Like the brightest star of an intricate constellation that would be impossible to find without its light, a great scene tends to provide greater meaning to the movie around it. They all shine in a wide variety of different ways, each the result of its own singular circumstance. Some are chatty, while others are silent; some end a story, while others interrupt it for a striptease set to the Backstreet Boys. Most of the ones that stay with us tend to be self-contained passages that boast their own clear shape, but all of them stand out in our minds, these defining moments always guiding our way back to the films that brought them to us in the first place.
From open-hearted musical numbers to a beguiling aside about the Hebrew letters found carved in a man’s teeth, these are the 25 best English-language movie scenes of the 21st century.
25. “Sideways” (The Life of Wine)
24. “Boyhood” (Mason Leaves for College)
Richard Linklater dreamed up the ultimate coming-of-age story of a boy growing over 12 years, from six to 18, casting Ellar Coltrane as the kid and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as resentful divorced parents. No one else could have conceived, written and directed this daredevil feat, which unfolded over annual three-day summer shoots. Arquette won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as the mom who moves through several intense relationships over the years as she raises her kids. She ended up with more screen time than anyone other than Coltrane; her heart-breaking scene comes when she sits alone in her house, facing an empty nest, and sighs, “I thought there would be more.” Get out your handkerchiefs. —AT
23. “Spring Breakers” (Look at My Shieeeeeeet!)
Sometimes the best decision a director can make is to step aside and let his or her performer run wild in a scene. The one and a half minutes James Franco spends saying “look at my shit” in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” is the perfect example. Korine doesn’t need any directorial flourishes in this scene because Franco’s bonkers commitment to playing the drug dealer Alien is its own kind of special effect. The key to the scene is the way Franco manages the high wire act of being deranged, dangerous, and melancholic all at one. Alien’s materialistic bragging is ultimately his twisted cry for attention, and Franco drives that point home in what might just be his best 90 seconds on screen, ever. —ZS
22. “Manchester By the Sea (“There’s Nothing There”)
“I said a lot of terrible things to you,” Randi (Michelle Williams) says to her ex-husband Lee (Casey Affleck) when they bump into each after he’s been forced to move back to town. The line is the only specific piece of backstory we really have to what happened to their marriage after their three children died in a fire, yet we’re instinctively able to fill in the blanks: Randi and Lee both blamed Lee for their kids’ deaths, Randi allowed herself to grieve and has started a new life with another man (she’s pushing a stroller with her newborn baby), but now feels horrible that Lee remains trapped in the prison of his guilt and grief. Kenneth Lonergan is a master of allowing his audience fill in the blanks of his damaged characters’ backstories and the ocean of emotion in Lee and Randi’s unresolved past swirls underneath every subtle line and gesture in this remarkable scene. The tension is unbearable as Lee is unable to receive Randi’s outreached hand of forgiveness, making it clear he’s incapable of moving forward in a narrative structure designed to make us anticipate redemption. —CO
21. “Happy-Go-Lucky” (Poppy’s Driving Lesson Takes a Wrong Turn)
In any other director’s hands, “Happy-Go-Lucky” would be a blithe comedy about its carefree protagonist, and probably shoehorn her into a discardable plot. However, this is a Mike Leigh movie, the master of weaving heavily workshopped performances into scenes that transcend expectations of the material. Leigh guides his actors to a higher plane as they unlock the depths of his material, and this scene is a perfect distillation of that collaborative energy. As Poppy, the brilliant Sally Hawkins plays a woman so committed to her persistent good vibes that she often baffles those around her, particularly her flustered driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Whether Scott’s attracted to Poppy or simply frustrated with her upbeat attitude remains a fuzzy question, but the chemistry between the actors transforms from comedic volleying to something far more profound.
As Hawkins grins so wide her cheeks nearly reach her ears, Scott grows exasperated, spouting nonsense driver’s ed tips (#Enraha would’ve been a hashtag if the movie came out today) before unleashing a fountain of bitterness for the world as Poppy becomes his impromptu therapist. The car becomes a microcosm of dueling approaches to life. “You will crash, and you will die laughing!” Scott declares, and Poppy giggles back, “Well, that’s not a bad way to go.” She’s too good for him, and maybe the world, too. —EK