There’s many astonishing scenes in “Life Of Pi” that others would probably pick first. The sequence in which the ship bucks, tips, collapses and drowns into the Pacific Ocean is outstanding, thrilling, harrowing and visually breathtaking, perhaps even rivaling what James Cameron did with “Titanic,” because it's so much more violent. The humpback whale coming out of nowhere in the calm sea at night is beautiful and the scene where the barrage of flying fish migrate through Pi and tiger Richard Parker’s path (the pair, desperately hungry, try and catch the fish flying at an aggressive pace) is also incredible. But perhaps the most important, and moving moment in the movie connects to its spiritual elements. An old Pi (Irrfan Khan) describes the final day when he is rescued and consequently is separated from the Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker. Adrift for months together, Parker the tiger naturally tries to eat Pi the entire time, but throughout their harrowing journey while slowly dying and trapped at sea they come to a stalemate, and even something of an understanding. In what seems like their final moments, the two come as close to bonding as a human being and a feral wild animal can be. But when they finally hit shore, Parker, withered and emaciated, pauses for one second before entering the jungle and then vanishes never to be seen again. Pi, who has battled with this animal for months, breaks down in a wail of tears. Parker has transcended enemy, rival or even friend. They have connected in a manner that even Pi cannot articulate, but his absence leaves a huge hole in the boy’s heart, giving him a greater sense of compassion and understanding of the world.
The mob has it all figured out. A “looper” does the dirty work and lives large in the off hours, provided he eventually offs his future self without room for error. What happens if he hesitates? We see for ourselves when a massively distraught Seth (Paul Dano doing what he does best) comes knocking on Joe's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) door. Seth has let his older self get away and now there’s no hole deep enough for him to hide in. The mob wants both men out of the way and Joe, knowing who he’s up against, gives up Seth. Older Seth, on the run and about to hop a fence, suddenly slips. The older man eyes his hand – didn’t there use to be more fingers, not just nubs? As we realize what is happening, Old Seth does too, lifting the sleeve of his shirt to find a message scrawled in his skin. He rushes to the appointed spot, losing appendages on the way only to get a bullet in the head as we spy an operating table, the younger Seth’s inert body, and no shortage of blood. The reveal is stunning and immediately enforces the price that Joe might have to pay if he lets his older self (Bruce Willis) live. Another equally vital moment in terms of both action dynamics and emotional impact -- and also just fucking cool to look at -- is one that confirms any viewer’s suspicions that young Cid (Pierce Gagnon, in a performance remarkably devoid of precociousness) will indeed grow up to be the dreaded The Rainmaker, as his loosed temper sees him wielding considerable telekinetic fury against an unwitting hitman (Garret Dillahunt). It’s a surreal and oddly beautiful bit of gruesomeness, complemented perfectly by the split-second efforts of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to protect Cid, only for Sara (Emily Blunt) to actually save Joe from the boy just before all hell breaks loose.
“I think I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house...” and with that quotable quote, the campaign for Matthew McConaughey’s Supporting Actor nomination for “Magic Mike” was born. McConaughey is transcendent as Dallas in the stripper flick, stealing Channing Tatum’s movie from Chan himself (a difficult feat in the face of the charm machine built out of abs that is CT). But McConaughey was playing a pure, distilled essence of McConaughey, 20 goddamn years in the making. Don’t try to step to this, young whippersnapper, MM’s been breaking in those leather chaps longer than you’ve been alive. His opening monologue laying out the rules for the ladies of the club lets us know right away what level we’re on, and that is Planet McConaughey, where the pectoral muscles are a golden butternut, and the chaps are optional. Every second he is onstage at the club is magical, particularly because when he’s not onstage he switches to the scheming businessman that he actually is, Soderbergh’s lights turning his skin from warm and welcoming to a hazy blue. McConaughey is playing himself, yes, but he’s doing much more than that, showing his acumen in displaying the dark side of what looks like a fun night out. But that’s what makes his performance within his performance that much more fun: his naughty speeches and flirtation with the audience at the club, his charming of us. This is weapons-grade McConaughey here, people. Handle with care.
Nevermind Paul Thomas Anderson’s assured early films and now-storied career – show a non-believer this scene alone and watch PTA crowned as one of the masters of modern American cinema. Two men, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), sit at a table. Freddie, a stowaway on Dodd’s ship, has agreed to undergo “processing,” a key component of The Cause, a cult led by Dodd. The next few minutes are a masterclass in acting, pacing, editing and sound design, as Hoffman coldly disassembles Freddie, who fights for every guarded inch until he finally spills a story of a relationship that Anderson flawlessly transitions to. It’s an eerily accurate recreation of what it’s like to recall a memory, in bits and pieces, filtered and blurry. It is also a lone emotional throughline to the inscrutable Freddie and a demonstration of Dodd’s considerable sway. If there is any one scene in “The Master” that sums up the film, it’s this one, two acting behemoths clashing without throwing a single punch. It’s a beautiful thing.
It's a shame Markus Schleinzer's debut feature got the short shrift, as it seems people were more interested in his connection to Michael Haneke (he served as the auteur's casting director for many years) than actually taking his movie on its own terms. Sure, the two do share a chilly approach to their storytelling and a penchant for ignoring easy answers, but that doesn't make "Michael" any less compelling. In fact, take many of its scenes out of context and they'll still have enormous power thanks to the film's perturbing tone, which is only amplified by the reserved lead performances (for our money, David Rauchenberger is one of the best young actors we've seen in a long time, but let's not digress too far). The best by far involves pedophile Michael (Michael Fuith) on the prowl for a new juvenile victim, hunting a go-kart arena for the perfect specimen. An inherently distressing sequence but not exactly a subtle one, Schleinzer pulls back a bit, obscuring much of Michael's dialogue with each potential abductee by amping up the obstreperous wild noise of the arena. After testing the waters with several children, the filmmaker cuts to a tracking shot of Michael and a boy in the parking lot, the youngin giddily jabbering about driving as Michael politely humors him. Though not a particularly long conversation, the context makes it so taxing that every second feels like an hour until the boy's father finally calls for him off-camera. But the worst part? Michael doesn't even miss a step -- he continues walking, and we continue to follow him until the environment obscures him from view. There's something that lingers about this non-reaction, something deeply painful in the way he kept his cool when caught red-handed, even if the worried parent had no idea what was about to occur.
Already on the road for hours in the land of nowhere that is the Anatolian steppe, a group of officers lose their cool when they’re given bum directions to a buried corpse by a convicted murderer in their custody. Faced with the prospect of another wild goose chase, the team decides to continue in the morning and stop off at a local village for some R&R. But let’s roll back to their original failed attempt at exhuming the dead -- after an officer unleashes hell on the cuffed killer, the prosecutor takes him aside and chides him for not being more professional. As their discussion continues, the filmmaker takes a gander at another policeman near an apple tree, giving it a shakedown in hopes of finding a snack. The topiary sheds a dozen of apples, and a single one rolls off on its own, tumbling down the hill, celebrating freedom. While the “professional conversation” persists on the audio track, our attention is given to this lone fruit’s journey as it topples into a small stream. It’s a majestic, almost Tarkovskian sequence, brightening the previously grim, serious tone. Nuri Bilge Ceylan quickly embraces the unpredictability of nature, stopping to notice the beauty of something so simple. Dissecting it as a metaphor may make it feel cheap (and we’re not entirely sure that it was meant to be such a symbol), but taking it at face value will leave you immensely moved.
Joachim Trier's follow-up to his stunning 2008 picture "Reprise" doesn’t quite reach the heights of that fantastic debut; fair enough, as it’s understandably hard to catch lightning in a bottle like that twice. Loosely based on the novel “Le feu follet,” the same work that inspired the more direct adaptation in Louis Malle's "The Fire Within," "Oslo August 31st" centers on the day in the life of Anders, a recovering heroin addict (“Reprise” star Anders Danielsen Lie) as he's given a day of leave from his rehab clinic. Depressed and suicidal, Anders is unmoored trying to make sense of life, everything he’s lost, every bridge he’s burnt and how, at age 35, he has to start from scratch all over again. Anders doesn’t see much hope in his future and it’s easy to understand why. An evening of partying with a friend and two cute girls leads the foursome on a long pub crawl throughout Oslo in bars and nightclubs. The quartet eventually get on bicycles and double up, as the lead rider splashes Anders and his girl with the smoke of a fire extinguisher. Quiet, save for the sound of bicycle spokes whirling and the occasional whoosh of the extinguisher, it’s a solemn, but beautiful scene -- a wiped out Anders clinging to the back of the female who rides through plumes of smoke dancing in the streets like clouds. It’s a striking, beautiful image and a brief moment of peace and reprieve for this mentally anguished character.
While the conversation around the film has mostly been about its narrative shortcomings, what seems to be forgotten is just how ballsy "Prometheus" was. Not only was Ridley Scott returning to the sci-fi genre and a franchise he started more than three decades earlier, it was a hard-R summer tentpole in an era when studios want four-quadrant hits. And a big reason why the movie was one you couldn’t bring the kiddies too was a stomach churning surgery scene. When Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) realizes that she's pregnant with the fast-growing child of herself and her mutated dead boyfriend, she races to get the alien being removed from her body. This entails her hacking into Meredith's medical-pod, getting it to slice open her belly to remove what seems to be an angry squid from her womb. All told, it’s a neat nod to the chestburster scene of the original. The entire sequence is so thrillingly shot and nerve-wrackingly real, it’s only later that you realize Scott and company just made an abortion a setpiece of a summer tentpole. While the film may have its faults, there were few moments more unforgettable this summer than this.