Technically not one scene, but a sequence of scenes, yet I couldn't not include the lonely, spur of the moment trip to Paris from Frances Ha. The eponymous character, trying to prove that she's doing fine and has it together, decides to go on a trip that she can't afford, wastes much of it sleeping off jet lag, and spends the rest of it wandering around by herself as Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner" plays on the soundtrack. Basically, Frances flies 7 hours to see Puss in Boots, which is sad but also slightly funny, unlike the rest of the film which is funny while also being slightly sad.
By the time Stories We Tell arrives at its end, director Sarah Polley has already made her point about how we craft our personal narratives and how no one narrative can be the "definitive" narrative. Yet the little coda that comes afterwards (which I wouldn't dare spoil because it's so perfect) doesn't play as overkill. It simply affirms the film's point: you can know the story, but there are always other stories hidden beneath, or just to the side, of the main narrative.
Jesse and Celine love to talk, that's no secret after three films. What's so special about this scene in particular is that we see them having an extended conversation with other people. It's also that the people around the table are of varying ages and in relationships of varying stages, and the theoretical riffing that Jesse and Celine engage in gives way to the perspectives of the two older, widowed members of the party who know what it is to see love come to a natural end and can speak from retrospect. It's a beautifully written and executed scene.
Spring Break didn't turn those girls into debauched sociopaths - they were already there. In this scene three members of the quartet band together to rob a chicken restaurant, psyching each other up by saying advising each other to pretend its just a video game. Depicted (the first time) in a tracking shot from the point-of-view of the getaway car, a light and fluffy pop song playing on the radio as the car winds its way around the restaurant, the two girls inside are shown terrorizing the patrons of the restaurant like it's second nature. It's as perfect as it is stylized.
As Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger, in separate interviews, discuss their recording of "Gimme Shelter," it goes beyond storytelling and into the realm of mythology. With Clayton's rich, soaring voice playing in an isolated vocal track in the background, the two interviewees seem somewhat taken aback (and delightfully so) by the power of the recording even now as they describe how Clayton was called upon in the middle of the night to lend her voice to the recording, coming to the studio and just killing it. It's an absolutely mesmerizing scene.
American films are full of so-called ordinary men who stare danger and death in the face and then just shrug it off like it's nothing. What makes the final scene of Captain Phillips so extraordinary is that it allows its protagonist to react to what's just happened to him the way an ordinary person would. Having just come close to being executed himself, and standing right in front of his captors as they're executed by Navy Seals, he's in such a state of shock he can barely answer simple questions and can only weep. Rarely are the heroes of American films allowed to be so openly vulnerable.
Llewyn Davis can't catch a break but, by some miracle, manages to create one for himself during a sojourn to Chicago. He drops in on producer Bud Grossman, who denies ever having received the album Llewyn's manager sent to him, but agrees to let Llewyn audition for him live. Sitting across from him, Llewyn plays "The Death of Queen Jane," giving it everything he has, only for Grossman to inform him that he doesn't see any money in Llewyn as a solo act. It's a devastating moment, one which implies that no matter what Llewyn does, he's never going to dig himself out of the hole he's sunk into. He's got the talent, he's just not a star.
12 Years a Slave depicts no shortage of horrors but in one of its most brutal scenes, Solomon Northrup is threatened with hanging and, in fact, strung up with the noose around his neck. The murder is stopped, but he's left to hang there, kept alive only by the fact that he can still touch the ground on tip-toe, for what seems like an eternity. As other slaves go about their tasks around him, afraid to acknowledge him lest they invite wrath upon themselves, the film quietly shows not just the physical terror inflicted on victims of slavery, but the psychological terror as well.
I couldn't pick just one. These were, hands down, the two most emotionally devastating movie scenes I saw all year. In the first, the relationship between protagonist Adele and her girlfriend, Emma, explodes in a fight escalating to violence, their anger and desperation in the scene as passionate as the lust in previous scenes. In the second, quieter scene, the two meet again years later, all the old tensions simmering just below the surface until finally boiling over. These are masterful scenes, the best in a film with no shortage of great scenes.
Gravity is a film of relentless intensity in which scene after scene unfolds its heroine into new dangers, but its best scene takes place in the calm before the storm. This was a cinematic game changer, unveiling new dimensions as its characters float in space and director Alfonso Cuaron plays around with how they are fixed in relation to each other in the field of vision. These moments are as graceful, as ballet-like as the moments to come are action packed and explosive, and so beautifully rendered that they can restore the sense of wonder to even the most jaded moviegoer.