So many things must come together to make a scene work, let alone an entire film. And while there are ample sources of recognition—be it via box office, screaming fans, critics groups or peers—for those performances, technical achievements and films as a whole, we like to pause here at year’s end, just as the awards season starts to rev up, to appreciate some of the more fleeting, ephemeral moments that left a mark on the viewer.
Before we meet Jay (Maika Monroe)—the unsaid object of the title’s transitive verb—and are given the rules of this horror film’s unnerving world, we see the consequences of being followed by “It.” After a spooky opening in which a pretty teen (in high heels, punching up the film’s themes about adulthood encroaching upon teenage, consequence-less life) drives away from an unseen menace, director David Robert Mitchell flashes to a nearby beach—and for a brisk second or two we take in the sight of the teen’s mangled corpse, bent in grotesque ways. We may not know what happened or why, but we intuitively understand the stakes. When later the goofy premise of the film is explained, we take it for what it is: By that point we know all too well how serious things can get. —Dom Sinacola
If you saw Inside Out, Pixar’s triumphant return to original, wildly creative animated storytelling, you either loved or hated Richard Kind’s Bing Bong from the moment we meet him. Every kid had an imaginary best friend growing up—every kid—and since every kid’s imagination is different, Bing Bong might either ring very true or very false; he’s an endearingly weird concoction, the sort of creature that could only be born in the mind of a child, but like him or not, he’s the most selfless character in the entire film. And he isn’t even real! Most of us would probably never think of laying down our lives to save another. Here, Bing Bong does it without hesitation or regret, belting out one last rendition of his theme song along the way. We hardly get to know Bing Bong outside of what he means to our young protagonist, Riley, but his brave final act hits us right in the gut and sticks with us. —Andy Crump
Like a newborn gradually adjusting his/her eyes to the world, the shot begins blurry and gauzy, but ever-so-slowly sharpens its focus on Carol (Cate Blanchett), the newly discovered object of younger Therese’s (Rooney Mara) infatuation, behind the wheel as she drives them both through the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey. And just as the image dissolves into the next shot, we see a smile begin to form on Carol’s blazing red lips. Even the (impressionistically muffled) music emanating from the car radio can’t possibly compete with the swooning spectacle of a romantic obsession made fleetingly tactile. —Kenji Fujishima
Stepping out from the shadow of a well-known and longstanding movie series isn’t easy. That feat is made even harder by Hollywood’s increasing emphasis on resurrecting the iconic franchises of yore for modern audiences. So Ryan Coogler’s home run update on the Rock films, Creed, is a miracle on a number of levels—commercial, social and creative – but foremost, it is necessarily a miracle of rebranding. Creed isn’t simply a new Rock film, it’s a Ryan Coogler film where Rocky is a supporting character to Michael B. Jordan, the cocksure son of Apollo Creed himself.
Coogler takes a bunch of steps to separate his vision from the other six movies in the saga of Rocky Balboa while making sure to keep them tied together. (Casting Jordan, for example.) But one of his very best flourishes occurs early in the film, as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed goes home after working his day job and pops in a video of his late father’s most famous matches. From the flickering light of the projector, we see Apollo doing battle with Rocky himself, and in the blink of an eye, Donnie goes from observing to participating, shadowboxing and straddling the line between his dad and his mentor-to-be: Donnie might be fighting to prove that he is Apollo’s son, but watch closely and you’ll see that he’s mimicking Rocky’s moves. It’s a moment that cleanly lays out the direction Donnie will take as the film progresses.—A.C.
The twist at the end of Tangerine may not have done it for you, but one of the final shots makes it clear that this film is about friendship and sisterhood. After suffering one final humiliation in a day of many, Sin-dee has her newly-purchased hair ruined in the worst way imaginable. Any other friend might not have been so quick on her feet, but Alexandra takes her to the nearest dry cleaners. Stripped of her clothes, weave and dignity, Sin-dee looks to be completely broken until her dear friend gives her the wig off of her own head. It doesn’t quite absolve her of all wrongdoing, but it’s a great start, and the perfect end to this wild ride of a film. —Shannon M. Houston
When two ten-year-old boys, the mischievous Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and the ostensibly sweeter Harrison (Hays Wellford), stumble upon a cop car left in a field, their prepubescent logic leads them to not only steal the thing, but plunder willy-nilly the cache of weapons in its backseat. One handgun in particular emerges from the stockpile, and director Jon Watts know that as soon as the boys flip it around haphazardly, his audience will be stewing in their seats, ready for the absolute worst to happen, plagued by the deepest, nastiest fears of every parent, teacher, human in America in 2015. When the gun finally does go off, much later in the film and after we’ve probably forgotten much of whatever it was we were afraid of, it’s a sobering moment: Even our most unbelievable fears are very, very real. —D.S.
“Do not, my friends, become addicted to water. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.” When a man stands on a mountaintop before a tired, poor, huddled and filthy mass of people yearning for water, you want to believe that he plans to do good with that aquifer full of fresh water. But this is Mad Max, and if for some reason you weren’t sure as to exactly how awful Immortan Joe is, this brief moment clears it up. He’s got a life-sustaining substance in the grip of his hands, and does as much evil as he can with it—first by giving the people a taste, then by viciously taking it away, and warning them against greed. Would that the ugliness of all men in power were as physically visible as Immortan Joe’s and that they all met a similar end.—S.H.
With a year in which filmmakers rightfully attempted to dispel the belief that age has anything to do with marketability—turning to movies like Youth, 45 Years, Ricki and the Flash and even The Force Awakens to both dissect and pump some vigor into pop culture’s notions about being “too” old—Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence captured old age at its most vulnerable. As Oppenheimer introduces us to Adi and his family, the people who will lead us through the film, we learn that Adi’s parents are not just old, but breathtakingly so. Adi’s father, especially, is so old no one actually knows how old he is—well over 100 probably. But one moment, more than serving as a metaphorical summation of the effect the 1960s Indonesian genocides still have on the country (which it does), is heart-wrenching: We watch Adi’s father, blind and disabled and senile and almost naked, abjectly terrified as he scoots around on the floor, flailing and screaming that he’s trapped, having no idea where, or when, he is. His mind is completely gone—but yet, for no discernible reason, he lives on. —D.S.
You could probably make a whole list that revolves around the idea of Cate Blanchett doing awesome things, and you could probably draw on Todd Haynes’ Carol to present most of them. But Carol keeps its audience at emotional arm’s length by design; this isn’t a film that courts its’ viewers feelings by any stretch of the means, preferring to operate in a mode of cool reserve rather than wear its heart on its sleeve. There’s a time for constraint and a time for outburst, though, and if the affluent, sophisticated eponymous character prefers to play with her cards close to her vest, she’s still prone to fits of pique.
Case in point: the morning after she and young Therese (Rooney Mara) first make love, Carol finds that her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), has had them both followed by a hired investigator. It’s understandable that Carol might not handle this discovery especially well, particularly since her relationship with her daughter is on the line. But Carol doesn’t simply get angry. She gets armed, rushing out to her car, sputtering curses in Blanchett’s unfailingly elegant elocution as she digs a big damn revolver out of the trunk. Carol is a quiet film, and this moment pops that bubble of self-restraint in one violent beat. – A.C.
Manglehorn, the tenth film by David Gordon Green (and the first of two he released in 2015), is an elliptical nut to crack. The story dances to its own irregular rhythm and says nothing even when it seems to be saying something. Much is made of the title character’s notoriety, which borders on being damn near legendary. The way some people talk about A.J. Manglehorn, why, you’d think they were talking about Paul Bunyan or some giant residing in the distant hills surrounding town. But to our eyes, he’s just a worn-out, broken-down old key-maker who is living out his existence in self-imposed isolation from loved ones and strangers alike. We don’t see much of a folklore hero here, just a sad, lonely man.
Then we get to the final image of the film and all the tall tales people tell about Manglehorn take on new light. What all of us wouldn’t give to be able to open our locked cars with the turn of an imaginary key. Maybe he really is everything the people of his past say, and perhaps he’s even more than that. It’s a shot that’ll make you reevaluate the rest of the movie from top to bottom. – —A.C.
Even after Furiosa (Charlize Theron) proves she can beat the ever-livin’ stuffing out of Max (Tom Hardy), the Road Warrior still asserts that he should be the one to do all the gun stuff. So when the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter) is on their trail, Max grabs the crew’s only rifle, taking aim and hoping to take out the Farmer’s convoy before they get too close. There are only three bullets left—and Max misses with the first two. Which is when he hands Furiosa the rifle. It’s more than a smart move on Max’s part—she makes the shot of course—it’s a symbolic gesture you just never see in action films, like, ever: The man gives the woman his penis, because he knows she’ll use it better. —D.S.
I like to think of Ex Machina—a gorgeous, two-hour long Turing Test between bright, young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and a pretty android (Alicia Vikander)—as performing its own Turing Test on the audience. Is this a real film, or is this the perfect distillation of what we as a culture think of when we are confronted with the dangerous-but-seductive idea of artificial intelligence? Regardless, the question hardly matters when Caleb finds security footage of the failed attempts by Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to build an artificial woman. Of the many shots of remarkably person-like robot women violently trying to escape Nathan’s compound, one is so disturbing that watching it can’t help but bring out some serious empathy: A robot reject gone hysterical, pounding on a locked door until her arms shred and shatter. Even after revealing the mechanical skeleton underneath, your brain’s committed—that was a real person in real pain. Right? —D.S.
So you and your pals are vampires, aged between hundreds and many hundreds of years, which means that you only get to go out at night, where the club scene is bumping but the IT scene is asleep. Tough luck. No Internet for you. Vampire movies like to depict their subjects as kings of their domain who live on the cutting edge of literally anything and everything, especially technology (see: the Blade movies), but in Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, the nosferatu’s curse extends to one’s access to the most basic tools of the digital age: computers are out, to say nothing of modern smartphones, so you can say goodbye to Facebook, Twitter, Paste Magazine, and Tinder. But then our ensemble of creatures of the night make acquaintance with their most recently turned flatmate’s best bud, Stu, a programmer who helps introduce the gang to the wonders of the web.
The scene is a punchline until it isn’t: part way through, while Stu is teaching Jemaine Clement, Waititi and Jonathan Brugh how to use a browser, they pull up a Youtube clip of the sun rising. There’s a laugh to be had there, but for one brief second the chuckles turn to awe as these undead rascals glimpse the break of day for the first time in centuries. It’s a small, sweet, and unexpected moment of emotional truth in a film that’s all about genre satire. —A.C.
In Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Jennifer Hudson’s character tries her best to clean the street of the blood of her slain nine-year-old daughter with a bucket and a brush. But there’s just too much blood; no matter how hard she tries, she only spreads the stain out further, making it more prominent. Finally, she collapses in a heap of grief. With any actress playing the part, the moment would be powerful, but given Hudson’s personal history, it’s utterly heartbreaking. —Michael Dunaway
It’s strange, how shared experience can bind us. Sure, shared community during horror and hardship—and even just stretched over time in more mundane circumstances—can forge lasting bonds. Soldiers in war. Players on a team. Even employees working together during hard times or under nightmare management. But, befitting this list, let’s consider how much more trivial the experience can be, yet still leave a mark, serving as both bonding agent and lasting signifier. As the opening crawl started at the beginning of The Force Awakens—actually, during those 1-2 seconds immediately before the scrawl started—represented a peak communal “squeeee” for the audience. For the very first sign this latest chapter might channel the Original Trilogy rather the Prequels, let’s compare the opening two lines (emphasis mine):
The Phantom Menace: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” (Seriously?)
The Force Awakens: “Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.”
Ahhh … that’s the stuff. —Michael Burgin