“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Movies (wholes) are made up of a bunch of scenes (parts), so I wanted to look back on the most memorable scenes from this year’s films. I’m very happy to be joined by my friends Sophia Loffreda, Radina Papukchieva and Elizabeth Tomaras to reflect on our favourite movie scenes of 2013.
La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) – Party scene and final scene
In his latest film The Great Beauty, legendary Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, proves that no one can do sweeping, elegant, haunting visuals like he can. After watching the film, I could picture the face of the main character, famous writer and lost soul, Jep Gambardella (played by Tony Sevillo), as he turns around during his ridiculously extravagant birthday party, shimmying, with a cigarette in his mouth and an expression on his face that tells us he doesn’t have a care in the world. It’s hilarious, it’s grandiose, it’s outrageous, it’s incredibly well done. Sorrentino dedicates eight minutes to making this rooftop celebration come alive, zooming in on gems like the perverted facial expressions of guests or the shadows of strippers against a cloudy glass in the distance. Yes, eight minutes of screen time! At one point, the camera flips and Jep and his guests are upside down, dancing for their lives. Then, just as the party is winding down, the dancers go into slow motion and the camera follows a line of flailing arms until it gets to Jep – standing still at the far end, stoic, lighting another cigarette, he begins one of the film’s deeply profound, poetically beautiful monologues about existence, hypocrisy, truth, and happiness. The party scene sets us up for The Great Beauty’s ode to La Bella Vita and for its mockery of the Berlusconi era’s extreme indulgence and shallow living. With religiously rooted, awe-inspiring choral music like “The Lamb” by the Tenebrae Choir, Sorrentino hits us with a one-two punch. Keep an eye out for his final scene, a truly stunning exploration of an old nun climbing a set of stairs in pain, as her wrinkled hands grip the floor and Jep finally realizes the meaning of life’s “flashes of beauty.” Even if you have to watch The Great Beauty with subtitles, please do. It may be slightly self-indulgent on Sorrentino’s part, but his work is truly unique, not to mention incredibly breathtaking. His genius lies in his no holds barred approach to tiny details, and in his realization that there is nothing more powerful than Roman landscapes paired with silent contemplation.
The Place Beyond the Pines – Opening scene
When done well, the long tracking shot is proof of mastery of the art of film. To be able to follow a character move swiftly through locations builds anticipation and curiosity. The ability to create a mood with a single brush stroke is a rare pleasure that makes directing seem at once effortless and incredibly meticulous. The opening scene of The Place Beyond the Pines follows Luke (Ryan Gosling) as he moves from his caravan, through an amusement park, into a cage where he is about to do motorcycle stunts. We don’t see his face until he is sitting down on the bike, putting on his helmet and jacket. It’s a memorable opening to one of my personal favourite movies of the year.
The Bling Ring – House party like a rockstar
They walk into the party as celebrities in their own right, with smug smiles on their faces. They’ve just come back from Paris – that’s Paris Hilton’s home, where they went on another stealing spree – and are pleased with themselves and their new treasures. As a girl comes up to the thieving duo, admiring and praising their actions, Rebecca quickly dismisses her with a “We’re going to get drinks now,” a line probably routinely thrown by the likes of those whose homes she burglarizes. She and Marc, her partner in crime, approach Nicki and Chloe where the most trivial exchange of the movie happens. Nothing is said. Nothing important, anyway. Rather, the dialogue is so superfluous – “no fucking way,” “I know, right” – it’s almost comical. The poignant scene captures just how delusional Rebecca is. She regards herself as a celebrity even when walking into a house party surrounded by her peers.
Spring Breakers – Restaurant holdup
The most visually interesting movie of the year, Spring Breakers’ restaurant hold-up scene was even more mesmerizing. Four college girls want to go to Spring Break in Florida but don’t have enough money, so three of them steal a car and hold up a restaurant. Two of them go inside and rob the restaurant and its patrons, threatening them with squirt guns, while the third girl drives around the building in the getaway car. The viewers’ vantage point is from the getaway car as we see only glimpses of what’s going on inside through the restaurant’s windows. It’s a tame scene compared to the movie’s final shootout, but the camera work here was incredible. It’s a long and very well choreographed shot – no cuts or edits! Spring Breakers is streaming on Netflix Canada.
12 Years a Slave – Saved, but left hanging
It’s a scene that is uncomfortable to watch and does what it sets out to do: upset. After “disrespecting” a slave driver played by Paul Dano, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is about to be hanged when he’s saved by the more sympathetic slaver (it’s all relative here, folks) played by Benedict Cumberbatch. His character keeps his hands tied, though, and just leaves Northup hanging on the tip of his toes, struggling to find balance on the muddy ground below him. The scene is long, with the only sound ambient. Around Northup, other slaves go about their days; some kids are playing and laughing behind him. As if this is just a normal thing to come across. It’s one of the quieter scenes in the movie that’s often brutal and hard to watch, but it is incredibly effective and affecting.
Don Jon – Swiffer
Scarlett Johansson as Jersey girl Barbara Sugarman that just might make an honest/non-porn-watching man out of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Jon Martello holds a few gender stereotypes of her own. Don Jon says a lot about sex and gender roles and porn in more graphic scenes, but this one (below) about Barbara being so flabbergasted at the idea of Jon cleaning his own house packed a real punch. She doesn’t know what a Swiffer is, she can’t understand why Jon cleans his own house, but mostly, she needs to stop hearing about Jon’s domesticity because it’s turning her off.
The Act of Killing – Anwar Congo’s self-critique
The documentary itself is incredible as it follows former executioners in Indonesia as they proudly retell stories of the murders they committed in the ’60s. Some of them are turning their stories into a feature film, and The Act of Killing documents that. There are harrowing scenes of these now-old men directing actors on how to scream and suffer like their thousands of victims did years ago, but the most chilling scene comes in the first half of the movie. Anwar Congo, who boasts that he killed more than 1,000 communists in his heyday as an executioner, is watching footage of himself on a small Sanyo television set (these are like dailies – filmmakers watch the footage they shot the day after it was shot). He’s disappointed in his performance and apologizes to everyone for this lapse in quality. He’s not convincing enough, or at least not to his liking, when he is choking his victim with a wire. But the moment that made this scene so memorable was when he said he hated what he was wearing. He used to wear dark colours, he said. With these white pants and green shirt, he looks like he’s going to a picnic, not an execution, he added. Nonchalantly. The following clip is the one in which Anwar Congo is disappointed with his performance.
The Wolf of Wall Street – Meeting Agent Denham
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) never met a person he couldn’t charm, never faced a problem he couldn’t throw money at. Until FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). Denham is investigating Belfort’s firm and in this scene on the millionaire’s 100-foot yacht, Belfort convinces himself he’ll be able to very subtly suggest that he can make Denham a very rich man. He thinks he has Denham convinced, when the agent was just toying with the millionaire. It’s one of only a handful of scenes DiCaprio and Chandler share; their exchange is a cat-and-mouse game, but who is feline and who is rodent changes in mere seconds. The scene with Belfort and Matthew McConaughey’s character Mark Hanna was also great. Really, every scene from Wolf could have been on here.
What were your favourite movie scenes of the year?