Every year provides plenty of films worth cherishing, but there are isolated scenes and moments, too, that are equally unforgettable. Sometimes they epitomize a film’s greatness, and other times they stand out as a flash of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity. Take last year, for example: Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol made few Top 10 lists, but the scaling of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, was 2011’s standout suspense setpiece; ditto the dueling “Michael Caine” impressions in The Trip, an otherwise loosely organized road movie. The A.V. Club film staff wanted to pay tribute to a few of the scenes that meant the most to us—a diverse selection of choices save for the “Scene Of The Year,” which several writers pitched independently of one another. Its greatness, therefore, cannot be disputed.
Scene Of The Year
The first “processing” scene, The Master
As The Master opens, Joaquin Phoenix returns from World War II a broken man, no doubt haunted, like many, by the things he’s seen, bouncing from job to job and getting blind-drunk on homemade moonshine cocktails. When he stumbles onto a ship full of acolytes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, an L. Ron Hubbard figure developing a religious cult called “The Cause,” Hoffman immediately recognizes Phoenix as a possible disciple—feisty and erratic, yes, but also intensely vulnerable and open to suggestion. In an extraordinarily powerful scene, Hoffman reaches Phoenix through a “processing” session designed to break down a subject’s psyche and offer a kind of euphoric relief from his or her problems. Anderson writes it as an escalating series of questions, often repeated multiple times, starting with the simple (“What’s your name?”) before cutting closer to the bone. (“Do your past failures bother you?”) The scene peaks when Hoffman requires Phoenix to answer a battery of queries without blinking—and once he succeeds and can close his eyes, he’s as spiritually cleansed as a baptized child. Hoffman may lose his grip later, but at that moment, Anderson accounts for how a cult like Scientology could take root in that period and jumpstarts the year’s most complex relationship.
“Taxi Hip-Hop,” The Comedy
Rick Alverson’s acrid study of a privileged hipster reaching the end of his irony-soaked rope isn’t so much a love-it-or-hate-it proposition as a love-it-and-hate-it one. Tim Heidecker’s doughy trust-fund kid is a repugnant creature, the kind who endorses Hitler in casual conversation just to prove he’s too cool to take anything seriously, but he’s also gifted with Heidecker’s sharp-witted charisma. There’s no better illustration than the scene where Heidecker, loudmouthed buddy Eric Wareheim, and a somewhat sheepish James Murphy grab a cab and hector the driver to play some “black music.” When the cabbie demurs, Wareheim makes up his own tune, with the refrain, “You gonna getta no-no tip.” Bad enough that these abrasive idlers treat a working stiff as a mere plaything, but simultaneously shortchanging and mocking hits new heights of asshole-ism. That the scene is also impossible not to laugh at, if only in disbelief, is part and parcel of the film’s purposeful provocation.
Meeting Benno, Cosmopolis
Critics split on whether David Cronenberg’s hermetic adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel was a postmodern masterwork or a stylized slog, but there’s no arguing the apocalyptic fervor of the film’s final act, when Robert Pattinson’s bloodless finance whiz comes face to face with the man who’s threatened to kill him. Paul Giamatti’s Benno injects the full-throated ferocity the film has been, depending on the viewer’s perspective, either cannily waiting for or desperately needing. Even among Giamatti’s considerable catalog of apoplectic middle-aged men, his performance is notable for its unsuppressed rage and tender desperation.
Accordion entr’acte, Holy Motors
Unexpected musical interludes are a common means of jumpstarting a movie, but few in recent years have been as giddily energizing as Holy Motors’ entr’acte, in which Denis Levant leads a small army of accordion players (plus a handful of additional musicians on rhythm/percussion) through an empty church for a rousing rendition of R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride.” Somehow, director Leos Carax makes this context-free performance seem to come out of nowhere even in a movie that changes its storyline and protagonist roughly every 10 minutes, and while Levant plays 11 different characters during the course of Holy Motors, it’s unclear just which one he is here. Hell, it’s even possible that he’s playing himself. Nor is this merely a dry conceptual stunt: Burnside’s churning blues riff sounds fabulous coming from a dozen or more squeezeboxes, especially given the locale’s rich acoustics. The whole experience is as blissfully crazy as Levant’s count-off to his band after they briefly hold a low sustained note: “Trois, douze, merde!” (“Three, twelve, shit!”)
Opening shot, The Turin Horse
Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr has said that The Turin Horse will be his last film, and he begins it with what looks like cinema’s very last shot. Following a spoken anecdote about an encounter between Friedrich Nietzsche and a horse being brutally whipped, the screen erupts with the image of what may or may not be the same horse, viewed head-on from a low angle as it charges the camera. This epic tracking shot lasts roughly five minutes, accompanied throughout by Mihály Víg’s mournful dirge of a score, and though nothing in particular is happening—it’s just a horse pulling a cart and its driver on a windy, gray afternoon—the fact that it just goes on and on and on, combined with the funereal music and constantly shifting but generally earthbound point of view, makes it feel strangely apocalyptic, as if we’re witnessing man’s final journey. Which, as those who have seen the film know, we essentially are. In fact, it’s so unbelievably grim that some joker on YouTube put up a version that replaces the score with Level 42’s relentlessly jaunty synth anthem “The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up).” Which is still depressing, somehow.
The first time, The First Time
Jon Kasdan’s high-school romance, The First Time, aims for more realism than the average Hollywood teen comedy, following two youngsters played by Britt Robertson and Dylan O’Brien as they meet and fall in love over the course of 72 hours. The whirlwind romance culminates in the titular scene, in which Robertson and O’Brien realize that just saying “my parents aren’t home, so come over and we’ll have sex” isn’t the same as actually going through with the deed. As they fumble toward intimacy—questioning each other and their reactions the entire way—they find themselves in the rare movie sex scene that’s at once funny, tense, and painfully honest.
“Bo Diddley,” Not Fade Away
Early in David Chase’s meandering reminiscence of the turbulent ’60s, a novice drummer played by John Magaro practices in the basement of his guitarist buddy Jack Huston, and as they talk about how The Rolling Stones’ version of “Not Fade Away” sounds more like Bo Diddley than Buddy Holly, Magaro starts to beat out the rhythm on his kit and Huston starts to play along, joined by the other members of his band. Then Chase cuts to a vintage clip of Diddley himself, playing a rollicking version of “Bo Diddley” on television. Chase goes back and forth between the boys and Bo, all sharing the primal power of one of the most famous time signatures in rock ’n’ roll, until he abruptly drops Diddley from the soundtrack and returns just to what’s being played in the basement by a bunch of amateurs who sound much cruddier in reality than they do in their rock-star fantasies.
Watching the Mets through time, Men In Black 3
Before Men In Black 3 gets mired in a sappy extension of Agent J’s backstory, it’s a fairly fun and even soulful romp through New York in the ’60s, where Will Smith meets a younger version of his partner, Agent K (played by Josh Brolin, doing an uncanny Tommy Lee Jones impression), along with a wide variety of freaks, aliens, and freaky aliens. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the most memorable of the latter: a fast-talking nebbish named Griffin who has the power to see multiple possible timelines at once. Halfway through the movie, Smith and Brolin catch up with Stuhlbarg at Shea Stadium in July of 1969, where the alien is looking three months ahead to the Mets winning the World Series, while talking about all the tiny factors that had to fall into place for the “Miracle Mets” timeline to coalesce. Often, the Men In Black series proposes that every living being is but a meaningless speck in a vast, uncaring universe, but here, the third film introduces a character who finds all this randomness truly wondrous.
Bernie addresses mortuary students, Bernie
In about three and a half minutes, the masterful opening scene of Bernie, Richard Linklater’s heartwarming tale of small-town murder, indelibly establishes its lovable title character and the world that he inhabits. The film opens with Jack Black’s perfectionist mortician addressing the students of a mortuary school, where he was a prize pupil 15 years earlier, with a patient demonstration of the curious art of lending a lifelike countenance to the already dead. Every gesture, every inflection, and every movement of Black’s master mortician feels carefully rehearsed. It is the oft-repeated monologue of a man accustomed to order, to everything being in its proper place, whether that means plucking an errant hair from a dead body’s head or ensuring that life in the small town where he’s a pillar of the community runs as smoothly as possible. Bernie introduces Black as a man who takes his job seriously to an almost comic extent, but the tone is less mocking than admiring; he may speak in comforting platitudes, but he genuinely believes in himself and his work, and the film respects his dedication to his craft. His commitment to his art form lends a paradoxical, unlikely dignity to the work of trimming a dead man’s nose and ear hair in front of an audience of wowed students. Black generally specializes in wild, out-of-control rock-star energy, but this brilliant introduction is characterized by surgical precision, even if the client he so carefully attends to wouldn’t notice if he took a mallet to his cold, clammy forehead.
The big reveal, Searching For Sugar Man
The crowd-pleasing documentary Searching For Sugar Man is structured like a detective story, as dedicated South African music lovers attempt to find out what happened to Sixto Rodriguez, an enigmatic Detroit folk singer who released two albums of gorgeous folk-pop in the early ’70s to complete disinterest in his native land, yet rose to super-stardom in South Africa on the strengths of bootlegs. Did Rodriguez commit suicide onstage, as some had darkly hypothesized? Is he dead? Are we watching a tragedy about genius lost or a triumph about a comeback as unlikely as it is glorious? Searching For Sugar Man luxuriates in ambiguity and uncertainty in its first act. It really seems like it could go either way before the darkness climactically breaks and the South African musical sleuths learn that the truth is far better than they could have ever imagined: Rodriguez is alive, well, living in Detroit, and fully prepared to make a glorious comeback. Searching For Sugar Man deliberately withholds crucial information in the early going for a payoff that isn’t just powerful and heartwarming, but life-affirming, as is Rodriguez’s wonderfully rediscovered oeuvre.
The shipwreck, Life Of Pi
3-D is increasingly becoming a stock tool for blockbuster filmmakers; it’s often an expectation more than an art. But the occasional film like Life Of Pi reveals that tool’s potential, particularly in its mesmerizing shipwreck scene. Protagonist Suraj Sharma grows up in a zoo and eventually ends up on a Japanese cargo ship laden with zoo animals, but when the ship goes down in the middle of the night, he loses his family and winds up in a merciless, thrashing ocean full of struggling exotic creatures. Director Ang Lee one-ups James Cameron, showing how far CGI has come in the 15 years since Titanic; Life Of Pi’s shipwreck scene, like so much of the movie, is beautifully composed and visually lovely, but it’s also overwhelming, intense, and startlingly realistic, to the point where, in 3-D in particular, viewers might actually feel seasick as their perspective tosses and twists in the violence of the storm.
Disappearing fingers, Looper
Rian Johnson’s third film, Looper (following Brick and The Brothers Bloom), raised a nigh-infinite number of questions about the mechanics of the time-travel plot, which has young men working for a criminal syndicate that, among other things, requires them to murder their 30-years-older selves. And no single sequence raised more questions than the one where syndicate leader Jeff Daniels deals with an escapee by nabbing his 30-years-younger self and taking him apart one piece at a time, so the runaway suddenly finds he has messages carved into his body, and that his fingers are disappearing bloodlessly, joint by joint. The sequence only logically works if viewers make a lot of assumptions about timelines, cause and effect, human psychology, and medical care, but that doesn’t make it any less effective in the moment. The breathless direction, the blood-curdling visuals, and Frank Brennan’s performance as the victim all bring across the visceral horror of the scenario. Here’s a man who isn’t just losing his body, he’s losing his entire history, one meaty chunk at a time. He knows exactly who’s doing it to him and why, and the only way to stop it is the worst option imaginable. That one scene is more horrifying and memorable than most horror movies were in 2012.
“Molly Malone,” The Deep Blue Sea
Confined to a dim, lonely second-floor room like a wilting hothouse flower, Rachel Weisz spends much of The Deep Blue Sea having her romantic expectations—impossible though they may be—disappointed by the men in her life. Her older husband (Simon Russell Beale) provides warmth and companionship but little passion; her lover (Tom Hiddleston) is handsome and lusty, but too troubled and self-involved to give her what she needs. But director Terence Davies expands the frame beyond Weisz and these two men, showing the world of London after World War II, where a sense of camaraderie still lingers from when the city weathered Nazi-bombing runs. Davies suggests the tragedy of Weisz’s isolation comes not only from not getting the love she needs, but also being disconnected from the warm embrace of society at large. To underscore this, Davies flashes back to a subway tunnel during one such bombing run, when scores of Londoners have gathered underground together, clearly anxious that the next rumble could be the walls collapsing around them. In a stunning tracking shot, Davies follows a chorus of people quietly singing “Molly Malone” in solidarity, including his heroine, who’s huddled with her husband, taking a comfort that will later elude her.
The robbery, Killing Them Softly
So much critical antipathy was directed at the heavy-handed politics of Killing Them Softly that not enough attention was paid to how skillfully director Andrew Dominik delivers on the genre elements—at least when he cares to follow through on them. The inciting incident of the film, an audacious robbery of a mobbed-up poker game, was among the year’s most unnerving suspense setpieces. And much of the tension comes from the fact that the two robbers offer themselves up like lambs to the slaughter: Low-level hoods looking for a big score, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, the latter a junkie who barely gets the job, may hold the guns, but nary a whiff of fear is detected among two tables of burly, scowling marks. The host of the game, played by Ray Liotta, accommodates their demands, but with a confidence that some time in the immediate or not-to-distant future, McNairy and Mendelsohn can expect to die. Dominik allows the tension to stick as languorously as the philosophical conversation that takes up much of the rest of the film, and just the sheer distance between the backroom game and the getaway car, down a narrow and endless pathway, results in agony for the robbers and the audience alike.
Marion Cotillard revisits the whale, Rust And Bone
After being involved in a terrible accident at the SeaWorld-esque marine park where she worked, former orca trainer Marion Cotillard returns to the scene of the incident for the first time a different person, one who’s had to rebuild her sense of self and who’s now moving carefully on prosthetic legs. She walks up to a glass window on the side of the tank, as the blue-green of the water fills the screen, and taps on the side to summon the whale. The creature maimed her, but this sequence, beautiful and tender, makes it clear that blame has never entered into the picture and that she still feels a deep connection to the animal. As she runs through some of the signals she used in the past to guide the orca, it responds, following her hand on the glass, nodding as she does, and swimming away in the direction she indicates, in an evocative choreography between human and animal.
Parachuting from space, Lockout
When the world gathered in front of TV screens and YouTube streams to watch Felix Baumgartner’s skydive from the edge of space with a parachute and a full-pressure suit in October, it was enough to give an odd sense of pride and justification to any fans of the year’s earlier ridiculous French science-fiction release Lockout. Of course it’s possible to parachute from space—that’s exactly how disgraced CIA agent Guy Pearce and the president’s kidnapped daughter (Maggie Grace) escape from space jail at the end of the movie, jumping seconds ahead of the bomb explosion that destroys the structure in its decaying orbit. The audacity of the sequence is made all the more enjoyable by the way the film cuts from them streaking through the atmosphere in fiery fashion to them landing lightly on a paved overpass. It may be a dystopic future, but they seem to have their space-parachuting technology down pat.