Earlier this week, IndieWire unveiled our list of the 100 Best Movies of the Decade.
As you might imagine, selecting those movies from the thousands that have been released over the last 10 years wasn’t an easy process. A multitude of factors went into the team’s individual and collective choices, but when we thought back on the films that defined this decade, we found ourselves returning to individual moments as a pathway into engaging with the movies around them. None of the modern classics that made it onto our list can be distilled into a single scene, but certain passages from them — like vivid flashbulb memories, or a lighthouse guiding us back to the shore — still manage to perfectly capture the essence of their full power.
From the Big Bang to Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” and from Godard to a gas station striptease, these are the 25 best movie scenes of the last 10 years.
25. “Force Majeure” — The Avalanche
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First, there’s the crack of dynamite kicking it off. Then, the low rumble and flurry of snow moving swiftly from the edge of the frame, clear enough to draw away the attention of a lunchtime crowd, loud enough to inspire at least one concerned parent (Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba, the only concerned parent, as we later come to know) to sit straight and pay attention. “But it’s controlled,” her always-unruffled husband (Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas) tosses off, wholly unbothered, his entire approach to life and emotional philosophy bundled up in one slight sentence. Still, it’s out of control, and as the avalanche rushes towards the patio, a real terror grips both the players and the audience, though no one is more terrified than Tomas, who runs — fast, and without looking back. As soon as the going gets rough, he’s out of there, leaving behind his wife and children, booking it as far away as possible, gone.
It’s this scene, both humorous and genuinely chilling (does the snow really need to take over the frame for so long? You bet it does), that sets into motion the madness that’s to come. Tomas only cares about himself, Ebba is left to pick up the pieces, and when he finally comes ambling back in, casual as anything, Ebba’s fury is impossible to overlook. Tomas, of course, totally misses it. The plot of Ruben Östlund’s black comedy breakout doesn’t sound funny at first blush — a family almost dies in an avalanche, a husband and father reveals himself to be selfish, everything crumbles — but the film is actually a wicked dark comedy. This life-or-death moment is where it starts. —KE
24. “Phoenix” — Speak Low
If you haven’t seen Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” we suggest you stop reading now (and rectify that immediately); the ending is just too damn good to be spoiled for you here.
Now, to reiterate what the rest of us already know: “Phoenix” is the kind of movie that feels transparently reverse-engineered from its final scene — it’s also the kind of movie that requires some enormous leaps in logic to get there — but that doesn’t make the denouement of Petzold’s melodramatic postwar noir any less delectable. We have to believe that Nelly (Nina Hoss) looks enough like her former self to fool her devious ex-husband, but also that the plastic surgery she received after surviving the Holocaust wasn’t so good that Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) might think he’s manipulating the supposedly dead woman to whom he was once married. Hoss’ steely, wounded performance allows the film to walk thread that needle, but it’s the way she pulls down the façade that makes the film so memorable.
Standing in front of all the people she knew in her former life, Johnny at the piano, Nelly performs a warbling rendition of the standard “Speak Low.” Her voice trembles with the pain of past trauma. And then she stuns the room into silence by exposing a small patch of skin on her arm. The closing shot of her leaving the shellshocked crowd and walking out of focus is one of the most purely satisfying moments in modern cinema, a perfect storm of moral justice, lukewarm revenge, and shattering emotional clarity. —DE
23. “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” — The Apple
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s police procedural (which, in a prelude to his Palme d’Or–winning “Winter Sleep,” took home the Granx Prix from Cannes) contains many arresting moments, none so memorable as a tracking shot of an apple rolling down a hill and into a stream. Gökhan Tiryaki’s CinemaScope photography makes this utterly simple act impossible to turn away from, in part because the film’s bleak tone suggests it might precede something awful and in part because it’s simply a beautiful shot. There are a few other apples in the spot where the one we’re watching comes to a stop, only these have already begun to decay in the water. What meaning — if any — you ascribe to that is up to you, but the moment is unforgettable in and of itself. —MN
22. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” — Karl XII
The fact of the matter is that we could have filled this entire list with scenes from Roy Andersson’s self-described “trilogy about being a human being.” All of the scenes in “Songs from the Second Floor,” “You, the Living,” and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” are wonders of morbid comic imagination. Andersson shoots each of the isolated vignettes that comprise these films in one uninterrupted take, his static (or understandably shell-shocked) camera giving its full attention to these droll tableaux of despair.
That being said, the incredible centerpiece from Andersson’s most recent film deserves special recognition, if only because of its mind-boggling scale, and the sheer number of extras (both human and horse) required to pull it off. What starts as a benign moment inside a restaurant slowly gives way to a general disquiet as the massacred army of King Charles XII sloughs into the background, the men stumbling home from their slaughter at the Battle of Poltava. Distant ghosts of the 18th century, their spirit eventually makes their play for the modern world, the young and bloodthirsty sovereign galloping off the pages of history and into the diner itself. Running for the better part of 20 minutes, the shot is a crystalline illustration of how Andersson’s signature approach allows him to flatten time into an endless continuum of defeat — it’s a show-stopping long-take in a film that consists of nothing but show-stopping long-takes. —DE
21. “Her Smell” — Heaven
Alex Ross Perry has never been a filmmaker interested in questions of character “likability,” instead opting to explore a rich minefield of misanthropes who aren’t concerned with coming out the other side of their petty dramas as “better people” or “someone who has evolved.” The major exception: Elisabeth Moss’ destructive punk rocker Becky Something in Perry’s latest, “Her Smell.” While the film mostly tracks Becky through the dying dredges of a life lived on the edge (and then way, way off of it), it eventually builds to the most unexpected of Perry twists: a chance at redemption.
After blowing up her life (and blowing off everyone in it), “Her Smell” picks back up after Becky has battled her way through some sort of rehabilitation, though her life is hardly healed. In the midst of a fraught reunion with her baby, her ex (Dan Stevens), and her former bandmate Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn), Becky turns to the one thing that might heal her: music. Downtrodden, depressed, and not at all believing in the redemptive power of whatever, she plunks out a wrenching version of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” a love song that takes on a chilling resonance when filtered through Becky. “I’m findin’ it hard to believe/We’re in heaven,” she croons and, for just a minute, hell is kept at bay. —KE
20. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” — Projecting Hope Across the Galaxy
“You think what? I’m gonna walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order?” Luke Skywalker’s despairing remarks at the beginning of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” are also a warning — the way to achieve a better galaxy shouldn’t be through the actions of any one person. If those who say “I alone can fix it” aren’t brimming with the Dark Side, who is? It should be about inspiring others to be better, and about helping everyone else find the heroism within.
But Luke’s words are also one of the most thrilling bits of foreshadowing you’ll find in any blockbuster, because he actually does face down the whole First Order! But not in the way you might expect – and certainly not to achieve a better galaxy just by killing all his enemies. Luke achieves the purest expression of what a Jedi could be by Force-projecting himself across the galaxy to confront his nephew Kylo Ren and the First Order while his beloved Resistance escapes to fight another day. The enemies aren’t defeated, but a more important goal is achieved: hope survives. Luke saves what he loves. It helps that Mark Hamill brings understated panache to the scene: his moving farewell to Leia, his wink to Threepio, his meme-ready shoulder-brush after the First Order’s laser cannons can’t atomize him. The people who hate Luke’s actions in “The Last Jedi” are the contemporary version of those who resented that Gary Cooper’s Will Kane had the audacity to ask for help and then expressed fear and despair leading up to his final showdown in “High Noon.” True heroism always comes streaked with doubt. —CB
19. “Timbuktu” — Football Is Forbidden
In Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” a jihadist reign of terror forbids the local people from enjoying music, smoking cigarettes, and even playing soccer. In one of the film’s most breathtaking scenes, a group of young Malian boys — some wearing colorful jerseys, some with appropriate shoes, others with no shoes at all — create a makeshift soccer field of their own, and play a desperate match with an invisible ball that the children track with their eyes to the point that it almost begins to seem like a physical dimension.
Without the presence of a real ball, however, the sequence becomes organized around pure movement rather than a clear goal, less of a fun game than an elegiac dance. Meanwhile, across this invaded desert vista, jihadists cruise the imaginary field on motorcycles and remind the kids of their menacing presence. In doing so, they also clarify that the invisible soccer — a séance of a more innocent time — is a brave act of resistance that crystallizes how Timbuktu’s population tries to endure the horror that’s being visited upon them. It’s a profoundly beautiful and bracingly tragic moment, and one that epitomizes the tender imagination that Sissako brings to this entire film. —TO
18. “Her” — Phone Sex
In retrospect, there’s no other way this could have gone: In Spike Jonze’s futuristic but plausible world of “Her,” a man falls in love with a computer program, who hires a sex worker to impersonate her for a round of real-world, flesh-on-flesh action. It’s touching that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) would think of such an idea, and even sweeter that Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) would only agree to the idea because he knows it will make her happy, but it will never, ever work.
Despite the addition of an empathetic and energetic actress (Portia Doubleday) to “play” Samantha, aided by an in-ear headset that tells her what to do and one that speaks directly to Theodore in Johansson’s distinct voice, the scene presents a disaster from the start. The moment Doubleday’s Isabella starts aping Samantha, it’s over. We know — and Theodore certainly knows — that Samantha is not “real” and Isabelle is not her, but the growing sense of how wrong this charade is only grows with each cringe-inducing minute. By the time Theodore rejects Isabella, as considerately as possible, and Isabella brings in with her own commentary about how special Samantha and Theodore’s love is, a crack has been forged that will only further spread. In this moment, however, it’s consuming in its terror and heartbreak, as three very different characters crumble upon realizing the true limits of life (and love). —KE
17. “Like Someone in Love” — A Voicemail from Grandma
One of Abbas Kiarostami’s last films before his death in 2016 sent the Iranian film legend to Tokyo, where he directed his actors through a translator. It follows a young sex worker named Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who is sent on a job to an elderly professor who seems entirely uninterested in sex. The job is a last-minute assignment, and in order to go, Akiko must stand up her grandmother for dinner. Sitting in the back of a taxi, we see Akiko listening to voice messages from her grandmother, whose cheery anticipation slowly turns to worry and confusion over seven wrenching messages. It’s one of the most difficult scenes to stomach in recent memory, and with no blood or violence in sight. The messages seem to rattle on endlessly, each more painful than the last. The scene is so important that Kiarostami shares writing credit with Mohammad Rahmani, who is simply listed as “screenplay collaborator: Grandmother’s messages.” —JD
16. “Mother” — The Happy Dance
There’s no other cinematic parent in recent memory who deserves the chance to literally prick her worries away and dance like no one is watching on a bus trip devoted to thanking parents for all their love and support, but Kim Hye-ja’s eponymous Mother hasn’t earned that right the easy way. It makes sense that Bong Joon-ho’s drama “Mother” is named for Kim’s nameless character, because being a mother is her deepest, truest identity.
It’s also the one that drives her to some horrifying ends, like killing the one man who might implicate her troubled son Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin) in the heinous murder that drives the film’s narrative. While Mother has already had to come to terms with the truth of the crime (and committed her own murder in the process of covering it up), in the final scene of Bong’s film, she’s forced to truly reckon with who she has become (and who she has raised). As a vague Do-joon says goodbye to his mother as she sets out for a “Thank-You Parents” bus tour, he hands her over a burnt acupuncture kit that she left at the scene of her own murder, a chilling reminder of what she’s done and how she’s no longer able to control anything her son does or says (or was she ever able to?). Seated on the bus, she takes a needle to an oft-mentioned meridian line, designed to unknot her heart and let her forget all her worst deeds. Then, she starts dancing. It’s both chilling and freeing, just like the film itself. —KE
15. “BPM” — A Tear-Jerking Handjob
The most remarkable thing about Robin Campillo’s gripping drama is that it manages to find defiant joy amongst the rubble of the AIDS crisis. Dramatized with crackling naturalism by Campillo and his ensemble of actors, the meetings of ACT UP Paris pulse with a frenetic energy that belies the tragedy waiting just outside its doors. Out of these masterfully crafted group scenes arises a tender romance between quiet newbie Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and the lively Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is HIV-positive. Their relationship provides the film’s second burst of energy, and a focal point to the introductory meetings and actions.
In the film’s most striking scene, Nathan visits Sean in the hospital before taking him home to die. Sean’s indefatigable spirit finally flagging, Nathan does what any good lover would. Backlit in silhouette, we see Nathan’s healthy frame curled over Sean’s shrinking one, as he caresses him to a final orgasm in his hospital bed. It’s at once tender, wrenching, and beautiful; a testament to a human spirit that can find joy even as the world is falling apart. —JD
14. “Girlhood” — Diamonds
At the center of Céline Sciamma’s film is a group of strong-willed young African-French women living in a poor Paris suburb. The tightly-knit group support each other in a world where they are surrounded by gang violence, misogyny, abusive family members, and drugs. Together they form a formidable crew that won’t be pushed around, but what they lack is a space (even a bedroom) to let go and be themselves. After stealing some money and dresses, the crew rent a hotel room where they put on their own private prom-like party for just themselves. When Rihanna’s “Diamonds” plays they lip sync and dance – leaving behind the problems and pressures of the outside world – and in cinematographer Cystel Fournier’s gorgeous blue-hued light we see them “shine like” the diamonds they are underneath the hard exteriors they have been forced to wear. It’s a moment that resonates even more after the events following this scene force some of them to bend and become something they always resisted. —CO
13. “Magic Mike XXL” — Making Her Smile
“How much for the Cheetos and water?” While you may fondly remember the best scene in a two-film series built on incredible sequences, chances are that you’ve forgotten just how good it really is. The naughty joy of watching Joe Manganiello get down in a random roadside convenience store is obviously going to be a delight to watch, but it’s the individual elements that make it such a stand-out clip in the annals of horny cinema. First, there’s Manganiello’s literal full-bodied commitment to what’s unfolding, but that’s just the start. There’s the rest of the giddy guys, screaming for more just outside. And there’s the convenience store clerk who somehow never breaks, instead opting to calmly observe Manganiello as he writhes across her story, desecrating delicious snack food and ice-cold water.
Perhaps most of all, there’s also the Backstreet Boys — yes, they are there, too, in their own way — telling us how they want it that way, and we want it that way too, and perhaps this is more than just a heartbreak. It’s impeccably cut (you always know where everyone is and what they’re doing), lensed to perfect (some everything else in the dance-heavy franchise), and so fun that you want to watch it all over again. But it also tells a complete story in the minimum of time, and it earns every second — and that big, final, inevitable smile. —KE
12. “Burning” — The Dance at Dusk
The first portion of “Burning” plays like a satisfying, naturalistic slice-of-life film. Writer-director Lee Chang-dong explores the formation of a bizarre love triangle, as two young men — one poor and awkward (Yoo Ah-in as Lee Jong-su), the other mysterious and charming (Steven Yeun as the Americanized Ben) — appear to compete for the same free spirited woman (Jeon Jong-seo as Hae-mi). The weird group dynamics reach their pinnacle when Ben and Hae-mi arrive at Jong-su’s ramshackle farm overlooking the DMZ to smoke weed and watch the sunset while Miles Davis’ stirring “Générique” blasts from Ben’s Porsche. Suddenly, as if possessed by her own ghost, Hae-mi decides to take off her shirt and dance against the blue-orange sky. Time stops. Class dissolves. National identities fuzz and overlap as they do along the border nearby. The universe is destabilized.
Absent from Haruki Murakami’s original short story, the scene is a moment of pure cinematic creation — a hypnotic reverie that casts a bewitching spell over the rest of the film. As the sun sets, a profound darkness comes into focus. Nothing is different, but everything has changed. In the past, some have dismissed Lee as a gifted screenwriter who happens to direct his own work. After the turning point in “Burning,” it’s safe to say that’s not going to happen again. —CO
11. “Get Out” — The Sunken Place
On their own, neither a teacup, nor a spoon, nor Catherine Keener is all that scary. Together, Jordan Peele turned them into a literal nightmare. It’s a sequence that elevated Peele’s “Get Out” into the best horror film of the decade and galvanized its commentary on racism in America, as the Sunken Place quickly became a sharp contemporary shorthand for black people being coerced into denying their own humanity.
“The Sunken place means we’re marginalized,” Peele explained. “No matter how hard we scream, the system still silences us.” And so it goes in the most striking moment of his debut feature, as Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is hypnotized by his girlfriend’s mother (Catherine Kenner), and drawn into reliving a tragic memory. She forces him to reveal his soul, and then she rips that soul right out of his body with the ease of someone who’s done it 1,000 times before. The tension between the two actors here is fraught and palpable, as Kaluuya threads the difference between old trauma and new torture, while Keener responds to him with an ice cold reserve. It’s an immensely tense scene, and destined to be analyzed in college classrooms and remembered as an emblematic flashpoint of its era. —TO
10. “Under the Skin” — The Baby on the Beach
Jonathan Glazer spends the majority of the first hour of “Under the Skin” simply observing his main character, a female alien roaming around Glasgow to find men she can seduce back to the void and harvest for her home planet. Her detachment — her abject lack of humanity — is so complete that it assumes a narrative force of its own. No moment is more chilling for its lack of empathy than the sequence in which the alien (Scarlett Johansson) witnesses a tragedy while walking along a beach. Two parents are drowning in the rough ocean waters while their baby sits alone on the beach and cries. A swimmer tries to save the couple but when he washes ashore the alien beats him over the head with a rock. She leaves with the swimmer’s body, while the baby — now almost certainly an orphan — sits on the sand as the tide grows ever closer.
The ice cold matter-of-factness of Glazer’s storytelling tells the viewer everything they need to know about the alien’s view of humanity. Glazer keeps his camera objective, opting for emotionally removed shots that exaggerate the space between character and viewer so that we’re compelled to internalize the alien’s diamond-hard apathy. As dominant as Mica Levi’s score can be in the film, Glazer director mutes it here, and instead elects to heighten the tension through the diegetic noise of the environment. The distant imagery and the overwhelming sounds of waves crashing on the shore create a singularly cinematic expression of life without meaning. —ZS
9. “Moonlight” — “You’re the Only Man that’s Ever Touched Me”
Although it’s set in and around Miami, “Moonlight” largely takes place within the confines of its young protagonist’s mind. The film opens by tracking petite adolescent Chiron (Alex Hibbert) through his shyest days, when schoolyard bullies dub him “Little.” By its second chapter, Chiron is an alienated teen (Ashton Sanders); in the modern-day finale, he has undergone a dramatic transition into young adulthood and taken on the nickname “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). But he still hasn’t quite figured out how to express his deepest feelings, and therein lies the movie’s greatest source of intrigue. Director Barry Jenkins and his extraordinary cast generate powerful suspense around questions of when, and how, the repressed character might find emotional liberation. It all comes down to those final moments, when Chiron — now identifying as “Black,” and hiding beneath a thuggish persona replete with shiny grills — tracks down Kevin (now played by a charming André Holland), who’s enduring his own isolated adulthood.
In the moving climax, the film toys with romanticism as Chiron searches for the only semblance of companionship still available to him through the fog of time. Having experienced a fleeting sexual bond ages ago, the pair rekindle some modicum of companionship as they grapple with a melancholic world that exists out of time. The movie leaves them in an ambiguous state, but at least for the moment, they have each other. —EK
8. “The Tree of Life” — The Birth of the Universe
It was probably inevitable that the most ambitious, visually stunning sequence this side of “2001” — in which we literally witness the birth of the cosmos as envisioned by Terrence Malick, the rare filmmaker for whom the word “visionary” is an understatement — would include dinosaurs. In the moment, though, it was a thrilling surprise. What precedes those prehistoric creatures is equally stunning: shots of nebulae, stars, and other space matter so vivid you’ll have a hard time believing it wasn’t filmed by NASA. “Lord, did you know?” asks Jessica Chastain as the extended sequence begins. “Who are we to you?”
All of this is set to Zbigniew Preisner’s hauntingly beautiful “Lacrimosa,” which fades out as we return to earth. Our planet’s fiery beginnings eventually give way to oceans, deserts, and, yes, dinosaurs. Everything is linked in “The Tree of Life,” which amounts to a cinematic universe unto itself; unlike nearly every other movie attempting to show the interconnectedness of all things, Malick’s opus makes you believe. —MN
7. “The Wolf of Wall Street” — When Life Gives You Lemmons
Via the voiceover narration that runs throughout Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” white-collar criminal and Quaalude enthusiast Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) attests to the sedative’s time-released appeal: He tells us about “the tingle phase,” “the slur phase,” “the drool phase,” and “the amnesia phase.” But during the worst-timed trip imaginable — which unfolds across a glorious 10-minute sequence — Belfort discovers an inconvenient and previously unknown fifth step: “the cerebral palsy phase.”
Told he has successfully dropped $20 million of stock-market manipulated cash into an untouchable Swiss bank account, Belfort and his neighbor/co-conspirator, Donnie (Jonah Hill) carouse with three illegal, expired Lemmon 714 Quaaludes apiece. When a private investigator rings, demanding Belfort get himself to the nearest pay phone as soon as humanly possible, our hero drives his white Lamborghini to the country club down the road, unaware of the drug-induced sledgehammer that’s about to flatten him into nonsense . During the short call, Belfort learns that his personal phone lines have been tapped, and — thanks to the Lemmons — loses all lucidity (and the ability to stand).
Belfort drags/flings himself down a flight of stairs, opens the car’s switchblade door with his foot, and somehow steers home. At his house, he finds Donnie on the phone, mumbling over millions. The molasses-limbed men fight on a kitchen floor, until one must revive the other with mouth-to-mouth. DiCaprio has always been considered a great actor — he and Hill both earned Oscar nominations for “The Wolf of Wall Street” — yet he wasn’t exactly known for physical comedy circa 2013. The mutual trust of collaborating with director Martin Scorsese for the fifth time in nine years allowed for this marvel of a digression, a mind-versus-body clash with a boyish explanation and courtroom consequences. —JM
6. “Carol” — A Brief Encounter
Bookended by a framing device that screenwriter Phyllis Nagy borrowed (and sharpened) from David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” “Carol” opens on a scene of two women being interrupted by some guy as they catch up over a spot of tea. The wounded tenderness between them is palpable, even from a distance; it’s hard to miss the way that Carol (Cate Blanchett) cups Therese’s (Rooney Mara) shoulder as she exits, or the way that Therese still feels Carol’s touch even after her hand is gone. It’s clear we’re sifting through the rubble of a breakup, but the tear-stained cab ride that follows suggests that Therese suffered most of the collateral damage. Looping back to this same moment some two hours later, newly privileged to recognize the parting for what it really is, the shift in perspective itself is enough to knock the wind out of you.
The power dynamic has flopped 180 degrees — Carol is pleading for Therese to take her back, to realize the unspoken potential of their life together. We come upon the conversation a few minutes earlier than we did initially, the scene’s emotional intensity heightened by the obliviousness that surrounds it. It’s unbearably raw, as director Todd Haynes peels back a new layer of skin with every line (and every look). There’s no surviving how Carol furtively asks Therese to move in with her — putting it all on the line — and then changes the subject like it was just a passing thought. “Well, that’s that.” And then — in a moment of unparalleled cruelty, mercifully redeemed by the happy ending a few minutes later — that dope from the beginning barges in. It’s hard to think of another scene in the movies that deprives us of quite so much, or makes us so desperate to get it back. —DE
5. “Mad Max: Fury Road” — The Escape from Gas Town
Everything in George Miller’s rousing “Mad Max” reboot is in motion. The cars careen from one direction to the next across a barren wasteland that becomes the ultimate excuse to experiment with film form. Any given sequence illustrates the sheer command of the medium that Miller exerts as he draws on silent film tradition to keep the constant chase in a state of gripping momentum. But this five-minute tidbit is especially enthralling for the way each shot speeds into the next, as straight-faced Furiosa powers forward while the demented War Boys stick to her tale. A sea of cars burn across the vacant desert, while ostensible star Tom Hardy basically just watches along with the rest of us, tied to one of the War Boys’ cars like a hood ornament and astonished at the chaos erupting around him. It’s a rough, fiery showdown caked in dust, and picks up speed right when you think it’s slowing down. Miller is in command of every moment. —AT
4. “The Act of Killing” — Anwar Coughs Up His Soul
This Oscar-nominated, BAFTA Award-winning documentary was one of the most harrowing viewing experiences in recent memory, not just because it recounted the mid-’60s Indonesian genocide that in mere months killed at least 500,000 alleged Communist sympathizers. Former death squad leaders were invited to reenact their mass murders as genre showpieces; some had a blast making mock musicals and Westerns from brutal scenes in their personal and national histories. Anwar Congo — who sold black market movie tickets before committing and estimated 1,000 executions, for which he is still revered in much of the nation — even danced on a roof that he’d once soaked in other people’s blood, laughing off the experimental drug use that has helped him rebuff unpleasant memories.
After almost three hours of footage, audiences at last beheld Congo’s unfiltered self-disgust. When asked to portray a victim, Congo wonders (in subtitled text) whether he is a sinner, and begins crying and choking back nausea. Executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, the film had three directors — Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an unnamed Indonesian, still dreading political retribution linked to generations-old atrocities. —JM
3. “The Master” — Processing Freddie Quell
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is a strange and gauzy film that pushes forward in search of a meaning that its characters struggle to define, and it’s able to do that because of how strongly the narrative is propelled by the nearly seven-minute scene in which aspiring cult leader Lancaster Dodd (an ersatz L. Ron Hubbard played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) first interrogates Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a drunken scoundrel who’s snuck aboard his boat. Dodd calls it “processing,” but it’s really more like a forced confession designed to break people down so that he can incept them with his pseudoscientific teachings. Whatever you want to call it, the scene amounts to three of the decade’s greatest film artists sitting in a room and arresting our attention.
Pivoting away from the sweep and grandeur of “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson locks his two characters in a series of tight close-ups that amplify the claustrophobic intensity of the moment at hand, and give weight to Freddie’s suffocation. The filmmaker doesn’t get showy in his directorial style here, instead opting for a rather traditional over-the-shoulder/shot-reverse-shot editing pattern. The genius of the scene lies in how it privileges the listener over the speaker; this isn’t a conversation, it’s an invasion.
The camera focuses on Lancaster’s face while he picks through Freddie’s psyche, Hoffman’s every facial gesture betraying a mix of curiosity and arousal, like a key being introduced to the lock it was made to open. Lancaster is hungry, and Freddie is feeding him his soul straight from his body. It’s a moment of pure symbiosis, as these two men simultaneously realize how much they need each other; it’s the meet-cute of the decade. —ZS
2. “Goodbye to Language” — Godard Reinvents 3D
Sometimes it takes an old man to remind us that cinema is still in its infancy, a medium that’s only just learning how to walk. And thank God(ard) for that — there’s nothing more revelatory or reinvigorating than watching the movies take a new step forward (or at least a bold step sideways). It doesn’t happen often, but you know it when you see it. The crowd at the Cannes premiere of “Goodbye to Language” recognized it en masse, the cavernous Grand Théatre Lumière breaking into spontaneous applause when Godard violated the basic principle of stereoscopic 3D by projecting a different image into each eye, reverse-engineering his dialectical approach back to its individual components.
A naked couple argues in their house. Close your right eye, and you get a woman’s exposed pubic area. Close your left eye, and you see a man’s flaccid penis. Open them both, and you get a symbolic expression of sex. It’s montage without montage, familiar cinematic expression transformed through the radical grammar by the medium’s greatest etymologist. Sadly, there isn’t a clip of this scene online. But then again, how would that work? —DE
1. “Inside Llewyn Davis” — The Audition
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) isn’t in a great place, though it may not be accurate to say that he’s seen better days. Grieving the loss of his musical partner, resenting the commercial failure of his album, and altogether seething at a bitter world that seems to have burnt out its warmth, the scraggly folk singer hitches a ride to Chicago in order to perform a last-ditch audition for an industry type named Bud Grossman (an immaculate F. Murray Abraham). Pointing at Llewyn’s record, Grossman asks him to play something from “Inside Llewyn Davis.” He doesn’t know the raw force of what he’s just requested, and part of the scene’s genius is that he doesn’t care.
Sitting in the middle of an empty club, Llewyn begins strumming away at “The Death of Queen Jane,” filling the ancient English ballad with all of the beauty that he can’t seem to find in his life. Isaac’s performance is genuinely heart-stopping, special even in a film where the actor crushes us with a new tune every 20 minutes. But what makes this particular scene stand out isn’t its supernatural grace, but rather how much more desperate and deserving that grace becomes each time Llewyn looks up at the stone-faced man sitting across from him, checking to make sure that he’s taking it all in. By the time the song is over, there’s virtually no doubt in our minds that Llewyn’s rendition will resonate within everyone who hears it. It’s hard to imagine that Grossman wouldn’t flip for this, even if we know this isn’t that kind of movie. But the way Llewyn stares up at the manager, his face already heavy with the hurt that comes next, it’s clear that he knows exactly what kind of movie the Coen brothers have made for him. “I don’t see a lot of money here,” he’s told, and the truth of the matter is that Grossman’s probably right. Unfortunately for Llewyn, you just can’t put a price on something like that. —DE