Carol – 8

A splendid period piece and a beautiful companion to Brooklyn, as the story of a young woman coming into her identity, here, her forbidden sexuality. Rooney Mara was wide-eyed and as captivating as she was captivated, her resemblance to Audrey Hepburn unmistakable in shot after shot. Cate Blanchett was elegant and austere, and if she seemed “stylized,” it was because we were seeing her through Therese’s awestruck eyes. I thought the ending would go the other way, but the plot was really beside the point. What remained was a portrait – two of them. (Smoking: 7 out of 10; not as constant as Trumbo, but to show us it was the ’50s everyone smoked, even where not allowed.)

The Big Short – 6

A financial primer on the 2008 mortgage meltdown dressed up as a movie, with outsized performances, frenetic cutting and comic asides apparently intended to spice up a subject the movie-going public either wouldn’t understand or would find too dull. The worst were the two goofballs from Colorado, but blustering Steve Carrell and how-weird-can-he-be Christian Bale were scarcely more realistic. In creating such a dichotomy between the established financial world that was smug and blind and the small band of outsiders that were disconnected and eccentric, the film sacrificed the drama and poignancy of real human contact that a much better movie, Margin Call, found in a similar story. Michael Lewis’s book was much better.

Noma – 5

This was more of a press release than a documentary, as there was no story, unless you count Noma’s regaining its position as #1 restaurant in the world in the unexplained but totally unscientific annual contest now sponsored by San Pellegrino. Potential subplots emerged – how “Nordic cuisine” was invented from locally sourced ingredients; how chef Rene Redzepi dealt with his status as a Muslim immigrant in Denmark; how Redzepi ran his kitchen; how Noma recovered from having 63 diners poisoned by norovirus – but they all sort of petered out. Finally, we just grew tired of Redzepi, and his frequent and unnecessary insertion of “fucking” into his sentences. And we never got a sense of what a meal at Noma is like. Instead of leaving the theater with our mouths watering, I felt this is one restaurant I’m not going out of my way to dine at.

In the Heart of the Ocean – 6

Ersatz to the heart would be more like it, starting with Chris Hemsworth’s take on Matt Damon’s Boston accent, running through every painted backdrop and whale sighting and going ultimately to the movie’s core – the idea that Moby Dick emerged from Herman Melville’s late-night interview of the last survivor of the Essex. Once again, historical details – if that’s what they were – only added to the unbelievability of the tale: men surviving 68 days in a rowboat on the Pacific, returning months later to a deserted island to rescue more survivors, etc. Other plot aspects – the cartoonish conflict between our superstar first mate and the incompetent ship’s captain, the suits back on land who tried to spin the disaster, the love between our hero and the pregnant wife he left behind – never rose above cliche. And as for insight on whaling, the movie left me with more questions than answers.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict – 6

It would be hard to make a dull movie about Peggy Guggenheim’s life, what with her eccentric family, love affairs with artists and, finally, her world-class museum of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist art in beautiful Venice, but this effort teetered. It started with the worst opening credits I have ever sat through, spread out over what seemed like ten minutes of film. Then the director added annoying graphics – every line swooped onto the screen and interviewee names rolled up, distractingly. The choice of interviewees was occasionally bizarre, and the later ones added nothing to what we’d been told long ago. Worst was the use of phony archival footage: we were never told which clips were actual footage of events in Peggy’s life; which were of a similar scene; and which, like the Titanic sinking, were taken from old movie recreations. The art, however, was wonderful, and seeing how one person of limited means and looks made herself central to at least two great art movements of the century was fascinating.

Bridge of Spies – 7

A Spielbergian look at a Cold War incident, replete with recitations of the Constitution and what it means to be an American. Who better to present the message than uber-vanilla-good guy Tom Hanks, who, alas, seemed very unlikely as a tough-lawyer negotiator. Not only was I not convinced that his character could have pulled off the deal, I was totally unbelieving that he would have upped the stakes – to extricate a second American hostage – on his own. His ploy to accomplish this latter struck me, further, as double-dealing quite inconsistent with his Mr. All-America image. As expected from Spielberg, subtlety was missing: a shot of Brooklyn youths leaping backyard fences, for instance, over-obviously echoed a previous scene of East Berliners being gunned down as they tried to scale the Wall. Mark Rylance did what he could, creating an interesting character out of Rudolf Abel, but all around him were one-dimensional figures, much as we saw in Lincoln.

Janis: Little Girl Blue – 6

Janis Joplin was a phenomenon of a time and place – specifically, San Francisco USA in 1969, give or take. Unfortunately, viewed in retrospect, I don’t really like her music, her looks or her persona. While much the same could be said of Amy Winehouse, that documentary had a societal depth that Janis lacked and a more well-rounded cast of supporting characters and incident. When some artists die too young, you wonder what was lost. Sadly, with Janis, I felt I had seen all there was. (The only music I liked was ‘Bobby McGee’ and ‘Cry, Baby’ – both of which had been done just as well by others first.)

Creed – 7

No boxing-movie-cliche goes unturned in this Rocky sequel, but the film is so genial and so devoid of any pretense of originality that you really don’t hold that against it. Stallone, especially, is so subdued – an actor with nothing to prove, probably more invested in his producing – that he’s good company onscreen. Michael B. Jordan has the heavier acting load, and although his talent is undeniable he’s rather unrealistic as a light-heavyweight championship contender. The climactic 12-rounder contains more action than a dozen of Floyd Mayweather’s title fights combined, but doesn’t seem quite so brutal now that I’ve been exposed to clips of Ultimate Fighting.

Brooklyn – 8.4

We’re living in Colm Toibin’s world at the moment – having finished Nora Roberts, reading The Master, now seeing Brooklyn – and what a sensitive and down-to-earth world it is! Characters are minutely observed, and the plot points are all everyday events. Here, all the everyday events happen to Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, and the beauty of the film is watching her, almost imperceptibly, grow from a simple Irish lass – younger sister, good-looking girl’s best friend – into a confident young woman who makes her way in the New World. The secondary characters are all wonderful – none more than the reliable Jim Broadbent as Father Flood (and how nice, after Spotlight, to see the good side of the Catholic Church). I was puzzled that Eilis went so far with her Irish suitor, but maybe we just are meant to understand everybody all the time. In the end, we left the theater with a warm feeling, hoping that Eilis and Tony live happily ever after and that Ronan gets an Oscar nomination.

Spotlight – 8.5

An almost flawless movie that, more significantly, was important. It offered sympathy for victims of abuse and condemnation for the Catholic Church hierarchy, but most resonant for me was the plug for journalism. The Boston Globe reporters knocked on doors, used their contacts, pored through clips and records, went to court and trusted their instincts, sacrificing their private lives for the story – a herculean effort not likely to be duplicated by the internet bloggers that are taking their place. Indeed, the fragility of the investigative Spotlight department was telegraphed at the film’s outset, when the new editor is rumored to be a cost-cutter and we hear Michael Keaton describe his team’s mandate: four people working six months or a year on a closely held story that may or may not pan out. Near the film’s climax when we see the newspapers coming off the press, bundled and sent out in delivery trucks, our sense of nostalgia tempers our excitement: is this film a swan song for the printed paper?

If so, it is a worthy send-off, on a par with All the President’s Men, which famously heralded a golden age of investigative journalism – and the presence of Ben Bradlee Jr. as Spotlight editor further cements the link. The film is careful not to demonize, and by making the “bad guys” human the story, and the tragedy, are made more real. Cardinal Law is given a moment in the sun, and the one molesting priest we see is more confused than evil. The bad lawyers have their good side, and the good lawyer has his bad. Even the press is less than perfect: much is made of the fact that the Globe, and Michael Keaton, sat on this story for many years before the new editor brought it up.

I said “almost” flawless only because I was troubled by a couple otherwise worthy performances. Mark Rufalo, who got lead billing, was wonderful for an hour, but then his performance got too histrionic for me and his yelling too loud (maybe I was just sitting too close to the screen). Liev Schreiber was similarly impressive at the outset, but by the end I found him too diffident for his role as managing editor. Maybe he perfectly channeled Marty Baron, whom I’ve never seen, but he didn’t act like the many editors I have seen – in person and on screen. Conversely, Rachel McAdams was perfect.

(Smoking: The obligatory cigarette was seen about five minutes into the movie, then never again – despite all the “stress” the characters were under. Makes me wonder.)