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.

The Mysteries of Lisbon – 7

One take is that the entire movie is the coma-induced imaginings of Joao, an abandoned bastard longing to know his real parents. That would explain the fancy balls, the imprisoned duchess, the Dickensian coincidences and the consistent world view of nobles flirting, seducing and changing identities. Another take: let’s make a movie that animates all those 18th-century paintings from Goya to fetes galantes and just imagine what those peoples’ lives were like. More accurately, this was a six-episode made-for-TV soap opera that was never meant to hang together as a 4.5-hour movie. If once a week another character tells us his/her story, there is a regular accretion that fills out the picture; jammed together, however, the repetition is risible, the plot expands instead of coming together, and for where we end up, we feel we could have done without the last two hours of exposition. The many shots borrowed from artworks are beautiful, and the exposure to the Portuguese cinema of Raul Ruiz is not without charm.

The Hedgehog – 7.8

A very French look at existence through the eyes, and videocamera, of 11-year-old Paloma, brilliantly acted by one Garance Le Guillermic, a “child actor” in physique only. Just as wonderful is the title character played by Josiane Balasko, a frumpy concierge who reads Tolstoy in private. While the ending alludes to Anna Karenina, I’m sure there were other nods to Russian novels along the way. But what I thought of was 400 Blows and even The Visitor, apartment-based movies devoid of special effects, just special people.

The Mill and the Cross – 8

A tableau vivant in which ‘reality’ is a painting – specifically, Pieter Breugel’s “Road to Cavalry.” The movie obscures Jesus’s crucifixion amid 16th-century Flemish peasants and red-tunicked Spanish soldiers, just as Breugel did in his metaphor-filled canvas. With minimal soundtrack and even less dialogue, watching this film becomes an intense experience, and trying to piece together the action furthers one’s concentration. The movie could have done without identifiable stars Michael York and Charlotte Rampling, but perhaps director Lech Majewski felt they were needed to get this Polish feature into the few arthouses where it will be shown. We accept the more anonymous characters as real, although we are shown they are actors, they are filmed before a painted backdrop, and we see Breugel in the foreground, imagining them. What, then, is this saying about the story of Jesus?

Moneyball – 7.5

By treating baseball players as commodities – to be coldly evaluated, drafted, traded and released – Moneyball has made the players I watch nightly on television seem more human than I have regarded them before. I can’t, however, share in the general adulation accorded Brad Pitt. He floats above the locker room more movie star than general manager, every facial expression worthy of a poster (where his name, in fact, takes precedence over the movie title). Even the choice of his lieutenant, an excellent Jonah Hill, serves to distinguish Pitt as a race apart. Still, the fact that the film’s drama relies on the proof of a theorem rather than winning the ‘big game’ sets Moneyball apart from other sports movies and scores points, or should I say ‘runs,’ for originality.

The Guard – 7.5

A deft amalgam of rowdy humor and murderous criminality, this dramedy rode the broad back of Brendan Gleeson to a wistful conclusion that made you mourn the end of the story, and perhaps the character. Unfortunately, both were let down by Don Cheadle’s unbelievable American counterpart, more Stepin Fetchit than crime-stopper. What a lone FBI agent was doing in Ireland in the first place was as much a mystery as why director McDonagh would think such a foil was needed for Gleeson to run away with the show.