Thursday, August 23, 2012

The best scenes of 2011

There's a famous aphorism attributed to the great director Howard Hawks: "A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes." Hawks knew quite a bit more about movies than I do, but I respectfully disagree with him on this particular point. One of the pleasures of visiting the theatre is that a brief passage of any given movie can be extraordinary, even if the film itself amounts to utter dreck (see: this scene). Not all great movies have great scenes, and not all great scenes appear in great movies. Yet when a director and his cast and crew collaborate on a truly memorable sequence, that's something worth celebrating, regardless of the quality of the surrounding product.

And so, the Manifesto is unveiling its first ever "Best Scenes of the Year" list. There is, however, one slight caveat: I'm restricting myself to clips that are currently available on YouTube. I'm imposing this rather cumbersome limitation for two reasons. First, I want my readers to be able to actually watch the scene in question. Second, it's difficult for me to evaluate a scene in detail from pure memory. The latter may be a valid excuse, or it may indicate one of my many failings as a critic. Now, in the Manifesto's Utopia, every scene from every movie is instantly accessible via YouTube, but although we're trending in that direction, we aren't quite there yet.

In any event, as a result of this technological travesty, I've been forced to limit myself to eight scenes. That said, the following additional eight sequences are all thoroughly spectacular and would be included in this post were they available online:

The Adjustment Bureau (bathroom meet-cute)
Carancho (final scene post-car crash)
Contagion (Kate Winslet's final scene)
Incendies (bus massacre)
Margaret (the accident)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (take a freaking guess)
A Separation (opening scene)
Super 8 (train crash)

A challenge to all nerds living in their parents' basements enterprising Internet users: If you can find an unedited, decent-quality YouTube clip for any of the aforementioned scenes (or upload one yourself), point it my way in the comments, and I'll write it up. Also, this may be stating the supreme obvious, but spoilers apply for the forthcoming discussions.

And with that, here are the Manifesto's Best Scenes of 2011 (presented in alphabetical order, though I've saved the best for last):

The Adventures of Tintin – motorcycle chase. Movie-making is about possibility, and no field opens more metaphorical doors than that of animation, a medium in which virtually anything is indeed possible. But just because animators can do anything they want doesn't mean that they should; rather, the key is to ground their feverish imaginations in some semblance of reality. Only if viewers can rationally process the images they see on screen can they subsequently become awestruck.

And that's what makes this scene – an inspired, exhilarating chase sequence that instantly evokes fond memories of Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones franchise – so great. Theoretically, Spielberg could have filmed it in live action; it simply would have required 500 takes and a budget of roughly $10 billion, not to mention a singularly smart falcon. But with animation, he can manufacture a virtuoso, single-shot sequence in which the camera swoops and dives, lingers and sprints, hurtling breathlessly to inform us of the exquisitely choreographed action. Of course, there isn't really a camera at all, but that's the point: Because the animation conforms with the traditional boundaries of live-action shooting, we perceive the scene as a straightforward piece of filmmaking, if a particularly astonishing one. Hell, maybe I'm wrong – maybe the scene actually was filmed. Maybe that falcon is just damn smart.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. – backyard brawl. The irritatingly punctuated Crazy, Stupid, Love. is a gleeful mishmash of tones, ranging from wistful adult drama to tender romance to earnest coming-of-age story. Naturally, some of these elements work better than others in isolation, but when they all coalesce in this scene, the result is a happily preposterous slice of farce. Prior to this segment, Dan Fogelman's shrewd screenplay has withheld several of the characters' connections with each other, and the payoff here – when those connections are revealed – is enormous.

It wouldn't work at all, however, without the precise comic timing of the editing. Over the course of three minutes, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa rapidly intercut between nine different characters, all with speaking parts, and each line is perfectly layered on top of its predecessor, like a verbal Vaudeville act. The actors are entirely game, and the scene's overall zaniness is anchored nicely by Steve Carell's deadpan ("I'm having trouble understanding what's going on right now" is a proxy for everyone except us), Ryan Gosling's bemusement, and Julianne Moore's increasingly hysterical reaction shots. The sequence reaches such a high pitch of hilarious confusion that when the comedy transitions from verbal to physical, it seems fitting; with this much chaos going on, the only rational response is to pick up a miniature windmill and threaten to "beat you until your brains fall out". Out of context, that's just absurd; as the centerpiece of the film, it's absurdly funny.

Hanna – underground fight. Stodge alert: Modern movie fight scenes suck. O.K., that's a gross generalization, but for the most part, contemporary combat sequences are plagued with the disease of frenzy, in which jumpy editing and lurching photography make it virtually impossible for audiences to discern just what the hell is happening. So maybe that explains why it took Joe Wright, a helmer of classical British period pieces (including the upcoming Anna Karenina), to concoct the most ravishing fight scene of the year. The execution is peerless: A single, blessedly steady camera (in all likelihood, Wright sneaks in a few invisible cuts here and there, but everything proceeds as an extended take to our eyes) follows Eric Bana into a subway station, where he fluidly deals death to a quartet of silent, nefarious henchmen. It's a masterful instruction in how to escalate tension, as the slow accumulation of details – the man shadowing Bana consciously avoiding his gaze, Bana quietly unbuttoning his jacket, that electric Chemical Brothers score – yields a palpable sense of sweaty anticipation. But the true marvel of Wright's bravura technique is that, although his actors frantically punch and kick and die, his camera never cuts or hurries. The result is a fight scene that is furiously kinetic but also marvelously lucid. Astonishing that it took the director of Pride & Prejudice to convey human carnage with such perfect clarity.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – courtyard dash. Structurally, the goal of this scene is simple: Harry, Ron, and Hermione must venture from Hogwarts Castle to one of its outposts. But journeying from Point A to Point B has rarely been so treacherous, nor so magnetically compelling. Eight films' worth of world-building climaxes with this 90-second sequence in which our trio of heroes fends off werewolves, dodges blows from a giant, and stares death in its black-veiled face. It's thrilling stuff, thanks especially to extraordinary work from the special effects team (witness the gasp-worthy moment when Hermione ducks between the giant's legs), but it also feels organic, the well-deserved payoff of the franchise's scrupulous definition of its meticulously detailed universe.

But here's the thing: Absolutely none of what we see is described in the book. Yes, J.K. Rowling wrote a scene in which Harry taps into Voldemort's mind and then sets off to find him, but it's a mere plot point, yet David Yates transforms it into an exhilarating set piece that is wholly cinematic. That's what makes Yates' adaptations so great – they aren't transliterations but movies, replete with their own vigor and verisimilitude and headlong sense of wonder. This scene embodies that filmmaking spirit more than any other in the entire octet. Elevated by Alexandre Desplat's rich, stirring score, it transports you into Yates' fully realized universe, a rush-and-tumble world featuring dark colors, bright lights, and – more than anything – its own singular brand of magic.

Martha Marcy May Marlene – home invasion. How would you respond? That's the harrowing question Sean Durkin poses in this quiet, terrifying scene. In an undertaking that plainly evokes the Manson Family, a handful of youths break into a remote luxury home, intent on pilfering its valuables. Suddenly, the owner (a wonderfully realistic Allen McCullough) emerges, demanding that they leave. He's a big man, apparently in control, and the burglars seem to shrink from him as he steers them toward the door.

Then, John Hawkes' disembodied voice calls out, "Calm down," and at that point, the balance of authority pivots instantly; as Hawkes strides into frame, a sense of profound doom settles over the owner, who reflexively retreats toward the opposite wall. "If you calm down, no one will get hurt," Hawkes says evenly, the aura of the threat emanating from his words like smoke. Physically, Hawkes doesn't cut a particularly imposing figure, but in his rigidly controlled performance here, he establishes absolute dominion without ever raising his voice. How do you respond to a man like that, when he tells you to calm down, when your life is so clearly in his hands? In the end, it likely doesn't matter, and that's the tragedy of Durkin's film: The man was destined to die as soon as he opened his mouth.

(Note: The embed below is the only clip I could find; it stops just before the scene actually concludes. It takes little imagination to determine what happens next.)

Shame – silent seduction. Shame is a movie about a man (Michael Fassbender) in the throes of sexual addiction, and it's a decidedly grim affair. While the majority of the film addresses the unsavory consequences of Fassbender's affliction, this riveting sequence wordlessly maps out his predatory instinct. Fassbender is constantly alert to the slightest possibility of sex, so even when he's surrounded by dreary commuters on the New York subway, he roves the crowd with his blue eyes, eventually alighting on a woman with reddish-blond hair (the obscenely gorgeous Lucy Walters). She at first shyly looks away, but Fassbender never drops his gaze, and she subsequently crosses her legs, suggesting her instantaneous arousal. (It's a credit to Fassbender's acting – as well as his absurd good looks – that her reaction is thoroughly plausible.) In a film laden with simulated sex and even more nudity, this mere exchange of eye contact is the most erotic moment in the entire movie.

But Shame isn't a snuff film, and as Walters shudders and struggles to compose herself, the real-world consequences of her flirtation with temptation become devastatingly clear. As she springs to her feet, the handheld camera centers on her wedding ring, a shot that beautifully crystallizes Shame's thesis: the battle between hedonistic impulse and human compassion. Walters eventually flees the subway as though she believed she were being pursued by an animal. The crux of Shame – to be made abundantly obvious in the passages that follow – is that she may have been right.

(Note: The scene is nicely complemented by the final sequence in the film, in which the weight of Fassbender's experience alters his response to the same situation. Shame, really, that these two silent bookends are by far the most memorable segments in the picture.)

War Horse – Joey's run. Ever since E.T., Steven Spielberg has proven himself a master in articulating the emotions of non-humans, but with War Horse, he sets a new standard. The movie's signature sequence begins with our hero, Joey (yes, the horse has a name), penned in on three sides, while an approaching tank cuts off his lone avenue for escape. The contrast is striking – the free-spirited animal pitted against the malevolent machine – but what really registers is Joey's frenzied emotional state. As the horse frantically bucks and futilely charges up the sides of the embankment, Spielberg plainly illustrates that his protagonist is overwhelmed by a single sensation: pure, primal fear.

What happens next is, in the great tradition of epic filmmaking, both horrifying and majestic. Joey seizes his only option and triumphantly leaps over the tank, then runs and runs and runs. He runs through and atop the various trenches, the camera streaming after him like a desperate tracker. As the sequence proceeded, I found myself mentally exhorting Joey – run! jump! climb! – as though he were a particularly beloved Olympic athlete, a sprinter attempting to flee the depths of Hell. Ultimately, Joey finds himself in no-man's land, stampeding through military impediments again and again until he finally succumbs. And in that image – a magnificent stallion entangled helplessly in unforgiving barbed wire – Spielberg demonstrates the cruelty, and the costs, of war.

And the Manifesto's favorite scene of 2011:

Drive – the elevator. The twin themes of love and death have animated artists for eons, but never have they been juxtaposed with such literal force than in this scene, a moment that is at once luridly violent and deeply romantic. It begins with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan simply waiting for an elevator. Gosling's character is so enigmatic that he doesn't even have a name, but what he does possess is a purity of will, and he has devoted himself entirely to protecting Mulligan. He is her knight in scorpion-emblazoned armor, and as we've already learned by this point in the film, he takes his task seriously. So when the elevator doors open and a sinister man politely greets Gosling and Mulligan – followed by an agonizingly slow pan from the man's face down to the gun holstered in his jacket – we know that this man is going to die. Gosling knows it too, and he braces Mulligan with his arm, shielding her from the threat. Bloodshed is imminent.

Which makes what happens next all the more transcendent. The music flares, the lights dim, and Gosling slowly turns around, leans forward, and kisses Mulligan with exquisite tenderness. It's a kiss that marks the culmination of a simmering flirtation, and for it to finally take place during a moment quavering with incipient violence only certifies it as a union of two predestined souls. The camera cuts forward, ignoring the other man, focusing entirely on Gosling and Mulligan, and rightly so, for during this moment of romantic bliss, they are the only two people in the world.

But love and death are never far from each other's side. After an eternity, the music stops, the lights come back up, and Gosling snaps into action, first smashing the man's head against the wall, then literally stomping his face into mush. He has fulfilled his duty as Mulligan's savior, but he has also revealed himself to her, and when the elevator doors finally, mercifully open, she retreats in horror, as if she's uncertain of his very humanity. He is her angel; he is also the devil.

And so we bear witness to true love and grisly death, side by side, and we observe the daunting magnitude of both. It's a scene that reminds us of the evocative power of cinema, the medium's ability to convey startlingly pure feeling through the use of mere images. And while it's true that the kiss between Gosling and Mulligan serves as the apex of their fumbling journey into each other's arms, that connection is nothing compared to the real romance to be treasured here: that between us and our movies.

(Note: This embed only includes the first part of the scene; its conclusion can be found here.)

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