Dec 11, 2010


Howard Hawks once said that you only needed three or four good scenes in a movie for the movie to be good — the rest was just filler — and we are inclined to agree with him. For all our admiration of narrative architecture here at TBTTM, we must admit that movies can be won or lost in the space of a single scene, or even moment; Hawks himself was a master of such moments, having Lauren Bacall on hand, which always helps. Here, with a big SPOILER ALERT, is a selection of our favorite such scenes from the last year, bearing no or little relation to our opinion of the film as a whole, and collated by means of that rigorous, scientific method known as sitting down at a desk and seeing what comes to mind first. Any other suggestions?

The horse-ride home. A case of a single scene making a whole movie, all the cussedness and cruelty of the Coens wild west falling away for a single act of selflessness, as Rooster scoops up Maddie and drives his horse through sleet and snow, day and night, to get her back home. Even the back-projection felt magical, with a touch of Night-of-the-Hunter to it.

The scene where Jake Gyllenhaal seduces Anne Hathaway by reassuring her that yes, he is indeed a shithead, as advertised. "Do you promise?" "I promise." A wonderfully sexy, inverted premise, worthy of Wilder, perfectly realised by the actors: saying those words Gyllenhaal looked, for the first time in his life, as if they might not be true.

The very first scene not the break-up scene, but the running-through-Harvard-at-night to Trent Reznor's zombie minuet. I treasure film beginnings the way some people collect endings, and this one gave me goose-bumps: you don't know what is going on, or even what this film could be about. You just know you will not be moving for the next two hours.

Jeremy Renner's death scene. It begins with Jon Hamm blowing Jem's cover — "Officer?..... officer?.... Coughlin!" — and ends with a slurp of coke, snatched behind a mailbox, before heading into a hail of bullets. Who dies at the movies any more? The intimations of Butch-and-Sundance felt fully-earnt.

The sequence in which Cruise and Diaz escape — via a helicopter, a skydive, a speedboat, a jungle, a jeep — but all from the point of view of Diaz, who is drugged. A great gag at the expense of senseless action sequences. Would that the rest of the movie had taken heed.

The lake scene. Eerily prefigured throughout the movie — all credit to Thelma Schoonmaker's slights of hand and eye — by the time we got to that jade-colored lake it had the technicolor intensity of remembered trauma.

Lotso's backstory, as narrated by Chuckles the Clown. A dexterous genre parody, plucking at the heart-strings, served up with mordant deadpan — Chaplin meets Bogart. Who knew that the most efficient spelunker of our Jungian movie unconscious, besides Martin Scorsese, would turn out to be Pixar?

The climactic dance-off between mother and daughterunexpected, transfixing, and oddly moving. A kind of mother-daughter version of the Maori Hukka. You couldn't tell whether they were coming together, or formalising their determination to part.

My colleague James Wolcott has jogged my memory about another of my favorite movie scenes — I told you this wasn't scientific! — so it's goodbye to the exploding-brunch from Inception, I'm afraid, and make way for Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore's sex scene in The Kids Are Alright, a riotous mixture of white-flanked awkwardness and lusty, ass-grabbing gumption.

The end credits — a montage of the relationship we have just born witness to, over a scrim of fireworks, set to a song by Grizzly Bear. One of the few relationship montages to pull its weight. One imagines it was conceived as a way to leaven the bleakness of the ending, but it releases the feelings of the film so beautifully as to becomes a new ending in its own right.


  1. Loved this post. Even though I hadn't seen all the films listed, I'm amazed at how you pinpointed those excellent scenes and described them so perfectly and vividly, just the way I felt when I saw them but had since forgotten. You're very good at this, Shone. Very good.

  2. Came across your blog via Wolcott and am so glad I did. Had to comment on this post and concur on that scene in Fish Tank. Having just watched that last night, I have to say that that scene really stuck with me; it's heartbreaking and somehow defiant at the same time and beautifully summarizes the whole family dynamic without fanfare or overstatement. I also have to heartily agree with your enthusiasm for a movie's beginning. I've long felt it was an overlooked part of the experience and often indicated the director's whole approach to not only the story but how it might unfold cinematically - often encapsulating their entire esthetic in a few minutes time. It would be a great list to compile- favorite movie beginnings.

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