But at the same time, there are plenty of terrible films that have been redeemed by single moments, and plenty of great films that have scenes that sear themselves onto your brain, lingering long after the credits have rolled. So as part of our ongoing coverage looking back at the movies of 2012, we've picked out two score or so of the most memorable cinematic moments of the last twelve months. Read (and where possible, watch) our choices below -- beware of spoilers -- and let us know your own favorite scenes of the year in the comments section. For all of The Playlist's year-end coverage, make sure to follow all our Best Of 2012 features.
Though billed as an action comedy, "21 Jump Street" is relatively light on the action side of things, opting to subvert expectations through focus on character beats, rather than kinetic explosions. One of the best examples of this is the film's most memorable set piece -- the highway chase. Schmidt (Jonah Hill), and partner Jenko (Channing Tatum) -- both wearing outlandish costumes -- head out to surveil a key drug deal, only to get busted by the fearsome biker gang involved. The scene is set for a big, Michael Bay-esque chase sequence, but writer Michael Bacall, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, consistently undercut the action. The guys hit traffic, forcing them to proceed on foot, and then to commandeer a series of vehicles, first a badass Porsche, then a rather less testosterone-fuelled pink Beetle. They down the bad guys in a series of inventive ways, but just as it looks each is going to result in a massive explosion, it fails to ignite. Until (by the classic rule of three -- an example of how tight and well-structured the writing is here) one biker hits a truck full of chickens... It's a surprising, inventive and hilarious sequence, but one that manages a certain propulsiveness despite the jokes, and also squeezes in important character beats for both leadss. It feels effortless, which entirely belies the work that's been put in.
Michael Haneke has a reputation that precedes him, though one can’t help but wonder if the very serious and contemplative director wasn’t having a laugh at audiences with this scene from his sombre “Amour.” The beautiful and devastating picture, which follows George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) caring for his immobile and mute wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in their apartment after she suffers a stroke contains a sequence both surreal and nerve-wracking. A pigeon somehow becomes trapped inside their home, George corners the bird in a hallway...before it eventually finds its way back outside. But the sequence is paced deliberately, almost like a thriller, and we weren’t the only ones in the audience left breathless, wondering if George was going to kill it. Yes, it’s a playful moment, but one that gorgeously illustrates the tenuous, random line that divides life and death, and it’s one grace note of many that populate Haneke’s challenging film.
What Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard managed to do in “Anna Karenina” was adapt a tome of a novel into the purest of visual splendor. The film compares two love stories, the tumbling, dangerous lust of Anna (Keira Knightley) and Vronsky (Aaron Johnson) and the sweet, tender devotion of Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). We've already written about the start of the first in our music moments feature, but the second, partner moment to this first descent into the whirling dervish of forbidden sexual desire, is the culmination of Levin’s pining for Kitty. While Levin is the more earthly, sensual character, he thinks more with his head than his heart when it comes to Kitty, which often gets in the way and is expressed beautifully in the sequence where they finally confess their love for each other. Using children’s blocks while sitting in a room full of family members, they discuss their relationship, turning over the blocks to the first letter of each word in the sentence, gradually spelling out their feelings, confusion and misunderstanding. When Levin turns over the “ILY” blocks, it’s a spine-tingling moment for the ages, and rips that abbreviation right out of the hands of texting tweens. It’s yet another example of how Wright adapts the words of the book itself into a beautiful, thematically relevant and emotionally resonant cinematic rendering.
There was some minor controversy when "Argo" was released in October as to the extent to which director Ben Affleck and writer Chris Terrio fiddled with the true story. To which we can only reply -- it's a movie, dummy. Nowhere else in the film does it demonstrate better the need to deviate from the facts in order to make a better movie than in its breathlessly tense third act, when Affleck's CIA agent Tony Mendez is trying to get his charges, disguised as a Canadian film crew, onto a plane and out of Iran. In reality, Mendez faced a relatively simple time at Tehran at the airport, but in the film, Affleck and Terrio pile obstacle upon obstacle -- because, frankly, they wouldn't be doing their jobs if they didn't. The result, thanks to the sure shooting and expert cutting is a scene that, without resulting to histrionics, leaves you leaning forward desperately on your seat, even on a rewatch. Best of all is when they reach the gate and face their biggest challenge yet, a savvy Revolutionary guard (a terrific performance by Farshad Farahat) who's seemingly onto them. It seems all is lost, until Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), the one embassy worker who never bought into Mendez's plan and the only one who can speak Farsi, takes over, using the storyboards to pitch their fake movie to the guards in a way that cunningly (but never overegged by Affleck) draws parallels with the Iranian revolution and wins them over. It's an enormously satisfying conclusion to a cracking sequence, but like the others, you can't quite believe they've made it until they open the champagne on the plane.
For sheer, big-hearted comic book bliss, Joss Whedon's hellzapoppin' movie/corporate synergy project "The Avengers" easily trumped Christopher Nolan's moodier superhero epic "The Dark Knight Rises." And really it came down to moments like this – funny, brightly colored, totally comic book-y things that only lifetime nerd Whedon could have fitfully engineered. During the third-act-encompassing battle for New York City, which pitted our cadre of heroes against a squadron of anonymous-looking space aliens, Mark Ruffalo's monstrous Hulk has a one-on-one showdown with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the devious villain from Thor's home world of Asgard. Loki spits some of his faux-Shakespearean insults and then the Hulk does something unthinkable but totally in character: he smashes, swinging him back and forth like a Renaissance Fair ragdoll. When he's done, he walks away, uttering the monster's only line of dialogue: "Puny god." This is pure joy, the kind of thing that you never thought you'd see outside of the pages of a comic book – just cartoon-y enough, explosively violent, and sort of weird. After two feature-length Hulk adventures had tried to turn him into a brooding everyman racked with guilt and tragedy worthy of some Greek play, Whedon loosened him up. He let the monster out. And we loved it. In fact, this moment got such a reaction that it took us three viewings to even hear the line over the thunderous applause and laughter. Our inner ten-year-old thanks you, Mr. Whedon.
How is it possible to choose just one memorable moment from the soaring yet intimate, unique yet warmly familiar “Beasts of the Southern Wild”? The film opens with a bit of Hushpuppy’s thesis statement if you will, her thoughts on the universe as she introduces herself, her animals and her world, before ripping into a sparkler-fueled celebration of one of the Bathtub’s many holidays. This scene, a montage of the sights and sounds of the Bathtub at its best, celebrates the spirit of the people who live in this fantastical place, with all of its rising waters and swamp creatures and fairy sprites named Hushpuppy. This is the soaring part, where the essence of the human spirit which cannot be contained is writ upon 16mm film. It’s filled with such boundless joy and humanity that it’s not uncommon to burst into tears before the title card (the sweeping score by Dan Romer and director Benh Zeitlin helps too). One of the more intimate moments of Hushpuppy’s adventure comes when she and her friends catch a ride on a barge to a magical floating brothel in search of her mother. As the little girls in oversized t-shirts descend onto the red-sequined dance floor, the working women, of every age, shape, size and color, clad in satin nighties, embrace the girls for a dance, a squeeze, the touch of a mother and a child. Hushpuppy finds her mother, or something like that (Jovan Hathaway) working in the kitchen, a sexy, brassy cook who opens beer bottles with her teeth and wrests a loin of alligator into bite-size chunks for frying. She gives Hushpuppy her loving embrace, and a dose of the truth. She won’t be going with her. This moment, so tender in its intimacy of mothers and children is a rite of passage for Hushpuppy. She is able to do what she has to do and face the beasts of this world on her own, with her tribe by her side. It’s all any of us can do really.
Directed by faux-journalist turned filmmaker Jay Bulger (he lied to his film's subject and told him he worked for Rolling Stone), “Beware of Mr. Baker” is the excellent documentary about Ginger Baker, the rock n’ roll drummer of Cream and Blind Faith who went on to work with Fela Kuti and Masters Of Reality, among others, and along the way self-destructed and lost his fortune. This is as entertaining and watchable documentary as all get out, and what’s better is that you don’t even need to know a thing about Baker’s musical past to enjoy it (though it certainly doesn’t hurt if you already appreciate his musical genius; something the documentary only illustrates deeper). But can a doc open any better than this one does? Bulger is on Baker (now 73)'s fortified South African compound and during an interview, the bellicose drummer warns the documentarian to back off. He then fully loses it and raps his cane across Bulger’s head. The exasperated filmmaker, bleeding profusely from his forehead and nose (this was no love tap) sets the camera down in his car, still rolling and goes, “Ginger Baker just hit me in the fucking nose.” If you need a better introduction to the famously pugnacious and temperamental drummer, and what you’re about to witness, you probably deserve a cane upside your head.
The sweet, precious reveal at the heart of “Cabin In The Woods” is an adrenaline shot to the geek heart, a genuine jaw-dropping moment of inspired madness. As last survivors Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Marty (Fran Kranz) uncover the secret behind what’s been haunting them, a last-ditch effort to escape a squadron of heavily armed enforcers leads the desperate duo to hit an unassuming button. This is what follows. Set aside for the moment the film’s deconstruction of horror archetypes and bask in and fear the overwhelming forces of terror as they lay siege to and tear apart fragile human bodies. The armed-to-the-teeth heavies are for naught because when the monsters -- a diverse, sometimes hilariously so, bunch -- are let loose, the tables turn quickly and viciously. Many films would cut away, suggesting the immensity of the chaos, but Drew Goddard gives us the full monty, several unforgettable minutes of unspeakable carnage. Well, you know what they say -- show, don’t tell.