The Smackdown. There’s a theory that a movie, in order to succeed, only needs a handful of scenes or moments that really, really work. In other words, the macro is made from the micro. With the decade wrapped and a new one underway, I succumb to list-itis, and offer up ten major moments in films from the last ten years.
These are moments in film that just blew me away, that left me out of my body, totally immersed in the film’s emotion. This happens so little in film for me, that when it actually occurs, I’m left speechless (which is why, I guess, I’m compelled to write about them).
These are the moments I leave the theater thinking about, against which I compare my own life’s events. These moments in time are what movies are all about, and #10 on the list comes from one of my favorite films, “Superman Returns.”
10 — Superman Returns: “I HEAR EVERYTHING.”
This moment in “Superman Returns” marks a pivotal moment in the film where Superman, having returned to Earth after an absence of five years, reunites with a heartbroken Lois atop the Daily Planet building. Lois, sad and hurt, is on the eve of a Pulitzer Prize ceremony for her article, “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Now completely alone and guilt-ridden, an apologetic Superman convinces Lois into a late-night flight over Metropolis, soaring up into the sky like a dancing couple, stopping high above in the dark where Superman asks his former love, “what do you hear?” She tells him nothing, to which he replies, “I hear everything. You say the world doesn’t need a savior, but everyday I hear people crying out for one.”
And in this one simple moment, Superman is elevated above the corny boy scout and to a tragic and noble hero, an alien longing for human love and normalcy, but damned to be a god among men. The simple “I’m sorry I left you Lois” that caps this scene is heartrending, as we are left as speechless as Lois at this simple and effective rebuttal to her Pulitzer-winning article — and to her broken heart.
No one can understand the burden of being a Superman.
9 — Avatar: “I SEE YOU.”
Although new, the ending of “Avatar” is masterful. The entire movie, Jake has experienced the love and affection of Neytiri via his avatar, always one body away. Neither have truly seen or felt the other in their hands. At the end, as a dying Jake dies from the toxins of Pandora, Neytriri bursts in to save him, cradling to her the true crippled body of her lover, her large hands fumbling as she shoves the high-tech oxygen mask onto Jake’s face. As he comes back to life — both lovers truly see each other for the first time. Their first words: “I see you.”
It’s a beautiful moment of connection and love.
8 — The Fountain: “I’M GONNA DIE.”
Although “The Fountain” got few props at the box office and theaters, the film has some really beautiful moments. The climactic sequence of “The Fountain,” where the film’s protagonist prepares for one of the most extraordinary cinematic deaths on screen, is utterly beautiful. Tommy, having traveled across the universe to the Mayan underworld to resurrect his lost love, realizes the futility of his mission at the edge of a dying star. Learning to finally accept death, Tommy falls through time and space, reality and fantasy, fact and fiction, to see how his efforts to save his wife consumed him. The character’s tortured soul — racked with guilt, hope, ambition, love, and regret — explode in this trippy, mind-blowing sequence. In the end, Tommy closes his eyes seconds before the star dies and is blown to beautiful smithereens as the star novas and sends him to join his wife in death.
7 — 500 Days of Summer: “REALITY/EXPECTATIONS.”
I hate romantic comedies. However, “500 Days of Summer” is something else entirely. The scene where Tom goes to give it one last chance with Summer, the woman of his dreams, is a universal psychological fallacy put on screen. The decision to show two different versions of the same scene, and use the differences to conjure up the emotional despair of Tom as the night does not go as planned, and in fact leads to a heartbreaking revelation, is pure cinematic genius that’s simplicity speaks to the human condition. I can watch this scene over and over without boredom ever setting in.
6 — Bruno: “MY HEART WILL GO ON.”
“Bruno” most likely will be written off as vulgar, non-sensicial stupidity. Yet, underneath all the twirling penises and wildly-offensive jokes, is a harsh and disturbing look at homophobia in modern society. Unlike films like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Bruno” tackles homosexuality and homophobia in our society, showing that the same ignorance and hate that plagued The Brokeback Boys still exists today. When Bruno decides to go straight, and start a anti-gay wrestling group, only to be confronted by his former gay assistant, what follows next is simply… terrifying. As Bruno and his assistant make out on stage, and Celine Dion sings, hateful bigots throw and toss all manner of objects at the couple, screaming “fag” and breaking down in tears at this display. It’s an unnerving and yet, oddly powerful moment that reflects a sad truth about society.
5 — Magnolia: “I’M SICK!”
Anyone who’s read my reviews should know I have a fondness for “Magnolia.” P.T. Anderson’s handling of this scene, where a distressed Julianna Moore breaks down at a local pharmacy, is overwhelming good. As the camera slowly pushes in, Moore delivers one of the most human and raw monologues I’ve ever heard, moving from blasting and cursing out an overcurious pharmacy clerk to grieving over the death that surrounds her as her lover falls away from her. With so much vulgar language spewing for her mouth, it’s a testament to Anderson and Moore that this scene emerges as a stand-out beauty in the film, and shows what carefully crafted dialogue and masterful acting can do in cinema.
4 — The Departed: “YOUR VULNERABILITY IS REALLY FREAKING ME OUT…”
This may be weird, but when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character leans in the doorway of his therapist, overcome with love and jealousy as she discusses her boyfriend, I nearly cried. Vera Farmiga stands out in this scene, playing off DiCaprio’s great acting as she tells him: “I have to say that your vulnerability is really freaking me out right now. Is it real?” DiCaprio’s response is so honest and pure: “Yeah, I think so.” It’s a simple moment of acknowledgement played in subtext, just as it so often happens in real life. This is two great actors playing off one another, with simple dialogue showing the sad emergence of a futile romance that can only bring more pain for both parties.
3 — The Dark Knight: “YOU HAVE NOTHING…”
“The Dark Knight” is perfect…well, not entirely. However, the interrogation scene is such a highlight of this film and of cinema, and is admittedly the reason Christopher Nolan directs film. With the stakes high and rising, Batman must discover the location of his two friends, held by The Joker. When The Joker evades and teases Batman, the Caped Crusader loses it. The scene functions wonderfully as Batman bars his close friend Gordon from the room and proceeds to pummel The Joker for information. What does the Joker do? He laughs, hysterically. It’s terrifying, how he laughs. On and on, head smashed against glass, jaw punched, nose bashed, taunting Batman with the fact that he “has nothing to threaten him with.” And in the end, Batman does have nothing and it is only by the grace of the Joker’s sick game that he gives him the information he desires. God…
2 — Star Trek: “SIR! ANOTHER SHIP!”
Being a Star Trek fan, I did tear up as J.J. Abrams revision of “Star Trek.” The pivotal moment: Spock races toward the villains ship, ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity. The villain launches a barrage of torpedoes, an unavoidable cloud of inevitable death for Spock. But just as hope fizzles out, the USS Enterprise warps in, phasers and photons blazing, rescuing its legendary first office from a most certain doom. This one moment demonstrates the synergy of this famous sci-fi crew, as Kirk, Spock, and the entire Enterprise crew finally work together as a team to save the day.
1 — The Dark Knight: “IT’S ABOUT WHAT’S FAIR!”
I love looking at a film’s characters at the start and then the end of the film. As “The Dark Knight” begins, Gordon, Batman, and Dent stand as Gotham’s Trio, ready and determined to save it from crime and corruption. Although their friendship is uneasy, these men are doing their best and make great strides. Yet, throughout the course of the film, and the tragedies the Trio face as the Joker forces them into unwinnable scenarios and traps, the three men fall in the final moments of the film. Dent is scarred and destroyed, pushed to insanity, blames Gordon for Rachel Dawes death and holds the Gordon family at gunpoint. Gordon, guilt-ridden, pleas with his former friend and ally to spare his family. And Batman barely stands, stabbed and beaten, readies to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Watching these three friends fall out is horrible. I’m always shocked that this scene got into the film. Watching Dent torture Gordon by teasing a loaded gun at his wife and children’s heads is just…terrifying. Then, watching as Dent pronounces judgement on Batman, himself, and then Gordon shows how far these men have fallen. Watch the disappointment on Dent’s face when he judges himself with the coin and realizes he doesn’t get to kill himself? Another moment that sums up the genius behind this film is when Dent cries out to Batman, “Why was it only me who lost everything?” He is of course referring to Rachel Dawes, the woman that both Dent and Batman’s alter ego — Bruce Wayne — loved.
It’s a great twist of irony as Batman decides to not reveal his love of Rachel — his secret identity — and console Dent with the fact that he lost Rachel too. In doing this, he is both trapped and further traps himself to forever be Batman. It raises an interesting ethical question: had Batman told Dent he was Bruce Wayne, could he have saved Dent? This is the exact question that plagued Batman earlier in the film as The Joker killed innocents because Batman refused to take off his mask. Only this time, Batman’s decision to not reveal his true face, damns him to be behind that mask forever. Watching this scene is both heartbreaking and gets me teary-eyed each time. There’s something about friends with good intentions falling apart that gets me, and something sad about the loneliness and death that seizes each of these noble men as they realize they lost and The Joker really did win.