Almost Famous – “Tiny Dancer”
“I need to go home.” “You are home.” Teenage newbie rock writer William has plenty of ups and downs as he goes on tour with the band he’s supposed to be writing about, and those ups and downs often follow close on each others heels. After an embarrassing display by the lead singer, the group sits silent on the tour bus, until one of them starts singing along to the song that at first seemed like non-diegetic soundtrack. Soon they all join in, and yes. Right then, they’re all home.
Inglourious Basterds – Shosanna
Inglourious Basterds shot up my all-time favorites list alarmingly fast, and a lot of it is due to Mélanie Laurent’s fantastic performance as Shosanna (often overlooked in favor of Christoph Waltz’s equally fantastic turn). She’s the real heroine of the story, the Jewish girl who escaped and ends up taking the ultimate revenge in her parallel plot against the Nazi elite.
The Last Picture Show – Sam the Lion
Equally concerned with nostalgia and forging into the future, The Last Picture Show straddles the gap between old and new both in American life, dramatizing the mid-1950s shift in morals that would lead into the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and in American cinema, valorizing classical Hollywood filmmaking while pushing the envelope on content. Sam the Lion, though a supporting character in the story, is the central fixture of the town and of the film, signifying the old which is soon to pass away and yet whose wisdom and quiet strength are needed.
Glenda Farrell – the wise-cracking dame with a heart of gold
I have a special place in my heart for the plucky female character that pops up a lot in 1930s films, and few people play that type better than Glenda Farrell. She has a way of stealing films from supporting roles – she’s the second-lead girl reporter in Mystery of the Wax Museum, and she’s probably the main reason I prefer this version of the story to any of the others I’ve seen. In Lady for a Day, she’s the nightclub owner who’s quietly in love with Warren William – a subplot that’s barely there, but Farrell manages to give it depth.
Up – the Carl and Ellie sequence
One of the major complaints against Up is that the majority of the film doesn’t live up to this sequence, a silent journey through Carl and Ellie’s life together, complete with joy and tragedy, happiness and sorrow. Fair enough. But this five-minute piece of film is a perfect short film on its own, and just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. (No, seriously, I started watching it when I was preparing for this post, and I had to stop it half-way through to keep from bawling.)
The Night of the Hunter – the painterliness
A strange, nearly uncategorizable film, The Night of the Hunter is a combination of film noir, crime film, thriller, farce, Southern Gothicism, parable, and poetry. Yet thanks to director Charles Laughton’s commitment and some of the most gorgeous cinematography in any film ever, it somehow works. And though the tone may be gloriously inconsistent, the look is not – every frame is fraught with painterly compositions, contrasting shadows and light as masterfully as any work of art.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Dorothy imitating Lorelei
Some try to convince me that this is a guilty-pleasure level movie, but no. This is a great, great film. Marilyn Monroe is at her best here, playing not a dumb blonde as you initially expect, but a woman who knows that playing dumb is an effective way to get what she wants. But as good as MM is, Jane Russell practically steals the film from her as street-smart but relationship-dumb Dorothy – and nowhere more than here, where she literally steals Lorelei’s persona and signature number to try to get the pair out of a tough situation.
Bonnie and Clyde – Bonnie immortalizes Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde is my #2 movie overall right now, so you knew I was going to pick something from it. A lot of scenes would’ve fit the criteria, but this one where Bonnie writes a poem about their exploits captures what I think is the essence of the film – the inherent theatricality with which Bonnie and Clyde invest their activities and the folk hero aura that follows them around, as well as the curious combination of childish naivete and sobering knowledge of their inevitable end that pervades the poem and their lives at this point in the story. The clip (not embeddable) is here.
Elevator to the Gallows – Miles Davis & Jeanne Moreau
I’d seen Jeanne Moreau in other films, notably Jules and Jim, but I didn’t fall in love with her until here – her odyssey through the nighttime streets of Paris searching for her lover transcends the film’s crime plot (which is also excellent, on its own terms), thanks to the moody photography, Miles Davis’s wonderful score, and Moreau’s unforgettable face.
Resident Evil – zombie puppeh
Okay, most anything Milla Jovovich is in actually is a guilty pleasure, but I don’t care – I love them all anyway. None more than the original Resident Evil film, with Alice in her iconic red dress figuring out that she has the skillz to kick the crap out of zombie dobermans.
The Princess Bride
You think I could pick just one part from The Princess Bride? You’d be wrong about that. There’s never been a more perfect combination of adventure, romance, comedy, and satire than this film, and it manages to do it all with unsurpassed sweetness.
Red Dust and many others – pre-Code naughtiness
Before today’s MPAA rating system there was the Production Code, a system of self-governing set up by the studios in 1930 in keep movies clean enough to avoid government censorship. It wasn’t really enforced until 1934, though, and from 1930 to 1934 a bunch of films were made that pushed at the boundaries of “decency.” Pre-Code films aren’t really explicit in any way, but have a delightful naughtiness as writers and performers milked innuendos and implications for all they were worth – the combination of innocence and naughtiness that pre-Code films have in spades has never really been recaptured. Here’s just one example of many, as Jean Harlow insists on taking a bath without the curtain that the more prudish Mary Astor had installed around the bathtub on a remote South American plantation.
The Birds – the jungle gym
This scene is a brief master course in the art of creating suspense. We already suspect that something’s going on with the birds, but they haven’t started attacking full-scale yet. Still, it’s worrisome to see them landing on the jungle gym behind an unsuspecting Tippi Hedren. As Hitchcock cuts back and forth between close-ups on Tippi and shots that show the jungle gym, each time with a few more birds, he spends longer and longer on Tippi, unless we can hardly stand it for worrying about how many birds will be there when he finally cuts back. Brilliant.
District B-13 – parkour
So you thought the opening of Casino Royale was hot stuff, huh? Check out the founder of parkour, David Belle, doing it himself in District B-13. Unfortunately this is the best clip I could find, but you get the idea.
Pan’s Labyrinth – harsh fantasy
Most of the time we think about fantasy as a way to escape harsh realities, but Ofelia gets no such relief – instead her fantasies are fraught with danger, monsters, and sacrifice, much like her Spanish Civil War-era reality. But the fantasy gives her a role to play, a chance to affect events rather than experience them passively, as she must do in real life. It’s a visionary concept, no less so because Del Toro does not rigidly delineate fantasy from reality – Ofelia’s world of monsters may be her real home.
Mulholland Drive – Club Silencio
The key that unlocks the mystery of Mulholland Drive and sends our heroines through the rabbit hole, to mix metaphors, turns up during this extraordinary sequence of a nightclub act with music but no band and a singer giving an intensely emotional performance until she falls dead and the song continues. It’s overwhelming and everything I love about David Lynch.
Henry V – Non Nobis
Shakespeare’s Henry V has oft been used as a rah-rah patriotic piece (notably by Laurence Olivier in his 1945 film version), but what Kenneth Branagh’s version brings is a sobering understanding of the cost of war. It’s still every bit as inspirational and remains pro-England, but it’s impossible to watch this long-take sequence after the Battle of Agincourt and not wonder whether Henry’s bid for the crown of France was worth it. Plus, the music on its own is awesome, in the original and reverential sense of the word.
The Thomas Crown Affair – the chess game
The film as a whole is a fun and breezy heist caper, but this scene superficially depicting a chess game between bored rich guy Steve McQueen, who pulls heists for the fun of it, and investigator Faye Dunaway, who’s trying to nail him (uh, for his crimes…yeah…that), ends up being one of the sexiest seduction scenes in film history. Love it. The clip is on YouTube but maddeningly unembeddable. Check it out here.
The New World – the British landing
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I popped in The New World, my first Terence Malick film, but whatever it was it wasn’t this. But when this scene of the Native Americans watching the British landing on their shores came on, I suddenly realized that I was watching a tone poem rather than a standard narrative film. The natives aren’t just watching, they’re dancing – not to any music but nature and not with any purpose but their own. That movement, that natural rhythm, is what made me fall in love with the film.
Gold Diggers of 1935 – “The Lullaby of Broadway”
As a whole, Gold Diggers of 1935 is a pretty routine, even substandard backstage musical. But the climactic “Lullaby of Broadway” number directed by the inimitable Busby Berkeley, stands among the most memorable musical numbers on film. It’s got everything – a great Warren-Dubin song performed a few times by different performers, the large-scale choreography Berkeley was famous for, but most notably its own condensed story of a day in the life of a Broadway starlet with a surprisingly sober end. It’s too long to fit in one YouTube video, so here’s both. Most of the impressive kaleidoscopic dancing is in the second video, but you need the first one to get the full story of the piece.