Italicized paragraphs feature spoilers.
Stop the presses, everyone: there’s a new end-of-the-year list up, and “Boyhood” isn’t even mentioned. Granted, it’ll probably do better on their actual “Best Films of the Year” list, but The A.V. Club’s picks for the best scenes of the year are headlined by a very different coming-of-age movie: Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” which won Scene of the Year for its grand finale showoff between Miles Teller’s Andrew and J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher. Here’s the full selection, in no particular order after the first:
The ending, “Whiplash”
The deformed man, “Under the Skin”
First race, “Need for Speed”
Inflating and deflating the male ego, “Force Majeure”
The safe wager, “Dom Hemingway”
Creating the universe, “Noah”
The whoring bed, “Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1”
End credits montage, “22 Jump Street”
Terror in the tent, “Willow Creek”
“I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie,” “God Help the Girl”
The classroom, “Snowpiercer”
“The Step You Can’t Take Back,” “Begin Again”
Dave Schultz’s interview, “Foxcatcher”
The wedding dance, “In Bloom”
Destruction of the city, “Pompeii”
“Time in a Bottle,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past”
Sex and violence, “Gone Girl”
Opening credits, “Godzilla”
Two decades of messages,” Interstellar”
“Pretty Girl Rock,” “The Rover”
The Red Circle, “John Wick”
Lip-sync duet, “The Skeleton Twins”
Here’s Film Editor A.A. Dowd on their top pick, one of the year’s most controversial scenes:
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And so this parting display of showboating talent, which director Damien Chazelle stages with all the kinetic verve of a car chase or a battle sequence, feels downright liberating in its sense of cathartic release. A true marvel of editing, composition, and performance, the scene would be a contender for the year’s finest even if seen completely out of context. What clinches its victory, though, is the troubling ambivalence lurking beneath the awe-inspiring spectacle: We’re watching not just the birth of a future jazz legend, but also the consummation of a truly toxic relationship—the moment, in other words, when one obsessive sociopath finally rebuilds another to his exact specifications. It’s equal parts disturbing and rousing, a thunderous cymbal crack on the beating hearts of its audience.
I’m with Dowd on “Whiplash’s” finale: on top of being a great set-piece, it’s a scene that shows Neyman’s awkward loner turning into the exact kind of monster he’s been reacting against throughout the whole film, turning his back on his father (a heartbreaking Paul Reiser) and becoming a rage-fueled, spiteful egomaniac who’s ready to blow. It’s equal parts thrilling and disturbing, for reasons that are entirely by design.
Still, I think the best scene on the list is the one that comes at the midpoint of “Under the Skin,” which Jesse Hassenger praises:
But just around the film’s halfway mark, the alien picks up a man with a facial deformity. Their conversation, in a moving car, first proceeds in simple alternating one-shots as she asks him questions and repeatedly compliments his hands. But when she asks him to touch her face, they share the frame, and later one-shots are closer, more intimate. At first, she seems to simply assume a gentler seduction tactic. While she does bring the man back to her lair, she eventually allows him to leave without suffering the same fate as the others. When she stares at her own shadowy reflection that night, she may be catching a glimpse of empathy. The sequence is fascinating in its own right, but even more so for the way it reverberates through the rest of the movie, knocking the Johansson character off her axis and setting the second half of her quiet story in motion.
What’s great about the scene is that Johansson’s performance is still as inscrutable as ever, never telegraphing what’ll ultimately happen to the deformed man and instead asking us to search her face to figure out what exactly is going on in her head.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky can be counted on for some offbeat choices, and while he did pick the current cinephile action favorite “John Wick” for one of his scenes, he also picked the first race from “Need for Speed” and the destruction of the city in “Pompeii.” Here’s his take on the latter:
Paul W.S. Anderson—the widely maligned English director behind “Resident Evil,” “Alien Vs. Predator,” and “The Three Musketeers 3D”—has a real knack for organizing and diagramming space, and though “Pompeii,” his first blockbuster-budget production, is slow-going at first, it hits its stride once it comes time to depict the destruction of the titular city street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. Obsessed with bunkers, mazes, and caverns, Anderson can’t help but turn the city grid into yet another of his deathtrap tunnel systems. He envisions the destruction of Pompeii as one long set piece, with characters scampering over bodies and ruins, trying to outrun a ship that’s been forced inland while fiery debris rains down in the foreground. It’s brisk and breathtaking.
Just out of prison following a 12-year stretch, expert safecracker Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is looking for work, among other things, until a former associate named Lestor (Jumayn Hunter) tells Dom his skills are now useless, as newfangled electronic safes are impossible to crack via methods of a dozen years past. Since Lestor despises Dom, he offers him a deal: If Dom can open Lestor’s personal safe in less than 10 minutes, he’ll give him a highly lucrative job. But if Dom fails, Lestor gets to cut off his dick, right on the spot. Writer-director Richard Shepard plays this ludicrous ticking-clock scenario to the hilt, devising both a wholly unexpected safecracking method—no gentle taps and slowly twisted dials here—and a diabolical punchline. Mostly, though, it’s just a hoot to watch Law’s high-octane performance dovetail with a rare moment of concentrated focus for his character. Dom is ostensibly working feverishly to save his penis, but the expression on Law’s face throughout is pure, uncut fun.
The quality of a list is determined not just by justifications for widely-beloved picks, but for ones that might be more polarizing. Dowd picks a section from “The Rover” that I personally hold to be one of the worst scenes of the year, a moment of blunt irony that reinforces the film’s one-note grimness. But as always, his case for the scene is strong:
As the film’s mismatched road warriors (played by Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson) wander into the Outback during a protracted wide shot, director David Michôd cues up Keri Hilson’s narcissistic earworm single “Pretty Girl Rock.” It seems like a bitterly ironic song selection, until the scene cuts to a nighttime image of Pattinson’s tragic simpleton sitting alone in a jeep, softly singing along to the suddenly diegetic music. From here, the tune takes on a melancholy quality, with Michôd employing it as a creature comfort from another era—a bittersweet blast of nostalgia, a sonic relic of the more hopeful world that now exists only in the rearview mirror of these characters’ lives. As needle drops go, it’s eccentric and weirdly, powerfully affecting.
Finally, here’s a selection from one of the year’s most talked-about films, and one of the most uncomfortable moments of violence the whole year. Nick Schager writes about “Gone Girl”:
The story’s malevolence reaches a fever pitch during the scene when Amy (Rosamund Pike), now a captive of her creepy ex-boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris), finally “gives in” to his carnal wishes and takes him to bed. It’s an encounter of sexual aggression and manipulation that Fincher stages with mounting unease, until the moment the white lingerie-clad Amy, beneath her lover on the bed, suddenly and swiftly slices his throat, coating herself in blood at the very moment that he climaxes inside her. More chilling still: After letting him bleed out, Pike straddles him and then flips her blood-soaked hair out of her face—an offhand gesture of aggravation that speaks volumes about the depths of her mercilessness.