For day two of my look back at 2014 in film, we turn to a smattering of my favorite scenes film had to offer. As with yesterday, these are not automatically the ten best scenes of the year, but they are certainly among the highest tier of short-term quality one could find.
Nothing in the cinema in 2014 was more breathtaking or awe-inspiring than the HALO jump that signals the beginning of the third act of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. Set to the skin-crawlingly unforgettable Requiem by Gyorgy Ligeti (most filmically famous for its use in 2001: A Space Odyssey), the sequence follows Aaron Taylor-Johnson and his fellow soldiers as they parachute into the middle of a ravaged San Francisco. With red smoke trailing from their legs, they descend through the rollicking cloudscape of a thunderstorm (which must be the single greatest shot of 2014), only to break through the cloud cover to find themselves falling right into the center of the battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs. The sky bleeds red as they tumble, the massive scale of the two behemoths framed through the goggles of one of the soldiers. The use of sound, the placement of the camera, the score, all of it is flawless. Godzilla is not a perfect film, but due to moments like this, it is an important one.
Foxcatcher - Cutting Weight
Bennett Miller’s look at the bizarre story of John du Pont and the murder of Dave Schultz is not particularly good, but it is capable of individual moments of brilliance. Case in point, this harrowing whirlwind of a sequence that finds Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz at the brink, having binged on candy and junk food and in danger of not making weight at prelims for the 1988 Summer Olympics. Mark works furiously to cut weight in order to be eligible for his last chance at qualifying, and Miller’s heretofore staid and unremarkable camera comes alive for the briefest of moments. Tatum pumps manically on an Airdyne bike, the whirring of the flywheel forced to the front of the sound mix as quick cuts of Tatum’s face, obscured by a navy hoodie and dripping sweat, pound away. It makes for such a marked difference from the rest of the film that it stands out even more than it would in any other movie, which is arguably to the scene’s benefit and the rest of the film’s detriment.
Whiplash - “Caravan” Trials
If one were looking for the opposite experience of Foxcatcher, one would need to go no further than Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, the propulsive tale of Miles Teller’s precocious jazz drummer and his demon of a bandleader, played by JK Simmons. Whiplash is a punishing experiment in pushing someone’s psyche well past what should be his breaking point, and rarely if ever lets up. The “rushing or dragging” sequence is probably the film’s most infamous, but the hell Simmons puts his three drummers through while they angle for the core spot on the song “Caravan” pushes it to entirely new levels. The premise is simple, with Teller, Austin Stowell and Nate Lang tasked with performing a double time swing as fast as possible for as long as possible. What follows is a cacophony of sound, a blur of arms and legs, all as Simmons stares them down and screams at them to go faster, to not slow down. Its intensity is unmatched, and the flippancy of its ending perfectly undercuts the horror of the ordeal.
The Babadook - Return of the book
Jennifer Kent’s Aussie horror picture takes its time establishing the supernatural side of its dread (dread is present from the first scene, but in a much more tangible way), but when the stately red cover of Mister Babadook catches the eye of young Noah Wiseman, things take a turn. The first time the book rears its head, with its pop-up style and unnerving story of a top-hatted menace sneaking into bedrooms, it’s creepy, but the film kicks into high gear when Essie Davis’ attempt to destroy the book doesn’t take. The second iteration of the book is noticeably more sinister and specific, taped back together with a different story that seems to portend the horrifying future that will soon befall this beleaguered woman and her son. The production design of the book is phenomenal, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Snowpiercer - The Classroom
Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer becomes an indescribable cinematic experience right around the time the train’s rebels, as led by Chris Evans, come upon a classroom car in the middle of the train. After a first act marked by grime and dirt, the explosion of color and sound that greet them in the classroom is a proverbial slap across the face, waking the audience up to new horizons of possibility from this unique premise. The children are called to attention by a monstrously pregnant Allison Pill, who proceeds to do the unthinkable by stealing the show from Tilda Swinton as she gives a masterclass in fascist indoctrination with the most saccharine of smiles on her face. Pill’s face is wildly expressive, deftly mixing humor and an underlying fanatical devotion to the (at the time) mysterious Wilford. This is an all-time great cameo performance, crystallized by Evans’ nonplussed reactions and the scene’s shocking ending. By the time the tail sectioners leave the classroom, it has become clear that just about anything can and will happen.
The experimental documentary from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (the same folks who brought us last year’s Leviathan) is about as simple as a documentary can get. Cameras are placed on cable cars that travel to and from the Manakamana Temple in Nepal, and record the ten minute trip from station to station. These cars capture humanity at its most direct; there is no context or character or narration to influence the scene. They are simply presented as is. The characters range from two men playing cellos to a trio of young metalheads to (in a memorable moment) a car full of goats. But Manakamana is at its most sublime when the subject turns to two older women eating ice cream bars. These Nepalese villagers clearly have either never eaten an ice cream bar before, or only rarely, and the way they attempt to eat the fast-melting treat without making a mess, and often fail spectacularly. It is life at its simplest, a wonderful distillation of humanity’s smaller moments.
Noah is a bit of an anomaly. Darren Aronofsky’s first real big budget studio picture (earned after the success of Black Swan) did not entirely feel like his other films, especially for the first half, and yet it blossoms into this impossibly weird take on the Bible story during its second, much more interested in a rumination on Noah’s maniacal and at times homicidal faith than all of those animals. The second half of Noah may be a taut family drama, but there are opportunities or Aronofsky to flex his visual muscles, none more astounding than his retelling of the Creation to his family. Unfurling a time lapse universe folding out of nothing (though its design is more Big Bang than a young Earth creationist might appreciate), the Earth transitioning from rollicking volcanoes to verdant expanses, the sea giving forth life that transitions to dry land. It hearkens back to imagery of the serpent used throughout Noah’s visions (shortcutting for the folly of Man, of course), dovetailing into another flickering time lapse of man’s penchant for violence, flitting from Cain’s stone through generations of improved weaponry. All of it playing over Russell Crowe’s narration and Clint Mansell’s flawless score. It is without doubt the most interesting and visually arresting take on the Creation, while simultaneously playing into the themes at which Aronofsky drives. Noah is not a perfect film, but for three minutes, it approaches one.
X-Men: Days of Future Past - Time in a Bottle
The case of Quicksilver’s arrival on the silver screen is a strange one. The film rights of the mercurial speedster and son of Magneto are held by both Marvel/Disney and Fox, with the proviso that Marvel is not permitted to refer to him as a mutant and can only use him in the context of the Avengers (Aaron Taylor-Johnson will be playing the character in this summers Avengers: Age of Ultron). Presumably due to the way production calendars worked out, Fox got their first crack at the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Evan Peters’ outfit raised some eyebrows as production stills leaked, but the character in motion was a thing of beauty. All of it culminates in a bravura sequence where Quicksilver runs wild, dismantling guards in a kitchen at hyper-speed in slow motion, all while Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” plays in the background. It is a sequence of endless entertainment and limitless mirth, a mischievous Pan making police officers punch themselves and bullets slightly miss their intended targets, all while taking the time to taste some soup in the way. It is by far the best scene in the film, and among the best of any action film, which makes it that much more of a tragedy that, shortly after this scene, Quicksilver disappears for the rest of the film.
Under the Skin - The beach
Jonathan Glazer is keenly aware of the innate psychological impact of an abandoned, crying infant on an empathetic audience. Early in Under the Skin, after Scarlett Johansson’s modus operandi has been established, the film cuts away from her claustrophobic van to a beach on the shores of Scotland. It is a dire scene (has a beachfront in the United Kingdom ever looked appealing on screen?), but seems relatively innocuous as Johansson attempts to seduce a surfer she meets there. A commotion pulls them away, as they discover a family further down the beach, the mother having frantically swum into the rough seas to save their dog caught in the undertow. The father swims after her to no avail, causing the surfer to run for help, bringing the father back to shore. Johansson watches the action play out with indifference, perfunctorily killing the surfer with a rock as he gasps for air on the shore. It is a well-designed sequence made all the more harrowing as it is revealed that the family had an infant child with them on the beach, crying alone for comfort. It engenders the most visceral of emotional reactions while further establishing Johansson’s indifference for the human race. Not one to rest on his laurels, Glazer twists the knife deeper when revisiting the beach later that night, the baby still there, crying and alone for hours. Sound plays such a vital role for Glazer in Under the Skin, and with all that happens over its course, nothing echoes in the mind quite like that abandoned baby, crying into the dark.
The Guest - Attack on the diner
Adam Wingard’s The Guest trades in being as over the top as possible in its third act, and nothing establishes that quite like Dan Stevens’ raid on the local diner at which Maika Monroe works. As the potentially genetically enhanced super soldier/sleeper agent (the details don’t really matter), Stevens is singularly focused on destroying any and all evidence of his presence in the town, including everyone he has met. The carnage has already begun in earnest at this point, but what sets apart the diner is the twinkle in Stevens’ eye as he pulls out two grenades, shrugs and tosses them behind him, creating an explosion so much larger than it needs to be. The Guest is a movie that melds 80’s slasher horror and 80’s action excess, the intersection between Die Hard and Friday the 13th, and that telling smile before releasing Chekhov’s Grenades illustrates that better than anything else could.
Tomorrow will be time for some surprises and disappointments, giving me the first opportunity to write about what may not have been the best of the year, as well as a handful of films or cinematic trends that boxed above their weight class. Don’t forget to check out yesterday’s article about some of the best characters to grace the silver screen, as well as the rest the week has to offer.