Saturday, January 25, 2014

The 15 Best Scenes of 2013

2013 was, as many have said, an amazing year for film. Here, I have compiled my favorite scenes from film this year. Now, I should note that this list has nothing to do with the films as a whole-- naturally, some of my favorite films of the year also have some of my favorite scenes, but as a rule, a film's placement here is not necessarily an endorsement. For example, I enjoyed the film with my #1 pick, but it wasn't one of my favorites of the year (an indication of how many great movies there were). Now, some of this discussion does involve spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film, I'd encourage you to read the entry with caution.
15: Anchorfight 2 (Anchorman 2)
The endlessly-advertised Anchorman 2 was fun, but only time will tell if it will be as quotable and legacy-creating as the original Anchorman. It was certainly out there, and oftentimes worked. But it worked best when the silliness wasn’t forced, which happened often, as Will Ferrell and company have a talent for making the most absurd things work. While there are certainly objectively better scenes out this year in other movies, I felt like I had to include the Anchorfight at the end of the film. Following up on the joke of the first film, where a bunch of cameo-laden newsteams fight in a battle royale with a perplexing assortment of weapons, this film takes it to a whole other level. In one scene alone, we get cameos from Sascha Baron Cohen, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kanye West, Jim Carrey, Marion Cotillard, Will Smith, Liam Neeson, Kirsten Dunst, and John C. Reilly as the ghost of Stonewall Jackson. The weapons are more absurd, the cameos are more numerous, and the whole joke is amplified to the point of absurdity. And it’s simply a joy to watch happen. Also, Brick has a laser gun from the future.

14: The Dinner Scene (August: Osage County)
With the exception of Chris Cooper, everything about the film version of August: Osage County paled in comparison to the stage play-- including, in my opinion, Oscar nominees Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. But what is often considered the best scene in the play was still the best scene in the film. The Westons gets together to have what turns out to be probably the worst family dinner in history. It starts with an awkward grace, and just gets worse and worse, with large secrets being causally revealed, and power struggles coming to a head.

13: Nelson Mandela sees his daughter (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
There are many great moments in this somewhat uneven film biography—most of them involving the amazing and underrated performance of Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. But the best scene in the film involves when Nelson Mandela, still in prison, is visited by his daughter Zindzi who is visiting him for the first time in her life (having not been able to until she was 16). The emotion on Zindzi’s face, and the overjoyed yet unsure Mandela trying to figure out what to say as a father, and recognizing his wife in their daughter’s personality, is a beautiful reunion. This scene sums up what the film does best—it does a better job dealing with individual relationships than it does with the grander political themes.

12: The whipping (12 Years a Slave)
Everyone’s talking about the brutal scene from 12 Years a Slave where the young slave girl Patsey is whipped mercilessly. Not much to really say about this scene. It’s incredibly morbid and horrifyingly realistic. Which, of course, is the whole point. In a particularly disturbing film, this scene in particular stands out.

11: Klara is interrogated (The Hunt)
This Danish film which is nominated for—and could win—best foreign language film this year, focuses on the persecution of a man named Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen—who deservedly won the best actor awards at Cannes for his portrayal) falsely accused of molesting a very young girl. Mikkelsen is incredible, but is matched note for note by child actress Annika Wedderkopp, portraying the young girl, Klara. In this scene, taken almost word for word from the real-life transcript of an investigation of a similar case, Klara is asked questions by a policeman who has the intent of getting her to implicate Lucas, and ends up feeding her answers and blatantly misinterpreting her responses. Not only is the scene horrifying as it sets up the titular witch-hunt that will last throughout the film, but it makes it clear that Klara is not a villain. She is a young and innocent girl whose only crime is not really understanding what is going on. It’s one of the best films of the year because of complex and thought-provoking scenes like this one.

10: The apocalypse gets canceled (Pacific Rim)
Amidst all these critically acclaimed Oscar contenders (and, um, Anchorman), I’m throwing in Pacific Rim, which is quite simply the coolest movie ever made, and which was unfairly snubbed in the technical categories. Like most movies in this genre, it had a rousing and motivational pre-battle speech. Now, the trope of the inspiring speech is a fairly common one, but the one given by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) will, I think, forever rank as one of the best and, quite simply, most badass. I want to make Idris Elba saying “Today we are cancelling the apocalypse,” into my ringtone. It would inspire me to do absolutely anything.

9: The first reenactment/the last reenactment (The Act of Killing)
This chilling, Oscar-nominated documentary follows a group of executioners from a military uprising in Indonesia 1965 who were responsible for killing anyone deemed an enemy of the new regime. In a truly original concept, documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer asked the executioners to reenact the killings in any way they wanted to, giving them creative control. Scenes are produced in various styles and genres, including a Western, and even a musical. While many of these reenactments have a terrifying effect, the creepiest for me is the very first one shown, where executioner Herman Koro finds a group of schoolchildren to portray his victims, as well as one passerby to play their mother. As he directs the kids, he’s joking around, playing with them, and acting like a goofball. All the time we know that he was responsible for personally killing hundreds of people. More time is spent on the later reenactments, and more imagination is used, but this scene perfectly sets up what we’re getting in for with this terrifying yet worthwhile documentary.
While the beginning scene is surreal, the end is poignant, and just as strong for its own reasons, as the head executioner Anwar Congo, believed to have killed more than 1,000 people, portrays a victim for the first time in all of the scene reenactments that they’ve done throughout the film. Congo was present for all of these reenactments, and spends most of the film brushing off any questions about the morality of his former job by saying he doesn’t want to think about that. While he acknowledges the horror of his crimes, he seems almost gleeful as he does the reenactments and guides Oppenheimer through how so many people met their end. But when he plays a victim, you can see the realization in Congo’s eyes. By going through a simulation of the tortures he carried out, he realizes for the first time what his victims went through and begins to physically gag. In one scene, this documentary captures a man’s conscience suddenly coming to view, and the change is too much for Congo to take. It’s one of the oddest and most real things I’ve ever seen on film. Is it a fitting comeuppance for this murderer? No. But it in a film consisting of bizarre depictions of the taking of life, it is fitting that it ends with a bizarre depiction of humanity in and of itself, as we see a killer physical respond to the full weight of his crimes.

8: Please Mr. Kennedy (Inside Llewyn Davis)
While it failed to score an Original Song nomination, one of the best musical moments in film this year was the song Please Mr. Kennedy from Inside Llewyn Davis. Not only is it the most lighthearted moment in the film, but it serves as the first of many well-utilized surprises. Penniless folksinger Llewyn Davis is clearly holding onto some sort of moral high ground, and it is generally accepted that he’s a “serious musician,” while it is implied that the more successful musicians like Jim (played, fittingly, by Justin Timberlake) are sell-outs and, somehow, less-than. When Llewyn helps Jim on a recording for this song, his disgust for it is palatable, and as an audience we are initially inclined to agree with him when we hear strange noises from another musician involved. But once we actually hear the song, it’s ridiculously catchy, and although it’s an original song, it feels like an old-school hit, a la The Kinks or The Who. The premise of the film, to me, is that the world is changing while Llewyn is stuck in a rut—his behavior has put him in this never-ending cycle. “Please Mr. Kennedy,” is a great song, but it’s also the film’s clearest indication of these changing times and provides an important piece of perspective as the film goes forward.

7: George Clooney returns (Gravity)
There are many great scenes in Gravity, and most would point to the incredible long-shot at the very beginning of the film. But as technically impressive as the opening shot is, I don’t think it’s the best scene in the film. After all, it takes place before anything has even happened. My favorite scene is when, after seemingly being shat upon repeatedly by some karmic douchebag deity, astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) simply gives up and decides to die peacefully rather than continue an escape attempt. She’s about to drift off when, miraculously, her fellow astronaut George Clooney (who plays a character named Matt Kowalski but who, let’s face it, is really just George Clooney) arrives to talk her through how to rescue herself and encourage her to not give up. The scene feels like a deus ex machina—Clooney’s character was implied to have died a long time ago, and his arrival is as preposterous as it is well-timed. He even opens the door of the ship before Sandra Bullock had her spacesuit on! Surely that would have killed her! Of course, this scene is not real-- it is hallucinated by Stone who is then inspired to save herself. What I love about it is that it’s a moment of fantasy in a science fiction film which is heavy on the science. And it allows director Alfonso Cuaron to play with our perceptions of reality and disorient us just a bit. It’s a nice oasis which fits perfectly in this ultimate disaster flick.

6: The kidnapper is revealed (Prisoners) THIS POST IN PARTICULAR HAS SUPER DUPER HUGE SPOILERS
I loved Prisoners. And while not many agree with me, and its early release meant all of its Oscar buzz fizzled and it was left with a single nomination for cinematography, it is actually my favorite film of the year. It’s an intricate film which wears multiple hats—at times being an emotional family drama, at times being a detective story, at times being a thriller, and at times being a pure horror film. And I love the ending. Some have called it predictable, but to me, not one person could have figured out every single piece of the puzzle, even if they got the general notion of what was happening. Some picked up on one bit, some picked up on another. Together, a collective audience would figure it out, but I don’t know anyone who knew what every single clue meant. And as cliché as it may be, you really don’t expect the monster in the film to be the sweet old lady. Played chillingly by Melissa Leo who I think should have had Oscar consideration for her work, everything suddenly falls into place, as we realize the true danger that our anti-hero played by Hugh Jackman is really in. The same qualities we once saw as charming in Leo’s Holly Jones now become menacing, and we’re left replaying all of her previous scenes in our heads. One of the more satisfying reveals in a cinematic mystery story that I’ve seen in a long time.

5: The race at Nurburgring (Rush)
Ron Howard's underrated racing film which received critical acclaim,  ultimately fell off the map and failed to receive a single Oscar nomination-- not even for actor Daniel Bruhl, who had been nominated for most other major awards for his work (bafflingly, in the supporting actor category even though he's one of the two stars). The most tense scene is a race on a track called Nurburgring. Already known as a treacherous track, top racer Niki Lauda (Bruhl) tries to get the racing commission to call off the race, as it had been heavily raining and the track was unsafe. At the goading of his rival James Hunt (an equally strong Chris Hemsworth) the race goes forth, and even those of us who don’t know anything about racing (the film is based on a true story) know something terrible is going to happen. And it does. The film is full of exciting races and close finishes, but this is the most tense of all. Every time a corner is turned, you expect something awful. My heart didn’t beat faster with nerves for any other scene this year.

4: Catherine Dickens gives her husband’s mistress a necklace (The Invisible Woman)
I didn’t really care for this empty biographical period piece about Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and his affair with a young actress named Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). While I disliked most of the film, it did feature one of the best performances of the year. Not the unbearably bland Jones, and not the hammy Fiennes, but the wonderful understated work of character actress Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’ wife Catherine. Catherine is very out of place in Dickens’ life, not craving the spotlight or the lifestyle that her husband seems to require in order to thrive. Scanlan’s portrayal of Catherine is as a wallflower who fades into the background. And in this film, such restraint is mesmerizing—your eyes are drawn to her as she sadly watches events unfold. She is not portrayed as stupid, merely plain and tired, and so it is a shock when she arrives at Nelly’s birthday party carrying a necklace, which she explains is a necklace from her husband. She speaks to Nelly candidly, but it is not a confrontation. In her speech, Scanlan shows a bit of warning, a bit of resentment, a bit of sadness, a bit of embarrassment, a lot of strength, and a lot of tired acceptance. It’s a fascinating scene—and the last one Scanlan is in—and it makes one wish the whole film could have been at that level. I’d watch a whole movie following Catherine Dickens, and this scene alone feels like a standalone short film which deserved a better film to showcase it. One of the best scene of the year, hidden in one of the most disappointing films of the year.

3: Victor Tellegio (American Hustle)
This colorful, exciting, smart, and stylized con film features a ton of incredible performances-- enough to get Bradley Cooper an Oscar nomination just for being a part of the cast. But one of the best is the cameo by Robert DeNiro, whose involvement in the film was mostly kept under wraps. DeNiro, who last collaborated with director David O. Russell in Silver Linings Playbook in a very against-type role (for which he received an Oscar nomination) plays Victor Tellegio, a gangster akin to the roles he was known for playing back when he collaborated with Scorsese. His presence alone is powerful and intimidating—which the role needs, and he instantly adds an element of danger to the carefully knit operation being carried out by our main characters. Even as he agrees with the others at the table, you feel on edge knowing that something is about to go terribly, terribly wrong. Our fears are proven correct when he begins speaking in fluent Arabic, threatening to blow the cover of the crew’s faux-sheik (who is Hispanic). It’s a dangerous and surprising scene which encapsulates the high-stakes which make this movie work so well. Also, DeNiro’s work is one of the best-utilized cameos of the year.

2: Home videos of Michael (Philomena)
Philomena is one of the true surprises of the year, and I'm so thrilled it received a somewhat-unexpected Oscar nomination. Based on a true story of a woman trying to find her long lost son Michael, the film seems like a charming human interest story, but takes a dramatic turn about halfway through the film when the identity of Philomena’s son is revealed. I warned about spoilers at the beginning of this, but I want to make sure you know that the next sentence is a massive spoiler: her son is dead. The case seems closed, and it feels like all the film has left to do is find some point of resolution, so Philomena Lee visits her sons lover, who shows her home videos of Michael. As the home videos play, it seems like another sweet moment like the ones we’ve seen throughout the film, until reporter Martin Sixsmith (a commendable Steve Coogan) sees that one of the videos takes place at the Irish nunhouse in which Michael was born. Which was the first place that he and Philomena visited when trying to find Michael. Where they said that they had no information about him. And where, the partner tells them, Michael is in fact buried. In one scene, the film goes from being an above-average human interest story into being a tale of deception and cruelty, of conspiracy and lies. It goes from a charming tale of an old Irish woman and a stuck-up reporter to an outright thriller and story of justice. Everything changes and, at least when I saw it, the whole audience gasped at the revelation.

1: The captain relaxes (Captain Phillips)
As I watched Captain Phillips, I thought it was a good film. The gritty realism that earned Paul Greengrass a very well-deserved Oscar nomination in United 93 has a similar affect here and makes us feel as if we’re on the boat with the titular Captain Phillips, who has been taken hostage by Somalian pirates. As strong and as present as the direction is, this film lives and dies by its performances, both from Barkhad Abdi who gives an unrelenting yet surprisingly human portrayal of pirate Abduwali Muse, to Tom Hanks as the ever-reliable heroic Phillips, who maintains a level head and a professional calm throughout all of the movie’s dire circumstances. He’s a hero through and through and it’s a great story. “Good film,” I thought, as the movie reached its end. But then, in the very last scene, something happened. Tom Hanks broke down. Having been rescued, realizing he’s safe from harm, Phillips can, for the first time, stop putting on a show. He weeps, he becomes more than just the ever-ready man-in-charge we’ve come to respect. He becomes a human. In Hanks’ eyes, you can see him reliving the event, unable to believe that it’s really over and that he survived. In that moment, Captain Phillips goes from being a good film to being a great film. It’s the scene that makes Tom Hanks Oscar snub so shocking and unfair, and while Captain Phillips is not even one of my favorite films of the year (which just goes to show once again how many great films there were) I think it contains the single best scene of 2013.
Thoughts? What are your favorite scenes of the year?  Share in the comments!

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