Film.com Staff December 11, 2013
10.) GRAVITY // “Destruction”
Most of us, I’m sure, are absolutely terrified of floating through outer space with diminishing oxygen reserves and a botched radio connection to Ed Harris. In this regard, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is a film we can all relate to.
Curaron and his bleeding edge computer technicians found a way to bring the images – no, the sensations – from our nightmares onto the screen in some new ways.
The best scene in the film, we believe, isn’t the first space debris attack or floating around the ISS with flares zipping off in every direction. It’s when Sandra Bullocks’ Dr. Ryan Stone is holding on to the outside of her Soyuz capsule moments after untangling it from the parachute strands. We see the onslaught of orbiting death before she does – and while there is some non-diagetic sound, there aren’t explosions. (In space, no one can hear your Foley art.)
The angle is odd (because space!) but above/behind the frightened Bullock ten thousand tons of steel are being smashed into oblivion and she doesn’t really know it until she starts to feel the movement around her. It’s a holy crap moment and one of the most strangely frightening images seen in quite some time. – JH
9.) SOMETHING IN THE AIR // “House Party”
The sense of stagnation that eats at the soul of a failed revolution in “Something in the Air” takes on its most abstract and haunting qualities in a scene late in the film in which many of the young characters gather for a party at a palatial country home. The scene starts out divested of the politics that hung over the film to that point, as teens and young adults drift around and mingle and search for significant others, but the bluesy yowl of Captain Beefheart gives way to the rumbling psych-jazz of Soft Machine as night falls over roaring bonfires and the mood starts to turn sour like a bad trip. Eventually, the fires spread to the house and kill a major character, its consumptive destruction a literalization of the brilliant implosion of the radicals’ devotion to their causes. Assayas adds a metatextual element to this visualized loss of purpose in the sequence’s similarity to one in his earlier “Cold Water,” the director implicating himself in a cycle of derivativeness and stalled growth. “Something of the Air” has been criticized for its supposedly too-kind view of its characters’ futile revolt, but this scene alone negates any tone of nostalgia from winning out over its tragic and critical view of that youth. – JC
8.) THE ACT OF KILLING // “Hack Attack”
Note: The scene above is from earlier in the film. This is for the best.
“The Act of Killing” is a complex, monumental work of history. It is also a deeply human, understanding film. This is perhaps the intersection upon which it builds so much of its success, the meeting of revolutionary importance and the intimate manifestations of guilt. If there’s one moment in which this becomes the most clear it is the hacking fit that Anwar, the film’s principal subject, has on the roof where he and his colleagues once murdered countless innocents. It’s visceral and horrifying, but also evocative of something greater. This is the dry heave of history itself. – DW
7.) THE WIND RISES // “Earthquake”
The complex interplay of wistful dreaming and foreboding melancholy that hangs over Miyazaki Hayao’s potentially final feature is rent apart by the Kanto Earthquake of 1923, an event that occurs at a crucial stage in young wannabe engineer Jiro’s life and dictates the emotional and romantic path of the rest of the film. Yet the sequence unto itself is a vital component of the film: even the brutal combat of “Princess Mononoke” pales in comparison to the sense of total devastation Miyazaki’s animation team conjures. As Jiro surveys the impact of the quake, with its ripped earth, toppled buildings and raging fires, though, the implication of a coming future would be obvious even without the young man’s vision of bombers flying over the natural disaster. As much as Jiro justifies his willingness to produce machines of war to pursue his dream, his perception of the earthquake demonstrates that he knows all too well and has not truly made peace with the costs of his inspiration. – JC
6.) SPRING BREAKERS // “Look at My S**t!”
He’s got shorts in every f**king color. He’s got designer tee shirts. He’s got gold bullets. In Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” James Franco’s Alien has it all – along with an extremely unhealthy disregard for basic gun safety, which he shows his new lady loves exactly after he shows off his many material goods. A tight string of dread runs through Korine’s booze- and neon-splashed feature, but there’s never a moment more tense than when Alien performs oral sex on his own gun (and, yes, that includes scenes where people actually get shot, that’s just how good this scene is) to impress the eponymous spring breakers. Sure, the campaign to get Franco some awards season recognition might seem insane – until you watch stuff like this and remember just how much Franco put on the table for his best role to date. – KE
5.) LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE // “Voicemails from Grandma”
Abbas Kiarostami offers what may be his single most tragic scene early in “Like Someone in Love.” Dispatched to the client who will shape the course of the rest of the film, the young student/prostitute Akiko (Rin Takanashi) listens to voicemails left by her grandmother who is visiting and wants to see her. Unable to break her assignment, Akiko asks the cab driver to at least ride around the station where the old woman stands, waiting for her last chance to see her granddaughter before her train departs. Kiarostami crafts a sequence in which the sound of the grandmother’s increasingly resigned, dejected voicemails and the image of an increasingly distraught Akiko form a relay race of misery, each grabbing the baton from the other to drag the scene to new depths of sorrow. “Like Someone in Love” is one of the master’s most cryptic films (which is saying something), but rarely has he provided so concrete and tactile a moment. Then again, it’s so horrifying and hard to take that the rest of the film, dense and disquieting as it may be, is almost a relief for taking place in the abstract. – JC
4.) 12 YEARS A SLAVE // “Public Hanging”
Note: In the video above, Steve McQueen discusses the hanging scene described below.
Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” just may be the year’s most stirring, disturbing, and upsetting film, and there’s no single scene that so perfectly illuminates the horrors within it than a wrenching one-shot that shows Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup breathlessly hanging from a noosed branch. McQueen’s long takes have consistently been a part of his stylistic toolbox, but the heartbreaking hanging of “12 Years” just might be his most effective yet. As Solomon struggles, digging his toes into the mud, slowly choking at the end that nefarious rope, the rest of the plantation spins on behind him. Life is full of tiny heartbreaks and tremendous tragedies, and as Solomon steadily weakens and life literally goes on behind him, it soon becomes impossible for even the audience to breathe. – KE
3.) BEFORE MIDNIGHT // “I Don’t Think I Love You Anymore”
Few movie couples have ever been as close to our hearts as fated lovers Celine and Jesse, so it’s profoundly discomforting to see them go for the throat. If 2004’s “Before Sunset” faded to black with a movie-script ending, “Before Midnight” explores the decidedly rockier terrain of life after the closing credits. Responsible for three kids split over two continents and more disagreements than either of them could hope to count, nine years of domestic partnership have certainly taught Celine and Jesse that the compulsion to share your life with another person comes with every manner of drawbacks and complications. The third installment of Richard Linklater’s seminal romantic trilogy finds its two bickering avatars absconding to Greece for a vacation with their kids, where it’s immediately made clear that – when it comes to parenthood – practice doesn’t make perfect.
When Celine and Jesse are gifted a night alone, they walk along the beautiful ruins of the Peloponnese, their conversation sweet and sentimental but also heavily scabbed. When they finally make it to their destination for the evening, a somewhat nondescript hotel room by the water, old tensions break forth into new mutiny and their love story pivots to become less “Journey to Italy” and more “Contempt”. If the transition is inevitable, that doesn’t make it any less shocking or hard to watch. Are we watching a sex scene or an argument? Is this a healthy conversation, or the implosion of one the cinema’s most enviable relationships? And why do we feel as though the answer will have such personal consequences for us?
The ensuing sequence, which runs nearly 30 minutes, is so organic and evenhanded that it’s easy to overlook the precision of the dialogue. Sympathies are won, lost and regained, the scene blossoming into a domestic war of attrition in which every inch of ground is fought for with the intimate artillery of resentment. Viewers are still trying to pick up the pieces. Forget “300”, these two are all you need. – DE
2.) INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS // “Driving by Akron”
In a movie made up of dozens of perfect scenes, this one resonates because it is just a half-obscured image rolling past a car window.
Llewyn Davis, cinema’s newest and perhaps greatest self-fulfilling loser, has just bombed out with the “Before the Law” figure at the Gate of Horn. He’s cold, tired, penniless, disliked and has nothing except his stupid, articulate pride. (I mean, he’s also talented as hell, but he realizes that isn’t going to get him anywhere.)
But he has an out. In Akron, he just learned, he has a child – a child! – and perhaps a woman who would welcome him into a readymade family. (“Inside Llewyn Davis” is striking, upon reflection, in just how little of a backstory it gives us.) In the cold automobile, shivering in moonlight, Davis looks down at the warm lighting grid of Akron from the elevation of the highway. It beckons him back to Earth, to a normal life, to the bosom of humanity. All he needs to do is turn the wheel. – JH
1.) THE WOLF OF WALL STREET // “Lemmons”
Note: The photo above is not from the scene in question. But trust us, you’ll know it when you see it.
It would be accurate (if a touch reductive) to classify Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a white-collar “Caligula” for the 20th century and beyond, and the 71-year-old director drops a heavy gauntlet of debauchery by opening the film with a scene in which one of the world’s most famous movie stars (Leonardo DiCaprio) snorts cocaine out of a stripper’s rectum. I mean, where do you go from there? If that’s our starting point, how does a breathless three-hour film about Jordan Belfort, capitalism’s worst nightmare, keep finding ways to make us marvel at the iniquities of its “hero”? The answer, as it apparently is to most of life’s questions, is a potent strain of quaaludes referred to as “lemmons.”
The scene effectively serves as the climax of the film. Belfort and his best pal Donnie (Jonah Hill), at the height of their wealth and the noose closing tight, pop their prized pills and enjoy an episode of “Family Matters” as they wait for the drugs to kick in. But they don’t. So they take some more pills. And then some more. Maybe the pills, which are long-expired, have lost their potency? …Or maybe not.
By the time DiCaprio is struggling to pack his body through the passenger door of his absurd car like a disoriented Jacques Tati playing a live-action game of Qwop, you know you’re watching the funniest scene of the year. By the time a second drug is urgently mixed into the equation, you know you’re watching one of the greatest scenes of Scorsese’s career. The lemmons sequence isn’t just a genius bit of physical comedy, it also sublimely captures the ridiculous despair required for this degree of excess, and breathes new life into the uniquely pathetic brand of brotherly love that allowed Jordan and Donnie to afford to be such phenomenal failures. – DE
About Time, August: Osage County, Best Scenes of the Year, Calum Marsh, Daniel Walber, David Ehrlich, Jake Cole, Kate Erbland, New World, Side Effects, The rock, William goss, World war z, Year in Review