I’m not quite sure when exactly it happened, but after spending the first several months complaining about the absence of a truly great movie, somewhere along the way 2013 turned into another stunningly excellent year for film. I have my real top ten list coming in a few days, but right now I wanted to take some time to celebrate some of my very favorite moments that came out of 2013.
A word of caution before we begin, I’m going to do my best not to spoil any significant details of these scenes, but by the very nature of this list I’m going to be giving some things away. I would still encourage you to take a look, but for the spoiler-sensitive folks out there, just know what you’re getting into.
Iron Man Three – Meet Trevor Slattery
I know I promised I wouldn’t spoil anything major, but we all know the deal with this one by now, right? Ugh, fine. If you somehow a) care enough about Iron Man Three to be concerned about spoilers, b) have waited eight months before seeing it anyway, and c) have miraculously managed to avoid the discussion in those eight months, go ahead and move on to number 9. For the rest of you, let’s continue.
For all J.J. Abrams’ talk about “mystery boxes” and audience expectations, the big “reveal” in Star Trek Into Darkness was basically a joke. In the end, Marvel and Shane Black managed to do what Abrams bungled so spectacularly by using the classic tricks of the trade: misdirection and not drawing undue attention to a reveal. Setting up the Mandarin, the only Iron Man villain any one actually knows anything about, and then pulling the rug out from under it ,revealing that it’s all been a performance by a drunk actor was a stroke of genius. It was surprising, it was funny, it successfully moved the goal posts, it clearly set the Marvel Cinematic Universe apart from its comic book counterparts, and most importantly, it perfectly lined up with the thematic arc of the film. There was outcry from people who wanted to see a “real” version of Iron Man’s signature nemesis, but let’s be real here: the Mandarin is really just Iron Man’s nemesis by default. This racist, Cold War caricature is not remembered because he’s one of the great comic book characters, he’s only remembered because he’s a little bit less terrible than Iron Man’s other villains. Changing him for the movie was a really smart decision, and the twist itself was executed masterfully.
The Conjuring – Hide and Clap
An argument could be made that this one was sort of spoiled by the trailer (which was, incidentally, a phenomenal trailer), but in the finished film this sequence maintains a lot of its effectiveness. James Wan – whose work in the past I’ve been lukewarm to at best – did a masterful job using old school techniques to create a film that is both narratively engaging and satisfyingly scary, and the “hide and clap” sequence is a perfect example of all of that. It takes characters we are invested in, puts them in an ominous situation while showing us only enough of the threat to get our imaginations going, but not so much that we can externalize the threat. It uses cues from earlier in the film, as well as setting up things that will be important later on. It’s a tremendous horror sequence, and each time I’ve seen in with an audience it’s worked like gangbusters.
Furious 6 – Tank Chase
This time last year, I was content to dismiss the Fast & Furious movies wholesale, but when Furious 6 came out and I started hearing REALLY good things about it, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. It turns out that these are actually remarkably fun movies that defy any expectation you might have for them. Furious 6 in particular has a lot of really great action sequences, but the one that stood out to me was the tank chase at the midpoint of the movie. To be frank, Furious 6 ended up having a more solidly executed sequence of super heroics than anything Man of Steel was able to pull off. Don’t believe me? Let’s break it down.
You have a villain with incredible power (in this case, a giant tank), trying to go obtain an object that will advance his sinister plot, and is willing to take the lives of innocents in order to get it. Our heroes step in, not only to stop the villain and save the day, but also to try to protect the innocent as much as possible. Sure, for a movie about a bunch of regular(ish) people who drive cool cars, the physics of this are absurd, but that’s really beside the point. What we have here is an exciting, well made action sequence, with characters who are worth rooting for, that also progresses the narrative of the film. Dom flying from one bridge to another to save a friend is so much more satisfying than an endless succession of people punching buildings in half.
The World’s End – Network Intervention
The Cornetto Trilogy is collectively a brilliant work of cinema; each film is layered with smart metaphor and double meanings, and it takes multiple viewings to really unpack all the wonderful details they have to offer. What takes place at the end of the Golden Mile in The World’s End, though, may just be my favorite moment of the lot of them. There’s so much going on in this scene, and it plays flawlessly no matter how you look at it. It works as the culmination of the arcs of three separate characters, it works as a rallying cry for the beautiful imperfection of humanity, it works as a commentary on alcoholism and the institutions we put in place to treat it, it also works as a fantastic comedic finale to the film. Not only that, but it also sets up the somewhat controversial, but genuinely perfect conclusion that follows.
Frozen – “Let It Go”
There are many, many great moments in Frozen, both in the form of musical sequences and more traditional scenes of action or dialogue. “Let It Go,” though, might just be the very best. The character of Elsa (voice by Idina Menzel) only get’s one full song in the film, but they make up for it by making that song the absolute best song in the whole film. The song is layered with conflicting emotions – heartbreak, excitement, regret, catharsis – in a way that creates something incredibly moving. This is easily the most effective musical number Disney has done since The Lion King’s “Circle of Life.”
Gravity – Boarding the ISS
When trying to pick out just one great scene from Gravity, it’s really easy to go with the very first one. The opening of the film – with it’s long takes, note-perfect pacing, and jarring transition from beauty to terror – is positively stunning. However, looking back, the scene that stands out most to me is one that occurs a bit later in the running time. As Stone and Kowalski approach the ISS, we are allowed to feel some amount of security. “They’ve made it for now,” we say, even knowing that Stone’s oxygen levels are running dangerously low, but once again disaster strikes. What is only a few minutes of screen time feels almost impossibly long as we anxiously root for them to get to safety. In the theater I was involuntarily holding my breath, trying to conserve the oxygen that Stone so desperately needed. And when the sequence is coming to its conclusion, we get one of the most gorgeous visuals in the entire film.
Captain Phillips – Bainbridge Sick Bay
Tom Hanks is one of America’s most beloved actors, and this year he gave the performance of his career. As the titular Captain Richard Phillips, Hanks carries the weight of the situation on his shoulders the entire film, trying to stay cool under tremendous pressure to save his ship, his crew, and his own life. And the moment it all ends, the moment he’s finally able to let go of that weight, Hanks delivers a flooring performance that serves as emotional catharsis for both the character and the audience. It’s one of those scenes that lingers with you well beyond the confines of the theater, and envelops you so completely that it takes a while to get back out of the headspace of that character. Captain Phillips is by all accounts a great movie anyway, but the fact that they stick the landing so perfectly really seals the deal. This is a moment that Hanks will long be remembered for.
The Lone Ranger – William Tell Finale
Is The Lone Ranger a bad movie? Yeah, probably. It’s narrative is an absolute mess, going off on tangents that are often disconnected from each other and the larger story of the film – and only some of them even work in-and-of-themselves. Characters are introduced and then forgotten, only to show up later with no narrative purpose than to be empty callbacks, and the whole thing is established with an entirely useless (and annoying) framing device. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie anyway – I did quite a bit, as a matter of fact – just that I acknowledge by any reasonable standard it’s a bad movie.
Do you want to know one thing that is absolutely not bad about it, and in fact is even truly masterful? The nearly half-hour long final action sequence. I’ve spoken in the past, and will continue to speak on how much I admire Gore Verbinski as a filmmaker. His approach is highly unconventional, but he has such an extraordinary amount of talent that he’s often able to pull off things that have no reason to work. Even in a film like this where the majority of the film fails at what it sets out to do, he’s able to craft and execute the best action sequence put to film by far this entire year. Let me say that again. The finale of The Lone Ranger is THE best action sequence of 2013. It’s one of the best in the past several years. I’d be willing to go so far as to call it an all-time great. It really is that good.
It mixes modern blockbuster aesthetic with an emphasis on physicality found in the era of silent films. It juggles the action of multiple characters, on several moving objects, across a range of locations, and still manages to portray the geography of the action perfectly. It has great character beats, even for characters who have been dysfunctional during the rest of the story. It also has a character riding a horse on top of, and inside of a train! I mean, really, what more can you want? The Lone Ranger is not one of the best films of 2013, not by a long shot, but it’s one that absolutely deserves to be seen, if only for this scene. It’s worth at least paying a dollar to pick it up from RedBox. Trust me on this one.
12 Years a Slave – “Roll Jordan Roll”
The best male performance of the year is a REALLY close race. I’ve talked about Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips already, and Leonardo DiCaprio absolutely kills it in The Wolf of Wall Street, but for my money, the best performance of 2013 in Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave. The film chronicles the events that result in him, a free man, being kidnapped and sold into slavery. He is beaten and abused, taken from his family, and forced to watch as his friends and fellow slaves suffer. At one point in the film he is gathered with a group of slaves to mourn the death of another. As he stands there, the funeral crowd begins to sing the spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll.” The camera remains transfixed on Northrup, unblinking, silent, with a look of disdain on his face. As the shot tightens, his expression grows darker, until he finally joins in singing with the rest of the slaves. After years of fighting to retain his dignity, Northrup is broken. He’s resigned to his status as a slave, and it’s absolutely devastating.
Short Term 12 – Octopus Story
Short Term 12 is one of the very best movies of 2013, but it’s also tragically under seen. Because I realize many of you reading this have yet to see the film, I refuse to spoil a moment of it, but for the few of you who already have, you know what I mean when I refer to the “Octopus Story.” In a movie that’s already beautiful and human, this scene is tremendously powerful and affecting. It’s a fantastic moment that absolutely wrecked me, and I refuse to say any more than that. It’s out on Blu-ray tomorrow, make a point to see this film.