Mira Nair comes up with only one moment of cinema in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and spends the rest of the 128 minutes refusing to think about it. Not that she’s obvious in her avoidance. Far from neglecting the rogue gesture, she surrounds it with expository monologues, polemical dialogues, diagrammatic incidents and a decade’s worth of editorial comment about the United States in relation to the Muslim world. Some of this scaffolding she borrows from the source novel by Mohsin Hamid, who contributed to the screen story; some she assembles with the help of other screenwriters. All of it is meant to explain the two seconds of truth that escape when Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani expatriate with a fast-track Wall Street career, watches the television news on September 11, 2001, and abruptly breaks into a grin.

But why explain? The best reason to go to the movies—the only reason, some would say—is to encounter what The Reluctant Fundamentalist gives you just at that moment: the flash of emotion, unforced, unguarded and unapologetic. Films may give it to you on the face of an actor (such as Ahmed, who has the aquiline features and clever eyes of a subcontinental Gael García Bernal), or in any of a multitude of choices made by the director—the swerve of the camera toward an object of desire, the cut that propels you into the next image, the change of light that seems to bloom from within. Very little of this is ever truly spontaneous, of course; what you get, at most, is a well-prepared spontaneity. But to apply intelligence only toward the preparations, and never to the fact of the emotion itself, is like substituting taxidermy for a naturalist’s field study.

A bright young man of Muslim background, who has fallen in love with America and the luxury of opportunity it seems to offer, sees the Twin Towers destroyed by  jihadis and can’t hold back a smile of pleasure. That’s the reality Nair pickles and stuffs. All of the issues on her intellectual agenda—capitalist inequity, cultural imperialism, racist contempt, abuse of police power on every level—might as well be so many units of formaldehyde, glue and kapok ticked off the supply list so long as she never allows Changez the freedom of his rage, humiliation and disillusionment, or lets loose as a director with any such feelings of her own. Toward the end of the film, when Changez has transformed himself into a college professor in Lahore with reputedly Islamist views, he declares in effect that he is now seeking autonomy where he belongs, in Pakistan, rather than adopting someone else’s values in the America that has spurned him. But then, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is always declaring things. Where are the unprompted urges that should be the substance of autonomy?

Changez can’t even break up with his white American girlfriend without the argument turning into a CNN debate. Erica (Kate Hudson, presented by Nair with dark hair and an incipient jowl) wails at Changez to stop attacking her, sounding as if she were hallucinating a Muslim horde about to materialize behind him. To this, Changez retorts that Erica goes about destroying people with a recklessness born of wealth and privilege, as if she were the US military-financial state in heels and a downtown party dress. It’s a problem that Changez comes off as being entirely in the right in the lovers’ quarrel. The bigger problem of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that this isn’t a lovers’ quarrel at all.

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Terrence Malick has produced 112 minutes of pure, sustained, glorious cinema in To the Wonder and left me wishing for about half as much. Life cannot happen only during the last golden hour of the afternoon. People cannot spend all of their time dancing away from you in the tall grass. Thought cannot be wholly purified into a few prayerful murmurs, uttered bodilessly on a soundtrack while the world floats by on waves of an intuited perfection. It’s admirable of Malick to want to subsume everything, including poverty and disease, into an aspiration toward the divine vision, but even Jesus needed to take time out to pass around drinks at a wedding.

Like The Tree of Life before it, To the Wonder brings you into a highly refined version of the minds of people of modest means and unglamorous circumstances, who live in the American West (Oklahoma in this case) and hunger for God. Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) have fallen in love in Paris, where he was presumably on vacation. Although Neil is frankly unwilling to marry, Marina goes with him, her young daughter in tow, to dwell amid the tidy lawns, brick ranch houses and towering electrical lines of present-day Bartlesville. There, Neil has a job documenting environmental pollution (the screen has not witnessed so much affectless posing in front of toxic spills since The Devil, Probably), and Marina is left to twirl about the landscape and burn dinner. Occasionally Neil and Marina attend church, where Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) stolidly pushes himself to keep serving, despite a crisis of faith that makes him move like he’s underwater.

That’s about it by way of a story. The Tree of Life didn’t have much more—but it did give you the Big Bang, and dinosaurs, and the end of days, all of which cradled the memories of a 1950s childhood haunted by half-comprehended parental pain. The crazy ambitions of The Tree of Life, and the weight of its brooding, gave that film a force that’s missing from Malick’s new foray into wonder.

I most felt the lack in the scenes where Father Quintana ministers to the needy. Wasting, lesions and brutal deformation mark the people you see, who unmistakably are genuine unfortunates born on the streets of Bartlesville or Tulsa, not made in the makeup trailer. Malick puts these impoverished people on show, bathed in the miraculous cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, so he can transcend in his art the misery they can’t escape in life. I wouldn’t say Malick has wronged them; they were going to go on suffering with or without his camera present, and for all I know they may have profited by a few badly needed dollars by agreeing to be photographed. But for the audience, Malick’s treatment of these subjects is a cheat. Having acknowledged their pain, he wants to pass immediately into aesthetic bliss and spiritual peace, as if by fiat. In the right mood, you might choose to ascend with him, carried aloft by contemporary cinema’s most gorgeous helium balloon—or, noticing the flimsiness of the conveyance, you might decide that some facts are irreducible and so must detain you below.

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And then there’s Derek Cianfrance, who has made the most substantial, memorable and satisfying movie I’ve seen in the last couple of months, The Place Beyond the Pines. Concerned with the transmission of class differences and ideals of heroism over two generations and both sides of the law, The Place Beyond the Pines succeeds brilliantly at one of the most difficult and least discussed aspects of filmmaking: achieving a just proportion. How do you create mergers of character and actor that will seem human in scale and yet be big enough to carry a movie? How do you fit these figures into a credible environment that is precisely observed but more meaningful than its bare circumstances? Part of the genius of the Italian neorealists was their formulation of a persuasive way to solve this problem—a means of standing just far enough back, let’s say, so that their subjects would come out looking the right size in the frame. Cianfrance is no neorealist, but he has learned their lesson and knows exactly where to stand.

He sets his movie in Schenectady, which he portrays as being large enough for urban ills but sufficiently isolated and ingrown to border on the rural. It’s a place where his characters may choose to stay put but might prefer not to; where the poorer and darker-skinned people live apart from the richer and whiter, but not very far; where the ambitious find avenues for advancement and the larcenous for gain, but neither gets all that much. This is the low-middle range of America, where a great many people reside, and the stakes of life and death are calculated in five figures.

That’s high enough for Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carnival performer who specializes in gunning his motorcycle up and down the interior of a steel-mesh sphere. First seen in partial view in his trailer—where he’s just a field of tattoos on a muscled torso and a hand playing mumblety-peg—Luke soon takes his nervous energy out to the midway, walking toward the show tent in one of those extended tracking shots that often signal nothing more than a director’s self-regard, but in this case tells you exactly what you need to know about the man you’ll be following. You get his body’s tempo, his tunnel vision, his enjoyment of a very minor celebrity (which he also disdains), and his way of wearing the atmosphere of colored lights, ruckus and gasoline fumes right on his skin. By this, I don’t just mean that Luke is well inked; I mean that Gosling is performing at the considerable height of his ability to combine sensitivity and swagger.

The plot kicks in with the appearance of one of the willing victims of that sensitivity and swagger, a coffee-shop waitress named Romina (played by Eva Mendes, who has never looked more beautiful or more wearily resigned). The surprise she brings Luke—the first and least of several unexpected turns in the movie—takes him off the carnival circuit. A subsequent chance encounter with a suspiciously friendly local man (Ben Mendelsohn) gives him the means to settle down—not that he’s good at settling, not that Romina wants him around, and not that his choice of company is wise. If the greasy generosity of Luke’s new benefactor weren’t warning enough, the woodland where the two men had met ought to be, with its trees dangling their dying roots out of the sides of eroded cliffs.

For a while, The Place Beyond the Pines plays like an exciting, gritty drama about crimes, domestic and other. Then, with the entrance of a compellingly unslick and deglamorized Bradley Cooper as Avery, a rookie patrol cop with connections and brains that go beyond his job description, the movie takes its themes of manly duty, family ties and dangerous wrongdoing up a notch: out of the context of the working and drifting classes and into a setting of middle-class homes, political maneuvering and televised press conferences. Avery himself probably doesn’t know the degree to which he’s trying to do the right thing or seize the main chance. He, unlike Luke, has the opportunity to do both at once—but that doesn’t mean he’s free to leave Luke behind. When The Place Beyond the Pines transforms itself for the third and final time, we see how the consequences of Avery’s actions are played out in later years in the most volatile of all social milieus, and the one that unites all of Schenectady: high school.

The Place Beyond the Pines may have one too many plot contrivances and one and a half too few female characters (I’m counting Rose Byrne as being only partly present in the role of Avery’s wife, which is not her fault). Discount it for these shortcomings if you must—or give it the sympathetic attention that a serious and heartfelt movie deserves when it contains not a single patch of thoughtless filmmaking. Derek Cianfrance gets it right.

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In 42, writer-director Brian Helgeland makes much of the constraints on Jackie Robinson’s behavior during his first season in the major leagues, compared with the complete freedom of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager, Branch Rickey, to express himself any way he damn pleased. The performances match, of course. Harrison Ford, now entered into his old-coot period, twinkles and growls as much as he likes as Rickey. (Who’s going to stop him?) Meanwhile, Chadwick Boseman, who bears a strong resemblance to Robinson, comports himself with restraint and dignity (except when jittering along the base paths) and even so comes out as the star of the film. There’s nothing else you need to know about the thoroughly corny and satisfying 42, except that in the scene of Robinson’s first opening day in the majors, Helgeland chooses to include the singing of the national anthem in its entirety—and where I watched the film, at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem, some of the audience members joined in.

Eric Alterman also writes about The Reluctant Fundamentalist in this week’s column.