Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie was simply “three good scenes and no bad ones”. For today’s list, I’m focusing on examples of the former.
There’s no set average for the number of scenes in a feature film, but a good rule of thumb is that a typical movie scene lasts two or three minutes — which means I’ve probably seen in excess of 48,000 scenes as part of this blog. That’s rather a lot to recall, so I’m not presuming to say these ten are the very greatest from that lot. What they are is ten that stuck in my memory particularly, for one reason or another. Even if they’re not the greatest, they are great.
The Swimming Pool
from Let the Right One In
The bullies that have plagued young Oskar throughout the film corner him in a public swimming pool and, brandishing a knife, inform him that if he can’t hold his breath for three minutes he’ll lose an eye. They push Oskar under the water. The seconds tick by. Then, we reach the real reason this scene is here: as the shot holds on Oskar underwater, we hear the muffled sounds of breaking glass, then screams. Feet run backwards across the water. Heads and limbs drop into the pool. The water begins to turn red. This could’ve been a brutal action climax like any other, but by staging it in a brightly-lit swimming pool, by not showing us the meat of the action, and by achieving it all in one shot, director Tomas Alfredson creates a sequence of supernatural force that is eerily grounded.
The Opening Shot
from Touch of Evil
Long takes are all the rage nowadays, made even easier by advances in digital cinematography and editing, but this hails from a time when they were a bit more special. It remains one of the most famous because of its content: we see a bomb planted on a car, then follow it as its unsuspecting owners drive through the streets. When will it go off? And, beyond that, Welles’ preferred soundtrack — overlapping snippets from multiple sources as the camera moves through the town — helps establish the melting-pot world of the film about to follow.
The Train Robbery
from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Another opening scene where the photography is the star. This time, it’s the work of the great Roger Deakins, as a gang of crooks await a train in a forest at night, lit only by the orange glow of lanterns. Then the train itself arrives, its stark headlight throwing sharp relief on the shadowy trees. Deakins himself has said it’s his best work, and who are we to disagree? The effectiveness is only heightened by the slow, deliberate, tension-mounting pace maintained by director Andrew Dominik.
The Superfreak Dance
from Little Miss Sunshine
After all the trials and tribulations of the movie, the Hoover family finally make it to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant and little seven-year-old Olive gets up on stage… where she dances a striptease-style routine to Superfreak. It neatly satirises and pillories the ludicrous sexualisation of these beauty pageants. Then the sequence only gains in stature when the officials try to pull Olive off stage early, which ends up with the whole family throwing dignity to the wind and dancing with her — the previously disjointed family finally united.
The Tanker Chase
from Mad Max 2
I already discussed this at length in my review, so to quote myself, it’s “an almighty action sequence […] a speeding battle through the outback. It feels wrong to just call it ‘an action sequence’, like that’s selling it short. You get the sense that this is why the movie exists; that co-writer/director George Miller’s goal with the entire rest of the film has been to get us to this point. It’s not just ‘the climax’, it’s ‘the third act’, and it’s stunning — the choreography of it, the editing, the stunts, as dozens of vehicles chase each other, people run around on top of them, jump between them… I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say it must be one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to film.” It’s so good, they later remade it as an entire movie. And if you want to see something equally awesome, here’s the Mad Max 2 scene re-scored with music from Fury Road.
The Henley Royal Regatta Boat Race
from The Social Network
You could cut this 100-second sequence out of The Social Network and it would have no impact on the film’s plot, but it would also rob us of one of the most striking sequences in the CV of director David Fincher — and considering his continued visual mastery, that’s saying something. The tilt-shift-style photography came out of necessity, as the sequence was shot just months before the film’s release and they had to shoot the close-ups somewhere else entirely, but it gives the whole thing a unique visual style that, particularly when combined with a version of In the Hall of the Mountain King from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is something very special.
Whoever thought we’d one day find moviemaking artistry in the James Bond series? Skyfall isn’t even the first time that happened (see: the opera escape from Quantum of Solace), but the reason this sequence is even better is the way it sums up the film’s themes. As I described it in my review: “Bond races to an inquiry where M is giving evidence, in pursuit of Silva who is intending to finalise his revenge, with the soundtrack sharing only Judi Dench’s voice delivering a reading from Tennyson: ‘though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,’ she says, cementing [the] themes of what the role of the secret service (and, indeed, Britain) is in the modern world; and continues, ‘heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,’ as a weakened, past-it Bond races to her rescue. It’s so perfect it could have been written for the film especially.”
The Truck Flip
from The Dark Knight
Pure spectacle seems hard to come across in movies post-CGI, where anything that can be imagined can be created on screen by even relatively small-scale movies. But when you combine the first time a narrative feature film had been shot in IMAX with an incredible stunt performed for real, you’re reminded of the magic of cinema. It’s the most memorable part of a car chase sequence that is exceptionally well executed on the whole, too.
from Requiem for a Dream
To quote my review: “I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes [at the end]. Even if you were told what happens, or see some of the imagery, or feel like you can see worse stuff on the internet without even looking too hard (which, of course, you can)… that’s not the point. It’s the editing, the sound design, the sheer filmmaking, which renders the film’s final few minutes — a frenzied montage that crosscuts the climaxes of all four characters’ stories — as some of the most powerful in cinema. It’s horrendous. It’s brilliant.”
When I first thought of this idea for a top ten, this was the first thing that came to mind. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessive investigator Robert Graysmith visits the home of a suspect’s friend. The pair are alone in the house, and they both go down into the basement to see something… when Robert hears someone upstairs. Describing this scene does it no justice — it’s one of the most hair-raisingly chilling in screen history.
Tomorrow: New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody talk about… film music.