Penthouse and Pavement


High Rise (2016)

J. G. Ballard's 1975 novel "High Rise" famously cold-opens with a hot sentence about a dead dog; Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump's film adaptation opts to cut directly from the urbane sophisticate Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) glancing at the animal to the spit-roasting aftermath. The elision makes for a decent cinematic effect, showing not telling; but also sounds a warning shot about conventionality, a distilling down of Ballard's haunted prose into nothing more adventurous than good old black humor. Mr. Wheatley's taste for unsympathetic British grotesques also starts to crop up early before running rampant across the narrative by the end, joining a handful of Ballard's dots about the inhabitants of the island without getting much of a grip on his social science.

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Live. Let Die. Repeat.

Columbia Pictures

Spectre (2015)

Consistent screen universes are a mixed blessing — as proved by the smell of burnt wiring hanging over the film called "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" — and it might have been better in the long run if James Bond had not caught the history bug. "Spectre" ties Daniel Craig's four Bond movies into a final fixed alignment, concluding the chain of events initiated in 2006 when Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) walked into "Casino Royale" and commented on his ass; and also gives the guy yet another layer of familial pain for the ongoing motivational pot. But in the process the film has a mild personality crisis, scared rigid at the prospect of there being any corner of Bond fandom not addressed by the current product and trying to build a machine that could appeal to every single vested interest in existence. A crazy, ambitious, expensive quest. And doomed.

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We Can Do It

Steffan Hill/Focus Features

Suffragette (2015)

Watching movies in school — on a television borrowed from the AV closet with a bunch of kids chatting and heckling and teasing each other — is a pretty good test of how a film stands. When the movie is good it can rise above this setting. But movies in school also serve another, broader purpose; they make tangible the stories kids ignore in their history books. They enable the kids to feel what it would have been like to be alive at that time and in that place, to feel their feelings and understand how the people who lived 100 years ago were not so different from us right now. And if a movie is really good, it makes the kids think about how its story is relevant now. On those levels, “Suffragette” succeeds admirably.

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Sinking Into Despair

Jeremy Pelzer/Pinewood Pictures

Pressure (2015)

Most of us don’t spend our time thinking about the world’s infrastructure. We turn a button on the stove; and there is gas with which to cook dinner. “Pressure” is about the men who are on the front line of making that happen. That front line happens to be at the bottom of the ocean, where they travel in submersibles only loosely tethered to larger ships. They walk in diving suits along the sea floor to do underwater welding, if necessary. This is an amazing place to work; and the underwater setting, at the edge of human endurance, is a great place for telling an interest story. Unfortunately “Pressure” buckles.

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Minimum Overdrive

Linda Kallerus/Broad Green Pictures

Learning to Drive (2015)

In the same way that the feel of an average Sundance festival film is usually apparent before the opening credits have wound up, Isabel Coixet's "Learning to Drive" wears its origins as a New Yorker article on its sleeve. A gentle meander through the social and emotional lives of two decent middle-aged adults in a multicultural New York, it's a soft-centered comedy of manners in which understanding your wayward spouse might be less tough than grappling with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but more likely to lead to a quiet life.

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A Case of Memories

Giles Keyte/Roadside Attractions

Mr. Holmes (2015)

With so many adaptations and interpretations of Sherlock Holmes on and off the page, and with the character so ingrained in popular culture, it is a remarkable achievement to come up with a story that feels fresh. Most recently and notably, there have been two Robert Downey Jr. films with the character, the British TV series “Sherlock” and the American TV show “Elementary,” so there would appear to be enough of Holmes on screen to satisfy eager fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. However, the arrival of “Mr. Holmes” proves to be a worthy and significant new screen depiction of the great detective.

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Bernd Schuller/Thimfilm

13 Minutes (2015)

A lone individual assembling his bombs without obvious radicalization or a network of coconspirators tests the character of all nations, even when that nation is Nazi Germany and has already thrown its character into the trash. Oliver Hirschbiegel's willingness to look the Third Reich in the eye — proven in "Downfall" — carries over into "13 Minutes," the less showy story of Georg Elser's failed attempt to assassinate Hitler motivated by nothing more complex than basic unease: no allies, mania or contingency plans involved. No wonder the gentlemen poking hot wires under Elser's fingernails can't figure him out.

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Holy Family Business

Gilles Bruno Mingasson

Last Days in the Desert (2015)

The weathered figure emerging from the wilderness after five weeks of contemplation and fasting in "Last Days in the Desert" is referred to either as Yeshua or by the all-purpose epithet of Holy Man; but there's no ambiguity in Rodrigo Garcia's film about who he actually is. And he's also clearly Ewan McGregor, an actor whose skills at underplaying inner conflicts don't get much of a run out these days but which potentially suit the son of God and his inklings of an appointment at Calvary pretty well. If you happen to think that a hyperbolic screen Jesus is the wrong approach, then Mr. Garcia's sober and sedate film may be right up your aisle.

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That's Amour

Agatha A. Nitecka

45 Years (2015)

After "Weekend" cast a nonjudgmental eye over the couplings of people savoring their early decades on Earth, "45 Years" looks with equal tolerance at a married couple hovering around their seventh — in the process confirming Andrew Haigh as one of current British cinema's rarely-spotted authentic humanists. With the domestic industry's choices too often amounting to use of the heritage card, indulgence in histrionic aggro or a swing the other way into micromanaged oxygen starvation, Mr. Haigh once again proves to be one of those searching for a fourth way.

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Bad Hair Day

Graeme Hunter

The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)

Robert Carlyle gets a bad case of the accidental serial-killer blues in "The Legend of Barney Thomson," playing a sad-sack Glasgow barber with an unfortunate tendency to stab people with the styling shears. Poorly suited to employment burnishing other mens' self-image and tied to the apron strings of a potty-mouth mother whose manner could alarm the horses, Barney's impotent frustration with life's unfairness leads him into a new sideline as what looks like Scotland's least ingenious murderer. Unfortunately for him, another — rather more skillful — one of those is on the prowl already, sending victims' severed body parts through the post and confounding a police force of Keystone-level uselessness.

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