Howard Hawks famously said, to create a good film all you need are “three great scenes and no bad ones.” Far be it from us to contradict him, but we’re not entirely convinced — we can think of plenty of great movies with scenes so bad they stop the film, and great movies with no particularly memorable scenes at all (indeed, this year, there’s quite a few we can think of that add up to more than the sum of their parts).
But at the same time, there are plenty of terrible films that have been redeemed by single moments, and plenty of great films that have scenes that sear themselves onto your brain, lingering long after the credits have rolled. So as part of our ongoing coverage looking back at the movies of 2012, we’ve picked out two score or so of the most memorable cinematic moments of the last twelve months. Read (and where possible, watch) our choices below — beware of spoilers — and let us know your own favorite scenes of the year in the comments section. For all of The Playlist’s year-end coverage, make sure to follow all our Best Of 2012 features.
Highway Chase – “21 Jump Street”
Though billed as an action comedy, “21 Jump Street” is relatively light on the action side of things, opting to subvert expectations through focus on character beats, rather than kinetic explosions. One of the best examples of this is the film’s most memorable set piece — the highway chase. Schmidt (Jonah Hill), and partner Jenko (Channing Tatum) — both wearing outlandish costumes — head out to surveil a key drug deal, only to get busted by the fearsome biker gang involved. The scene is set for a big, Michael Bay-esque chase sequence, but writer Michael Bacall, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, consistently undercut the action. The guys hit traffic, forcing them to proceed on foot, and then to commandeer a series of vehicles, first a badass Porsche, then a rather less testosterone-fuelled pink Beetle. They down the bad guys in a series of inventive ways, but just as it looks each is going to result in a massive explosion, it fails to ignite. Until (by the classic rule of three — an example of how tight and well-structured the writing is here) one biker hits a truck full of chickens… It’s a surprising, inventive and hilarious sequence, but one that manages a certain propulsiveness despite the jokes, and also squeezes in important character beats for both leadss. It feels effortless, which entirely belies the work that’s been put in.
Catch The Pigeon – “Amour”
Michael Haneke has a reputation that precedes him, though one can’t help but wonder if the very serious and contemplative director wasn’t having a laugh at audiences with this scene from his sombre “Amour.” The beautiful and devastating picture, which follows George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) caring for his immobile and mute wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in their apartment after she suffers a stroke contains a sequence both surreal and nerve-wracking. A pigeon somehow becomes trapped inside their home, George corners the bird in a hallway…before it eventually finds its way back outside. But the sequence is paced deliberately, almost like a thriller, and we weren’t the only ones in the audience left breathless, wondering if George was going to kill it. Yes, it’s a playful moment, but one that gorgeously illustrates the tenuous, random line that divides life and death, and it’s one grace note of many that populate Haneke’s challenging film.
The Word Blocks – “Anna Karenina”
What Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard managed to do in “Anna Karenina” was adapt a tome of a novel into the purest of visual splendor. The film compares two love stories, the tumbling, dangerous lust of Anna (Keira Knightley) and Vronsky (Aaron Johnson) and the sweet, tender devotion of Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). We’ve already written about the start of the first in our music moments feature, but the second, partner moment to this first descent into the whirling dervish of forbidden sexual desire, is the culmination of Levin’s pining for Kitty. While Levin is the more earthly, sensual character, he thinks more with his head than his heart when it comes to Kitty, which often gets in the way and is expressed beautifully in the sequence where they finally confess their love for each other. Using children’s blocks while sitting in a room full of family members, they discuss their relationship, turning over the blocks to the first letter of each word in the sentence, gradually spelling out their feelings, confusion and misunderstanding. When Levin turns over the “ILY” blocks, it’s a spine-tingling moment for the ages, and rips that abbreviation right out of the hands of texting tweens. It’s yet another example of how Wright adapts the words of the book itself into a beautiful, thematically relevant and emotionally resonant cinematic rendering.
Airport Scene – “Argo”
There was some minor controversy when “Argo” was released in October as to the extent to which director Ben Affleck and writer Chris Terrio fiddled with the true story. To which we can only reply — it’s a movie, dummy. Nowhere else in the film does it demonstrate better the need to deviate from the facts in order to make a better movie than in its breathlessly tense third act, when Affleck’s CIA agent Tony Mendez is trying to get his charges, disguised as a Canadian film crew, onto a plane and out of Iran. In reality, Mendez faced a relatively simple time at Tehran at the airport, but in the film, Affleck and Terrio pile obstacle upon obstacle — because, frankly, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t. The result, thanks to the sure shooting and expert cutting is a scene that, without resulting to histrionics, leaves you leaning forward desperately on your seat, even on a rewatch. Best of all is when they reach the gate and face their biggest challenge yet, a savvy Revolutionary guard (a terrific performance by Farshad Farahat) who’s seemingly onto them. It seems all is lost, until Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), the one embassy worker who never bought into Mendez’s plan and the only one who can speak Farsi, takes over, using the storyboards to pitch their fake movie to the guards in a way that cunningly (but never overegged by Affleck) draws parallels with the Iranian revolution and wins them over. It’s an enormously satisfying conclusion to a cracking sequence, but like the others, you can’t quite believe they’ve made it until they open the champagne on the plane.
Puny God – “The Avengers”
For sheer, big-hearted comic book bliss, Joss Whedon‘s hellzapoppin’ movie/corporate synergy project “The Avengers” easily trumped Christopher Nolan‘s moodier superhero epic “The Dark Knight Rises.” And really it came down to moments like this – funny, brightly colored, totally comic book-y things that only lifetime nerd Whedon could have fitfully engineered. During the third-act-encompassing battle for New York City, which pitted our cadre of heroes against a squadron of anonymous-looking space aliens, Mark Ruffalo‘s monstrous Hulk has a one-on-one showdown with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the devious villain from Thor’s home world of Asgard. Loki spits some of his faux-Shakespearean insults and then the Hulk does something unthinkable but totally in character: he smashes, swinging him back and forth like a Renaissance Fair ragdoll. When he’s done, he walks away, uttering the monster’s only line of dialogue: “Puny god.” This is pure joy, the kind of thing that you never thought you’d see outside of the pages of a comic book – just cartoon-y enough, explosively violent, and sort of weird. After two feature-length Hulk adventures had tried to turn him into a brooding everyman racked with guilt and tragedy worthy of some Greek play, Whedon loosened him up. He let the monster out. And we loved it. In fact, this moment got such a reaction that it took us three viewings to even hear the line over the thunderous applause and laughter. Our inner ten-year-old thanks you, Mr. Whedon.
The Opening/The Brothel — “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”
How is it possible to choose just one memorable moment from the soaring yet intimate, unique yet warmly familiar “Beasts of the Southern Wild”? The film opens with a bit of Hushpuppy’s thesis statement if you will, her thoughts on the universe as she introduces herself, her animals and her world, before ripping into a sparkler-fueled celebration of one of the Bathtub’s many holidays. This scene, a montage of the sights and sounds of the Bathtub at its best, celebrates the spirit of the people who live in this fantastical place, with all of its rising waters and swamp creatures and fairy sprites named Hushpuppy. This is the soaring part, where the essence of the human spirit which cannot be contained is writ upon 16mm film. It’s filled with such boundless joy and humanity that it’s not uncommon to burst into tears before the title card (the sweeping score by Dan Romer and director Benh Zeitlin helps too). One of the more intimate moments of Hushpuppy’s adventure comes when she and her friends catch a ride on a barge to a magical floating brothel in search of her mother. As the little girls in oversized t-shirts descend onto the red-sequined dance floor, the working women, of every age, shape, size and color, clad in satin nighties, embrace the girls for a dance, a squeeze, the touch of a mother and a child. Hushpuppy finds her mother, or something like that (Jovan Hathaway) working in the kitchen, a sexy, brassy cook who opens beer bottles with her teeth and wrests a loin of alligator into bite-size chunks for frying. She gives Hushpuppy her loving embrace, and a dose of the truth. She won’t be going with her. This moment, so tender in its intimacy of mothers and children is a rite of passage for Hushpuppy. She is able to do what she has to do and face the beasts of this world on her own, with her tribe by her side. It’s all any of us can do really.
Documentarian Gets A Cane In The Face – “Beware of Mr. Baker”
Directed by faux-journalist turned filmmaker Jay Bulger (he lied to his film’s subject and told him he worked for Rolling Stone), “Beware of Mr. Baker” is the excellent documentary about Ginger Baker, the rock n’ roll drummer of Cream and Blind Faith who went on to work with Fela Kuti and Masters Of Reality, among others, and along the way self-destructed and lost his fortune. This is as entertaining and watchable documentary as all get out, and what’s better is that you don’t even need to know a thing about Baker’s musical past to enjoy it (though it certainly doesn’t hurt if you already appreciate his musical genius; something the documentary only illustrates deeper). But can a doc open any better than this one does? Bulger is on Baker (now 73)’s fortified South African compound and during an interview, the bellicose drummer warns the documentarian to back off. He then fully loses it and raps his cane across Bulger’s head. The exasperated filmmaker, bleeding profusely from his forehead and nose (this was no love tap) sets the camera down in his car, still rolling and goes, “Ginger Baker just hit me in the fucking nose.” If you need a better introduction to the famously pugnacious and temperamental drummer, and what you’re about to witness, you probably deserve a cane upside your head.
The Monsters Get Loose – “Cabin In The Woods”
The sweet, precious reveal at the heart of “Cabin In The Woods” is an adrenaline shot to the geek heart, a genuine jaw-dropping moment of inspired madness. As last survivors Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Marty (Fran Kranz) uncover the secret behind what’s been haunting them, a last-ditch effort to escape a squadron of heavily armed enforcers leads the desperate duo to hit an unassuming button. This is what follows. Set aside for the moment the film’s deconstruction of horror archetypes and bask in and fear the overwhelming forces of terror as they lay siege to and tear apart fragile human bodies. The armed-to-the-teeth heavies are for naught because when the monsters — a diverse, sometimes hilariously so, bunch — are let loose, the tables turn quickly and viciously. Many films would cut away, suggesting the immensity of the chaos, but Drew Goddard gives us the full monty, several unforgettable minutes of unspeakable carnage. Well, you know what they say — show, don’t tell.
The Kids Go Flying – “Chronicle”
In a year full of big-name superheroes, the best film to take on the trope may have been “Chronicle,” which had no brand names, a budget that would have struggled to cover craft services on “The Avengers,” but was smarter and more original about what it would be like to be a kid with superpowers than almost any other movie in the genre to date. By using the found-footage format, director Josh Trank gave a new spin to scenes that are rote in other movies, like in one of the film’s highlights, when the central trio (Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell) learn that their powers have grown to the extent where they can now fly. After watching their first tentative, gleeful steps off the ground, Trank smartly cuts to the trio way up in the clouds, where they’re doing what high-school kids probably would do if they had superpowers; dicking around with a football and paying no mind to the possibility that they might be on a flightpath. Which indeed they are, a jumbo jet tearing out of the clouds and knocking most of the party out, leaving DeHaan’s Andrew to save his friends. It’s both fun and thrilling, and with that camcorder conceit, it doesn’t just make you believe a man can fly, it makes you believe you can fly.
J.R. and Colin Share a Couch – “The Color Wheel”
Perfectly obnoxious in its approach and downright understandable in an audience’s potential disgust of it, director Alex Ross Perry‘s “The Color Wheel” also garners a post-viewing leap in estimation due to its sickly appropriate climax. The road trip taken from Pennsylvania to Boston by narcissistic siblings Colin and J.R. (played by Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman) bristles with claustrophobic dysfunction, as both continually shirk any life ambitions to engage instead in bouts of bickering, miscalculated “humor,” and petty insults directed at anyone crossing their paths. Towards the end of their journey to try and salvage J.R.’s remnants of a failed relationship, the two siblings, grown exhausted and ragged after a anticlimactic lovers’ confrontation and embarrassing party fight, lie together on a couch, and thus begins a nearly ten minute unbroken shot as J.R. quietly begins to insult Colin’s future. However, her feelings and desires in life slowly peek around the sarcasm she’s permanently adopted, and since the viewer has witnessed over the film’s previous 70 minutes the duo’s rare comfort only with one another, a gradual realization as their faces inch closer proves a new context created, the viewer’s expectations jarred, and some days later, a lasting appreciation for Perry’s unpleasantly singular work.
The Hip-Hop Taxi – “The Comedy”
The trust fund aging hipsters in “The Comedy,” especially the picture’s lead Tim Heidecker, are so inured to comfort and numbed by lack of responsibility that they have become indifferent, reckless and cruel hyper assholes. Such is the genius of this provocative examination of the white male at his worst. Hilarious and disturbing, the deeply desensitised fucktards of “The Comedy” are essentially the lost generation — desperately in search of something that makes them feel alive. Hell, the picture could even be seen as a generational cry for help. And so the gang of restless, indolent slobs look for kicks wherever they can to simply survive. Their stupid-funny/frustrating arrogance marks the entire picture, but it we had to pick one scene to represent the tone of the film, it might just just be the hip-hop taxi scenes where these jackasses, perturbed with their cab driver for a lack of music in his car, start to rap about the fact that this ethnic man is not going to get a tip. Deeply infantile, intensely stupid, offensive and just plain wrong, it’s also kind of fucking hilarious as their joke just takes on a life of its own, completely apart from the driver, just to stave off everyday boredom. And it’s this kind of ugly challenge throughout that makes the picture pretty brilliant.
Alfred Says Goodbye To Bruce Wayne – “The Dark Knight Rises”
Of all the relationships Bruce Wayne has had throughout Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, none have been as important as that with Alfred, his most important father figure. As the man who raised him, and promised his parents to look out for the young man for the rest of his life, Alfred has grappled with Bruce’s desire to save Gotham even as it so very often comes at the risk of his own life. And in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Alfred reaches the limit of what he can stand by and watch Bruce do. With his body battered, spirit waning and public image still tarnished, Bruce is very much on the path of martyrdom early in the movie (and seemingly pretty much suicidal), something the world-wise Alfred recognizes all too well, and he will have no part of it. When he announces to Bruce that he can no longer in good conscience be with him — and reveals at the same time the contents of Rachel’s letter from “The Dark Knight” as a last resort to get Master Wayne to move on from his plans to return as Batman — it’s a crushing scene. Alfred fears hurting Bruce even more than he has already suffered, but he’s even more scared of what the end result will be when he returns to the streets of Gotham. His teary resignation might be the most emotional scene of the entire series to date, breaking apart the one constant in Bruce’s life that seemed unshakeable. Bruce Wayne has always been a loner — a man on the outside — but without Alfred, he faces Gotham one last time utterly alone, without his most trusted friend and ally. It’s disappointing that Michael Caine isn’t in the film more, but his absence truly hammers home what Bruce is up against.
Calvin Candie Discusses The African-American Skull – “Django Unchained”
Our recent reviews of “Django Unchained” don’t really reach much of a consensus, but where almost every writer agrees is that ‘Django’ is a big mess. That aside, it can be fun and much of that comes through the actors chewing through their lines. The one who does so with furious relish is Leonardo DiCaprio as the racist and malicious plantation owner Calvin Candie. A sickening figure, Candie is charming, courteous and superficially seems to have some compassion for his slaves, but the reality is he regards them lower than dirt and feeds them to dogs at a moment’s notice. His frightening brutality just simmers underneath the veneer of his Southern gentleman facade and that spills over in a scene just before Candie unveils that he’s discovered Django and Dr. Schultz’s plan to rescue a slave (Django’s wife) from his plantation. So, before Calvin reveals his hand, he goes into a long diatribe about the negro skull and how certain parts of the back of the skull demonstrate how the negro is inherently submissive by nature compared to the white man. He demonstrates his point by pulling out a skull from a special box and explaining that it belonged to the slave who cared for him, his father and his father’s father. He savagely saws into the skull, working his fury and hatred into every motion, ripping a piece of skull from the back to make his point. DiCaprio practically chokes on the lines, spitting them out while seething and staring at Django before exploding with rage and threatening to open the skull of his bride to see what’s inside. DiCaprio is a tornado in “Django Unchained,” a force to be reckoned with, and as uneven as the film can be, we hope the actor drops the moody hero archetype for a while and takes some longer dips in the antagonist swimming hole for a while.
The Camera Follows Elena’s Grandson To A Brawl – “Elena”
We can’t sing the praises of Russian master filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s third feature enough. It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and too few have experienced its many treasures. This moment, near the end, comes seemingly out of nowhere. We’ve mostly been tracking the titular lead character throughout the film, and at this point she’s done a very bad, irreconcilable thing to ensure that her grandson gets the money needed to get into college and avoid being forced into military service. As she has several times in the film already, Elena travels to her son’s broken down apartment building far outside of the upper class city apartment she shares with her partner. But as the good news is about to be delivered, we stray away from our protagonist turned antagonist and track the grandson in one beautiful very long, unbroken take as he joins up with some buddies, crosses the street and they pick a fight with another group of young ruffians. The brawl is brutal, visceral and because of the continuous take, feels like we’re watching this for real. DP Mikhail Krichman composes the shot beautifully, framing the young men in the foreground of the ominous nuclear power reactors in the distance, using gorgeous natural light right around magic hour. Touches like this are seeded throughout the film, and they strike the perfect balance of subtle social commentary with doom-and-gloom operatics (the omnipresent crow that follows Elena is another nice touch). Yes, the film is called “Elena,” but Zvyagintsev never forgets the other characters. He weaves a stunning tapestry, giving small but vital moments to the other players. For this is a film about family, and the next generation may be more doomed than their forebears. (Watch this film, and the director’s first film, “The Return,” on Netflix Watch Instant. You will be glad you did)
Veterinarian Sequence – “Francine”
Navigating her new quiet community with a concealed, impenetrable constitution, Francine (Melissa Leo) finds little to connect with during her post-lockup existence aside from the loving warmth offered by the nonjudgemental animal kingdom. But what starts as a kernel of tenderness as she adopts unwanted pets unfortunately only strengthens her aloof nature in regards to humanity, and her house swelling with animals (creatures she feeds by pouring random food onto the ground for all to have at) doesn’t do her presence any favors. Still, filmmaking duo Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky never look down on her, even portraying her acquaintances as sometimes directionless and hollow in their existence (in one scene, Francine’s friend walks into a house where a group of shirtless men are practicing the choking game for no particular reason). So where else can this lone, isolated figure turn to but the unconditional love of animals? This consideration leads Leo’s character to volunteer at a vet, with the directors taking a documentary approach and offering a startling realism to these silent creatures getting operated on and, in some cases, being put to sleep. It’s an unflinching, candid look at the fragility of life, and watching Francine console each animal during their sessions is damn near heartbreaking. The compassion she reveals in this environment (in addition to the directors’ no nonsense approach) will leave any animal lover sobbing.
Monster Attack – “Frankenweenie”
In October, Burton gave us “Frankenweenie,” a feature-length stop motion monster movie based on a live-action short he had made at Disney while he was still toiling away in the studio’s animation department, and it turned out to be the director’s best film in years and years. While “Frankenweenie” is deeply sweet and in many ways one of Burton’s most personal films to date, when it really soars is during the final act. Up until this point the movie had been centered around young Victor (Charlie Tahan), who uses his science know-how to resurrect his beloved dog Sparky. But as the movie builds towards its climax, several of his schoolmates hijack this technology to electrify their own pets, resulting in a sea of rampaging monsters – among them some “Gremlins“-like sea monkeys, a werewolf-y rat, and a giant turtle reminiscent of Godzilla (or, more accurately, Gamera). It culminates in Burton’s most delightfully deranged third-act since “Beetlejuice,” with these monsters taking over a county fair. It’s genuinely funny and genuinely scary, beautifully photographed in black-and-white (and 3D), for maximum, gooey efficiency made all the more impressive because it’s in a movie for kids.
The Crash – “The Grey”
In one of the year’s most underrated films, Joe Carnahan unforgettably renders Ottway’s (Liam Neeson) shattering descent into unforgiving terrain. The plane crash that decimates the crew of oil workers heading home, leaving Ottway and six freezing, unprepared men (Frank Grillo, Ben Bray, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie, Dermot Mulroney and Joe Anderson) at the mercy of the elements and the wildlife, is appropriately sudden and disorienting. Less typical is Carnahan’s choice to stay on Neeson as he holds on for dear life and then rockets out of the plane and loses consciousness as deafening winds take hold. It’s a moment of cinematic wonder, a petrifying transition and an attempt to place us under Ottway’s skin and invest in Neeson’s survival. It works.
The Hotel Room Fight – “Haywire”
You know it’s going to go down a little differently when Mallory Kane (MMA champ Gina Carano), dressed to the nines, delicately slips off her high heels. Betrayed and about to have the life snatched out of her by Michael Fassbender’s operative, Mallory isn’t going down without a fight. What follows is a brutal throwdown in the confines of an upscale hotel room. Director Steven Soderbergh clearly has no interest in dipping even a toe into the Paul Greengrass school of covering close quarters action, shooting Carano and Fassbender throwing one another around with no music and minimal cuts (nevermind close-ups). He isolates the sounds of their struggle – there’s no score, only grunts, groans and shattered glass. Carano is all knees and elbows while Fassbender throws his weight around. It feels real and we commend Fassbender for going up against a champion fighter and making it look like he has the upper hand, however briefly.
Monsieur Merde – “Holy Motors”
Picking a highlight of Leos Carax‘s extraordinary, gloriously odd episodic puzzle piece “Holy Motors” is a near-impossible task — we’ve already named a couple in our music moments piece. But for this writer at least, it comes down to the section where lead Denis Lavant reprises his role as “Monsieur Merde,” from Carax’s segment of the 2008 anthology picture “Tokyo!.” Merde is a grotesque, grunting, wordless creature clad in a natty green suit, and once Lavant’s Oscar transforms into him, he lollops through a graveyard, eating flowers and attacking passers-by, until he falls in love with, and kidnaps, a supermodel (a wonderfully game Eva Mendes), and takes her back to his sewer layer, where he proceeds to display his full-on erection for her. It’s a wonderfully funny sequence, the feral, satyr-like Merde is one of Lavant’s best performances-within-the-performance, but there’s a curious tenderness and romanticism to it as well. Close runner-up, the musical moments aside, is probably the motion capture sequence. Or the bonkers ending. Or the beautifully drawn dialogue between a father and daughter. Or…
Frederic Bourdin Mimics Michael Jackson – “The Imposter”
Director Bart Layton fashioned one of the best documentaries of the year with this film about… well, the less said the better, especially if you haven’t seen it yet and know nothing about it. Trust us, keep it that way, and go in as ignorant as possible before watching. One of the final scenes, in which we see con man Frederic Bourdin dance like Michael Jackson, is haunting, sly and filled with more levels than a skyscraper. It’s the kind of blissful, seemingly out of nowhere moment, a happy accident of archival footage, that comes to only the luckiest and most perceptive of documentarians. And it’s done without any dialogue or narration.
The Penultimate Legal Decision – “In The Family”
It takes a lot of brass to conceive a scene that nears the twenty minute mark and make it no less than the penultimate one in a movie. But Patrick Wang’s “In The Family” had that distinction from the get-go: the director shot scenes in single long takes, delivered a three hour cut, and when festivals turned their backs on his baby, he took it on the road himself. Of course, we might call that “stubborn” if the film wasn’t at all competent, but thankfully ‘Family’ is a hugely touching, sensitive film without a false note in its makeup. Following a homosexual (Joey) after he loses his partner in a car accident, the real narrative begins when his son Chip — his partner’s blood, though both raised the boy since infancy — is lawfully handed over to his aunt. Joey loses the respect he thought he had, and when he pursues legal action for custody, he’s turned down by every lawyer he comes into contact with. Eventually he meets a compassionate attorney that agrees to fight with him, and it all leads to a vocal showdown in an office between Joey, his former sister-in-law (of sorts), and their respective legal teams. There’s no shouting, violence, or melodrama of any kind — the conversation is calm and the characters make their plea with emotion, but nothing is forced. Despite its calm nature, the scene is utterly gripping; calling it a scene is even a disservice because, with its own arcs and twists, it seems more like its own short film within a greater body of work. A truly magnificent segment, incredibly paced and a guaranteed tear-jerker.
The Hammer Scene – “Kill List”
Ben Wheatley has wrapped two films since making his sophomore feature, “Kill List,” which hit theaters in the U.S. way back in January, having rolled out at festivals in 2011. But we’d be surprised if anything in either “Sightseers” or “A Field In England,” or anything the director ever makes again, will be quite as traumatic or powerful as the kitchen-based torture scene in “Kill List.” Hitmen Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are tasked with taking out three people, the second of whom, The Librarian (Mark Kempner), turns out to be a child pornographer. Enraged, they burst into his home and proceed to brutally torture the man with a cigarette until they get the info. And once they get it, Jay goes to work with a hammer. It’s about as unwatchable and disturbing a piece of violence as we’ve ever seen on screen, but it’s not the (extremely) graphic nature alone that makes it so. It’s the way that Gal, clearly uncomfortable with the lengths his colleague and friend is going, sits quietly listening in the next room. And it’s the way that, as his death approaches, The Librarian becomes calm and grateful towards Jay, telling him that he’s “glad [he] met [him],” and thanking him as his hand is nearly severed with the hammer. But there’s something else about it that’s particularly chilling, suggesting however bad the horrors are that we’re witnessing, something much worse is on the way…
The Kentucky Fried Chicken Blow-Job – “Killer Joe”
Matthew McConaughey had a banner 2012. “Magic Mike,” “Bernie,” “The Paperboy” and “Mud” (which will arrive in 2013) all attest to this fact. And while his “Magic Mike” performance is stellar, perhaps none of his 2012 turns are as unhinged and go-for-broke as his titular role of Joe, a contract killer, who also happens to be a police detective in William Friedkin’s twisted comeback directorial effort. Written by Tracy Letts, the corrosively pitch black comedy “Killer Joe” centers on a trailer trash family that hires Joe to murder their mother to get the insurance money. Suffice to say the plan goes awry, but Joe, a certifiable sociopath still does the deed. And when he wants his money, he brings a psychotic angel of death hellfire wrath on this duplicitous family. One rather disgusting and unnerving scene of sadomasochistic torture involves Joe forcing Gina Gershon’s conniving step-mom — who is planning a double cross of her own — to give a blowjob to a greasy Kentucky Fried Chicken wing. She gags and sucks on the fleshy piece of meat as Joe grinds it into her face with his crotch getting more and more sexually aroused. In its quivering/fucked up feverish climax, Joe gets off, Thomas Haden Church vomits and the spectators and audience are aghast and shocked. What the fuck did all just witness? It’s nasty, dirty and you’ll want to take a shower after, but everyone plays the scene full throttle and it’s an unforgettable stain on the memory.
Ray Liotta Has A Hard Time – “Killing Them Softly”
One of the best things about the wonderfully cynical and hilarious “Killing The Softly” is the use of sound. For the brutal scene in which Ray Liotta is interrogated, then beaten, for a crime he didn’t commit, writer/director Andrew Dominik and his sound crew conjured a visceral, distinctive audio soundscape, looping synthesized distortions with simple sound recordings (trains in the distance, a squeegee across a windshield, etc). This stylish effect is beautifully cinematic, putting the audience in the shoes of Liotta’s unlucky bastard. When the time comes to take him out for good later in the film, the style is amped up to another degree, adding a super slow motion sequence that looks like something out of “The Matrix,” with a brilliant use of sound. Sure, we’ve seen this kind of slow motion stuff before, but it looks beautiful and adds another hammer strike to the film’s darkly funny, none-too subtle political parables. All that style adds up to something in “Killing Them Softly,” a film that’s already receding into obscurity way too fast. [Check out this feature on the sound in the beating scene, courtesy of the New York Times]
Richard Parker And Pi Patel Say Goodbye – “Life of Pi”
There’s many astonishing scenes in “Life Of Pi” that others would probably pick first. The sequence in which the ship bucks, tips, collapses and drowns into the Pacific Ocean is outstanding, thrilling, harrowing and visually breathtaking, perhaps even rivaling what James Cameron did with “Titanic,” because it’s so much more violent. The humpback whale coming out of nowhere in the calm sea at night is beautiful and the scene where the barrage of flying fish migrate through Pi and tiger Richard Parker’s path (the pair, desperately hungry, try and catch the fish flying at an aggressive pace) is also incredible. But perhaps the most important, and moving moment in the movie connects to its spiritual elements. An old Pi (Irrfan Khan) describes the final day when he is rescued and consequently is separated from the Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker. Adrift for months together, Parker the tiger naturally tries to eat Pi the entire time, but throughout their harrowing journey while slowly dying and trapped at sea they come to a stalemate, and even something of an understanding. In what seems like their final moments, the two come as close to bonding as a human being and a feral wild animal can be. But when they finally hit shore, Parker, withered and emaciated, pauses for one second before entering the jungle and then vanishes never to be seen again. Pi, who has battled with this animal for months, breaks down in a wail of tears. Parker has transcended enemy, rival or even friend. They have connected in a manner that even Pi cannot articulate, but his absence leaves a huge hole in the boy’s heart, giving him a greater sense of compassion and understanding of the world.
Old Seth/Cid Loses His Shit – “Looper”
The mob has it all figured out. A “looper” does the dirty work and lives large in the off hours, provided he eventually offs his future self without room for error. What happens if he hesitates? We see for ourselves when a massively distraught Seth (Paul Dano doing what he does best) comes knocking on Joe’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) door. Seth has let his older self get away and now there’s no hole deep enough for him to hide in. The mob wants both men out of the way and Joe, knowing who he’s up against, gives up Seth. Older Seth, on the run and about to hop a fence, suddenly slips. The older man eyes his hand – didn’t there use to be more fingers, not just nubs? As we realize what is happening, Old Seth does too, lifting the sleeve of his shirt to find a message scrawled in his skin. He rushes to the appointed spot, losing appendages on the way only to get a bullet in the head as we spy an operating table, the younger Seth’s inert body, and no shortage of blood. The reveal is stunning and immediately enforces the price that Joe might have to pay if he lets his older self (Bruce Willis) live. Another equally vital moment in terms of both action dynamics and emotional impact — and also just fucking cool to look at — is one that confirms any viewer’s suspicions that young Cid (Pierce Gagnon, in a performance remarkably devoid of precociousness) will indeed grow up to be the dreaded The Rainmaker, as his loosed temper sees him wielding considerable telekinetic fury against an unwitting hitman (Garret Dillahunt). It’s a surreal and oddly beautiful bit of gruesomeness, complemented perfectly by the split-second efforts of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to protect Cid, only for Sara (Emily Blunt) to actually save Joe from the boy just before all hell breaks loose.
McConaughey’s Opening Monologue – “Magic Mike”
“I think I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house…” and with that quotable quote, the campaign for Matthew McConaughey’s Supporting Actor nomination for “Magic Mike” was born. McConaughey is transcendent as Dallas in the stripper flick, stealing Channing Tatum’s movie from Chan himself (a difficult feat in the face of the charm machine built out of abs that is CT). But McConaughey was playing a pure, distilled essence of McConaughey, 20 goddamn years in the making. Don’t try to step to this, young whippersnapper, MM’s been breaking in those leather chaps longer than you’ve been alive. His opening monologue laying out the rules for the ladies of the club lets us know right away what level we’re on, and that is Planet McConaughey, where the pectoral muscles are a golden butternut, and the chaps are optional. Every second he is onstage at the club is magical, particularly because when he’s not onstage he switches to the scheming businessman that he actually is, Soderbergh’s lights turning his skin from warm and welcoming to a hazy blue. McConaughey is playing himself, yes, but he’s doing much more than that, showing his acumen in displaying the dark side of what looks like a fun night out. But that’s what makes his performance within his performance that much more fun: his naughty speeches and flirtation with the audience at the club, his charming of us. This is weapons-grade McConaughey here, people. Handle with care.
Processing – “The Master”
Nevermind Paul Thomas Anderson’s assured early films and now-storied career – show a non-believer this scene alone and watch PTA crowned as one of the masters of modern American cinema. Two men, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), sit at a table. Freddie, a stowaway on Dodd’s ship, has agreed to undergo “processing,” a key component of The Cause, a cult led by Dodd. The next few minutes are a masterclass in acting, pacing, editing and sound design, as Hoffman coldly disassembles Freddie, who fights for every guarded inch until he finally spills a story of a relationship that Anderson flawlessly transitions to. It’s an eerily accurate recreation of what it’s like to recall a memory, in bits and pieces, filtered and blurry. It is also a lone emotional throughline to the inscrutable Freddie and a demonstration of Dodd’s considerable sway. If there is any one scene in “The Master” that sums up the film, it’s this one, two acting behemoths clashing without throwing a single punch. It’s a beautiful thing.
Michael Tries To Abduct A New Kid – “Michael”
It’s a shame Markus Schleinzer‘s debut feature got the short shrift, as it seems people were more interested in his connection to Michael Haneke (he served as the auteur’s casting director for many years) than actually taking his movie on its own terms. Sure, the two do share a chilly approach to their storytelling and a penchant for ignoring easy answers, but that doesn’t make “Michael” any less compelling. In fact, take many of its scenes out of context and they’ll still have enormous power thanks to the film’s perturbing tone, which is only amplified by the reserved lead performances (for our money, David Rauchenberger is one of the best young actors we’ve seen in a long time, but let’s not digress too far). The best by far involves pedophile Michael (Michael Fuith) on the prowl for a new juvenile victim, hunting a go-kart arena for the perfect specimen. An inherently distressing sequence but not exactly a subtle one, Schleinzer pulls back a bit, obscuring much of Michael’s dialogue with each potential abductee by amping up the obstreperous wild noise of the arena. After testing the waters with several children, the filmmaker cuts to a tracking shot of Michael and a boy in the parking lot, the youngin giddily jabbering about driving as Michael politely humors him. Though not a particularly long conversation, the context makes it so taxing that every second feels like an hour until the boy’s father finally calls for him off-camera. But the worst part? Michael doesn’t even miss a step — he continues walking, and we continue to follow him until the environment obscures him from view. There’s something that lingers about this non-reaction, something deeply painful in the way he kept his cool when caught red-handed, even if the worried parent had no idea what was about to occur.
The Apple’s Journey – “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia”
Already on the road for hours in the land of nowhere that is the Anatolian steppe, a group of officers lose their cool when they’re given bum directions to a buried corpse by a convicted murderer in their custody. Faced with the prospect of another wild goose chase, the team decides to continue in the morning and stop off at a local village for some R&R. But let’s roll back to their original failed attempt at exhuming the dead — after an officer unleashes hell on the cuffed killer, the prosecutor takes him aside and chides him for not being more professional. As their discussion continues, the filmmaker takes a gander at another policeman near an apple tree, giving it a shakedown in hopes of finding a snack. The topiary sheds a dozen of apples, and a single one rolls off on its own, tumbling down the hill, celebrating freedom. While the “professional conversation” persists on the audio track, our attention is given to this lone fruit’s journey as it topples into a small stream. It’s a majestic, almost Tarkovskian sequence, brightening the previously grim, serious tone. Nuri Bilge Ceylan quickly embraces the unpredictability of nature, stopping to notice the beauty of something so simple. Dissecting it as a metaphor may make it feel cheap (and we’re not entirely sure that it was meant to be such a symbol), but taking it at face value will leave you immensely moved.
Riding on Bikes – “Oslo, August 31st”
Joachim Trier’s follow-up to his stunning 2008 picture “Reprise” doesn’t quite reach the heights of that fantastic debut; fair enough, as it’s understandably hard to catch lightning in a bottle like that twice. Loosely based on the novel “Le feu follet,” the same work that inspired the more direct adaptation in Louis Malle‘s “The Fire Within,” “Oslo August 31st” centers on the day in the life of Anders, a recovering heroin addict (“Reprise” star Anders Danielsen Lie) as he’s given a day of leave from his rehab clinic. Depressed and suicidal, Anders is unmoored trying to make sense of life, everything he’s lost, every bridge he’s burnt and how, at age 35, he has to start from scratch all over again. Anders doesn’t see much hope in his future and it’s easy to understand why. An evening of partying with a friend and two cute girls leads the foursome on a long pub crawl throughout Oslo in bars and nightclubs. The quartet eventually get on bicycles and double up, as the lead rider splashes Anders and his girl with the smoke of a fire extinguisher. Quiet, save for the sound of bicycle spokes whirling and the occasional whoosh of the extinguisher, it’s a solemn, but beautiful scene — a wiped out Anders clinging to the back of the female who rides through plumes of smoke dancing in the streets like clouds. It’s a striking, beautiful image and a brief moment of peace and reprieve for this mentally anguished character.
The Abortion – “Prometheus”
While the conversation around the film has mostly been about its narrative shortcomings, what seems to be forgotten is just how ballsy “Prometheus” was. Not only was Ridley Scott returning to the sci-fi genre and a franchise he started more than three decades earlier, it was a hard-R summer tentpole in an era when studios want four-quadrant hits. And a big reason why the movie was one you couldn’t bring the kiddies too was a stomach churning surgery scene. When Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) realizes that she’s pregnant with the fast-growing child of herself and her mutated dead boyfriend, she races to get the alien being removed from her body. This entails her hacking into Meredith’s medical-pod, getting it to slice open her belly to remove what seems to be an angry squid from her womb. All told, it’s a neat nod to the chestburster scene of the original. The entire sequence is so thrillingly shot and nerve-wrackingly real, it’s only later that you realize Scott and company just made an abortion a setpiece of a summer tentpole. While the film may have its faults, there were few moments more unforgettable this summer than this.
Final Fight – “The Raid: Redemption”
It’s not unreasonable to be at a loss for words sometimes. What can you say when confronted with six minutes of world-class stuntwork that looks frighteningly real? Rama (one of breakthrough performance highlights, Iko Uwais) frees his brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) from Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), a psychotic and extremely skilled fighter who likens firearms to takeout and relishes hand to hand combat. What follows is nearly six minutes of choreographed blows that look like the trio should have been six feet under after taking the first dozen knees to the chest. It’s punishing combat that delivers and then goes on and on, topping itself until a hair-raising finish. Take a moment to appreciate the precision editing as well, this is one for the ages.
The Final Typewriter Scene – “Ruby Sparks”
As a whole, “Ruby Sparks” plays with this notion of control, of giving yourself over to someone or writing yourself in their image, or wanting to someone to just do what you ask. It resonates so well because anyone who’s lost control or identity in a relationship knows how frustrating and scary it can be. Zoe Kazan wrote perhaps the most terrifying illustration of this concept into her script, and then performed it to the highest level of emotional terror and total destruction. As Calvin (Paul Dano) sits at his typewriter, his words commanding Ruby’s actions and her degradation, he finally gets what he wants: total control, but it’s an ugly mess that neither one of them would want. Matthew Libatique’s low practical lighting and subtle handheld camera gives an air of horror to the scene, as it only deserves. Kazan’s uncontrolled tearful flailing is offset by Paul Dano’s still calculation, each strike like a blow, tears eventually streaming down his face as the tension builds to a fever pitch of emotional and physical violence. It’s a two-hander performance at a virtuosic level for these young actors, a real life couple. We’ll be seeing much more of them. And careful boyfriends, this is what happens when dreamgirls break down.
The Cemetery Scene – “Seven Psychopaths”
Would-be writer Martin (Colin Farrell) is a pacifist who is nonetheless compelled to write about the eponymous amount of killers, while best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) would rather see a full-blown display of carnage, which he proceeds to pitch with expected elation to both Martin and mutual acquaintance Hans (Christopher Walken). Writer/director Martin McDonagh allows Rockwell’s brilliantly spazzy delivery to dictate what’s actually going on during this graveyard shootout, cramming in countless action-hero cliches, addressing the matter of admittedly underwritten female characters, doling out no small amount of bloodshed, working in a subtle nod to Mickey Rourke bailing on the project, and delivering the glorious sight of Walken rising from the grave a la Dracula, a pistol in each hand. In a film that could otherwise be understandably dismissed as an “Adaptation” retread, this sequence is unrelenting gonzo bliss of the highest order.
The Dance Sequence – “Silver Linings Playbook”
Much like “The Fighter” David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” is loose and limber with a playful and naturalistic sense of comedy and drama that just pops with an intoxicating and winsome energy. And there’s a lot of great sequences in this genuinely crowd-pleasing (but not ingratiating) picture about family (the scene where Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper get into fisticuffs and wake up the neighborhood for one, or the coffee diner non-date), but if we have to pick one, why not the climax, the final dance sequence that caps things off? In the picture, the mentally unsettled Cooper’s trying to win his ex-wife back, and his equally damaged friend played by Jennifer Lawrence will assist him in his goal if he enters a dance contest with her. Somehow, their performance is roped into a potentially financially ruinous bet made by Cooper’s compulsive gambling father (De Niro), and so everything is riding on the dance scene. Using music by Dean Martin and The White Stripes (a hilarious jarring transition if there ever was one), the dance sequence is decent, then awkward and kind of terrible, but it’s also hilarious and celebratory. Russell’s camera dances along with this odd pair and their strange dance which is funny on its own. But perhaps the real magic of the scene is the reaction shots of their friends and especially Robert De Niro whose ever-worsening reactions to their inelegant and unorthodox dance is just pricelessly funny.
Shanghai – “Skyfall”
As has been discussed by many, the genius stroke that Sam Mendes made in making “Skyfall” was hiring his “Jarhead” and “Revolutionary Road” DoP Roger Deakins to shoot the film, resulting in probably the best-looking film of the year, and certainly the most beautiful Bond movie ever. The whole film is full of visual joys, from the greyish London landscape to the fiery skies of Scotland, but best of all is the way Deakins shoots 007’s excursion to Shanghai. China’s most advanced city has appeared in blockbusters before, but never like this; it’s a sort of “Blade Runner“-ish near future neon dream, something that Michael Mann would screencap, print off and put on his wall. And things reach a climax in the astonishing pop-art brawl between Daniel Craig‘s Bond and Ola Rapace‘s silent assassin, played out in silhouette against LCD screens. Mendes seems to be influenced more by “Scott Pilgrim” than by “From Russia With Love” here, and it’s a thrilling new take on the fight sequence for the franchise. Plus, the aftermath allows Berenice Marlohe‘s Severine to make one of the more memorable Bond girl entrances, he dress blowing in the wind across a skyscraper chasm.
The Group Vomit – “Sound Of My Voice”
Zal Batmanglij‘s strange, beguiling, breakthrough film, a low-budget sci-fi (or is it?) oddity about a pair of documentary makers trying to infiltrate what seems to be a cult run by a seemingly dying woman who claims to be from the future (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script), has a number of memorable moments, but there’s one at the mid-point that certainly numbers among the best written, best performed scenes of the year. In an attempt to get past the highly secretive protection around Maggie, Peter (Christopher Denham), who with his girlfirend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) is undercover as a new recruit to the group, has swallowed a tracking device to enable him to work out when they’re being taken. But once they get there, they’re asked to take part in a cleansing ritual, where they forcibly make themselves throw up — something that would expose the bug he’s just forced down his gullet. So he challenges her, only for her to expertly strip down his defenses and reveal a history of childhood abuse. The “Uncle Johnny touched me” backstory is woefully overused in cinema to lend meaning to things, but it’s sensitively and surprisingly handled here, giving a powerful peak to a sequence that’s tense, charged and beautifully performed by all concerned.
I Love You So Much – “Take This Waltz”
Love is complicated, messy, ugly, beautiful and more often than not, indescribable,and Sarah Polley captured it with raw perfection, in her underrated “Take This Waltz.” In tracking the dissolving relationship between Margot and Lou, played by Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, Polley takes a simple running gag that becomes more devastating with each appearance through the movie. Perhaps borrowed from “Punch Drunk Love,” but landing with far more emotional weight here, Margot and Lou proclaim their love to each other by describing the horrific ways they would express it to each other (“I love you so much, I’m going to mash your head in with a potato masher.”) But by the close of the film, when Margot is as confused as ever, possibly even more lost and slightly more damaged than before, she seeks solace from her ex Lou. He too is still smarting and in pain from losing Margot, but when he declares, “I love you so much I want to scoop out your eyes with a melon baller” it communicates both the deep well of feeling he still has for her, and the impossibility that things can ever be the same again. When Margot cries, so do we, and no other film this year so accurately captured the emotional landscape of two people who are so perfectly unsuited for each other.
The Final Scene – “Zero Dark Thirty”
“Don’t you think she’s a little young?” Jason Clarke asks his superior Kyle Chandler in Kathryn Bigelow‘s dense hunt-down-Osama Bin Laden procedural, “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Washington says she’s a killer,” he responds. It’s one of the key lines in the picture and sets up Jessica Chastain’s Maya character as a relentless and unwaveringly committed investigator in the search for the world’s most-sought-after terrorist. Without spoiling too much — you do already know how this story ends, but read on at your own risk — when the mission is done, the Team 6 Navy Seals return the body to base and then immediately get to work on filling away all the intel they’ve also seized from the Osama compound. While Chastain slowly and warily approaching the body is moving, it’s her reaction later on as she boards a plane home that’s more telling. The character begins to weep. But the disturbing element is that it’s not out of joy, but rather a recognition that after spending 10 years doggedly chasing the same subject, she now no longer has a direction in life.
— Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton, Christopher Bell, Drew Taylor, William Goss, Katie Walsh, Mark Zhuravsky, Charlie Schmidlin, Erik McClanahan