- The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015), The Bear Attack
Yes, every single word of praise you’ve read and/or heard is true. One can’t escape talking about The Revenant without mentioning its pièce de résistance: a bear mauling that seems to be a moment of truth not only for Leonardo Dicaprio’s Hugh Glass but for the audience itself. Once you go through that sequence, you will know whether you’ll be able to handle Alejandro González Iñárritu’s mesmerizing but brutal film. In the sequence — and really throughout the film– Emmanuel Lubezki’s protracted Steadicam shots make you speechless, but nowhere more so than in this frightening sequence. The setup is quite simple as our hero Hugh Glass walks through the woodland to hunt for food. Glass appears to see baby cubs at a far distance, and a moment of relief appears on his face, that is until he turns around and notices the mother bear right next to him. For a fraction of a second she horrifically investigates him, but then jumps and mauls him to near death. Lubezki makes it a long take as the CGI beast tosses DiCaprio around like a toy. Glass tries to shoot, stab, and shove his way out of the ordeal, but it only makes the bear more aggressive. The final shot of the dead bear on top of glass is both frightening and surreal.
- Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014), Speak Low
The film takes place at the end of World War II, and Berlin is nothing but a city of rubble. Nelly looks at herself in a mirror and sees a stranger. She can’t fathom or accept her looks after being disfigured during the war and undergoing massive plastic surgery. The only thing that tethers her to reality is her love for her lost husband. She eventually does find him at the Phoenix cabaret, and from there starts an obsession. He, of course, doesn’t recognize her but acknowledges a somewhat passing resemblance to his allegedly dead wife. Heartbroken, Nelly fails to find the words or courage to tell him that she’s his wife, since this is the man that might have betrayed her to an almost certain death. By the last few minutes of the movie, all of the events have unfolded and we are left with Nelly performing Tony Bennett’s ‘Speak Low’ in front of her husband and friends. This final scene is downplayed in a manner that would have made Alfred Hitchcock giddy in excitement. It is one of the most satisfying final scenes in quite some time. By the end all you’re left with are the words “The curtain descends, everything ends, too soon, too soon”.
- Creed (Ryan Coogler, 20152), Long take
As an incredibly cinematic sport, boxing films are often rife with clichés. So then, what a welcome surprise it was to have a Rocky movie that actually delivered the thrills and goosebumps that made the original 1976 film such a great film. Although the story might be familiar, the movie has the freshness and vitality that only a young, talented filmmaker and actor can bring. Cue in Ryan Coogler and Michael B Jordan, fresh off their debut triumph just two years ago with Fruitvale Station. They’ve infused Rocky with 21st century modernism and style that Stallone would have never been able to pull off if he were writer-director. It’s around the film’s midpoint that we are given the game changer: an audacious sequence that reinvents the boxing match. Composed as a single unbroken shot, the scene follows Jordan’s Adonis Creed as he squares off against Leo Sporino (Gabe Rosado) in the ring —both boxers are undefeated and ready to prove themselves to the world . The way Coogler’s camera circles its way through the ring is ground-breaking; never has a boxing match felt more intimate or gut wrenching than here. The camera, swirling in and out of the action, occasionally pans over to catch the reactions of the fighters’ trainers, but the main selling point here is making the stakes feel immediate. You feel every punch in the fight.
- Sicario (Denis Villaneuve, 2015), Mexican Border Crossing
Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and genius cinematographer Roger Deakins can really shoot the living hell out of a scene. Sicario, their latest outing, has a slew of sequences that redefine the way action and atmosphere can go hand to hand in movies. The film opens with a DEA mission that goes awry, and at the climax there is a night vision tunnel sequence that feels like something out of a tense 1970s horror film. However, the sequence that had everyone talking about the film’s virtues had to do with a Mexican border crossing that takes advantage of the tension that a stop-and-go traffic jam can offer in the most dire of circumstances. Hundreds of cars are lined up at the U.S.-Mexico border, while FBI agent Kate Macer (a never better Emily Blunt) and her team try to avoid the chaos that we know is inevitably going to occur. That every vehicle is utterly trapped in its current location only enhances the feeling of dread. Eventually, a full-blown shootout occurs, with Villeneuve and Deakins offering claustrophobic, almost surgical preciseness with every single one of their shot selection. Make no mistake about it, these are pros at work here and they know how turn the screw on this most tightly knit of action sequences.
- Anomalisa, Stop-Motion Sex Scene
When I heard that Charlie Kaufman’s latest meta-physical endeavour was going to be a puppet movie and that it was going to include a graphic sex scene, my first thoughts went back to 2004’s Team America: World Police and the hilariously over the top coitus featured. Of course this being Charlie Kaufman, I should have known better, and what we got instead was Anomalisa — a beautifully rendered, personal film about loneliness, depression and the connections we make. The sex in Anomalisa is both believable and heartbreaking, with two lonely strangers trying to find comfort and resolution to their never-ending problems. Our depressed hero Michael Stone seems to have lost faith in humanity, but finds resolve in Lisa — indelibly voiced by an Oscar deserving Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s a shy, self-conscious woman staying at the same hotel as Michael. He first notices her by her unique voice — the only one not voiced by Tom Noonan– that stands out compared to every other mundane noise he hears on a daily basis. That one night they talk, have laughs, have tears and finally have sex. The scene itself is graphic, but never over the top or objectifying to its characters; instead, it’s actually quite romantic – a moment when two lonely souls connect and their daily problems seem to take a pause for the most personal of connections.
- Room, Jack Escapes
Why wouldn’t this be on my list? The game-changing moment of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room arrives at around the 50-minute mark. I hadn’t read the book, nor had I seen any previews – I went into the film cold and did not know that an escape would happen this soon into the movie. It’s a breathless, life-or-death escape, as our 5-year-old hero Jack (an incredible Jacob Tremblay) escapes captivity and sees his first ever glimpse of the sky. Before that, Jack, his mom, and we the viewers were held captive in the most claustrophobic of environments. As we held our breath and bit our fingernails off, Jack rolling himself out of a rug in the back of a pick-up truck was enough to give us a heart attack, and if that wasn’t enough, the villainous captor is right on his trail a mere few seconds away from getting him back. Helped by the kindness of a stranger Jack’s escape proves to be successful. The most harrowing image of the scene is that of unequivocal freedom as the frame pans to what this wonderboy ends up seeing once freed: the sky, the trees, the endless power lines, bewildered pedestrians – all very new things to him, and seen with the freshest of eyes by an audience enthralled by a scene that can make them look at the world in a new light.
- Bridge Of Spies, Opening Scene
Steven Spielberg’s understated gem Bridge Of Spies resembles more the dialogue driven brilliance of Munich and Lincoln than it does Indiana Jones: it’s a film obsessed with the art of negotiation. If there is an action set-piece in the film, it’s the brilliant opening that actually features barely any dialogue. We follow Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) through what seems to be his daily morning routine, however we come to realize that he is actually a Soviet spy as he exchanges what seems to be a coded message underneath a park bench. Enter the FBI, hot on his trail and subtly pursuing him through the streets of New York City. The whole thing is shot like the opening of a 1970s paranoid thriller, think The Parallax View or Three Days In Condor, with Spielberg and his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski acing every subtle gesture or movement of this cat and mouse game. The FBI storms Abel’s apartment and arrests him, but not before he brilliantly finds a way to destroy the encoded message right in front of the authorities with something as simple as a stroke of his paint brush.
- Max Mad: Fury Road, The Whole Movie
Mad Max: Fury Road single-handily redefined what an action movie could do this decade. George Miller worked on his baby for the better part of 30 years and his vision was finally unleashed on screens this summer to the ravest of rave reviews. Which scene could we choose? The answer: All of them. Mad Max flows so effortlessly and in such stunningly synchronous fashion, that it’s quite literally impossible to choose a single moment that stunned us. Fact of the matter is, every single scene wowed us, even the rare quieter moments where out characters take time to ponder the world’s end. When the movie was done all I could think of was how all these young, hip, new superhero movie directors coming from the indie scene just got schooled on how an action movie should be made…by a 70-year-old filmmaker. You can’t deny the sheer impact of Mad Max: Fury Road. Director George Miller’s fourth installment of the film franchise is proof that not all blockbusters should be greeted with an indifferent shrug. If anything, this brutal action film is even more intense and exciting than its predecessors. With its nihilistic outlook on human nature, and a nasty, in-your-face style, this is Miller’s triumph through and through. The amount of detail that he brings to every frame is as obsessively meticulous as any Wes Anderson picture I’ve seen, as is the editing by Margaret Sixel, which – as we stand – is most deserving of next year’s Film Editing Oscar. Edited at breakneck pace and staged with manic fury, Sixel is the unheralded hero here. The celebrated one is of course Miller, whose passion and vision comes through in every frame. The total control he must have had with this project to pull off what he did on screen is unheard of, which is good for him and great for us.
- The Walk, The Stunt
You can easily nitpick the flaws of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk – and there are plenty – but once all the phony French accents and abysmally lengthy setups have been dealt with, what we are left with is an extraordinary, unhurried 17-minute scene that uses 3D to its fullest potential, making you feel like you’re right there walking the tightrope with Phillipe Petit. That is the only thing the film does better than the great 2008 documentary Man on Wire, for which this movie is based on. It is the best possible recreation of a stunt so absurdly dangerous that it crosses every line in the book and becomes a beautiful work of performance art. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Petit walks on the one-inch steel braided cable with the elegance of a dancer high on his abilities to perform. An audience gathers around the front entrance of the World Trade Center, amazed, and in awe. The movie audience is right there with him every step of the way. Peeking down at the 110 stories that separates the rope and the ground, one can easily get the feeling of queasiness or nausea, and in fact some screening reports have mentioned people getting physically sick during the film. The rest of us sat there amazed and the sight and touched by the extraordinary things a human being can achieve.
- Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Vienna Opera
You can always count on the Mission: Impossible movies to deliver much needed jolts during the summer movie season. It helps tremendously that Tom Cruise always wants to do his own stunts, which brings an authentic feel to the set pieces that many summer blockbusters would lack in their CGI-filled action. Ghost Protocol had Tom Cruise hanging on for dear life on the Burj Khalifa skyscraper. In Rogue Nation, one of the chief pleasures is how director Christopher McQuarrie can shoot the living hell out of an action sequence. The Vienna State Opera House scene is the highlight, bringing in a Hitchcockian vibe to the film. The setup has Ethan Hunt, Benji Dunn, Ilsa Faust, and a menacing bad guy knock around the opera—the sets, the rafters, and the balconies—as Hunt attempts to find a terrorist and prevent an assassination. McQuarrie was clearly inspired by Hitchcock, as he uses shadows, darkness and flashes of color to grab the viewers attention and bring a little clarity to a logistically complicated series of fights and chases, measures and counter-measures. Its 12 minutes or so are as terrific a bit of pure filmmaking as anything in the series and might only be rivalled by another sequence in the film — and underwater stunt that had Cruise holding his breath for nearly 6 minutes. You can never fault Cruise for not trying to entertain us with these movies.
- Magic Mike: XXL, Richie’s Mini-Mart Striptease
We are lucky to live in a time when Magic Mike XXL can actually be accepted by the mainstream. Just a decade ago it might have been shunned off, but Gregory Jacob’s sequel to the 2012 original turned out to be a fantastic treat. By far the best–and most talked about–moment exemplifies the smarts that come with Jacobs’ astute direction. During a mini-mart pit stop, Mike challenges Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) to make the day of the frowning clerk at the cash register. She seems to not be having a good day, but as the Backstreet Boys’ hit ballad “I Want It That Way” starts playing on the radio, Manganiello joyously improvises a striptease with whatever is at his disposal at the store -watch out party snack and soda pops. While the audience laughs in hilarity and our young cashier watches in stunned amazement, Manganiello’s dedication to turning the cashier’s frown upside down becomes something deeper. Men can learn a lesson or two from this scene, primary among them is that sometimes a woman just wants to feel special. The smile that appears on the cashiers face at the end of Manganiello’s private show is priceless says a thousand words.
- Carol, The Dinner Scene
Of all the great romantic, wordless, understated and invigorating scenes director Todd Haynes delivered in his masterpiece Carol, the dinner scene that opens and closes the film is the piece de resistance. So much of the romance at the center of Todd Haynes’ film is challenged by the crushing weight of oppression that when the words ” I love you” finally get delivered it’s like a moment of release. The cruel society that surrounds Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) has made it impossible for them to be in love, yet all throughout the film’s 2 hours they try to fight back these odds. This scene which opens and closes the film (and ultimately turns out to be a flash-forward in its chronology), is seen in two totally different contexts. The first time we are emotionally unattached and on the outside, but the second time when the words “I love you” get uttered and you gloriously melt in heartbreak. It all plays out in a pair of precise, smoky framings. When the scene replays at the closing Haynes has changed a few minor things, but the pain and longing largely suppressed up to that point comes out into a sharp, devastating focus.