Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Top 10 Week... Scenes of 2014

#10: Opening Monologue, Dom Hemingway

Dom Hemingway opens with Jude Law as the eponymous character looking straight into the camera and delivering a 2 minute monologue about how glorious his penis is. He compares it to Picasso (because it's a work of art), declares that it should be studied in science classes (because it defies nature), asserts that it would win a medal if medals were given out for such things, insists that sonnets should be written about it and wars fought over it. It (the monologue, not the penis) is ridiculous, it is sublime. It is the perfect introduction for the character and more than sets the tone for the film that is about to unfold.

#9: "I Love You All," Frank

Poor Frank. Poor damaged, eccentric Frank. After being latched onto by a subpar songwriter/musician who believes he can ride Frank's coattails to stardom, he's placed in one emotionally shattering situation after another, loses the thing that allows him to engage with the world from a safe distance and removed from the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and finally beats a hasty retreat back to his parents' home (the scene with his parents rivals this one in excellence). But in the end he finds the strength to return to the people who embraced him in the first place and finds that, even without the giant paper mache head, they still treat him as though he belongs. It's beautiful, it's heartbreaking, and the song isn't half bad either.

#8: The Whoring Bed, Nymphomaniac: Volume 1

The first volume of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac was one of the more pleasant surprises of the first part of 2014. Yes, it's kind of ridiculous and more than a bit over-the-top, but it's also (for the most part) pretty hilarious. The best scene (from either volume) is the one in which Uma Thurman's angry wife shows up to confront her husband and Joe, the film's protagonist. Dragging the couple's children along for the show, Thurman adopts an attitude of faux solicitude as she takes verbal swipes at her husband and tries to embarrass and guilt him to the point where he will never again be able to enjoy the illicit relationship (not that Joe wants to continue it anyway). The energy, awkwardness, and comedy of the scene is a thing to behold and Thurman delivers a bravura one scene wonder of a performance.

#7: The Final Scene, The Immigrant

If I was doing a list of the best shots of the year, the final shot of The Immigrant would win without question. It's such a beautiful and striking image, dividing the screen between Marion Cotillard's immigrant reflected in a mirror as she escapes into a new life with her sister, and Joaquin Phoenix's conman slinking away alone after trying so desperately to hold on to her. Darius Khondji's cinematography in The Immigrant is stunning from beginning to end, lending the melodrama a distinctly painterly look and feel, but this is the single best shot in a film full of them, and Cotillard and Phoenix's performances in this scene, which closes the door on the characters' love/hate relationship, are wonderful, emotional, and powerful.

#6: Getting Rid of Ian, Only Lovers Left Alive

My favorite parts of Only Lovers Left Alive were the parts where Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston's vampires drive through the dark, deserted streets of Detroit. The image of these undead characters traveling through an undead city, which in the film's rendering appears to be more an abandoned graveyard than a place of the living, works beautifully within the film. After ending up with a dead human in their living room the vampires take their final journey into the Detroit night, disposing of the body within the ruined shell of a once grand building under the watchful, glowing eyes of the animals that have taken ownership of the premises. It's a great, evocative sequence - it's just too bad that poor, goofy Ian had to die to bring it about.

#5: The Stakeout and Chase, Nightcrawler

Just when you think that Louis Bloom can't sink any lower on a moral level, he sets the stage for a massive and self-serving tragedy. After withholding the identities of a pair of murderers from police, Louis follows them so that he can get video of them being arrested. He makes a call to 911 which brings multiple police to the scene, and then records the carnage that ensues, starting with a shootout between the criminals and the police, continuing with a high speed chase, and finally ending with the death of Louis' employee - a death which Louis facilitates, demonstrating just how cold blooded he really is. It is a magnificently tense sequence, full of shocks, and perfectly rendered by director Dan Gilroy.

#4: The End, Whiplash

Whiplash boasts the most intense movie ending of the year. After spending the majority of the film being abused by J.K. Simmons' conductor and then escaping from his clutches, Miles Teller's protagonist allows himself to be drawn in again only to discover that it was a trap all along and that he's merely allowed himself to be set up for a very public humiliation. At first he slinks away with his tail between his legs, but then he returns to the stage, takes his seat behind the drums, and begins playing as if it's the last thing he'll ever do. The scene begins as an act of audacity and defiance, builds to something exhilarating and strangely beautiful, edges over the top into something of scary ferocity, and then keeps going until it hits a whole other level beyond that where the playing takes on an almost spiritual feeling. Most movies end with a denouement. Whiplash ends with an explosion.

#3: "I just thought there would be more," Boyhood

Though it follows the life a boy from age 6 to 18, Boyhood has been described as a film that's ultimately about parenthood. No scene from the film better encapsulates that notion than this one, in which the boy, Mason, is leaving for college and his mother struggles to come to terms with the massive change that's about to take place. As she ticks off the list of milestones they've been through together, the full scope of her role in his life begins to come into view and she realizes that she's put all this time and effort into raising him and her reward is that he's going to leave her behind. The way that the moment is played, it's kind of funny and kind of heartbreaking, and it's the scene which best speaks to the power of what Boyhood is doing: we aren't just watching these people grow older, we're watching them grow up.

#2: The Grave, Ida

The journey that the title character and her aunt take in Ida takes them on a few detours, but this is the real destination: the unmarked mass grave hidden in the woods, where Ida's parents and young cousin have been buried. They've made a deal with the man who now occupies what was once their family's home so that he'll take them to this place and so that they can collect the remains and put them to rest properly. As the man digs, the shot cuts from Ida and the aunt sitting on the ground above the hole, to the man in the hole, and then back to the women with the aunt now cradling her son's skull. It's a sudden, startling image and the most emotionally powerful scene in a film which has no shortage of them.

#1: The Beach Sequence, Under the Skin

It unfolds simply: the alien (played by Scarlett Johansson) is at a beach, stalking her prey, which in this case is a guy swimming nearby. Down the beach is a man and woman with a toddler and a dog. As the alien engages the swimmer in conversation, they notice that the woman has swum out into the choppy water, trying to save the dog, which is being swept out to sea. Soon the woman is in distress of her own and the man tries to save her, leaving their child on the beach. The swimmer tries to save the man, but the man is determined to go after his wife and both are swept away. The alien kills the swimmer and later her cohort comes to the beach to pick up any evidence that's been left behind, walking right by the wailing toddler still on the beach, the tide swiftly coming in. It's an utterly haunting sequence which had remained fresh in my mind since seeing the film in theaters in June and which, on a recent rewatch, still had a deep impact. It's quite simply a masterful bit of storytelling that occurs almost entirely without dialogue.

No comments: