2011 has been a great year at the movies and has provided some breathtaking moments of cinema. Here are 20 of the best scenes we have seen this year.
Note: This article is ridden with spoilers. If you haven’t seen a particular movie that I talk about, skip to the next one to avoid them!
20) The Adventures Of Tintin – Battle of two ships
Crosscutting between Captain Haddock as he narrates his memory of this historic sea battle and the fight itself, Steven Spielberg employs tremendous visuals and editing to bring this crucial element in Tintin’s quest to the big screen. It’s as exciting an action scene as you will find in 2011.
19) Melancholia – The end of the world
At the end of Lars Von Trier’s award-winning drama, the world literally comes to an end as Planet Melancholia collides with Earth. In their last few minutes alive, we desperately watch our lead characters naively attempt to run from the impending apocalypse or cynically accept their fate. It’s a powerful moment, not least because of its stunning visuals and emotional music, and one layered with an interesting subtext about depression.
18) Hugo – Papa Georges’ movies
Martin Scorsese’s film is a love-letter to silent film passed along to a new generation of film-goers in the form of a 3D fantasy adventure. There’s no moment in Hugo that achieves this better than a flashback to Georges Melier’s career in the movies. It captures the beauty of creating films in that era, contrasting the simple special effects with the ones seen in the likes of Hugo, and how important such art remains today. It also has a great cameo from the Raging Bull and Taxi Driver director himself!
17) 50/50 – Adam breaks down in his car
Everything comes to a head in 50/50 the night before Adam goes for his operation. Knowing that he could very possibly be dead in less than 24 hours, he decides to do the one thing he’s always said he wouldn’t: Drive. He swerves the car at break-neck speeds across the road, putting his life at risk without a care in the world, before pulling to a halt. Inside the car, he breaks down. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s performance in this scene is outstanding, contributing to one of the most heartbreaking moments of 2011’s cinema.
16) Kill List – Tunnel
A scene that guarantees you will leave your cinema in need of a change of underwear, this moment in Kill List as the main characters are chased through a tunnel by a cult is by far and away the scariest thing you will see all year. From its claustrophobic setting, ear-piercing screeches and shadowy lighting, everything comes together to make sure you will cower in fear as Kill List reaches its climax.
15) X-Men: First Class – Magneto in Argentina
The heart of X-Men: First Class comes from the story of Magneto and his quest for revenge. In one of the film’s opening scenes, he travels around the globe to Argentina in search of that vengeance. A scene that draws comparisons to the likes of Inglorious Basterds, it’s a masterclass in escalating tension as a mundane chat about professions slowly turns dark as the true nature of the visit becomes clear. Michael Fassbender is stunning in the role.
14) Source Code – “What would you do if you only had seconds to live?”
“What would you do if you only had seconds to live?” asks Colter Stevens. He knows that soon his life-support is going to be switched off and the artificial versions of the train’s passengers, along with himself, will disappear. In his last few moments alive he calls his father, kisses the girl he’s fallen in love with and asks a comedian on the train to tell some jokes. Duncan Jones freezes the frame to show the now deceased faces of everyone onboard the train smiling and laughing, enjoying their last moments of life. It’s a surprisingly tender moment in this action-packed rollercoaster ride.
13) The Descendants – Family together
As their adventure comes to an end, the King family return to their Hawaiian home. Once a disconnected environment where they fought, quarreled and argued, the family now gather on their sofa to be with one another watching television under a blanket. It’s one of the most heart-warming moments in yet another tender release from Alexander Payne; a scene filled with a natural sweetness than only he could capture.
12) Martha Marcy May Marlene – Dream or reality?
Sean Durkin blurs the lines between reality, memory, dream and hallucination in Martha Marcy May Marlene and this is captured most effectively in its final shot. In one still, chilling shot, Durkin makes the audience ask whether a gang of men stood in the middle of the road as our hero’s family drive away from their home are simply just ordinary folk or members of the cult who have returned to extract revenge. It never answers the question but leaves you thinking long after the shot has cut to black about the nature of the entire film you just witnessed.
11) Weekend – At the train station
Russell decides to play Glenn one last visit before he heads away to America. At the train station, he expresses his love for the man he’s only known a few days, inaudible to the audience under the howling of passing cargo. They share their final moment together – wanting it to be perfect – and yet it’s ruined when a gang of youths begins to berate the homosexual couple with derogatory wolf-whistles and giggles. It’s a heartbreaking moment that encapsulates how difficult it is to be openly gay in 21st century Britain. The look on Russell’s face, excellently pulled off by Tom Cullen, is utterly tragic.
10) Take Shelter – The storm
Is it all in his head or is Curtis actually witnessing the foreboding images of a coming apocalypse? This is a question that binds the entire narrative of Take Shelter and remains ambiguous right through its climactic moments. As he and his family relax on a seaside holiday, safe under the belief that he has overcome these imaginary visions, they see something in the distance: Black clouds begin to gather and a heavy rain begins the fall. The sky grows dark and the wind begins to howl and suddenly we cut to black. Was it just another dream and is Curtis doomed to have these forever? Or were his peers’ claims that he was imagining everything in fact entirely incorrect?
09) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Top of the circus
The mole is found and order must now be restored at the circus, so the previous fired George Smiley, who covertly broke the case, returns to MI5 in order to lead them into a new era. As George passes through the corridors, giving a subtle smile to the young Peter Guillam who ran the investigation alongside him, we cut away briefly to see Bill Haydon locked under house arrest. Lurking in the shadows is Jim, a former member of the MI5 who had a secret relationship with Bill. Heartbroken and betrayed, Jim takes his sniper rifle and murders the man he loves. The bullet passes under Bill’s eye and blood seeps out like a lonely teardrop before he collapses to the floor. It’s a powerful image in a film made up of spectacular moments and one that captures the murky, twisted world of espionage.
08) Shame – Running
There are two long, uninterrupted tracking shots in Steve McQueen’s film about a sex addict whose life in spiraling out of control. The first shows Michael Fassbender, the lead actor, running away from his problems on a midnight jog through the streets of New York. The second shows him running along these same streets in order to face the problem that he knows must be confronted. Both shots provide a fundamental understanding of how a man deals with such an addiction and prove Steve McQueen is a genius in visual storytelling.
07) The Adventures Of Tintin – Downhill chase
But the king of long shots this year was in The Adventures Of Tintin. Anyone who has ever doubted the power of animation will have ate their words witnessing this scene from Spielberg’s film, a chase down a spiraling hill that will dazzle you in every possible way. The detail applied to the scene in order to make it work and the imagination employed to pull it off are the signs of someone who truly is a master of his medium.
06) Drive – Pawn shop getaway
Set entirely within Ryan Gosling’s car, Drive’s opening scene utilizes fantastic direction, cinematography and editing to create a fantastic getaway scene that’ll leave you on the edge of your seat. The highlight is how the sequence incorporates the sound a basketball game on the radio and a ticking clock in order to create nail-biting tension.
05) Shame – New York, New York
For most of Steve McQueen’s film, Brandon is someone who sees women in the same way that a drug addict sees a needle or an alcoholic sees a bottle: a way of stimulating his addiction. However, as he watches his heartbroken sister sing a sad rendition of New York, New York we realize that the two characters are actually very similar. All they desire is to overcome their issues and find a connection. The scene demonstrates cinema at its most simple yet most effective, letting the character’s tortured faces say more than words ever could.
04) The Artist – Lights, camera, action!
The final scene of The Artist shows George Valentin abandon the leading roles he is usually accustomed to and instead take the spotlight as a dancer. As he busts some moves for a dance scene in a movie, George’s smile shows he has come to terms with the fact that in order to survive in the industry he has to adapt to the new era of talking pictures. His acceptance of the new medium is symbolized at the end of the sequence as John Goodman’s film producer yells to the actor “Perfect!” and the previously silent film is shrouded in sound. It’s an inventive, clever and unexpected moment in a film packed with surprises. And just when you think it couldn’t get better; you hear Valentin’s voice for the first time and it’s one of the most surprisingly hilarious cinematic moments in years.
03) Senna – The Last Race
With crashes on the circuit before the race and numerous faults with the car, watching Ayrton Senna step into his vehicle at the Japanese Grand Prix is an image clouded with a sense of impending doom. As he sets off on the track, the documentary’s director Asif Kapadia decides to show Senna’s race entirely from his crash helmet camera. As you see him swerve around the course, you know that things are going to end badly yet you’re on the edge of your seat praying they won’t. Then, the car approaches a wall, skids and the footage cuts to black. Your heart sinks knowing that it can only mean one thing for the inspirational Brazilian driver. The scene is a heartbreaking rollercoaster of emotions and the fact it’s entirely created from stock footage demonstrates there is room for imagination in documentary filmmaking after all.
02) The Artist – Valentin’s nightmare
George Valetin’s success is a result of one thing: Silent film. His wealth, fame, adoration and status all come from acting in this medium. So when the invention of sound arrives, the Hollywood actor begins to fear that he will lose everything he holds dear. This is displayed in one particular scene of The Artist in which the conventions of the silent film are momentarily broken to include sound as Valentin has a nightmare about the world of ‘talkies’. It’s unexpected, tragic and laugh-out-load hilarious as Valentin finds himself if a world of noise yet does not have a voice of his own.
01) The Tree Of Life – Birth of the universe
Not long into the film, Terrence Malick’s masterpiece cuts away from the family at the centre of The Tree Of Life and takes us back to the birth of humanity itself. The twenty-minute sequence shows us the origin of the universe – from the big bang through to the first forms of life – with breathtaking imagery and incredible sound. It’s a rare example of art cinema on a huge canvas, but also a scene that provides the existential, philosophical core of Malick’s Palme D’Or winning drama. It begs us to question whether this aforementioned family’s life is really significant in the grand scheme of things and asks whether their purpose is simply to survive or if there is actually something more important to existence.