Friday, December 31, 2010

Bidding 2010 Goodbye - Part I: Favorite Scenes

While this series of posts will continue for a least a few days into the new year, I figured I'd like to close out 2010 at Not All Texans Ride Horses to School on a positive note. As I've stated before, there are still a solid handful of films left that I want to see, but I think 56 films is more than enough to make a list of

10 Favorite Scenes of the Year

Fair warning: There be spoilers ahead...

Honorable Mentions:

Car Argument - Date Night: While by no means special or memorable, Date Night did have one thing going for it: Steve Carrell and Tina Fey's chemistry as Phil and Claire Foster. The scene in question comes roughly in the middle of the couple's increasingly insane night out in New York. Phil and Claire verbally attack each other's imperfections, and in a surprising moment, the screenplay (for once) actually shines just a bit. The result is surprisingly affecting, and in a movie that was meant to be a comedy, it's this serious moment that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the film.

Ending - True Grit: There are many great moments of cinematography in the Coen brothers' western, but none is as quietly beautiful as the last shot, in which a grown Mattie Ross walks away from Rooster Cogburn's tombstone. It's a quiet coda to a film filled with so much loud bantering among its three principal characters, and it works perfectly as a send off both to the characters and to the film itself.

10. The Race - Four Lions: Chris Morris' Jihadist satire reaches its comic highs, and surprisingly emotional depths in the last 20 minutes, chronicling the titular "lions" as they attempt to set off bombs while disguised as costumed runners in the London Marathon. In addition to the hysterical argument that ensues when a police sniper clips the wrong target, the final scene carries a surprising mix of poetry, biting satire, and emotional heft.

09. Hallway Fight - Inception:
It was the defining action sequence of the year, and deservedly so. In actually building a rotating set rather than relying on heavy CGI work, the gravity-defying fistfight was easily the highlight of Christopher Nolan's trek into the work of dreams. There's an almost nervous energy that I get from this scene that comes from the fact that we can tell that it's real, and the effect is dizzying.

08. The Speech - The King's Speech:
In my review of The King's Speech, I mentioned how the lack of sugarcoating was one of the film's greatest strengths. When George VI delivers his first speech, he doesn't do so perfectly (by normal standards). The moment isn't accompanied by loud, charging, triumphant music. Rather, by playing the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, a piece that builds veeeeery gradually, the scene still feels triumphant, but feels appropriate. The result is beautiful, and one of the most inspiring scenes of the year.

07. Making FaceMash - The Social Network:
One of the scenes that combined everything I loved about David Fincher's Facebook tale comes early on, when a just-dumped Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) simultaneously builds a website where users rate the attractiveness of students and blogs about his breakup. The sharp writing, lightning fast line delivery, and pulsating score combine masterfully and turn a scene of a geek drinking beer and writing code into one of the most thrilling sequences of the year.

06. The Tale of the Three Brothers - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1: In a film filled with magical battles and fantastical creatures, the shining moment of David Yates' latest crack at the Potter franchise was the telling of the Three Brothers and the origin of the titular Deathly Hallows. Rendered in strangely beautiful animation (was it some blend of CGI and cell animation???) and filled with little stylistic flourishes (the flash of blood when the first brother is murdered is stunning), the sequence could stand by itself as a short film. The film itself was already daring enough by giving so much screen time to the traveling portion of the story, but this sequence showed that even big-budget, money-grubbing blockbusters can still have truly inspired moments of artistry.

05. A Swan is Born - Black Swan:
As Darren Aronofsky's ballet thriller launches into its increasingly fantastical finale, it becomes more and more fascinating to watch. And no scene in the is-it-real-or-imagined? side of the store was more stunning than when Nina, dancing as the seductive Black Swan, charges out on stage and does a series of twirls as her arms transform into wings. That the effect is so seamless (especially considering the budget) only enhances the spell cast by Aronofsky's vision, and the shot following the transformation is equally brilliant, topped off by Portman's pitch perfect look of sinister triumph.

04. Henley Regatta - The Social Network:
It comes almost out of nowhere, but like the rest of the film, it's brilliantly composed and executed, even if there aren't any words spoken. The scene, which focuses on Zuckerberg's rivals, the Winklevoss twins (aka: The Winklevii), provides a nice break from all of the hyper articulate tech babble and caustic zingers, and simply lets the images work their magic. With brilliant use of limited focus to mask the lack of on-location shooting, and an energetic electronic interpretation of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," the scenes edits rise with the music, and the result is electrifying.

03. Prey Becomes Predator - Animal Kingdom: One of the key strengths of David Michod's crime drama is that violence is used in such small proportions and so effectively, that most scenes involving gunshots send a jolt through your body. This is particularly true of the ending, when 'J' Cody, an orphan who must decide where his loyalties lie when it comes to his gangster family, kills head criminal Andrew 'Pope' Cody. I know I nearly jumped out of my seat, and from the sounds I heard after that lone gunshot, I wasn't alone. Like J's grandmother Janine, the audience was appropriately left stunned and speechless. The final shot of Janine's hands hanging limp in defeat as J pulls her in for a hug is one of the most chilling images of the year.

02. Becca's Release - Rabbit Hole:
Though it deals with the aftermath of losing a child, John Cameron Mitchell's film of David Lindsey-Abaire's play keeps the weepy scenes to a minimum. And when things get high strung, the cast pulls it off beautifully. But the emotional high point comes when Becca drives to visit Jason, the teen responsible for the death of her son, and sees him going out to prom. As she watches, she flashes back to the day of the accident, and after trying to weather the storm of her grief for so long, finally allows herself to release her sadness, rather than continue to hold it in. From the moment she catches a glimpse of Jason, and her composure starts to break, Kidman fully owns the moment, and the scene acts as the perfect place for both her and the audience to let the emotion flow freely. A beautifully handled and acted scene that is far and away the most moving moment of the year.

01. Swan Lake Finale/Nina's Madness - Black Swan:
While entry #5 is technically part of this, my pick for #1 covers much more ground. Along with the rapturous depiction of the ballet as captured by Matthew Libatique's swooping handheld cinematography, the behind-the-scenes madness also reaches its high point. And as the gorgeous music blasts from the speakers and the roller coaster finally reaches its end, Aronofsky's film concludes on a moment of twisted poetry, with the final line of dialogue perfectly capturing the essence of Nina Sayers, the woman whose head Aronofsky brilliant puts us inside of.

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