Feb 14, 2015

60 more Magic Movie Moments Part 1

Cinema has always been, literally and figuratively, about the big picture but that big picture is composed of many smaller moments. In the editing room these moments are knitted together.  Hopefully the end result is a cohesive whole, but even when that is the case and sometimes when it isn't, there are moments that stick out.

Five years ago, when 24FPS was relatively in its infancy, I made a list of 50 movie moments that stuck out in my memory.  They weren't my definitive favourites, nor were they the most important or well respected moments in cinema history, though many could have fitted as well on one or both of those lists.

Over the past few months I've found myself struggling to write and searching for more of the passion for cinema that drove me to create this site just over six years ago.  Composing this list began as a way to remind myself of those things.  In choosing the entrants on this new list of 60 magic movie moments I've tried to stick to my original selection criteria.  I (largely) haven't worried about what anyone might think about my choices, about whether they would be seen as worthy enough, nor have I concerned myself with defining the greatest moments in cinema.  Nor, it should be noted, have I taken 'Magic' moments to be synonymous with 'nice' moments.

Each of these moments means something to me, each of them adds to who I am as a cinephile.  Hopefully that will come through as I run the list down over the next five posts.

Spoilers will be unavoidable in some entries, but they will be indicated. 

Alien: Opening credits

The opening credits sequence has largely become a lost art, with more and more films withholding even their title cards, let alone any more extensive credits, for the tail end of the film.  I think this is a great pity, because while they can simply be a dull preamble to the film (can't they Woody Allen?), at their best opening credits sequences lay down the mood and establish the world in which we are to spend the next few hours.

Few, if any, do this better than the opening credits for Alien.  The emptiness of space, where we find ourselves for this sequence, is foreboding in itself and through this, the deliberate pace and the simplicity of the sequence, tone is laid down.  There is also a quality that is foreboding,  menacing even, about the way the lines that will form the letters of the title appear; abstract at first, then gradually forming into the single, strikingly scary, syllable.  Two minutes in, before we've seen much of anything, Alien has laid the groundwork; we know this film may take its time, but also that it is likely to scare us.  It's a textbook example of how to do an opening credit sequence.

Alps: Prince
In Yorgos Lanthimos' third feature, the Alps are a group of four people who hire themselves out as a sort of therapist, substituting for people who have died so that their family and friends can say the things they weren't otherwise able to say.  It's a skill they need to hone, and that's exactly what they do in this deeply odd scene.

Both Dogtooth and Alps tread a fine line of black as night comedy, but this is a close as either film gets to a traditional comedic scene.  The game of guess the impression hits its comic high point early on with Ariane Labed's singularly non-specific take on Prince, which leads to an an argument about whether Prince is dead.  It's quite a silly scene, but highly entertaining and a bit of light relief from the darkness of the rest of the film.

Badlands: Holly's voiceover

Just in case I hadn't  mentioned it before [I had], Badlands is my favourite film.  It's as close to a perfect movie as exists, and I could have picked any number of moments from it.  Ultimately, I've cheated a bit, because my 'moment' actually runs through the whole film, but it is such a singularly effective element that I felt it merited cheating (also, it's my list, I'll make and break the rules as I damn well please).

Voiceover has featured heavily in all of Terrence Malick's films, but this film, by drawing that voiceover from a named source - the diary its main character - works differently  compared to Malick's other films.  Rather than the ethereal stream of conciousness voiceover that has increasingly driven his work, this one plays convincingly as the obsessively noted thoughts of an average teenage girl thrown into a situation she didn't expect (being on the run with her older boyfriend).

Sissy Spacek's voice is another reason I love this voiceover so much, first of all it's a characterful voice, but in it she also fully delivers Holly's mix of naivete and nous; her love for Kit and her irritation with him.  Every other great thing in Badlands is informed by this film-long magic moment, that's why I cheated and chose it.

Before Midnight: “I don't think I love you any more”
I have grown up with the Before series, having first seen Before Sunrise a few years after it was made, when I was 15.  At first I didn't want there to be a sequel, but now the series is among my most treasured film experiences.  Jesse and Celine fell less like characters than they do friends that I am only able to visit briefly every nine years, each visit a privelige.  That's why Before Midnight, and especially this moment, resonate so much.

The film finds the pair at a fractious moment in their relationship and the 25 minute scene where they hash out their problems in a hotel room is raw and difficult to watch, as if you're watching a private moment between your best friends.  When Celine tells Jesse "I don't think I love you any more" it hits like a punch to the gut, like him we're desperate not to believe it, but worried that we may have to.  Cinema rarely feels this personal or this painful.

The Beyond: Headsplosion

If I pretended that I chose this moment from The Beyond for some deep reason - because it says something damning but interesting about how casually the horror genre is willing to discard even a young character, or some such bullshit - would you indulge me?  Probably not, so I'll just be honest.  I chose this because it might be the best exploding head in movie history, and sometimes that's more than enough.

Beyond the Hills: List of sins

Beyond the Hills is an intense film.  The film is set in a convent where Alina (Cristina Flutur) is visiting Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), having not seen her for a few years after having left the orphanage where they grew up and were, the film hints, closer than Voichita's order would see as appropriate.  Over time, as Alina stays, there is pressure on her to join the order, and one of the first stages is for her to confess to her sins.  Not know what is seen as sinful, Alina simply sits as the nuns read a list of potential sins, and nods that, yes, she's been guilty of that one.

In a film that isn't big on lighter moments, this is a deft combination of a moment that is deeply sad, as Alina is told that most normal, inoffensive, everyday actions are sinful and one that is darkly funny.  This aspect grows as the list goes on ever longer, and Alina's passivity only makes it that bit more amusing, especially when she asks how many items are on the list, and is told "468".  It's a sly indictment of religious dogma from director Christian Mungiu.

The Brady Bunch Movie: Carjacking
The Brady Bunch Movie shouldn't have worked, especially in the nineties.  Who wanted an update of a TV show so completely rooted in the naffest parts of the seventies?  Happily, the answer to that was nobody, and rather than update the Bradys the film simply lifted them out of their show and set them down two decades later, having failed to change while the world altered around them.  This choice led to some wonderful comedic moments like the one above.

What I love about this, and about many of the other gags in the film, is that it's not mocking the Bradys.  They aren't stupid, they're just not a part of this world.  They still inhabit an older TV universe where few things ever go wrong and those that do can be resolved in half an hour.  They have always assumed the best of everyone, and still do so when Eddie attempts to carjack them.  It's a charming and very funny joke that not only stands out in but exemplifies the film.

Broken Arrow ['95]: "Hush”
Throughout the list I've picked a lot of longer 'moments'; scenes and sequences that feel like something singular within a film, but this is one that really is only a moment, it lasts barely a couple of seconds, but it never fails to make me laugh.  Unfashionably, Broken Arrow is my favourite of John Woo's mixed bag of American films and that's largely down to John Travolta's performance; pure honey roast ham sliced to the perfect thickness.

Throughout the film, Travolta, as an Air Force captain who is stealing nuclear missiles to order, is increasingly annoyed by his employer (Bob Gunton) and his irritation that things haven't gone exactly to plan.  In one moment, as Gunton rages at him, Travolta breaks his neck in a fit of anger and shouts "Hush... hush".  It's so sudden, and the line so mild compared to the violence, that I find it hilarious.

Chocolate: Meat factory fight
Again, I could pretend I had another excuse, but honestly this is on here because it's just so damn cool.  

The film's conceit is that its autistic heroine (played by the deceptively slight Jeeja Yanin) is able to pick up martial arts styles by watching them, either in movies or in real use.  This leads to a series of fights paying homage to classic martial arts movies.  While the fight inspired by Bruce Lee is directly referencing a famous sequence (the ice factory in The Big Boss), this Jackie Chan style fight simply draws from the general feeling of his style.  What ensues is a fast and furious fight with extensive and intricate prop use and some breathtaking dexterity from Yanin.  Like the other sequences in the film, this one demonstrates that the then 22 year old, in her first film, can easily stand the comparisons the plot encourages you to draw.

Confessions: Vengeance [SPOILERS]
Confessions is built around 'holy shit' moments, and the biggest of them come at either end of the film.  Throughout the film, teacher Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) has been seeking revenge on the children from her former class who contributed to the death of her young daughter.  By the end of the film she has found the weak point of Shuya (Yukito Nishii) the child who held the most responsibility and discovered that he is planning something else; suicide by bomb, which will also kill all of his classmates.

The vengeance is brutal and spectacular but also low key because by its nature, at least as Shuya experiences it, it is a silent vengeance.  The bomb goes off in a stunning sequence which plays the explosion backwards, in gorgeous slow motion, but it's when Shuya realises what has happened that the film really grabs you by the throat, leaving a lingering feeling of discomfort and shock that stays with you long after the credits roll.  It's one of few screenings I've been to in recent times in which not one person got up as soon as the credits started.  If they were feeling like me it was because their legs had suddenly turned to jelly.

Don't Go In The House: The burning

The Burning was the original title of this video nasty, but it was changed to the more innocuous sounding Don't Go In The House because of that title being taken by a not very good slasher (which also made its way to the DPP list). Don't Go In The House isn't a brilliant film, but it has two great sequences, one of which stands out as one of the most brutal in any of the DPP films.

The film essentially follows the slasher model, but the killer doesn't have an edged weapon, instead he uses a flame thrower. He killls his victims in his house, in an asbestos lined fireproof room, wearing a fireproof suit. We only see one killing in detail, but the sequence is credible, disturbing, and has some brilliantly realised and extremely clever effects. Unable to afford dummies for the post burning bodies, make up artist Tom Brumberger came up with an ingenious idea, he got extremely thin dancers to double for the bodies, covering them in make up to make them look like shrunken, dried out, post burn versions of the larger actresses cast as victims. It works brilliantly and along with the unblinking nature of the scene contributes hugely to how shocking the film is to this day.

Drunken Master 2: Final fight

Jackie Chan is looking tired now, but for decades he could do almost no wrong.  Even if the films weren't great (and they often weren't), he'd have a standout fight or stunt sequence.  There was pressure on Jackie to make Drunken Master 2 one of his best, because it had to live up to his classic breakthrough film.  It was a troubled production, and you can see elements of that in the film, thanks to the differing choreographic styles of Jackie and co-director Lau Kar-Leung.  

The final sequence is all Jackie; a classic, frantic, funny brawl that sees him up against his real life bodyguard Ken Lo and famously took almost four months - Yes, MONTHS - to shoot.  Picking a highlight of the sequence is tough, but the showiest moment is clearly when Jackie falls on to some red hot coals, which are real, because this is Jackie Chan.  He's done some strong work since, notably in his Hong Kong films, but this may be the last time we saw Jackie Chan at the very height of his powers.  It's a wonderful thing.

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