Jun 6, 2009

50 Magic Moments (Part 1)

Of course movies are all about the big picture, literally and figuratively speaking, but sometimes there’s that one moment – it could be a scene, a shot, or even an edit – that just makes the experience, that one thing that sticks out in the memory. I’ve selected 50 moments here, many from films I love as a whole, some that I love just as moments rather than movies. This isn’t intended to be a greatest movie moments list, and I’ve tried to stay away from the obvious choices and stick with those that mean something to me. I’ve included clips wherever possible.

I’ll be posting the list in four parts. Films appear in alphabetical order by title. Enjoy.

There will be SPOILERS for many of these films, I will indicate clips and comments that contain spoilers.

Almost Famous: “What kind of beer”?

Cameron Crowe’s film has a lot of strong moments, it frequently connects in a really visceral way, but there are few moments in it that say as much with as little as Kate Hudson manages to do here. As ‘band-aid’ Penny Lane she’s been telling young journalist William Miller how much she thinks her guitarist boyfriend loves her, and when told that he just staked her in a poker game with another band for $50 and a case of beer Hudson takes a moment, pulls herself together and says, very simply. “What kind of beer?” It’s lovely because it tells us so much about the character with just one witty line – the hurt she’s actually feeling, and the fact she thinks she has to mask it with a joke. A beautifully written and played moment.

Before Sunset: Reaching for Jesse

To be fair the whole of this scene, in which Jesse and Celine talk about how, in the last 9 years, they have often thought of one another and their one night together in Vienna, is magical. But there’s one tiny moment that, every time I see it, just breaks my heart. As Jesse gives an impassioned speech about how he’s dreamt of her, and turns his gaze away, Celine reaches out to touch him, but then pulls away again. It’s a powerfully real moment, and one that you feel almost physically.

Boogie Nights: Amber cries

Julianne Moore is one of the great criers in cinema, and she’s never been more affecting than in this scene (1:59 in the video). Porn star Amber Waves is going through divorce proceedings, which are going much better for her husband. We don’t get to see the end of her custody hearing, but the whole story is told by this genuinely painful moment. Even sadder than the fact that we’re watching a woman weep from the depths of her soul, but the fact that, in the out of focus foreground, people pass by her, unconcerned.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: ‘Moon River’

How you can fail to fall head over heels in love with Audrey Hepburn is beyond me, and this is the moment that I fell for her. Hepburn didn’t have a great range in her singing voice (as demonstrated by the fact she was dubbed for My Fair Lady), but this rendition of Moon River is just beautiful. Hepburn’s inimitable tones serve the song beautifully. It certainly doesn’t hurt that, though she’s wearing no make up, and dressed in a shapeless sweatshirt, that she seldom looked better.

Bringing Up Baby: Hat

Dying, they say, is easy, but comedy is hard. Screwball comedy is certainly hard, it’s all in the timing and here (from 1:09 in the clip) both Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant absolutely nail the timing of both dialogue and physical humour in a beautifully choreographed and breathtakingly funny comedic dance. In an age when comedy has become more and more about cruelty it’s a joy to see so much mileage achieved out of a torn dress and a top hat.

Butterfly Kiss: ‘No Need to Argue’ [SPOILERS]

Michael Winterbottom’s first film is a typically challenging concoction. It borrows its main storyline from Thelma and Louise, but Winterbottom’s women aren’t glamorous and pissed off – they are working class, under educated, damaged and eventually extremely violent. They are also, perversely, sympathetic, and the film’s ending, in which, after having her lover remove the chains around her body which she uses to mark her sins, Amanda Plummer drowns herself – all scored to The Cranberries deeply moving No Need to Argue – will have any audience dissolving in tears. You can hear the song here

Carrie: A bucket of blood

Brian De Palma was never a subtle man, and the cutting of this sequence does rather beat you over the head with the almost sexual pleasure that Nancy Allen seems to get from her prank on Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. However, the moment when Carrie is drenched in that bucket of pigs blood, and the unforgettable image of her standing on the stage, dress and hair stained red, is one of horror’s truly iconic moments. Spacek is great too, selling Carrie’s almost immediate transformation from victim to avenger with a mere look.

Death to Smoochy: ‘Get you off that smack’

All the songs that Edward Norton performs while dressed in his fuchsia rhino costume in Danny DeVito’s much underrated dark comedy are gut-bustingly funny, but the sheer incongruity of this first one makes it my favourite. Really, what could be funnier than a guy dressed like a homemade Barney singing “Cause that smack can lead to crack, oh yes it can” to a stoned audience at a drug treatment centre?

The Descent: Pool of blood
This moment is clearly influenced by the one I mentioned from Carrie – gold standard for shots of blood drenched women – but Neil Marshall knows how to create an iconic final girl image as well as anyone and this moment when Shauna MacDonald emerges from a pool of blood in which she’s been hiding from cave dwelling creatures that are hunting her, and unleashes a truly primal scream, is one that really resonates for the rest of the film, signalling a fundamental shift in character and movie.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Phone call [SPOILERS]
The films of 2008 possessed few more painful moments than this scene. Unable to speak for himself after a stroke Jean Dominique Bauby has to blink to confirm which letter of the alphabet he wants to communicate, building words and sentences slowly. When his lover rings he speaks to her through his wife, making her relate how much he loves and misses this other woman. Emmanuelle Seigner’s performance in this scene is one of the most perfectly judged I’ve seen, ripping your heart out with just the faintest crack in her voice, never overplaying the emotion. It’s genuinely raw, and hard to watch, and unforgettable.

Duck Soup: ‘Mirror’

From one of the Marx Brothers’ funniest films here’s a very simple, but perfectly executed piece of slapstick with Groucho standing in front of what used to be a mirror and a disguised Harpo as his reflection. It was an age old gag even then, but if it was ever better performed I’m unaware of it.

Edward Scissorhands: Dancing in the 'snow'

Edward Scissorhands is a magical film, but never more so than in this scene when, as Edward carves her likeness in a huge piece of ice, Winona Ryder dances in the chips that fall from the block as Edward works.  It’s a beautiful image on a purely visual level, but it’s also genuinely touching and romantic, and enhanced by Danny Elfman’s lovely score.

ExistenZ: Allegra's tongue

I think I’ve probably mentioned that I hold Jennifer Jason Leigh in high esteem as an actress, and if you ever wanted a short answer to the question of why that is… here you go.  This one tiny motion, improvised by Leigh, tells you more about her character in four seconds of total silence than a minute of stiff dialogue could have.  It’s her reply to Jude Law’s character expressing an anxiety about having a ‘bioport’ fitted into his body “It’s a permanent hole into my body” he says “won’t it get infected?” and Leigh’s Allegra Gellar just does this.  It’s a brilliant piece of physical acting, it answers the question immediately and wittily, it’s provocative, which is a big part of the character, and it removes the need for several sentences of dialogue.

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