Some of My All-Time Favorite Movie Scenes

16Jan15

Certainly not all of them. This is just something I wrote up on a break. But I stand by all of them for the moments they provide, for what they teach me about writing, and for just being plain great.

And most of these are SCENES, with a beginning, middle and end. Anyway…

PULP FICTION, Jack-Rabbit Slims Conversation. The twist contest got a lot of notoriety, but the conversation leading up to the dance has the juice. It’s got playful interplay, sexual tension, lots of guarded responses. There’s serious subtext being conveyed, along with one of my favorite revelations in the movie, where Vincent tells Mia the rumor about Tony getting hurt by Marsallus because he gave her a foot massage. “You think my husband tossed a man out of a building because he touched me feet?!”

JAWS, the USS Indianapolis. Tension, building up and up, finally relieved in a group sing-a-long, which as I write it makes no sense, but in execution makes perfect sense.

CLERKS, car ride to the funeral. One of the best executed Kevin Smith scenes is almost entirely self-contained and unnecessary to what little “story” this movie has, yet it’s nearly perfect. It even has one of the most cinematic Kevin Smith moments where – when Dante is stunned into the silence – the volleying, panning camera fixes on his silent profile for just one disbelieving moment.

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, wagon ride after the mission. Wherein Tuco brags about how much his brother loves him, even though we’ve clearly seen otherwise. It’s a great moment where we see Tuco doing what he does best – protect himself to survive – but it’s also one of the first times Blondie reciprocates his friendliness by not calling him on his BS and offering him a cigar. The true beginning of the partnership.

THIS IS SPINAL TAP, post-“Stonehenge” blow-up. The beginning of the end, or at least some of the first fallout, this scene does nearly everything: it’s funny and emotional, it feels made up, but it ends with a perfect button. Everyone has a laugh in the scene, even Nigel who doesn’t even say anything.

THE GODFATHER, Michael’s first steps toward power. Aka “…then I’ll kill ‘em both.” Another scene that has it all. Everyone in the scene (Duvall, Caan, even Clemenza and Fish!) gets a crack at the bat, and it all feels together, but it all feels unique to the characters. And then there’s that subtle, easy, simple, push in during Michael’s line that confirms what we all know to be true: the other characters drop away, it’s all about him, and he’s the one in charge.

PSYCHO, the snack in the parlor. Maybe my favorite example of acting with/via directing. The way Norman leans forward when he first says “You mean an institution? A madhouse?” and he becomes Mother before our eyes. It’s even more incredible when, a moment later, he sits back in his chair and returns to his Norman state again.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, the run on the Building and Loan. Not only my favorite way to explain how market fluctuation has more to do with panic than with uncontrollable forces, but it’s one of the many great instances of George Bailey patiently/impatiently leading his townsfolk through a crisis. With ebbs and flows, debates and counters, moments where you think it’s solved and then fear returns. A masterpiece.

THE DARK KNIGHT, opening bank robbery. A movie in itself, and one that’s fast becoming my template for “How To Start an Action Movie.” It contains three clear acts: the set-up, a middle act where things go wrong (shot by the bank manager, shocked by the safe), then a resolution. It’s also a great bit of exposition with a flip-a-roo in the end, as everyone is talking about the Joker like he’s not there, when he’s actually RIGHT THERE!

TOP SECRET!, planning the attack. “We’re here,” declares Nigel, drawing an “X” in the dirt. Then the props come in, starting with a miniature cow and going all the way up to a scale model of the fortress being attacked, with a model train circling it. What’s kind of amazing is that such a scene IS necessary, and the additional ridiculous props help us understand what their plan is. That actually makes it even funnier.

CLUE! THE MOVIE, the exposure scene in the Lounge. This has more to do with myself and my personality and the way my sense of humor was formed, but I love this scene for the fact that it works like a stage farce. It has double entendres, snappy one-liners, and everyone gets at least one laugh. It’s also a miracle of directing and editing in that it feels like the characters are in the scene together. This sounds simple, but word play like this can lose a lot of steam in the cuts. But just look at the dialog between Wadsworth and Mrs. White, where every line is delivered in a mid-shot close-up. The edits could have created a feeling of isolation, but – as I said – you get the feeling they’re in the same room. In the same shots. I often feel that comedy timing is best when there are no edits, when the line delivery is determined by the actors, not by an editor (Wadsworth: “Professor Plum, you were once a professor of psychiatry specializing in helping paranoid and homicidal lunatics suffering from delusions of grandeur.” Plum: “Yes, but now I work for the United Nations.” Wadsworth: “So your work has not changed.”) This scene has both, and the timing is impeccable.

THE BLUES BROTHERS, Aretha Franklin’s soul food restaurant. I’m considering ranking the musical performances in this movie (either just the cameo appearances, or all of them, or all of the “cameos” or what have you), but we might as well just focus on this one, the best of any of those categories. I was too young to appreciate the fact that these “musical legends” were down and out at the time of filming, and that the popularity of this movie helped give them a resurgence in popularity (or, in some cases, much delayed surge in popularity). I just knew what I liked, and I have always loved the Aretha Franklin scene, with the most obvious point being that it has the best song. And the best performance of the best song. But outside of that, the scene is really great. In a way, it encapsulates the whole point of “The Blues Brothers” movie, which was in a lot of ways a convoluted story devised to spotlight great soul singers of the past. In that regard, Aretha’s scene delivers big time. On top of that, she also happens to have a bit of character to her performance. Sure, it’s probably just a shade of Aretha, but it’s a confident performance, demanding the spotlight from in-their-prime Belushi and Aykroyd. This comes down to directing, and in what is yet another “invisible God” move, Landis delivers a simple-yet-great set piece. Many little touches are sort of obvious (the back-up singers springing up from the counter, the sax player fry cook), but what struck me was the use of the Blues Brothers themselves. They take every kind of backseat they can in this scene without disappearing. The shot that sticks out to me comes during one of the “Freedom!” choruses. At first, a pull back of the camera reveals that the Brothers have joined the chorus line. It’s funny. But then we get an angle on Aretha, with her front and center, with her back-up singers in the background. The thing that jumped out to me this time: You can still see the hands of the Blues Brothers doing the dancing.

It’s not THAAAAAT remarkable, but that’s what makes it a slick move. You could imagine how a more lazy production might have just not included them, or let the guys sit out the shot. They aren’t directly NEEEEEEDED for that angle, because it’s all about Aretha. But then again, because the shot is truly all about Aretha, the inclusion of the Blues Brothers’ just-in-frame hands tells the viewer that this performance and this performer is more important than the stars of the film.

All for now. How about you?

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