A significant majority of the most successful films of all time are, to one degree or another, action movies. And there’s likely a reason for that: You can see gunfights and punch-ups on the small screen, but when projected onto the big screen, a chase, fight, battle or shootout is among the purest forms of cinema (particularly when paired with spectacular stunts), with lensing, editing, performance, and music all coming together to thrill you to an almost supernatural degree.
Action filmmaking is more sophisticated than ever, and that’s why picking our favorite Action Sequences of the year is always among the year-end features we most look forward to. This year was no exception: Our favorites are scattered among low-budget Westerns, a German arthouse movie, a high-profile flop or two, a comedy, a couple of spy franchises, a couple of Cannes competition movies, three films that are part seven in their franchises, and maybe the finest Hollywood action movie in a decade or so.
Last year, we picked the car chase in “Nightcrawler” as our favorite action sequence. To find out what came top this time, take a look below. Oh, and be warned, SPOILERS ahead.
16. ”Furious 7″ — Azerbaijan Convoy Boost
In the record-breaking seventh installment of the meat-and-petrolhead franchise, Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris and the terminally aggravating Tyrese Gibson character drive a bunch of cars out of a plane. They also land them, overtake a convoy of bad guys (including a wasted Tony Jaa), rescue some woman, and then Paul Walker is all like RAWR and nearly falls off a cliff, but Michelle Rodriguez drives her car up to the cliff and he jumps and it’s all YAAAY. But really, let’s not pretend this sequence is about anything but the fact they drive cars out of a plane. It’s a plane and they drive cars out of it. The plane is large and mid-flight, the cars are car-sized, and they leave the plane inside of them. They steer their jalopies, thereby exiting the aircraft. They depart the flying machine via the medium of automobile. Later they will drive a car out of one building, into another and then out of the second one, but that’s nothing on driving cars out of planes, which we have already seen them do. An airplane, that is, that contains a bunch of cars until, at 15,000 feet or so, it suddenly no longer contains any cars. Because they have driven them out of the airplane. The reason this scene is on this list is because it is about cars being driven out of a plane. Thank you for your time.
15. ”Spy” — Kitchen Fight
It may be in the context of a comedy, but Paul Feig‘s hit “Spy” has some pretty brilliantly choreographed action scenes too, which are played for thrills as well as laughs. And the best at walking that line (which is quite an achievement considering it doesn’t actually feature bona-fide action star Jason Statham, who is also in the cast) is this funny, frenetic fight between Melissa McCarthy‘s Susan Cooper and a female assailant in a kitchen. What’s so unusual here is that despite the obvious physical perfection and training of McCarthy’s opponent, as she leaps impossibly across counters and lunges with deadly accuracy with various blades, the humor of the scene actually derives not from their relative sizes, but from Cooper’s epic resourcefulness. In the face of her attacker’s relentless thrusts and punches, she defends herself using a series of unlikely but quite believable kitchen accoutrements — from a head of lettuce and a baguette to a series of frying pans, with which she’s something of a demon. Shot with a kind of Jackie Chan-like eye for an off-kilter angle, but kept fluid and comprehensible and grounded at the same time, the sequence hits all possible jackpots for “Spy,” being no-holds-barred forceful and silly all while building a sense of the resilience and quick reflexes of the terminally underestimated Cooper.
14. ”Tomorrowland” — House-Storming Sequence
Brad Bird‘s expensive passion project seemed to unite audiences and critics in indifference, though it has its avid fans ’round here — well, one anyway. But even for those less than enamored of its wide-eyed, rather preachy idealism, there were some elements that worked well, making the most of the generous budget and of the capacious family-friendly imagination of its director. Somewhat suggesting that George Clooney’s gruff, embittered Frank is in fact the older version of Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) from “Home Alone,” when the nasty robot men with their fabulously fake cartoon smiles locate Casey (Britt Robertson) holed up with him, and try to take the house by force, they are met with a series of increasingly elaborate booby traps. Trapdoors; decapitating electric circuitry; portable, um, portal thingies; invisible laser nets across doors; magnetized walls; and ejector bathtubs — you name it, there’s no ingenious doodad that Frank hasn’t dreamed up for just such a scenario. But probably what makes this sequence such fun is the combination of new, fizzy electro-futuristic gizmos with very basic, practical stuff-to-hand: fireplace pokers and lamps and baseball bats, so the CG and special effects don’t overwhelm a sense of reality.
13. ”Ant-Man” — Briefcase Fight
Appropriately set in a briefcase seeing as it’s so, er, brief, this little sliver of terrifically oddball action is almost the distillation of everything that’s good and weird about Marvel’s “Ant-Man.” In miniaturized form, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) tumble weightless inside a closed briefcase, as keys and papers and USB sticks and a packet of Lifesavers roll around inside there too — and, of course, an iPod, which, in the twist that simply makes the sequence, is voice-activated to play (of all songs) The Cure‘s “Disintegration.” It only lasts for the first few bars of the intro before the case plummets into a backyard swimming pool, but in those gloriously strange moments you get one of the most genuinely lovely and surreal sequences that any Marvel film has yielded to date. Yes, it’s hardly that action-y, really; in fact, in many ways, it’s actually the breather sandwiched between other action scenes — the fight in the helicopter and the fight in the backyard. But its sheer, giggly inventiveness, especially with that unexpectedly sublime moment of inspired soundtracking, is enough to place it on this list for us, even if not a punch is landed and not a kick connects for the duration.
12. ”Spectre” — Day of the Dead Opening
The main reason that “Spectre” was largely a disappointment was that it was, well, not a very good film. But one contributing factor was that its opening action sequence, that has been a hallmark of the franchise for decades, was an especially good one, setting a high-water mark that the rest of the film fell quite far short of. Beginning with a very modish unbroken tracking shot and culminating in the exact opposite — a chopped-up, frenetically edited helicopter battle over a crowded city square — “Spectre”‘s opening went places Bond hadn’t really gone before, while also referencing previous Bond tropes, from the skeleton costumes of the Day of the Dead parade that are reminiscent of “Live and Let Die,” to the fact that Bond has managed to score a gorgeous, unnamed and narratively unnecessary woman (Stephanie Sigman) before the film even starts. The cut does come, but then so does a genuinely great explosion and building-collapse sequence, which leads to a foot chase and finally a corkscrewing, barrel-rolling helicopter above a screaming crowd. Bond pre-credits sequences are supposed to be the appetizer course for the film, not the basket into which you pile all the eggs, but this one was so packed we had almost no time to stuff the cotton in our ears before Sam Smith‘s awful bleating theme tune struck up.
11. “In The Heart Of The Sea” — Whale Hunt
Ron Howard’s epic Moby Dick Year One origin movie, as it were, isn’t entirely successful (our review): Its old-fashioned storytelling is a bit admirable until it just devolves into tired and familiar clichés, and its cast and characters aren’t great. But the film’s mid-section is terrific. Up there with the best of anything Ron Howard’s ever made, the second act of the film features one long whale-hunt action set-piece. It’s mostly not verbal and like a procedural about whaling and fishing. The spoon-fed dialogue disappears and we simply watch men in action. Moreover, this first hunting sequence conveys such grand cinematic scale and visual grandeur. There’s a visceral sense throughout: the punishing texture of crashing waves, the bitter cold, and a brutal physicality to it all. An earlier scene, the Essex ship fighting a sea storm, is similar and equally tactile and grueling. What’s more, the VFX and CGI here is top-notch stuff, like a mix of the best of “Gravity” and “Life Of Pi.” Now if only as much effort was put into the actual story…
10. “Victoria” — Pretty Much The Whole Second Half But Mostly The Shootout At The End
As you probably know, “Victoria,” from German director Sebastian Schipper, is a two-hour-eighteen-minute film that doesn’t cut once — unlike even last year’s “Birdman,” it was all filmed in one continuous take. And so it’s hard to isolate one particular pulse-pounding moment, as part of the film’s effect is cumulative; after two hours of no cuts, your brain is kind of strung out anyway and longing for the relief of an edit, just like the film’s characters are getting increasingly desperate and ragged. So of course, it culminates in perhaps the most stressful situation you can imagine — a shootout between the newly minted bank robbers and the police in pursuit. Maintaining the you-are-there immediacy, DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen has us scrambling for cover behind walls, returning fire and making a run for it alongside Victoria (Laia Costa) and her boyfriend of a few minutes, Sonne (Frederick Lau). With its necessarily shaky hand-held aesthetic, and street-level view of a particularly un-beautiful area of Berlin, this is far from the most polished entry on this list, but damned if it isn’t one of the most borderline-epilepsy-inducing exciting.
9. ”Blackhat” — Street-side Ambush/Shootout
Michael Mann‘s thriller is willfully untrendy, dealing with an easily dateable plot about hacking, and favoring mood over action in general. But it’s still baffling to us, as apparently its staunchest defenders, why it was quite as reviled as it was, as the flip side of those very qualities gives us an unusually restrained, clean-lined film, put together with Mann’s characteristic flair and understated edginess. And it does boast a couple of great action scenes — the shootout in the container park; and then this one, a weirdly dramatic-yet-anticlimactic roadside shootout, kicked off by an unexpected explosion. Mann’s embrace of digital means that yes, the film does not have the same texture as his earlier, better-received movies — but in exchange there’s an immediacy to the images that feels oddly real, even when they’re slo-mo. Mostly, we suppose there’s a like-it-or-loathe-it rawness here that comes from the simplicity of the staging with Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang taking refuge behind a flimsy billboard before, in a matter of moments, their potential rescuers (Viola Davis and Holt McCallany) draw up alongside and are promptly snuffed out. It’s an off-kilter, unsettling action scene, but Mann still shoots it with such clarity that it’s hard not to cringe away from the flying bullets.
8. “Creed” — One-Shot Boxing Match
One of the reasons it was hard to get excited about this recent run of boxing movies is that, with the sport having been at the center of Hollywood movies for at least three-quarters of a century, filmmakers increasingly seem struggle to find new ways to shoot the actual fights. Sometimes, it seems like everyone saw “Raging Bull,” and then decided that was how they’d shoot ring scenes. But Ryan Coogler wasn’t prepared to settle for some artful slo-mo when it came to his movie “Creed” — instead, the filmmaker, in only his second feature, took the ambitious gamble of shooting the title character’s first big bout, against Leo Sporino (Gabe Rosado), in one extremely fluid, unbroken take. And not unbroken in a “Birdman”-esque let’s-pan-up-to-the-sky-every-so-often way, but legitimately shot without a cut (take eleven was used: you can only imagine how exhausted Michael B. Jordan and his opponent must have been by then). It’s a near-reinvention of boxing on screen, making it less about the punches and more about the movement, but the brilliance of the way Maryse Alberti’s camera moves isn’t just in its capturing of the fight, but of the sidelines, too: with Tessa Thompson’s love interest and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky often glimpsed cheering or fearing from the other side of the ropes.
7. ”Slow West” — Final Shootout
A lovely, offbeat little film that sadly seems to have fallen off most radars, John Maclean’s Western (set distinctively with the snow-capped mountains and skies of New Zealand standing in for the Colorado territories) is indeed, for the most part, slow. But it’s a sweet sort of slowness, as grasping rogue Silas (Michael Fassbender) falls into a kind of paternal love with the hopelessly naïve, lovestruck Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee, perfect casting). They journey across the countryside to reach Rose, the girl Jay loves (excellent newcomer Caren Pistorius), evading the clutches of Silas’ old gang led by Ben Mendelsohn, until the showdown that has been brewing finally arrives. What’s particularly impressive is that the shootout is brutal and uncompromising, yet manages to stay in keeping with the film’s very gently loopy, folk-ballad vibe, whether it’s Mendelsohn’s cohorts popping up from the tall wheat like malevolent whack-a-moles, or Fassbender’s bit of business with his cigar. Of course, the fatalism and the romance of the story kind of dooms us to tragedy, which duly happens, but even then Maclean has a poetic, melancholy touch — like when minutes elapse before Rose even realizes who it is that she has shot, to yield one of the prettiest and the most ironic action scenes of the year, and perhaps the saddest too.
6. “The Assassin” — Silver Birch Forest Fight
“Beautiful,” “enigmatic” and “Wait — who won?” are not words and phrases normally associated with martial-arts scenes. But Hou Hsiao-Hsien‘s ineffably gorgeous and virtually impenetrable “The Assassin” is about as similar to a traditional martial-arts film as it is to “Weekend at Bernie’s,” which is to say: not at all. Eschewing the more visceral pleasures that international audiences might expect from a wuxia picture (it’s nowhere near as linear as even, for example, “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon“), Hou’s sense of rhythm is considered to the point of glacial, but then punctuated with short, staccato bursts of surprisingly unadorned, physically believable fighting (not much wire work, if any). For the action fan, it may feel like little more than a morsel, but as this short billowy fracas amid languorous shots in a birch forest shows, it’s a delicious one. Here, the heroine Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) exchanges a flurry of short-blade thrusts and parries with a mysterious masked lady (played by Zhou Yun, who also plays Lady Tian, for those of you looking for clues). Also check out the early scene in a dark forest, in which flashing blades amid the foliage are all we see of combat, to see just how oblique and unusual Hou’s take on action scenes can be.
5. ”Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” — Opera House Assassination Attempt
In the press surrounding the release of Christopher McQuarrie‘s installment of the Tom Cruise blockbuster franchise, a great deal was made out of the fact that for the underwater scene, which is in many ways the film’s trademark centerpiece “heist,” Tom Cruise trained himself to hold his breath for six minutes — pretty impressive, but maybe even more so when you watch the film and realize actually it’s not even the most memorable action sequence in it. Above ground, the film’s most memorable set piece occurs (where else) backstage, onstage, above stage and in the lighting booth of the Vienna Opera House during a performance of “Turandot.” Cruise’s Ethan Hunt must foil three potential assassins in their plot to kill the Austrian Prime Minister and/or each other and/or him, and must do so while swinging on shifting platforms designed as theater rigging. A James Bond scene rendered with just a dash of Donkey Kong, the witty, well-laid-out sequence culminates with a classic moral moment, in which Hunt has both remaining assassins in his sights, but only one chance to take a shot. His solution to the dilemma is classic outside-the-box spy thinking, just as the whole sequence is classic fun spy-movie cool, all tuxedos and ball gowns and flutes that turn into guns.
4. ”Sicario” — Border Shoot-Out
Denis Villeneuve‘s cerebral procedural thriller is hardly what you’d necessarily think of as action-packed. But the level of tension he ratchets up at times as we anticipate a release that may or may not come is remarkable. One moment that demonstrates that control more than maybe any other in this rigorously controlled film is the sprawling, nerve-wracking border-crossing shoot-out scene, in which an apocalyptic traffic bottleneck pressure-cooks a volatile situation to an exploding point. Villeneuve, along with cinematographer Roger Deakins, creates such an awareness of space, confinement and geography (right down to the sightlines between the potential shooters and the car full of cops, including Emily Blunt‘s Kate Macer) that as time ticks mercilessly on, it becomes progressively more uncomfortable, almost itchy to watch. And when the first volley sounds, it’s almost a relief, although the palpable sense of confusion that then reigns (reflecting Kate’s moral confusion too) feels just as panicked. There are action scenes that are all about balletic choreography, but then there are ones like these that make you simply feel as if you are there, trapped in an escalating situation over which you have no control.
3. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — Millennium Falcon Escape
*** If you want to go into “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” totally fresh, skip this writeup, and come back after you’ve seen the movie. ***
While “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” features no shortage of action sequences from big space battles to one-on-one showdowns, the most memorable is also one of the simplest. Early on, with the First Order ruthlessly tracking them down, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and BB-8 have to make a hasty escape from Jakku. Running out of options, they’re forced to put their faith in a hulking, seemingly inoperable ship that has seen better days: the Millennium Falcon. While the trio don’t know what to make of the vehicle, the audience is well aware of what the freighter can do, and director J.J. Abrams wonderfully plays what follows by combining character discovery and audience expectation. The biggest ship she’s ever piloted, it takes Rey a few moments to get acquainted with the Millennium Falcon’s personality, but once she gets the hang of it, Abrams creates a thrilling aerial spectacle. It’s a sequence that’s wholly modern and unlike anything in George Lucas’ films, as the camera swoops up, follows the ship upside down, rights itself, and shimmies and squeezes through all the places Rey takes the Millennium Falcon as she evades the TIE fighters on her tail. Meanwhile, the sequence allows Finn an opportunity to hone his brewing blaster skills, as he tries to keep the enemy at bay. The escape from Jakku is perhaps the purest popcorn moment in ‘The Force Awakens,’ and maybe because of that, unencumbered from having to drive any major story beats, it’s also one of the best.
2. “The Revenant” — Bear Attack
Alejandro G. Iñárritu over the magic of “Star Wars”? Are you nuts? To be fair, we don’t really look at it that way, but if ‘The Force Awakens’’s aforementioned action sequence is a thrilling scene that will likely make you explode into applause and whoops and hollering, “The Revenant” and its bear attack moment just barely edges it out with a scene that is a full-out assault. The scene has been called a “rape” because Matt Drudge is an idiot who will obviously print anything that crosses his desk, true. But, while it’s really a bear mauling with no sexual assault to it (oh god, you fucking dummies), there is a quality to it plundering the audience. Iñárritu’s movie is essentially about a fur trapper who is mauled by a bear and somehow crawls back from the brink of death to enact vengeance on those sworn to protect him who actually left him for dead. And so this bear attack is the movie’s first-act centerpiece, and what a violent flashpoint it is. A triumph of practical effects and terrific CGI, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is brutally maimed, stomped on and thrown around repeatedly. It’s a terrifying, visceral scene that one needs to watch between the cracks in one’s hands. Every inch of DiCaprio is bludgeoned and thrashed to his limits, and you also have to give shout-outs to the actor; the sound mixing; and, well, all of it. This is the best of technical abilities working in concert to throw you into what feels like the heart of a mortally wounding incursion. No 3D is employed, but man, does this terrific scene make it feel like it’s ravaging all your senses.
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” — Sandstorm Chase Scene
We’re completely spoiled for choice when it comes to George Miller‘s action masterpiece: Do we go with the big chase with Immortan Joe and the flamethrower guitar dude? The ambush in the pass? The bit where Max and Furiosa (Charlize Theron) turn out to be an unexpectedly synchronous team as he drives (and shoots) while she faces down the bikers who assail from all sides? Short of filling half this list with ‘Fury Road’ clips (which we’re not sure why we didn’t, to be honest), we’ll go for the simplest choice: the first big set-piece chase in which Furiosa first goes properly rogue and leads her pursuers into a massive sandstorm. The apocalyptic wall of orange sand is a glorious, painterly wide anyway (reminiscent of the Halo drop clouds in “Godzilla“) but when we get in there, the pace increases to a bruising, pounding rhythm, as entire vehicles are tossed into the bright red air and crashes, collisions and chaos reign. And amid all of this we get instantly iconic moments, like Nicholas Hoult‘s War Boy screaming “What a lovely day,” spraying his mouth with chrome and bellowing “Witness!” at his bloodbag Max (Tom Hardy). Because oh yes, this is an exploding, infinitesimally detailed A-bomb of an action sequence, yet the film’s putative star and title character is trussed up and useless for the duration.
What else did we consider? Well, there was the impressive opening sequence of the otherwise oh-yeah-that-came-out-this-year “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” the battle at the beginning of “Macbeth,” the botched assassination sequence in terrific Korean period actioner “Assassination,” the velociraptor chase in “Jurassic World,” the final rescue attempt in “The Martian,” the church fight in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” the pub bombing in “’71,” the black-goo sequence in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2,” the Krays fighting in “Legend,” the stampede sequence in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wolf Totem,” and the boat-chase in the background in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
It’s also worth noting that we haven’t yet seen the “Point Break” remake, which might have cracked the list. And a special small-screen shout-out to the hallway fight in “Daredevil.” Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.
— Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth