In his latest book, “Moments That Made the Movies” (Thames & Hudson), the film critic David Thomson describes moments from 70 films over the course of 100 years of film history. The book takes a look at some of the most important seconds and scenes in the history of film — from “Sunset Boulevard” and “Burn after Reading,” to “When Harry Met Sally” and “The Piano Teacher.”
At the very end of “Captain Phillips,” as Tom Hanks is collapsing, he begins to get a medical check-up on some US warship. I don’t know who the doctor is but she’s as brisk, efficient and unsentimental as one of the SEALS who took out the Somali pirates. The scene is plausible and kind in its intent; it’s also the most exploratory passage in an effective but limited suspense story. With so many automated systems at work in the film, we realize that medical practitioners are becoming mechanical, too. At the same time, Hanks is good enough to show us relaxation wiping away all his last defenses of courage and strength. Suddenly you feel you have been there all the time, and you understand the damage. That’s when the titles tell us the real Phillips went back to work.
As you struggle to keep up with the talk and the cross-talk in “American Hustle,” there’s still time to notice that (with little support from the script) Amy Adams is establishing herself as dead attractive and very funny. The key that unlocks her Sydney Prosser is whenever she gets a chance to hear the music of Duke Ellington. A private smile creeps over her face and she looks off in the distance. Magic begins. But it’s a long time since a flower in a movie started to bloom because of the music it likes. From that it’s a short step to noticing that in scene after scene her clothes appear to be falling off. Don’t ask what the film is about or why it goes on so long. Just remember that it changed the way Amy Adams would be cast.
You knew it had to come. You know it’s going to be horrific. But you know that Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender are not really going to whip Lupita Nyong’o close to death. That’s against the law, isn’t it? But the extended whipping scene is so intense and yet so carefully done that even when you see the flayed back and appreciate the hours of clever make-up that have been applied, you have no doubt about the depth of crimes in “12 Years a Slave.” The whipping has been just a movie scene, but it has been done at last just as “12 Years” is the first picture ever that says, look, listen, this is what slavery was. McQueen is a sober director and the scene is never sadistic or prurient. It is history, and there’s no way a society with lingering racism can resist the necessity of the film.
I still feel nervous of saying exactly what happens in this transformative moment — because you need to see it without risk of spoilage, but towards the end of Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” there is a shift in the ground and the basis of what has seemed to be a regular documentary film in which Sarah tries to find out the identity of her father. The moment is all about who her mother was, and I’ll say no more except that it brings joy, laughter and the revelation that sometimes documentary can be just as tricky as Hitchcock. So “Stories” may win best documentary — but can’t we see it should be in the running for best picture?
Robert Redford knows where he is, 1700 miles from Sumatra in a broken yacht without means of communication. He wonders if “All is Lost.” Then, in broad daylight, on a sunny calm day, a huge container ship comes in sight. Rescue! He waves his arms and cries out. But the ship keeps coming and going. It might be a ghost ship or one on automatic. The great business systems of the world do not notice the distressed individuals. Yes, it’s a metaphor but it’s also a stunning moment on the high seas. And don’t forget that it was a breakaway container, the size of Moby Dick, that did the damage to Our Man’s boat.