Every year in the movies always gives us those moments we want to watch again and again (or that stick with us no matter how much emotional pain they may inflict). They may not always be from my favorite films of the year, but the ten scenes noted here represent some of my favorite moments of the year on a small scale.
Blue is the Warmest Color – The coffee date
Late in the film, Adele and Emma have been estranged for a decently significant amount of time, and mutually agree on getting together for some coffee. The tension is palpable, as old wounds still feel fresh, but their physical attraction to each other remains overwhelming. In a film founded on naturalism, this scene is arguably the most real of the whole three hours. The way these actresses so thoroughly inhabit their characters is profound, and allows for scenes like this to play out almost like they’re improvised, just speaking and acting in the moment, which makes them resonate beyond the normal boundaries of cinema. The scene is emotional and painful and sloppy, often pathetic in the way much of the rest of the film has been, but heightened even more by the simple fact that it’s clear Emma has moved on and Adele hasn’t. It represents one of many emotional climaxes of the film, and is the one that sticks with you the most, even long after the fade to black.
Inside Llewyn Davis – The audition
Early on in Inside Llewyn Davis, our titular character mentions whether a club and talent manager from Chicago has contacted him about his solo record. It’s a throwaway line until Davis finds himself in Chicago and drops in at Bud Grossman’s club to find out in person. Bud gives him an audition to ply his trade. The song Llewyn chooses to perform is “The Death of Queen Jane,” a gorgeous take on a traditional folk ballad about Queen Jane Seymour’s (not the medicine woman) death during childbirth as she pleads for a cesarean section to ensure the safety of her as yet unborn child. You can see Oscar Isaac pour his life into the song. As he finishes, there’s a pause that lasts a lifetime until Grossman (played effortlessly by F. Murray Abraham) simply responds “I don’t see a lot of money here.” The ultimate dagger in Llewyn’s heart, the audition is the best scene of this excellent film.
Like Someone in Love – The taxi ride
Akiko didn’t want to work that night. Her grandmother was in town for a few hours and they were going to get dinner before she had to catch a train out of Tokyo. But money talks, and Akiko is forced into cancelling her plans. While taking a long, lonely taxi ride to her john, she pulls out her phone and listens to her voice mails. What follows is a tense, slow burn as message after message from her grandmother constantly updates her with new plans and opportunities as the day moves on. The way the tenor of the messages change from happy to excited to confused to resigned as it becomes more clear that Akiko will not be meeting her that day. Watching Rin Takanashi’s reactions is heartbreaking, as is the moment when she has the cabbie do a few laps around the train station tom catch a glimpse of her relative. A powerful and nearly wordless performance from Takanashi makes for a saddening and unforgettable scene.
Much Ado About Nothing – Eavesdropping
This is technically two scenes, where the potential lovers Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) are conspired to be brought together by the other characters of the film. The conceit of the scenes in question is simple: a group enters an area where one of the two lovers is “hiding,” fully aware of his or her presence within earshot, and speak loudly and conspicuously about how his or her counterpart is madly in love. The key, of course, is the main characters’ ignorance toward the ploy; they legitimately think they are overhearing privileged information. So we have a farcical ballet that plays out, as Denisof flings his body around in an attempt to hide himself, and Acker bumps into every possible piece of furniture trying to get closer to the conspirators so she can hear everything without being seen. It’s devilishly well-implemented physical comedy and laugh-out-loud funny. Much Ado is a thoroughly enjoyable comedy, and these scenes are its highlight.
It’s a Disaster – A late arrival
Not many people know about the other apocalypse comedy of 2013, It’s a Disaster, a lower key affair that is technically more of a comedic take on “No Exit” than something as bombastic as This is the End or The World’s End. This doesn’t make it any less funny, but the style of humor is coming from a different place, one noticeably more mundane. This is best evidenced by a scene about halfway through the film (which follows four couples stuck in a house during a brunch date in the middle of which a chemical terrorist attack occurs in the nearby city), where the until now fashionably late fifth couple arrives at the house and is rebuffed at the door by a particularly snide Julia Stiles. It’s a great comedic moment in part for how deftly it implies the characters’ past history, but mostly for the juxtaposition of bringing up personal beef with someone in the most dire and inappropriate situation.
Post Tenebras Lux – Opening scene
The experimental surrealist narrative-light film from Mexican director Carlos Reygadas did not entirely work for me, but it’s impossible to deny the visual power and allure of its opening sequence. Mostly dialogue free, the camera shifts perspectives from following a little girl in a farm field at twilight to shots that appear to be from her point of view, all from an incredibly low angle. Dogs, cattle and horses encircle her, splashing through copious puddles created by a recent rain. You can tell another storm is coming. As night falls, the tone changes from childlike innocence to an undercurrent of danger and dread. Soon, she is only lit by far afield lightning strikes as she calls to her family. The dominant theme of the film is this struggle between light and dark, and nothing works better in establishing those themes than this gorgeous and unsettling opening scene.
Prince Avalanche – The ruined house
The main characters of Prince Avalanche are working to restore a road that was damaged by a pretty significant forest fire. As the men work, you see hints of the devastation from time to time, but it really hits home about half an hour into the film when Emile Hirsh’s character has gone to town for the weekend and Paul Rudd (Alvin) has stayed in the area to explore the forest. As he’s walking around, Alvin comes across the ruined husk of a burned down house. The owner of the house is there, sifting through the ashes looking for anything intact, and gives him an auditory tour of what used to be her home. It’s a heartbreaking scene, intercut with these reaction shots that disorient you because they aren’t synced to the characters’ dialogue. The scene closes with Alvin acting out a tender domestic moment in the destroyed living room of the former house. It’s a moment that creates a lasting and indelible imagine of just what nature can do to the things we hold dear, and what truly constitutes a home.
12 Years a Slave – The botched hanging
Steve McQueen loves to take his camera and bolt it to the ground in front of incredibly difficult moments, forcing you to behold and comprehend them without respite. In 12 Years a Slave, his iteration of this trademark comes from a botched attempt at lynching Solomon Northrup. He is still hanged, but his toes barely touch the swampy ground, squishing around to relieve the tension in the noose enough to allow him to breathe. The horror comes from both the time Ejiofor stands on the brink of death and from how the other slaves ignore his plight, both from the sense that they see things like this all the time and that they fear the reproach of their master if they attempt to intervene. This does more to establish the inhumanity of slavery than 15 whipping scenes. The malice is so casual.
Gravity – Opening sequence
I have serious issues with the second half of Gravity, when all the subtext becomes text and the dialogue takes a nosedive into B movie silliness. But that doesn’t happen during the opening scene. Much of it was included in the various trailers and TV spots that led up to the film’s release, but nothing compares to seeing that 18 minute (or so) unbroken shot on a giant screen. Cuaron’s ability to generate tension is peerless; the way the opening shifts from a sort of mundane portrait of the work these astronauts are doing to the most harrowing and suffocating horror in about two minutes. The movement of the camera does such a wonderful job of destroying your center of gravity and sense of perspective as Sandra Bullock spins out of control in the inky blackness of space. It’s evocative and it’s scary and it’s technically insane, to the point that you have trouble figuring out how they managed to put together many of those incredible images.
Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode sit at a piano and play a deeply complex piece (composed for the film by Phillip Glass). The tension between the two, physical, sexual and emotional, has been building slowly leading up to this scene, and everything bursts out through the duet. Park Chan-wook’s editing, style and camera choices inject so much vibrancy into the proceedings. It moves from slow and elegiac to playful to portentous to sexual to dangerous all over the course of a three minute piano piece. It’s the most Hitchcockian moment of this thoroughly Hitchcockian film, and all involved hit the pitch perfectly.