This is clearly the work of talented film artists -- McQueen and Fassbender at least, and I may be inclined to throw in Mulligan after this. But I'm not sure it's a fully realized work of art.
Based on the two films I've seen, McQueen is capable of mounting extraordinary set pieces -- the Sands confab with the priest in Hunger; the dePalma-like subway hunt, New York New York, and the jog across 31st Street here. But for me he hasn't yet completely figured how to make those wonderful pieces feel like they cohere into a single piece of art -- the parts seem greater than the whole. This is especially so because (this seems like something we're saying alot this year, about the better films) the narrative is rather thin, and, if you probe too deeply into it, maybe even a bit trite: withdrawn guy/extrovert sister, two sides of the same damaged-by-parents coin, provoke crises in one another's lives. This rather snarky sum-up isn't what occurred to me while I was watching -- I was fully taken by the film scene-by-scene, and loved such little touches as the comically intrusive waiter. But when I was rerunning it afterward -- as I do with all films that reach me -- I found it was feeling like less rather than more. The movie didn't seem to go anywhere particularly important or insightful. (And, ona mundane level, I couldn't help coming up with picky questions, like, What the hell was there for him to do at work while his computer was out of commission?)
But, dwelling on the much positive: McQueen is, as I said, an artist. He's willing to stay away from studio-standard in framing, structure, story clarity, even pacing (no Hollywood film would have let Mulligan's song go on uncut like that). I'm not sure that some degree of accommodation to normal practice wouldn't improve his work overall, but he gains so much from his approach that one is loath to suggest tinkering. He's clearly not afraid to be quiet -- there are long stretches in the film that are purely visual -- but then there are dialogue scenes (like Fassbender's date with Marianne, or his late-film tongue-thrashing of Cissy) that could hardly have been handled better.
McQueen seems to use Fassbender not so much as his leading actor as his muse (like Durkin did Olsen in Martha Marcy). Those two scenes I just mentioned, in fact, are among the few times Fassbender is truly allowed to carry the film in actorly, Oscar-clip fashion. He gives a very strong performance throughout, but, except in those anomalous scenes, what he conveys is conveyed passively, with McQueen letting his camera linger, trusting Fassbender to make points silently. Carey Mulligan's performance is much the opposite: she comes on like a house afire from the start, and takes over every scene in which she participates. I liked Mulligan in An Education -- not as much as those of you who voted her best actress that year; more than the nay-saying squad. But after Wall Street 2 and Drive, I was beginning to wonder if she had anything else to offer. Wonder no more. She's a powerhouse here. But, a weird thought: because Fassbender's work is often recessive compared to Mulligan's, it's not impossible she could be nominated in support while he's omitted in lead, despite the fact it's his performance that carries the film.
About the sex: I agree with BJ, there's obviously plenty enough on-screen to justify the NC-17 rating. But haven't people been a bit over the top on the issue of how naked Fassbender gets? From the publicity, I went in thinking his dick would be so in my face I'd be swatting it away like the lions in Bwana Devil. In reality, unless I dozed off and missed something, his actual member only makes rather brief, mostly shadowy appearances. By contrast, I got a good long look at Carey Mulligan (and a few other women displaying, shall we say, various levels of grooming), and no one's said boo about that. Are our older male critics so uptight about this male issue that the mildest display is viewed as threateningly flagrant?