Howard Hawks famously said that the secret to a good movie was to have “three great scenes and no bad ones,” and several of this year’s Best Picture nominees live up to (or exceed) that standard. More impressively, all of the nine films that are currently in contention for Hollywood’s highest honor have at least one extraordinary moment, at least one indelible passage that indicates why so many people have been seduced by the project. Mileage will vary, but maybe we can agree on that. (No? Well, it was worth a shot.)
Here are the single best scenes from all nine of this year’s Best Picture nominees. Consider this your spoiler alert for all of them.
“Call Me by Your Name”
For the first 120 minutes or so of “Call Me by Your Name,” Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is more of a peripheral character than anything else. He’s the personification of the plot device needed to introduce his teenage son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) to his hulking summer intern, Oliver (Armie Hammer), and he fades into the background once that love connection is in motion — into the background, but not out of sight. He’s always there, minding his own business, his thoughts lost in the antiquities that bring him and his family to northern Italy ever summer. Sometimes you can hear his voice from another room, muttering about old art or talking to Elio’s mother; sometimes he’s just a presence, a gentle context, a benevolent sense of history.
But Mr. Perlman has been paying attention. He can glean as much from his son as he can from the ancient statues they pull from the sea. And after showing the kind of patience that only a parent can muster, he offers Elio the kind of perspective that only a few parents could ever give. In an extraordinarily beautiful monologue that audiences have been buzzing about since “Call Me by Your Name” premiered at Sundance last January, Mr. Perlman lays it all on the table. The words are lifted almost verbatim from André Aciman’s source material, but Stuhlbarg charges them with a new energy, his character stepping out of the shadows as a fully realized character with his own regrets, his own heartbreaks, and his own hopes for the future. There are so many complementary undercurrents running beneath this indelible scene that it can be easy to overlook how no movie moment has ever so perfectly captured the feeling of finally seeing a parent as their own person for the very first time. If only the Academy had been able to see that, too.
There’s a part towards the end of “Darkest Hour” where Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) hops on the tube for some time with the common folk and… just kidding. Okay, so not every scene in Joe Wright’s hyper-theatrical biopic quite manages to stick the landing, but three cheers for another Dunkirk movie that swings for the fences, that effectively sews a human story into one of the defining historical moments of the 20th century.
Nowhere does the film do a more fluid job of navigating between the personal and the political than in the sequence where it stretches both elements to their greatest extremes. It begins with the newly appointed Prime Minister delivering his first propaganda speech to the country, a characteristically soaring oratory meant to stir false hope in the face of almost certain annihilation. Churchill knows that it’s a terrible lie, and that lie follows him on his sad walk home as he trundles through the tunnels that lead back to his residence, pathetic and alone. Wright engulfs him in an exaggerated darkness, this roaring lion of a man humiliated by the contrast between the power of his words and the powerlessness of his station. We see his regal wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) pacing around in their living room, anxiously waiting to unpack what just happened. “You did marvelously,” she tells him, and maybe she means it. Or maybe she’s just lying to her husband so that she might be able to continue lying to herself.
Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture
To a certain extent, you could almost make the case that there aren’t really any scenes in “Dunkirk.” You couldn’t, but almost. The purest and most purposeful distillation of Christopher Nolan’s symphonic approach to cinematic storytelling, “Dunkirk” inherently deflects attention away from the power of discrete moments, its non-linear nature crescendoing into a whole that’s considerably more powerful than the sum of its parts. You could awe at individual shots from this movie all day long, but focus too much energy on any one narrative beat would be like singling out a grain of sand in an hourglass.
On the other hand, “Dunkirk” crescendoes so brilliantly that it’s easy to look at the last 15 minutes of this movie — when all of its various threads are knotting together — and see them as clean proof of Nolan’s successful plotting. But there’s one bit in this beautifully orchestrated madness that might stick to your bones a little bit more than everything else. After 30-odd minutes of eluding German planes in the skies between England and France, a Royal Air Force pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy) finally runs out of gas. Gliding over the beaches of Dunkirk after it’s already clear that the evacuation has been successful, Farrier cuts a graceful silence above the grotesqueries of war. His troubles are just beginning, but there’s something about the stillness of that moment that brings new clarity to the chaos below.
A broadly commercial horror story about a black guy trying to survive his first weekend with his white girlfriend’s family, “Get Out” makes no bones about calling out two-faced racism, taking particular exception to “the good ones” who are woke by day and asleep by night. The whole premise is bound together by “the sunken place,” a hypnotized condition suspended between those two states that doubles as a vivid metaphor for black minimization in white society. The scene in which his hero is first pulled down there is one for the ages, in no small part thanks to Daniel Kaluuya’s magnificent performance. Paralyzed in place, the actor does more with his eyes than most actors can do with their entire bodies, his streaking teardrops making it impossible to deny just how real the sunken place really is.
Let’s be honest, this is an exercise in absurdity. “Lady Bird” is pretty much just 150 perfect scenes (give or take) in rapid succession, and singling out any one of them as the “best” would be like picking the best individual backstroke in a record-setting Olympic swim relay. In light of that unassailable fact, it seems the only proper course of action is to highlight the scene that carries the most weight — that does the most work. And in Greta Gerwig’s voracious coming-of-age story about a Sacramento teen who’s trying to make sense of herself, that scene happens to be the film’s first.
Following a few quick moments in a motel room, we’re properly introduced to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf) as they drive home from an exploratory college trip. After reaching the end of their “The Grapes of Wrath” audiobook, our wingless heroine and her mother launch into the conversation that understandably became the bedrock of the film’s marketing campaign. “I wish I could live through something,” Lady Bird says. “Aren’t you?” Marion replies. By the time Lady Bird hurls herself out of the moving car less than one minute later, we’ve learned two lifetimes’ worth of things about these women.
In a remarkably dense film without a single wasted second, no other scene is stuffed with quite as much information as this one. Through a frantic but wholly natural tempest of dialogue, Gerwig and her two actresses convey everything we’ll need to know for the next year to come: The year is 2002, Lady Bird feels like she’s outgrown her home town, Marion worries that she hasn’t given her daughter the life she dreams of, and the constant specter of money (or the lack thereof) is seeping into the raw sewage of love and guilt and resentment that runs between them. Lady Bird and her mom might not see eye-to-eye, but this exchange is all it takes for us to understand their respective points of view.
One of the unexpected delights of this year’s awards season is that people have really cottoned to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” — its box office performance might suggest a less deserving fate for the perverse period romance, but, for all its strangeness, this immaculately tailored story of love and other poisons seems to fit the vast majority of the people who’ve been willing to try it on. At the very least, it’s already proven to be a lot more quotable than PTA’s last few efforts; some of the barbs traded between designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his indomitable sister (Lesley Manville) seem to be destined for the same degree of immortality as “I drink your milkshake!”
For instance, Cyril: “Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor. Understood?”
And Reynolds: “The tea is leaving, but the interruption is staying right here with me.”
But it’s Alma, the soft-spoken waitress who blows into the House of Woodcock and refurbishes the whole place from the inside out, who owns the film’s most memorable lines. Some, she gives voice to herself (“You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to”). Others, she simply inspires. It’s her handiwork that’s ultimately responsible for the movie’s single greatest moment, which arrives at the tail end of a love story that until then has seemed like anything but. It’s Reynolds who says the magic words, but it’s Alma — so much more than a muse — who inspires them: “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.”
There are a handful of moments in “The Post” that are as perfect as anything that Steven Spielberg has ever dreamed up, in no small part because he shoots his journalistic drama about the Pentagon Papers with such propulsive energy that you half expect Indiana Jones to show up and whip President Nixon. But the film’s standout beats tend to be a bit quieter, the big machine of history slowing down to focus on the humanity of the people who made it possible. In fact, the story’s most crucial moment is one of its smallest, as Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) — newspaper heiress and publisher of “The Washington Post” — makes the fateful decision to risk it all and run the story. Playing Graham as a rich woman who’s finally discovering her own worth, Streep stutters the order in a way that perfectly speaks to the disconnect between her message and its magnitude.
The scene is echoed a few minutes later, as reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) sits down at his typewriter to change the world, the printing press groaning to life in the basement below him. The whole building starts to heave — the power of journalism is literally causing the earth to move under his feet. It sounds kinda hokey, but it feels so damn good.
“The Shape of Water”
“The Shape of Water” has recently been accused of plagiarizing from a handful of pre-existing films, and — given the long and well-documented history of movies about mute janitors humping up against humanoid fish men — perhaps that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. All kidding aside, Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fable is actually somewhat derivative by design. A sweetly morbid story about finding the cure for loneliness where you least expect it, the movie is a self-evident ode to the movies themselves; to that extraordinary feeling of being seen as you sit in the dark. This is a fairy tale in which the heroine lives in a floundering movie palace, in which her neighbor is constantly watching the Cold War equivalent of Turner Classic Movies, in which some people watched “Frankenstein” and actually took its moral to heart. Not to conflate theft with reinvention, but if “The Shape of Water” unconsciously borrows from the films that came before it, it does so to create a world in which cinema seeps off the screen.
Naturally, the film’s standout sequence is a grand homage to old Hollywood, as our silent heroine (Sally Hawkins) launches into a dream dance with her amphibian lover (Doug Jones). Suddenly endowed with a singing voice, as though the movies gave her the expressive power that God had denied, Elisa imagines herself transported into a Busby Berkley-style musical where she and her “asset” perform the kind of show-stopper that most other films might have played for laughs. Shot in ravishing black-and-white and soundtracked to Alice Faye’s “You’ll Never Know, Just How Much, I Love You” (from William A. Seiter’s 1944 USO picture, “Four Jills in a Jeep”), the beautiful scene finally allows del Toro to translate this love story into his first language.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Much has been written about how Martin McDonagh’s Golden Globes winner goes off the rails, with the film misjudging how a little bit of middle-American mayhem could motivate a story about healing the country’s deepest wounds. Wesley Morris was right on the money when he referred to it as “a cupcake rolled in glass.” But before McDonagh bites off more than he can chew — before everyone starts bleeding all over the place — the film plays host to some extraordinary human moments.
The best of them comes early on, when Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) pays a visit to Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) to chat with her about the titular signage, which the grieving mother has bought in an effort to shame the local police department into finding her daughter’s killer. You suspect that this is going to be an adversarial confrontation (not least of all because Mildred’s signs call out Chief Willoughby by name), but the scene immediately subverts expectations, the anguished cop arriving with hat in hand.
Mildred naturally doesn’t give a shit (“The time it’s took you to come out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl’s probably being butchered right now”), but there’s something of a mutual understanding between them, one that’s underlined by Willoughby’s admission of terminal cancer. Mildred’s gotta do what she’s gotta do, but the grimace that’s left on her face after Willoughby walks away tells you everything you need to know about what’s in her heart. It’s not Willoughby’s fault that the world is so fucked, but we’ve all got to leave it better than we found it.