100 Films @ 10: Great Scenes

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.

10
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.

9
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.

8
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.

7
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.

6
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.

5
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.

4
The Poem

from Skyfall

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.”

3
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.

2
The Montage

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.”

1
The Basement

from Zodiac

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.

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Requiem for a Dream (2000)

2014 #136
Darren Aronofsky | 97 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / NC-17*

Requiem for a DreamOn Coney Island, the faded and decrepit one-time pleasure place of New York City, four people — Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and his mother Sara (Oscar-nominated Ellen Burstyn) — find themselves accidentally drawn into a whirlwind of drug addiction. Not to put too fine a point on it.

A lot of people say that Requiem for a Dream is the bleakest or most depressing movie ever made, and you kind of think, “yeah well, we’ll see — how bad can it be?” For most of the film, that notion is indeed misleading. Not that it’s a happy-clappy affair, but it’s a very watchable drama, not a gruelling slog through misery. However, I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes later. 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.

The rest of the film may not be its equal in terms of condensed impact, but it’s of course vital in leading you to that point. These characters lead relatively normal lives — not exceptionally bad, certainly not exceptionally good, but pretty humdrum and bog standard. They all try to better themselves in some way — Sara through diet pills, Harry and Tyrone by getting rich through selling drugs — and it all goes horrible awry.

It may be a descent into misery, then, but director Darren Aronofsky keeps it watchable through pure cinematic skill. The editing, camerawork, lighting, sound design, and special effects are all incredible throughout. There’s a surfeit of ideas and innovations from everyone involved. And yet they are never show-off-y for the sake of it — this isn’t a Guy Ritchie movie. None of the tricks or striking ideas are put there to render the film Cool, even in the way they are in some equally brilliant films (Fight Club, for example). No, everything that is deployed is done so in aid of emulating a real-life feeling or experience, or conveying a concept or a connection. At times it’s breathtaking.

I must also make special mention of the score by Clint Mansell. The primary theme is arguably most famous for being used in The Two Towers trailer a couple of years later (that’s certainly where I discovered it). Something that works fantastically on the trailer for an epic fantasy war movie might not sound like it sits well in a junkie drama, but it really works.

Requiem for a Dream may have a bit of a reputation at this point; one that might put you off viewing it, or possibly only deigning to attempt it in a certain frame of mind. While there is an element of truth to that, it is a brilliant film — not “enjoyable” in the easily-digested blockbuster sense, but as a mind-boggling and awe-inspiring feat of filmmaking, yes. Incredible.

5 out of 5

Requiem for a Dream placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* After the film was given an NC-17, it was decided to release it Unrated — so, technically, it’s not NC-17, it’s Unrated. Ah, the quirks of the US classification system. (There’s also an R-rated version, which is the same except for some shot removals and replacements during the ending.) ^

2014 In Retrospect

It was 100 Films’ greatest ever year in terms of sheer size, but it was also one of the highest-scoring too, with the most five-star ratings I’ve ever awarded and the second-highest average score to date. Now it’s time to look back over the list and ask: Which were the cream of the crop? Which were the dregs? And which significant new films did I not even see?

To top it off, you can make your voice heard by voting for your favourites (plural) in this year’s top ten poll. Exciting stuff.

So without further ado:



The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014

In alphabetical order…

Chicken Little
Disney are back at the height of their powers of late, at least as far as the box office is concerned, with the phenomenon that is Frozen. Things weren’t so rosy in the early ’00s, though, leading them to abandon traditional 2D animation for the burgeoning world of 3D CGI. Their first effort was this dross, instantly proving it wasn’t the style of animation that was the problem.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
I only gave this two stars (as opposed to one) for two reasons: 1) the rather cool cliff-swinging fight sequence, which deserves to be in a better movie, and 2) because for some unknown reason I’d given the Team America-esque first one two stars, and this is marginally better. Really, though, it’s awful: messily told, tonally uneven, ridiculous in any number of ways. Even as a daft actioner, it’s no fun.

Ghost Rider
Ghost Rider’s maligned sequel, Spirit of Vengeance, wasn’t particularly good, but at least it embraced the trashier, grimier aspects of the character (even if it was only in a PG-13 way). This first attempt to bring the Marvel anti-hero to the big screen tried to force the concept into the shape of a trad blockbuster, ending up with a Constantine rip-off. As hardly anyone liked Constantine, that wasn’t a very good idea.

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger!
I liked the first Nativity — it’s not high art, but it’s a perfectly lovely Christmas movie. This follow-up has to switch out Martin Freeman for David Tennant, which isn’t a problem, but the new story is. Not that it’s much of a story, more a series of loosely-connected misadventures. Throw in a climactic concert made up of truly dreadful new songs and you have a disappointingly charmless sequel.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Michael Bay can make good movies, but he seems to have forgotten how. There are many things wrong with this third Transformers flick, but what’s most shocking is how ineptly it’s put together. For experienced filmmakers, there’s no excuse. Apparently this year’s fourth instalment is even worse, but it’s tough to imagine how. To quote a character in the movie: “does it suck or what? I mean it’s like a bad sci-fi film.”

Dishonourable Mention
Sin City: Recut & Extended
Not bad enough to actually make the bottom five, this recut took a film I remembered loving and messed about with it so much it made me doubt if I’d ever liked it in the first place. It could be my tastes have changed in the intervening nine years, but I suspect it’s at least as much due to the frustrating and near-pointless rearrangement of the running order. I recommend you stick to the theatrical cut.



The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014

The fascinating story of the outrage provoked in Britain by gory horror movies in the early days of VHS. Excellently constructed from talking-head interviews and archive clips, it not only tells the tale clearly but also presents spot-on juxtapositions. Informative both for those who lived through it and those for who it’s now part of history, the important message is how easily such censorship was allowed — even encouraged — and that we must be on the look out for it again. Unfortunately it is happening again, to the internet this time, and once again is being championed via misinformation from those with a vested interest. I guess more people need to see this film…

The gang’s all here for an all-eras X-Men team-up, the original cast teaming up with the First Class lot, and led by original franchise director Bryan Singer, for a time-travelling adventure inspired by the classic comic book storyline. Some surprisingly deep characterisation, buoyed by strong performances from a first-rate cast (how many of them are Oscar nominees/winners?), rubs shoulders comfortably with witty and inventive action sequences. The series that kicked off the current Hollywood superhero obsession proves it can still hold its own among the big boys that have come since.

Darren Aronofsky’s multi-pronged narrative about the evils of addiction is sometimes cited as one of the bleakest films ever made. Even if you’re prepared for that, the verve of the filmmaking transcends expectations. Finely-tuned editing and attentive sound design gradually position the viewer for the climax, a fast-cut perfectly-scored assault on the senses that almost batters you into submission. It may ultimately be grim and without hope, but it’s so amazingly crafted that you’re left longing to experience it again regardless.

Snatched off the street, locked in a bedsit for 15 years, then inexplicably released and given just days to figure out why it happened — that’s the concept behind this dark South Korean thriller (remade in America to no fanfare and even less acclaim in 2013). Oldboy mixes what could almost be a straightforward revenge thriller with weird, almost surrealistic touches, for a whole that is ready-made to be cultish without the self-conscious Cult-ish-ness that such things are normally saddled with. It ends with twists and revelations so hard-hitting they equal even the famous single-take hammer-featuring corridor scene.

Found-footage and superheroes — two current cinematic obsessions, reviled by some and beloved by others. They had to come together eventually. Director Josh Trank keeps a handle on affairs, so that the film always sticks to concept without becoming samey, while screenwriter Max Landis reveals the true nature of his characters as he leads them from low-key beginnings to a barnstorming citywide climax that’s a bit like the ending of Man of Steel, only really good.

Why aren’t there many thrillers set inside the jury room? I’d wager because 12 Angry Men got there a long time ago and nailed it. A man is on trial for murder; we join the case as the twelve-man jury enter their deliberation room. Eleven of them are absolutely certain; one thinks they ought to discuss it. For the next 90 minutes, twelve men sit in one room and talk to each other… and it’s absolutely gripping, tense and thrilling, with moments that make you virtually punch the air with excitement. It’s a masterclass in constrained filmmaking, from director Sidney Lumet, and acting, from a cast of twelve peerless performers.

The sequel to the prequel of the Planet of the Apes takes the fad for all-CGI characters and brings it to maturity with a fully-realised ape society, played by mo-capped actors led by Andy Serkis, that is far more interesting than the human portion of the story. This is a story of interspecies relations where everything could be fine if it weren’t for past distrust and people constantly bringing guns along — like the best sci-fi, it reflects our world back at us. They claimed Avatar proved motion-captured performances should be considered alongside ‘the real thing’. Rubbish. Dawn, however, makes that case completely.

Hated by Stephen King, author of the original novel, and his most die-hard fans, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation sees Jack Nicholson and family as the caretakers and sole residents of a remote hotel over a snowbound winter, when very creepy things begin to happen… Goodness knows what any of it ultimately means (I know there are plenty of wild theories — I’ve got Room 237 recorded to catch at some point), but as an exercise in eliciting emotions of dread and almost-primal fear, it’s second to none.

The sixth feature film to star Hergé’s boy reporter (yes, really) sees the master of action-adventure cinema, Steven Spielberg, bring us the best Indiana Jones movie in over 20 years — only it’s computer animated and stars a blonde Belgian chap with a posh British accent. Rendered with incredible realism by Weta, with a screenplay that perfectly balances investigation, action and humour, and direction that knows when to maintain verisimilitude and when to cut loose with all the freedom CGI can offer, Tintin is a quality entertainment. Very nearly my film of the year, but for…

Regular readers will know I love a single-location thriller, and this is one — it just happens that the single-location in question is the entire orbit of planet Earth. There may not be much of a plot (“woman gets stranded in space; tries to get to safety”), but it doesn’t matter: director Alfonso Cuarón reminds us of his mastery of the single-take, using it to better connect us to the characters’ experiences. I’m sure people were right that it’s best in 3D on a huge screen, but even in 2D on a telly it’s spectacular. It’s also the third film in my top five that’s only been made possible thanks to advances in computer graphics — that surely says something about how an intelligent use of CGI still allows filmmakers to innovate.



Top 10 Poll

As ever, I welcome your opinion on my top ten — not just in the comments section, but also in the form of a lovely poll. This year you can pick multiple options, so feel free to vote for all your favourites.

And if you feel I’ve made an unforgivable omission, do feel free to berate me below.



Honourable Mentions

Yet another record: for the first time ever, all of my top ten films are ones I awarded a full five stars to. That’s once again testament to the quality of this year’s viewing, because I felt sure at least one four-stars-er would make the list. To be precise, that was The Green Hornet, which I know isn’t widely liked but I rather loved — I called it “one of the best superhero movies of the current generation”, in fact. On the day, though, I couldn’t in good conscience say it was better than any of the films I have included. I guess that confers 11th place on it.

In total, 27 main-list films earned themselves a five-star ratings this year. As well as those in the top ten (for which, see above, obv.), the others were After the Thin Man, All is Lost, La Belle et la Bete, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, Good Will Hunting, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, In Your Eyes, The Kings of Summer, Rear Window, Saving Mr. Banks, The Searchers, The Secret of Kells, Sightseers, The Thin Man, The World’s End, and Zero Dark Thirty. Additionally, both of the ‘other’ titles I watched and reviewed — The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition) and miniseries The 10th Kingdom — also scored full marks.

There are any number of other films I could highlight here — my long-list for the top ten had over 50 movies on it, and at least 25 of those were genuine contenders — but two categories stand out. Firstly, after finishing the Falcon series earlier in the year, towards the end I made a start on The Thin Man, watching the first three out of six films. They’re excellent fun, the tonal inspiration for the likes of the Saint and the Falcon (which I’ve previously covered in full), but on the whole even better. Expect reviews before too long.

Finally, we all know superhero and comic book movies are everywhere right now, and will continue to be so if the announced plans of Marvel Studios, Warner Bros, Fox, Sony, and the rest, come to fruition. It’s felt particularly true for me this year, with not only a few well-received recent releases (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past), but also getting caught up on an array of recent entries (all but two were from the past decade, and one of those is only 11 years old). All told, there were 22 superhero, comic book, or related movies on this year’s list — that’s 16%. For a single subgenre — and not one where I’ve (say) dedicated myself to watching the entirety of one series — that does seem rather a lot…



The Films I Didn’t See

As is my tradition, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films that were released in 2014 but I’ve not yet seen. They’ve been chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety. It’s biased slightly towards ones I might actually see at some point, though there were a couple of highly-successful or much-discussed ones I felt couldn’t/shouldn’t be left out. Feel free to assume which ones those are.

22 Jump Street
300: Rise of an Empire
’71
American Sniper
Big Eyes
Big Hero 6
Birdman
Boyhood
Calvary
Divergent
The Equalizer
Exodus: Gods and Kings
The Expendables 3
Godzilla
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Fault in Our Stars
Foxcatcher
Fury
Hercules
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
The Imitation Game
The Inbetweeners 2
Inherent Vice
Interstellar
The Interview
Into the Woods
Locke
Lucy
Maleficent
The Maze Runner
A Million Ways to Die in the West
The Monuments Men
Mr. Turner
Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie
Muppets Most Wanted
Nightcrawler
Noah
Paddington
Pride
The Raid 2
RoboCop
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Theory of Everything
Transcendence
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Unbroken
Under the Skin



Party like it’s Nineteen Ninety Nine…

It’s 100 Films’ ninth year — crikey, when’d that happen?

Expect more archive reposts (can I finish them before my 10th anniversary?), a third round of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” (it’s got a killer new acronym…), and — fingers crossed — both my 1,000th review and the official 100 Films’ #1000!

All that and hoverboards. We were promised hoverboards.