Movies are about moments. There are big moments that erase our cynicism about the art form and remind us of its capacity to dazzle. There are quiet moments that succeed in touching our hearts in a way only possible with the medium. There are moments that prompt us to consider things in a different light and encourage us to think about issues from a new perspective. And there are moments that make us empathize with others in a way we never could have expected.
While sometimes the overall plot of a film or its minute details may escape us, certain scenes stand out like a beacon in a bland cinematic landscape. What follows is, in this critic’s opinion, a list of the 10 best scenes from the movies this year. While some of the films they’re from might not have been completely successful, during these moments perfection was achieved and they’ve proven powerful enough to stay with this viewer long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up.
1. Prometheus – Knowing she’s been impregnated by an alien life form that’s about to burst through her chest, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) places herself in an automated surgical unit, programing it to conduct an immediate abortion. Director Ridley Scott sets out to match his classic chest-bursting scene from Alien and he nearly succeeds with this harrowing show-stopping moment that Rapace sells, conveying the character’s pain in a palpable manner that only underscores the scene’s horror. Scott pushes the limits of good taste yet he shows just enough restraint to express the true terror of the situation.
2. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – With the world coming to an end in less than a week’s time, travelers Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) stumble upon an odd event – a picnic being held by a large group of people on a beach, frolicking about, simply enjoying the day and giving thanks for the gift of life by spending it with the ones they love. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria delivers the most poignant movie moment of the year as she clings to the notion that in the face of eminent doom, some of us would not lose sight of the simple things that make life such a glorious experience.
3. The Campaign – Having been roped into running for the congressional seat in his district, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) sits his family down and requests they tell him any dark secrets they might have, lest the media discover and expose them first. What his wife and two sons tell him is far worse and absurd than he expected and, as the scene grows with each confession more embarrassing than the last, the hilarity does as well, bolstered by Galifianakis’ horrified reactions. Multiple viewings of this moment are necessary, as you’ll miss some of the best gags because you’ll be laughing so hard.
4. Silver Linings Playbook – Irate over having lost a huge wager thanks to a Philadelphia Eagles loss, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) accuses his troubled son, Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper), of messing with the team’s mojo because he wasn’t able to watch the game. Enter Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), Pat Jr.’s dance partner, who sets his father straight by pointing out that the Eagles have won every time she and his son have been together and that in forcing him to miss their rehearsal, Pat Sr. is to blame for his troubles. If Lawrence ends up winning the Oscar, and she just might, this is the moment that will be remembered as not only the key to her performance, but the coming out of a major star and talent. She controls the room and this scene. You can tell that even De Niro appreciates the power she displays.
5. Skyfall – Pursuing a rogue terrorist who’s stolen a hard drive with sensitive information, James Bond (Daniel Craig) chases him via motorcycle through a bazaar, and over rooftops until the pursuit leads to a train, where he uses an earthmover on a flatbed to rip open a passenger car to continue the chase. The Bond films are famous for their opening action sequences but this one takes the cake as it continues to escalate in speed and thrills, shot with an assured hand by director Sam Mendes over the course of 52 days. This is the most spectacular action sequence of the movie year, with no other film coming close in delivering the excitement contained here.
6. Flight – Pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), under the microscope because of his role in a plane crash in which he saved more than 100 passengers, finds himself facing his personal moment of truth. Before an investigative committee, he’s forced to decide whether to perjure himself and sully the name of a former colleague or publicly admit to his own shortcomings and risk going to jail. Washington is heartbreaking here, reaching deep to show a man who’s reached the end of his rope and is desperately grasping at his final chance at salvation.
7. Men in Black 3 – In hot pursuit of a rogue alien, Agents J and K (Will Smith and Josh Brolin) get the help of a visitor with prophetic abilities (Michael Stuhlbarg). He stops and shows them a vision of the future as they visit Shea Stadium, in which elements of fate, both large and small, conspire to create one of the great modern miracles – the winning of the World Series by the 1969 Mets. Told with a sense of wonder by Stuhlbarg, this moment reminds us that when a series of circumstances occur and the planets align, miracles can happen.
8. End of Watch – Displaying an ease that belies the danger of their job, Los Angeles Police Officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) have a conversation in which they share personal and embarrassing anecdotes that send them both into spasms of laughter in the final scene of this bracing film. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena is honest and sincere, conveying a camaraderie and love that elevates the film and brings humanity to all of those who wear a badge. This moment is a perfect example of the type of tag-team acting employed by the two leads in one of the most overlooked films of the year.
9. Les Miserables – With hundreds of fellow convicts, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) toils in the wind and rain, tugging a rope and chain attached to a ship he and his comrades are trying to pull into dry dock. Director Tom Hooper begins his epic vision of the musical based on the Victor Hugo novel with this scene, effectively symbolizing how futile Valjean and his brethren’s lives have become.
10. The Possession – Making the ultimate sacrifice, devoted father Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) finds himself taken over by a demon that once possessed his daughter, only to have it drawn out through his mouth during a successful exorcism. Audacious and shocking, director Ole Bornedal expertly manipulates the viewer by rendering the scene in glimpses using a strobe light effect, yet delivering the goods as we come to see the demon fully emerge.
Other magical moments – Bilbo Baggins partakes in a duel of riddles with Gollum for a magical ring in The Hobbit. Ottway (Liam Neeson) and other passengers find themselves in sudden peril when the roof of the plane they’re on is ripped off in The Grey. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has the ultimate existential moment when he sits down to talk to his future self (Bruce Willis) in Looper. Gina Carano mops the floor with Channing Tatum and an action star is born in Haywire. Every monster conceivable escapes and causes mass carnage during the conclusion of The Cabin in the Woods. Bane (Tom Hardy) and his cronies pull off a daring mid-air highjacking in The Dark Knight Rises. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets sucker-punched by the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in The Avengers. Jeff (Jason Segel) finds his true destiny in Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) gives his wife Kay (Meryl Streep) a passionate kiss before setting off for work at the end of Hope Springs.