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The Best Scenes of 2015

The Best Scenes of 2015

1. The projector scene, “45 Years

There are many moments in Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” which expose the shifting and rumbling tectonic plates of a four-decade marriage, but none do so with as much earth-shattering clarity and emotional resonance as this. Alone in the house, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) grapples with the newfound revelation that her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), had a passionate marriage — and promising future — with a woman just a year before she met him. Perturbed by Geoff’s cagey deflections, Kate decides to investigate. She climbs into their dusty, dark and oppressively silent attic — a place which she hadn’t visited for years, but which, in light of recent events that stirred the past, Tom has been visiting with alarming frequency. After some casual snooping, she discovers a projector, and with dogged determination sets it up to display. Click, click, click. Haigh stays on Kate’s face for what feels like an interminable amount of time. The only illumination comes from the swath of photographic colors splayed across her face as it registers astonishment, disbelief and then deep pain. As Kate eavesdrops on someone else’s past, we not only experience the bittersweet pangs of nostalgia for the half-remembered chasms of memory, but also a strange meta-nostalgia for the analog projector itself. And then, finally, Haigh grants us access to what she’s seeing. With two more devastating clicks, we see are brought into her experience; with a third, we experience a new series of photographs, and with it a discovery so gut-wrenching it feels like our own ineluctable truth. (Emily Buder)

READ MORE: The 13 Most Criminally Overlooked Indies and Foreign Films of 2015

2. When the lights go out, “Ex Machina

In every sci-fi film there’s a game-changing scene that alters the course of the narrative. As it usually goes, a piece of information is revealed which awakens an entire universe of new possibilities; thus, the rules of the world are changed. In “Ex Machina,” that scene is an early conversation between Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ava (Alicia Vikander), the A.I. robot Caleb has been assigned to befriend in order to test the limits of her complex human emotions and reasoning. All of their conversations are routine and recorded, but during this one, the power goes out. Caleb is at a loss for words, but Ava has other plans. She uses this brief glitch to convey a haunting message to Caleb: Don’t trust Nathan (the lead scientist, played by Oscar Isaac). Before Caleb has a chance to inquire further, the lights are restored. The two continue talking as if nothing happened, but the rules of the world have irreversibly changed for Caleb, who no longer knows who to trust — his human boss, or the cunning robot whom his boss has programmed into autonomy? This is one of those gasp-worthy scenes that has you hooked completely thereafter. (Emily Buder)

3. Dinner at Tony’s, “Brooklyn

As director John Crowley has explained it, the second act dinner scene in his deeply charming “Brooklyn” functions as a meeting of “two clans,” one made up of young Tony’s (Emory Cohen) sprawling Italian-American family (including his spunky younger brother, who steals the scene as an old man trapped in a boy’s body). The family is busy alternating between eating spaghetti and eyeing up recent Irish immigrant Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a clan of just one. Eilis and Tony are still feeling each other out, but the dinner signals big things for both of them. It’s a step forward; it’s a possibility; and it may even be some kind of promise. Yet despite the heavy dramatic undertones, Crowley and his spry cast keep the scene feeling light, fresh and admirably relatable. In a film that’s punctuated by its ability to make even deeply specific experiences feel universal, this cozy family dinner might just be the best one. (Kate Erbland)

4. Lightning storm on the Mediterranean, “Mediterranea

In September of this year, an image of a drowned Syrian toddler whose body washed up on the Turkish shore ignited universal empathy for what felt like the first time since the refugee crisis began. Jonas Carpignano’s “Mediterranea” is that photograph in cinematic form. Following two African migrants as they travel to Italy’s southern shore, Carpignano applies a hardened vérité approach to the realities of life as a refugee. In one spectacular scene, a ramshackle boat crowded with migrants is alone at night in the midst of the raging Mediterranean sea. The deafening sound of roaring waves drowns out frightened screams. The boat pitches and lurches. The sky is alive with an awe-inspiring thunderstorm and the migrants are at the mercy of nature as bolts of lightning cast them in between a world of primordial darkness and a hellish nightmare. The scene is not only one of the most incredible cinematic achievements this year, but it’s also a reminder of the existential loneliness of the migrant’s plight. (Emily Buder)

5. A hawk in the sky, “Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson’s experimental “Heart of a Dog” invites us to draw parallels between its meandering anecdotes and stream-of-consciousness memories. At best, these connections feel deeply existential; at worst, they feel incidental. But there is one juxtaposition in particular that evokes nothing short of profound brilliance. While Anderson is on a hike in the Bay Area with her faithful canine companion Lolabelle, a hawk swoops down from the sky and nearly snatches the dog (evidently having mistaken the rat terrier for an actual rat). Anderson describes witnessing an expression of unprocessed horror in her dog’s face. In the minutes that follow, Lolabelle, having been blissfully ignorant of her vulnerability, directs her paranoid attention towards the sky: “A whole 180 more degrees that I’m now responsible for; I mean, I never thought of that,” Anderson narrates. “And the rest of the time we were in the mountains she just kept looking over her shoulder and trotting along with her head in the air, her eyes scanning the thin sky, like there’s something wrong with the air. And I thought, where have I seen this look before? And then I realized it was the same look on the faces of my neighbors in New York, in the days right after 9/11, when they suddenly realized, first, that they could come…from the air. And second, that it would be that way from now on. And we had passed through a door, and we would never be going back.” The scene is a testament to the power of our private meaning-making — and to the cosmic implications of deeply personal art. (Emily Buder)

6. Staking a path from the barn to the outhouse, “The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s latest may feature a second half that relies on big, bloody set pieces to drive its action, but long before his so-called hateful eight get down to the fighting, the filmmaker steadily tightens the screws on the film’s rising tension. No other scene in the film so encapsulates Tarantino’s ability to marry humor with dread than a snowstorm-set trek that sees co-stars Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and O.B. (James Parks) attempting to lay out a triangle of stakes between Minnie’s Haberdashery, the barn and the outhouse. As the men trudge through the snow and struggle to complete their task, Ennio Morricone’s score slyly edges into terrifying territory, while stunning wide shots amp up the inescapable isolation of the group. Tarantino keeps twisting away at the tension until letting it all go with a snap — and, if you’ve got the right kind of audience, a hearty laugh. (Kate Erbland)

7. The sex scene, “Anomalisa

Only in Charlie Kaufman’s weird and wonderful world can an explicit sex between two stop-motion puppets be a thing of startling beauty and fragile intimacy. It helps that each puppet is a deeply felt and well-rounded human being who is deciding to reveal a vulnerable part of themselves by engaging in a sexual tryst. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is plagued by depression, while Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) lacks self-confidence, but in this one moment they come together without fear, doubt or unhappiness to prove that real connection is possible. It’s the most emotional, awkward and real sex scene in years, and there aren’t even humans in it. (Zack Sharf)

8. The bear attack, “The Revenant”

When Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) stumbles across two bear cubs deep in the wilderness of the West, you know what’s coming. But that doesn’t render the mother bear’s attack any less horrifying. At first, the bear investigates Glass in what feels like tantalizing slow motion. Then, she launches her attack, which happens not at once but in many small waves of aggression. Just when you think the bear has satisfied herself with Glass’s severed neck, she ambles back in for another swipe, each sending Glass closer and closer to death. The brief interludes, pregnant with anticipation anxiety, are almost more torturous than the attack itself. All told, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s masterful direction keeps the intensity high without sacrificing realism so as to paint a primeval portrait of man against beast. In fact, the scene was so intense that it spurred the world’s first-ever allegations of bear rape. (Emily Buder)

9. “Speak Low,” final scene, “Phoenix

Christian Petzold’s elegant, haunting psycho-drama builds tension slowly but surely. A reversion of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” it rests on a single conceit: A woman returns from a concentration camp after WWII, undergoes facial reconstructive surgery and locates her husband — only to find that he betrayed her to the Nazis and does not recognize her at all. He does, however, recognize a likeness, and enlists Nelly (Nina Hoss) to pose as his “deceased” wife in order to collect her own family’s inheritance. Nelly decides to play along if it means reclaiming intimacy with her husband, but it becomes clear that the charade is unsustainable. The rest of the film is spent waiting for the other shoe to drop as subtle gestures and intimations between Nelly and her husband build to an inevitable crescendo. In a masterful move that harkens to the origins of theater — in which the end scene is, in fact, a culmination of the entire plot — Petzold allows the simmering suspense to finally bubble over. The effect is astonishing and unnerving. It’s the rare kind of ending which contains the originality and creative fury of the film itself; were it not for this scene, “Phoenix” might be far less remarkable. (Emily Buder)

10. Mimi-Claire’s Connecticut mansion, “Mistress America

This epic slice of screwball mastery is technically made up of several different scenes, but the self-sustained 20-minute set piece at the climax of Noah Baumbach’s generational comedy is so uproariously funny that it earns a spot among the year’s best. With the central relationship between Brooke (Greta Gerwig) and Tracy (Lola Kirke) hitting the fan as they ambush Brooke’s old friend (and now the wife of her ex-boyfriend) for money, Baumbach creates an epic comedy chess game as a handful of wacky supporting characters (from Jasmine Cephas Jones’ nagging Nicolette to Cindy Cheung’s pregnant and caught-in-the-crossfires Karen) rapidly enter and exit the frame in hilarious mayhem. Zany quips fly left and right and various subplots contort and collide at hyper-speed, making the sequence one of the funniest of the year. (Zack Sharf)

11. The final scene, “Carol

So much of the romance at the center of Todd Hayne’s sublime “Carol” is challenged by the crushing weight of oppression that the final moment hits you like an unexpected wave of radiant warmth. The heteronormative society engulfing Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) has made it impossible for them to be in love, but they seem to defy these odds in the final moments of the film as Therese chooses to follow her heart and accept Carol’s dinner invitation (and, on a larger scale, her invitation for commitment). Entering the restaurant with palpable nerves, Therese approaches Carol’s table as Haynes switches to a handheld POV shot. The intimacy here swells to its breaking point as Carol looks into the camera and Therese’s eyes and lets out an exquisite smile. After two hours of broken hearts and staggering odds, the possibility of a bright future settles in and “Carol” closes on a crescendo of romantic beauty. (Zack Sharf)

12. The long take, “Creed”

Unless you know it’s coming, the most exciting moment of any long take is when you realize it’s happening. Undoubtedly many film fans found themselves in this position when watching Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” the Warner Bros. release billed as a “Rocky” spinoff that was, of course, so much more. Coogler’s passion for the material is evident from the get-go, immediately grounding the film in a realistic aesthetic and building upon it with more authenticity. To convey that, he and cinematographer Maryse Alberti filmed Adonis “Baby” Creed’s first professional fight in a lengthy one-take for the ages. The camera holds on Adonis’ back as he enters the ring, allowing the crowd’s fervor to wash over the audience as the fighter steps into the arena. Once in the ring, we watch as Adonis ducks, bobs and jabs his way into an early deficit, the framing moving as fluidly as the fighters. Then, suddenly, there it is: the moment you realize there hadn’t been a cut. You see a dab of blood smear Leo “The Lion” Sporino’s back as Adonis pulls his head out of clinch, or you hear Rocky yell, “Now!” when the young Creed unleashes his triumphant combination. That moment adds legitimacy to the scene and to the film as a whole. Without it, “Creed” may not be the Oscar contender it is now. (Ben Travers)

13. Hiking to see the Maloja Snake, “Clouds of Sils Maria

Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” deals in the art of Russian dolls. The play within a movie within a play within a play stars Maria (Juliette Binoche) as an aging international movie star whose big break in “Maloja Snake,” a play and later a film by a famous Swiss playwright, saw her embody a callous young actress who leeches off the insecurity of an older woman. Now, Maria is being offered the role of the older woman in a revival of “Maloja Snake”; she’s jaunted off to the Alps with her new assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), to prepare for the part. There, art and life intersect in ways both beguiling and maddening. In this scene, Maria and Valentine hike to the Maloja Pass to experience the otherworldly phenomenon of the Maloja Snake, in which clouds and fog twist snake-like through the mountain pass. Tensions between the actress and her assistant are running high. Ultimately, Valentine disappears without a trace, leaving Maria to find her way back down the mountain. “The text is like an object,” Valentine says to Maria in a disagreement shortly before her disappearance. “It’s going to change perspective depending on where you’re standing.” Buried in the line is a plea for Maria to step outside her restrictive ego or else face a swift demise. The scene serves as a meeting ground for the film’s many threads of symbolism. (Emily Buder)

14. Tied to the chair, “It Follows

“It Follows” introduces the viewer to the movie’s central conceit in the most terrifying way imaginable. After losing her virginity and getting viciously assaulted by her boyfriend, Jay (Maika Monroe) wakes up strapped to a wheelchair in an abandoned parking garage. As her boyfriend lays out the groundwork for the film — he has passed on to Jay a curse in which she will be followed by a menacing “it,” and the only way to get rid of it is by sleeping with someone and passing it on to them — director David Robert Mitchell locks the camera in on Jay for a grueling long take that infuses the atmosphere with paranoia. Even when the chair is being pushed from behind, the camera remains locked and moves in front, keeping Jay confined to a claustrophobic nightmare. Rarely is exposition as terrifying as it is here. (Zack Sharf)

15. Descending into the tunnel, “Sicario

Before the intensity of “Sicario” reaches its apex as a group of CIA and FBI agents invade a cartel’s secret drug-running tunnel beneath the U.S.-Mexico border, director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins create one of the year’s most striking visual moments. The agents, dressed head-to-toe in raid gear, march through the desert toward the tunnel, their black silhouettes contrasted against a placid blue sky and the early start of a hellish sunrise in the far distance. For all the tense action that is about to play out, this pulsating image sets the tone to a mysterious and ominous degree. Beautiful and bold, foreboding and anxious, it provides a potent visual metaphor for our involvement in the war on drugs. (Zack Sharf)

16. Singing in the alley, “Shaun the Sheep Movie”

What’s the best way to cheer up a broken-hearted lamb who is far from his idyllic farmland home and stuck in the big, bad, very dirty city? A cappella, of course! In the endlessly charming feature-length version of the popular British cartoon series, baby Timmy and the rest of the flock (including star Shaun and best dog pal Bitzer) are marooned in a city that doesn’t have much use for a singing, swaying troupe of four-footed farm animals. Desperate to reconnect with their fuzzy-headed farmer, the flock takes a brief break to reprise the film’s signature song, “Feels Like Summer,” in order to pep up their flagging optimism. It works like a charm and reignites the spirit of creativity and play that make Mark Burton and Richard Starzak’s “Shaun the Sheep Movie” such a pure delight. (Kate Erbland)

READ MORE: The 15 Biggest Dick Moves of the Year, or What Enraged TV Fans in 2015

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