But sometimes, that's fine. If we go into a movie, and come out with one great scene rattling around our heads for the next few days -- a great action sequence, a moving piece of catharsis, a composition that puts goosebumps on the back of our necks, or a choice that says something about the artform or the human condition, or simply a good joke -- we consider that a victory. And there's plenty of all of the above to be found in the list below of our 25 favorite moments from the movies in 2011. But beware: there are spoilers, both minor and major ahead.
A film as scattered and imperfect as "Margaret" is -- with the troubled plot at times feeling like scraps of a dozen different versions reassembled together -- the delayed release pretty much meant it was always going to be about the moments. And while there are a number of contenders from Kenneth Lonergan's long-delayed and flawed masterpiece, it's the crucial accident scene which even those not on board #TeamMargaret have to admit is one of the most powerful of the year. Flighty, self-absorbed teen Lisa (Anna Paquin) is out in town, trying to find a cowboy hat on a whim. She spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one, and tries to flag him down. He's distracted, jumps a light, and runs over a woman (Alison Janney), who, leg severed and seemingly hallucinating, dies in the sobbing Lisa's arms. It's a moment of true stomach-churning horror, more traumatic than anything in any genre slasher of late. But it's also desperately moving, as Janney loses her sight as she inches towards death, calling out for a daughter who, as it turns out, died long ago. But, it's also blackly funny, as two passers by bicker on how to apply a torniquet to Janney's severed leg. It's genuinely unlike anything seen elsewhere this year, and a gut punch that leaves you reeling for the rest of the film.
It was hauntingly used in the trailer and released online as a recording, but in the context of the rest of the film, John Hawkes’ serenading to his followers is almost too good. His wiry frame is draped in a loose-fitting tank top as he sits cross-legged, plucking the strings of his instrument with an ease and confidence that tells you nearly everything you need to know about this man, but also belies his more sadistic and violent tendencies. He’s charming, creepy and completely believable as a modern-day Charles Manson figure, able to manipulate his brethren by telling and giving them everything they want. Yes, Hawkes singing the words “well she’s... she’s just a picture... that lives on my wall” is a beautiful, pretty much perfect stand-alone performance in an already wonderful, brilliantly directed film by first-timer Sean Durkin, but when the film ends, with some questions left unanswered, it’s these moments that linger. We have to understand why Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a smart, independent person, would fall under Patrick's spell, but Hawkes is so magnetic here that we get why Martha can't shake her commune experience. After a three-minute song, we’re right where Durkin wants us: in her head. It’s a paranoid, scary place to be, but we understand how she got there.
Maybe, given his reputation as an impish prankster (further cemented by his off-color Nazi comments at Cannes this year), Lars von Trier felt the need to open his beautiful, bewildering "Melancholia," with an end-of-the-world sequence as if to say, "Yes, this is really how things are going to end." Von Trier stages things similarly to the prologue for "Antichrist," with everything artfully unfolding in super slow-motion, though here going for a gracefully apocalyptic tableaux as a painting turns to cinders, a horse sinks into the ground, electric-blue sparks shoot out of Kirsten Dunst's fingertips, and all is set to appropriately baroque music from Wagner's "Tristan & Isolde." The one downside is that you expect these images to reoccur at the film's conclusion, but von Trier chooses not to linger: when the end of the world actually happens, we're gone in a flash.
While it might be brainier and more numbers-driven than your average sports movie, Bennett Miller’s immaculately made “Moneyball” is still a sports movie, and every good sports movie needs an uplifting high-point. And while Miller undercuts his with subsequent defeat, when it comes and while it lasts, it’s a good one. Scott Hatteberg (a lovely, severely undervalued supporting turn from “Parks and Recreation” star Chris Pratt) is a player past his prime, with permanent nerve damage to his arm meaning that he can no longer pitch a ball like he used to. Recruited to Billy Beane's (Brad Pitt) Oakland As as part of their statistically driven new team, and forced to play first base, a position he knows nothing about, he’s adrift, and made something of a scapegoat by coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And then comes the most crucial game yet. The As attempt to clinch a record-breaking twenty-win streak against the Kansas City Royals, but throw away an eleven-run lead. With the game tied, Howe, making peace with Hatteberg, sends him out to bat. The player misses once. He misses twice. But on the third swing, he smashes the ball into the crowd, and thanks to the work Pratt’s already put in toward painting his character as a man whose confidence is almost irreparably shattered, and the expert cutting, it’s as uplifting a scene as we got all year long.
There’s something about 2011 and dank, disgusting sex dens of debauchery. In “Shame” Michael Fassbender wants to get off so bad, that in his heightened, almost fixated mental state, he enters a gay club where men are just fucking and fisting like the world is going to end any minute. It is completely depraved and a shocking reminder of how the character’s affliction controls his life. In Oren Moverman’s police drama “Rampart,” there’s a similar scene, but with a slightly different tone. In it, Woody Harrelson’s toxic and self-destructive cop character is on the bender to end all benders. He’s laced up with booze and narcotics of every stripe and enters a similarly debauched haven of drugs and pounding techno music. As Justice’s “Let There Be Light” slices through the seizure-enducing lights and mental fog (yes, it’s anachronistic musically, so what), the screen goes black, then light, and back and forth, almost as if Harrelson’s fucked up character is going in and out of conciousness. Playing with light, sound, picture and more, Moverman creates a jarring and disorienting scene that’s as if you, the audience, have dropped too much ecstasy and are fully out of your mind. Woody gropes various women, dances and then vomits from all the excess in a particularly wretched and strikingly in-your-face moment. It’s not just the drugs though, Harrelson’s body is seemingly just rejecting all the noxious psychological garbage that’s in his crumbling psyche. Never has such a vile man been so well captured on the screen, nor his physical attempt to purge himself unsuccessfully of all those virulent demons.
There are a number of spiritedly strange moments in Gore Verbinski's animated delight "Rango," but the most rousing, the most jaw-dropping, the most hilarious and weird, has to be a prolonged chase sequence involving a stagecoach getting pulled by a boar and a horde of inbred rodents riding bats and firing Gatling guns. "Rango" is a mélange of influences, but it's saying something that Verbinski could reference "Apocalypse Now" (complete with a banjo-plucking rendition of "Ride of the Valkyrie" by Hans Zimmer) and "Deliverance" (or maybe it's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre") during a sequence that also features Johnny Depp, as a conflicted chameleon, flying through the air while wearing a dress. In a movie as breathlessly inventive as "Rango," it's hard to pin down a single sequence, but if you had to show just one scene to someone to convince them of the movie's greatness, this would be it.
A minor summer miracle, Rupert Wyatt’s second film and his first studio tentpole undertaking turned out to be an entertaining, surprisingly moving and even occasionally thought-provoking origin story of how those damn dirty apes began to “liberate” a formerly human planet. While plenty of ink will be spilled on end of year lists about the dust-up on the Golden Gate Bridge, as clarity-driven and thrilling an action scene as has been seen in recent blockbusters, we chose to focus on another scene that toes very close to the line, but manages not to spill into self-parody. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chemically enhanced super smart chimp, faces off against Dodge (Tom Felton), a daddy’s boy who runs a “sanctuary” and frequently partakes in torturing the animals. Dodge is about to put Caesar down with his taser when something indelible happens -- Caesar catches his hand in a grip, meets eyes with Felton, and speaks clear English -- specifically, the word “No!” He's seemed so firmly ape-like before that the development of Caesar's larynx is a genuinely chilling moment, and as ridiculous as it might seem on paper, you're virtually there shouting 'No' with him. Serkis is a masterful motion capture actor and this is his moment, triumphant and chilling - the beginning of a revolution.
The year’s reigning champion of sheer WTF-ery, Quentin Dupieux’s nutty opus opens with Stephen Spinella’s sheriff stepping out of a car trunk and espousing directly to the camera the far-ranging glories of the nonsensical. “In the Steven Spielberg movie, ‘E.T.’, why is the alien brown? No reason. In ‘Love Story,’ why do the two characters fall madly in love with each other? No reason. In Oliver Stone's ‘JFK,’ why is the President suddenly assassinated by some stranger? No reason.” And so on and so forth, with Spinella citing example after example of lunatic film scrutiny before associating a fundamental lack of rationale on screen with life’s own chaotic tendencies (“Why do some people love sausages and other people hate sausages? No fucking reason.”). He finally assures the audience that the film to follow will revel in the ridiculous before pouring out a glass of water (for, again, no reason), crawling back into the trunk and leaving the scene, and from there on out, it doesn’t skimp on the surreal. Even if the rest of the non sequitur-laden “Rubber” doesn’t do it for you, surely this superbly silly speech will get a grin for its seemingly cheeky, essentially celebratory look at the limitless creative potential inherent in any work of cinema -- yes, even one about a killer tire.
It couldn’t be a simpler scene in the strictest sense of filmmaking: the camera lingers directly on Sissy (Carey Mulligan) as she croons the Frank Sinatra standard before the sophisticated clientele of a Manhattan lounge, with director Steve McQueen only occasionally cutting back to her quietly moved brother, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a reaction which we will learn is a rare feat in and of itself coming from the rather taciturn sex addict. Even on first listen/viewing, it’s an utterly haunting rendition, backed sparingly by a piano and fraught with emotional significance as the previously unstable Mulligan verges on tears with each refrain. It’s a breathtakingly direct showcase of unfettered talent and melancholy tone alike, running the length of the song with minimal interruption or distraction, and in a movie laden with nudity (and sadly notorious for it), it arguably stands as the most naked moment of all. However, as McQueen’s drama continues to unfurl, the implied history between these troubled siblings retroactively lends an increasing gravity to the song’s themes of striking out on one’s own and shaking off the so-called “little town blues” that define their past traumas. However broken these two must be deep down inside, if they can make it here -- in the town of brand new starts and no apparent sleep -- maybe they really can make it anywhere.
Pedro Almodovar’s latest, “The Skin I Live In,” seems to mark a culmination of what the director’s been working towards of late, the perfect mix of his ability and desire to tackle fucked-up subject matter, genre elements, Hitchcockian filmmaking and questions of sexuality and gender all at once. Add all that in to a very particular and modern take on the mad scientist and monster movies of yore, and ‘Skin’ rises above all his works, in this writer’s humble opinion. Many of the elements that didn’t work in his previous effort, “Broken Embraces,” are done far better here. We’re mostly talking about the extended flashback, a common Almodovar tactic. With “The Skin I Live In” it’s all about the payoff to that long flashback, and boy/girl, is it a doozy. The simple but brilliant use of a dissolve provides the big reveal we’ve been waiting for, and should have seen coming. Suspension of disbelief could’ve been a huge issue in this key moment, but with Almodovar’s masterful control and direction, it all somehow makes perfect sense. Everything we’ve seen up to this point has been given an entirely new context. It’s a moment that doesn’t just pull the rug out from under the audience, it takes the whole floor with it too.
While being fairly low-octane for a spy thriller, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has a number of suspenseful set pieces that linger in the memory: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam stealing a file from the Circus, Mark Strong being ambushed in the opening, the extended flashback with Tom Hardy in Istanbul. But the moment that lingers longest is a quiet scene of heartbreak between two characters getting a bit drunk together, and a sheer tour-de-force of acting. For much of the film, Gary Oldman’s George Smiley is a man who specializes in fading into the background, and not a man of many words. But he lets his guard down with Guillam as he explains his one encounter with Soviet spymaster nemesis Karla, a chance interrogation in which he let slip his own personal Kryptonite; his devotion to his perpetually unfaithful (and in a neat directorial touch, unseen) wife Anne. It’s pretty much a straight monologue from Oldman, but he plays it like an aria, Smiley’s mask slipping slightly while never quite losing control. And suddenly, a middle-aged man talking to a colleague in a room contains more fireworks than any loud blockbuster all year.
It’s probably the most hotly debated sequence of the year, and though droves of moviegoers walked out during this amalgamation of scenes, Terrence Malick’s depiction of the world’s beginnings is one of the most uniquely visual sequences any director has attempted in a while. Yes, it’s a riff on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and yes, often it seems that Malick isn’t quite reaching the level of ambition he once had for the project. But truly gorgeous visual moment follows truly gorgeous visual moment, like the swirling pattern of what looks like stained glass, in images that are unparalleled in any film that we’ve seen this year. Including special effects by Kubrick veteran Douglas Trumbull, it's the kind of thing that's barely even been attempted in decades, framing the relatively intimate family tale within the entire span of human history, at once showing their insignificance and their importance. It’s pretty difficult to evoke emotion in a silent, 20-minute-plus sequence that shows atoms colliding and exploding to create the Earth (and that whispery voice-over doesn’t ever get less weird), but Malick manages to make a mini-movie about the world within his movie about a family’s struggles. And yes, there were dinosaurs too.
The story of this film, on the surface, concerns Boonmee, the sweet, calm lead character, as he travels to his farmland in the jungles of Northern Thailand. He goes there with his sister-in-law and a doctor who gives him dialysis treatments for his failing kidneys. Then the weird shit starts to happen. We’ll gladly leave it to you brave viewer to take in the many delights to be seen in this masterpiece from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but the most memorable has to be mentioned, involving the ghost of Boonmee’s dead wife and his son (now a re-incarnated ape-man thing with creepy red eyes) dropping by during a quiet dinner. Encompassing many of the film's themes and moods in a mere ten minutes, as it begins, things are scary and tense, but soon thoughtful discussion gives way to a curious state of grace.
There is precious little in Gavin O’Connor’s sports drama that deviates from the well-worn underdog formula, but its recipe for success begins with telling the story of three related underdogs and ultimately pitting two of those against one another in the ring in a big money showdown. Unemployed family man Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is desperate for that substantial cash prize, while war vet Tommy (Tom Hardy, a beast in this) could use the win as a means for redemption and to help care for an old friend. Meanwhile, former S.O.B. Paddy (Nick Nolte, grizzled as ever) craves forgiveness from the sidelines. It’s not nearly as corny as it should be, thanks in no small part to each actor’s deeply determined performance and O’Connor’s steady build to their climactic confrontation, and once the Conlan brothers actually duke it out before an audience of thousands, if not millions, their emotional aggression aligns with the sheer physical brutality of the fight as Brendan and Tommy convincingly pummel their way towards reconciliation. It’s a moving reward for withstanding the film’s commonplace contrivances, albeit a catharsis freely given up by the film’s marketing campaign and even plastered on the DVD cover. Don’t let that tactic fuel your apathy, though (as the anaemic box office take would suggest it already has); these men and this movie earn their gut punch.
Among the many achievements of “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is the way that Lynne Ramsay constructs an incredibly strong connection between the audience and her lead character of Eva played to perfection by Tilda Swinton. The manner in which the director explores Eva’s personality, memory, and emotions by strictly keeping the film within her perspective works wonders -- we feel her experiences, even if there’s a slight inkling every so often that she’s not the most reliable narrator (memories are completely governed by emotions here: take, for example, Ezra Miller’s occasionally heightened performance). She’s mostly sure that her son is evil incarnate, evidenced by his vile behavior and general lack of remorse for anything he does. However, within her, however small, is a kernel of hope that somehow Kevin is redeemable. Throughout the film, this optimism is mostly voiced by Eva's husband Franklin (played by John C. Reilly) but towards the end of the film, we see it manifested in Kevin's mother by one of the most haunting and evocative shots of the year. It's nothing more than a single flowing curtain in front of a patio door in a darkened and empty house, a curious movement set to the monotonous beat of an outside lawn sprinkler. This moment is in many ways a decisive factor for Eva, one that determines the rest of her life, and the build-up as the camera inches closer to what she sees beyond that open door is torturous. Using a single shot, Lynne Ramsay provides a haunting, stirring moment that incredibly overpowers everything that had been drilled into us since the first frame.
Jason Reitman’s wonderfully bitter pill of a movie might have only just opened in limited release, but it still deserves to join the ranks of the year’s most striking movie moments. Gone to see it yet? Are you back? Good. As Charlize Theron’s woman-child, Mavis, seems to finally be getting her shit together after burning very nearly every last bridge in her Minnesota hometown, she sits down for a breakfast nook conversation with Sandra (Collette Wolfe), sister to Matt (Patton Oswalt), with whom Mavis has ultimately bonded over their shared dysfunctions. She has come to accept that these small-town folk are perfectly content with their small-town lives, but after a critical night of emotional equivalence, the newly well-adjusted Mavis decides to share coffee with the one person who resents her neighbors just as Mavis had, and thus enables her regression to condescending bitch (which we guess is still a step up from “utterly delusional bitch”). Theron’s as dead-on here as she is throughout the film, but Wolfe combines the aching vulnerability of her performance in “Observe and Report” with the childish petulance from “Hot Tub Time Machine,” as she hands Mavis the figurative match with which she can torch her ties to Matt, Sandra and the whole god-forsaken town of Mercury. Coming from writer Diablo Cody, it’s a warped re-definition of the happy ending, and it hurts. So. Good.
-- Oliver Lyttelton, Erik McClanahan, Mark Zhuravsky, Sam Chater, Christopher Bell, RP, Drew Taylor, William Goss, Cat Scott,