaning nauseously on his backpack during a pelagic outing. When I first heard someone thought he could make a movie out of a competition to see birds I was dumbfounded. I still am.