2011: The year’s best movie moments (part 1)

Most moviegoers can agree on one thing: there were way too many movies this year. If you’re (un)fortunate enough to live in New York, you had the opportunity to see around 600 new features come and go; the rest of us didn’t get that many fewer. That means that anyone who’s been put in a position to make a top 10 (or top 15, or top 20…) had to make some sad cuts. So we thought it appropriate to highlight some of the year’s most memorable individual moments, scenes, and sequences, from movies that may or may not have made our individual year-end lists. Some were from movies we didn’t love; some are from movies we didn’t even like, but all stood out. Which is no small feat considering just how insane the release calendar has become.

We are keeping out credit sequences since we feel it is an artform in itself, but would like to still give a special mention to the opening credits of Young Adult, Super and The Adventures of Tintin.

(RD = Ricky D, SH = Simon Howell, JS = Justine Smith.)

13 Assassins – The Final Battle

Takashi Miike’s electric remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film is a a subversive, action-packed spectacle. This beautifully crafted samurai revenge epic climaxes in a prolonged and masterful 40-minute battle inside a desert town, a sequence executed with killer, almost bewildering panache. (RD)

****

 

The Adventures of Tintin – The Chase / Sober Flashback

Taking notes from the classic Raiders of the Lost Ark playbook, Steven Spielberg has crafted another spirited, thrilling adventure. There’s much to admire on-screen, and choosing between our favourite scenes is a tough task. There’s a long astonishing shot, in a flashback involving the 17th century Haddock battling with the villainous Red Rackham. The sequence narrated by Haddock circles from past to present in brilliant matching transitions all in a 420-degree rush of ingenious choreography. The big chase scene through a terraced Middle Eastern city also deserves praise: Sakharine pursues in a car, Tintin flees with Haddock on a motorbike, while Snowy bolts after Sakharine’s falcon, all in hopes of retrieving three pieces of paper blowing in the wind. This tour-de-force action sequence alone lasts 2 min. 38 seconds and was conceived and executed in one single shot. The Adventures of Tintin is just another entry in Spielberg’s canon that proves why he is the master of cinematic escapism suitable for the entire family. (RD)

The Artist – Sonic nightmare

Director Michel Hazanavicius pays homage to the golden age of Hollywood and fully succeeds, creating a silent film true to the spirit of those from the past, long before talkies ever came to existence. The Artist is without a doubt one of the year’s best, and with it comes countless memorable moments, including a gripping and rousing sequence where the dog (Uggie) tries to save his master. But perhaps the standout moment comes in George Valentin’s sound-tinted nightmare sequence of cacophonous foley effects. This is a movie that embraces the building blocks of classic story-telling, creating a clever meta-commentary on the history of film and the movement. A story of adaptation and evolution, set at at a time when silents became overtaken by talkies and the industry advanced from one technology to another, leaving behind those not willing to adapt. The Artist is essential viewing for any cinephile. (RD)

L’Appollonide (House Of Pleasures) – Opening dream

There are many dream sequences in L’Appollonide, a film which drifts effortless between inner and outer worlds. The most striking (perhaps for its genuine shock value), is the film’s opening sequence, which presents to us this “House of Tolerance” and the soul of the film, The Jewess/Laughing Woman. Blending physical and texture eroticism with Lynchian imagery and shocking violence, it is a remarkable scene in one of the more idiosyncratic films released in 2011. (JS)

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Beyond the Black Rainbow – The flashback

Panos Cosmatos‘s feature debut is trippy all the way through, there’s no question; but a key flashback sequence midway through the film cracks the movie’s skull open and lets some of the freest cinema in recent memory slide right out. What’s paradoxical – and awesome – about this sequence is that it serves to further compound he fact that the film really does have a discernible, relatively traditional narrative ticking away inside of it, even as the visuals and lush analog synth score serve to make the film seem very much like it might just be a stylistic exercise. Like a Broken-era Nine Inch Nails video left in the desert sun for a millennium, liquefied, and then shot into your ephemeral artery. In other words, yes, awesome. (SH)

Bridesmaids – First class

It seems in recent weeks, Bridesmaids has been discussed as a possible contender for Best Picture; I don’t think it’s that good, but I can’t deny that it has one of the funniest sequences of the year. Kristen Wiig demonstrates the full extent of her comic abilities as she gets progressively drunker, then is drugged by her contemptuous frenemy (Rose Byrne), and subsequently tries with complete tactlessness to sneak into first class. I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. (JS)

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Drive – The Elevator Scene

For every minor flaw in Nicolas Winding Refn’s patient but taut thriller (in which there are very few), there is a standout, memorable moment. The opening getaway – a cat and mouse chase detailing the meticulous planning that goes into such an operation – quickly comes to mind. That eight minute sequence alone could stand on its own as a short film, and we can’t not mention Albert Brooks’ scene stealing face-off with Gosling. But the one sequence that seemed embedded in our memories long after the credits rolled was the elevator scene, featuring a head bashing sequence reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, right after the Driver pauses in an elevator to kiss the ever beautiful Carey Mulligan. Destined to become Drive’s most infamous scene, it’s designed to show how our protagonist, the Driver, struggles with the opposing impulses of his nature. Some have suggested the kiss imaginary but regardless what your take is, it isn’t important. What is important is how the sequence shows how the Driver is torn between the comfort and security of a “normal” life and the thrill and attraction toward danger and violence. As he forms a closer bond with girl next door, the opposing sides begin to collide, until he can no longer deny who he is, and snaps. Drive revels in sensory detail; and Refn has sealed his place as one of the most fascinating contemporary genre filmmakers working today. (RD)

“The best kind of cinema is the one where action is long and dialogue short.” – John Ford

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La Guerre est Declarée – Musical sequence

It is difficult to believe that a film about the real-life experience of a child’s diagnosis with a rare form of brain cancer would have a musical sequence that wasn’t cloying or ridiculous, but somehow La Guerre est Declarée makes it work. The sequence stands out in a film that is desperate in its stylization, as cinema becomes the hope for a cure, the only way of handling the impossible. It is somehow an unsentimental portrait of a young couple’s nightmare. It is a quiet moment, and reflects the inner monologue of the characters in a way that only a musical can. (JS)

The Future – Stopping Time / T-Shirt Dance

Say what you will about The Future, but Miranda July’s sophomore effort features some memorable moments once the surreal aspects crop up. Jason finds himself able to arrest the aimless meandering of his life by stopping time himself. As he moves sideways from the flow of time, a philosophical moon begins to speak to him, offering advice. In what looks like some bizarre animated sequence come to life, Sophie buries herself in an oversized T-shirt, and the shirt, acting as a doppelgänger, begins magically walking about. Once she disappears inside the t-shirt, she dazzles us with the most outlandish payoff of the film and perhaps one of the most memorable scenes of any film this year. The T-shirt acts as a safety blanket, concealing her from the rest of the world. When she is not seen, she is able to let herself go. These anti-literal aspects of The Future might be described as nonsense, but adventurous movie-goers will admire July’s ability as a director to blend odd humour with deep, difficult emotion. July is fearless in her execution, proving that she’s a bona fide filmmaker, with the ability to tackle the absurdities of life in wonderful and inventive new ways. These vignettes in all their strange and funny ways simply illuminate everyday earthbound human emotions we all experience. (RD)

Hanna – The Escape

The highlight of the film comes when Hanna wakes up in a subterranean interrogation room surrounded by surveillance cameras and somehow escapes in a thrilling stroboscopic action chase through an underground secret government base. (RD)

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Hobo With A Shotgun Disco Inferno / The Plague

First-time feature director Jason Eisener and writer John Davies deliver an entertaining, comically violent throwback to low budget 70′s and 80′s genre movies. Hobo is destined for midnight-movie success but will outrage the mainstream due to its gleeful excess of sex and violence, seen best in the two standout scenes: The first involves a school bus full of children burnt alive to the sounds of “Disco Inferno,” and the second features “The Plague” (two characters similar to the villains in The Road Warrior), who go postal when entering a hospital. (RD)

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Hugo – Méliès watches Méliès

Like many skeptical filmgoers and critics, I was surprisingly affected by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a lovingly crafted movie-length tribute to early cinema, and a veritable thesis piece on the narrative-enhancing possibilities of 3D. Though some will point to other key moments (particularly the Keaton-referencing climax), for my money, the undeniable highlight was the living-room screening of A Trip to the Moon, while Georges Méliès himself (Ben Kingsley) looks on the creation he’s shamefully hidden away for so long, only to be wrapped up in the glorious artifice once again. Some found the movie’s conflation of the movies with the power of imagination trite and unconvincing; not only do I disagree, but I may have been more viscerally moved by this scene than any other this year – and if you’d told me back in January I’d be saying that about a Scorsese film in 2011, I’d never have believed you. (SH)

Incendies – The bus fire

It wasn’t until 2011 that those of you dwelling outside of Canada got to catch up with Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, a mosaic mystery-drama-thriller that puts Alejandro González Iñárritu’s collected work to shame, managing to deliver the “we’re all connected” theme while also folding into a Greek tragedy of insane proportion and modern socio-political import. The movie’s centerpiece is a humdinger, placing our wayward protagonist Mawal Narwan (Lubna Azabal) square in the center of a horrific ambush, during which she nimbly switches religious allegiances to save her own skin. What follows is the inciting incident for Mawal’s radicalization, which in turn inspires a whole chain of cruel, unpredictable ramifications. (SH)

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The Innkeepers – I love you, I take it back

The Innkeepers doesn’t hold a candle to Ti West’s previous film, The House of the Devil, but it probably has the best scene in any of his films. In a small, intimate scene, our two lonely, jaded main characters discuss saving their doomed hotel and unfortunately for one of them, this moment of intimacy is instantly transformed into a moment of un-acknowledged embarrassment as he confesses his love only to “take it back” moments later. (JS)

I Saw The Devil – The Cab Sequence

As expected, I Saw The Devil shows all the hallmarks of the South Korean filmmaker: gorgeous camera work, whip-smart editorial control, several intriguing set pieces, beautiful cinematography, a brooding atmosphere, a nerve-wracking score set to maximum, some surprising narrative twists, and stunning lead performances. The direction, writing, production, editing, music and acting are all top-notch and this is all present in the film’s best scene, which involves a cab driver and two homicidal maniacs. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but I will say that the choreography in this one scene alone is ingenious both in the camera work, and in the execution of the actors spiraling out of control. I’ve embedded the video for anyone who doesn’t mind being spoiled or has already seen it. (RD)

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Margaret – The accident

Probably the year’s most underseen great American movie of this year (despite the recent critical outpouring of support, which likely came a little too late to make a difference for non-NY moviegoers), Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret boasts one hell of an inciting incident: our fiery protagonist Lisa (Anna Paquin) thoughtlessly flirts with an on-duty bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) as she inquires about where he purchased his distinctive cowboy hat. She distracts him for a long enough period that he runs through a red light – a crucial detail that drives many key moments later in the film – and runs over a pedestrian (played by Allison Janney), who’s left gruesomely severed. Lisa runs to the woman’s side and does her best to keep her awake and alive, while the blood comes gushing in every direction, and Janney gradually slips away. There are so many ways Lonergan could have botched the scene, including but hardly limited to trying to apply saccharine uplift (conventionally delivered in musical form through an overbearing score) to a tragic event, but there’s none of that here. It’s just one woman senselessly dying in the arms of the one who, without malice, helped cause it to happen. And it’s every bit as devastating as it should be. (SH)

Martha Marcy May Marlene – Marcy’s Song

Music is integral to the success of Martha Marcy May Marlene, and it should be no surprise that my chosen scene in the film is John Hawkes’s performance of Jackson C. Frank’s “Marcy’s Song.” This begins as merely a beautiful moment, but in context of the film is it perhaps the most disturbing scene of the film. It is in this moment that we understand the draw of the cult, the feeling of belonging that leads all of the members down a dangerous path because as an audience, we are drawn in as well. (JS)

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Melancholia – The Prologue

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia remains one of the most divisive films of the year between critics and cinephiles alike. Love it or hate it, the opening prologue had everyone’s attention. The visually arresting and emotionally wrenching sequence opens at the end of the world. We know straightaway that Melancholia’s characters are doomed. Unlike other apocalyptic film, Trier turns the genre upside down by right away eliminating any anticipation and dread of knowing what is to come. After all Melancholia isn’t so much a movie about the end of the world as it is Trier’s profound, visceral vision of depression and destruction. The opening shots are astoundingly beautiful and unsettling, set to the Love/Death theme from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” Clocking in at just under eight minutes, we see a sequence of gorgeous, almost seemingly ecstatic images of a woman (Kirsten Dunst) in a nighttime forest in her wedding dress running, or floating in a pond, or with her fingertips sparking flames of electricity. The cataclysmic final shot of this prelude shows another planet colliding with Earth. The brilliant prologue essentially defines Melancholia. The youtube clip embedded below hardly does it justice, but the opening of this film is worth the price of admission alone, so I highly recommend catching it on the big screen. (RD)

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Milocrorze: A Love Story – Samurai Battle

Starring Takayuki Yamada (13 Assassins), who plays all three male leads, Milocrorze is the brainchild of Yoshimasa Ishibashi, here making his directorial debut. Jammed tight with a bundle of ingenious visual gags and pop-culture references, from Miyazaki to classical Japanese paintings, strange musical dance numbers and jaw-dropping slow-motion battles, Milocrorze is a plethora of styles and genres, mixed together in three separate stories about love, obsession and heartbreak. The stand out scene here is one incredible long take, which just so happens to also be the best samurai sword-swinging action sequence in quite a while: The continuous shot stands as the pics highlight, constantly shifting gears like Ayrton Senna, moving in regular speed, fast forwarding and jumping to slow motion, before repeating the process over and over again. (RD)

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: Dubai

While I’m not as convinced of Ghost Protocol‘s action gifts on the whole as most of my colleagues, Brad Bird’s live-action debut does feature the five-to-ten or so of the most bracing minutes of film-watching all year, and, if viewed in IMAX as intended, one of the most stomach-turning sequences in movie history. It’s all thanks to the insane self-one-upsmanship of the film’s star, financier, and raison d’être, Tom Cruise, whose utter devotion to convincing every moviegoer, nay, every person on Xenu’s accursed Earth, that he is not only cool, collected, and grounded, but also still the world’s most committed action star. On that last part, it’s hard to argue, as Cruise actually scales the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at over 2,700 feet high. (I got dizzy just typing that sentence.) The sequence ramps up the tension by deploying the film’s favorite returning gag, the fact that all the gadgets are on the fritz, and having Cruise’s high-tech climbing gloves start to malfunction, threatening to plummet him to a very certain death. Not gonna lie: when the shit started to hit the fan, I sort of thought I was going to die myself. (SH)

 

 

The Muppets – Man or Muppet?

The Muppets features six new musical numbers and three “classics,” including “The Muppet Show Theme” and the early showstopper “Life’s a Happy Song,” but the most memorable scene is offered up by a self-mocking yet oddly touching duet, “Man or Muppet.” This musical tour de force is a plot-advancing power ballad, in which Gary and Walter ponder their reflections while embracing their respective life paths. (RD)

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