A great scene is a special moment that lingers long after it is gone, because it provides us with a glimpse of the world beyond dreams, where stories come to life and we escape fully into the narrative of the movie. A great scene is fun to think about, because the craft of both the filmmakers and actors is more obvious and specific than that contained in a full feature.
In a feature film, the main purpose of a scene is to develop the action or give insight into the characters. Great actors serve as guides through those developments, and the best ones I know bring ideas into the scene that elevates the experience as a whole. So when I set out to list my top 10 best acted scenes of the year, I wanted to highlight that contribution that actors bring to the table.
The performances in the scenes below underline that greatness by blending into the canvas of the story in a way that invites you in. Some of them are barely two minutes long, while others stretch beyond ten. When you watch a scene, pay attention to the timing of the dialogue, the expressions, the accents, and how the actor (or filmmaker) positions him/herself for the camera. Note also that many of the best character moments in the scenes below were ideas that the actors themselves (or other actors in the scene) came up with during the shoot. It's a great illustration of how the best scenes are true creative collaborations between actors and filmmakers, and not just a puppet-master director moving porcelain dolls around all by himself. There is a special bond that great actors can develop with great directors, and the scenes below illustrate that bond.
10. The Wolf of Wall Street
Mark Hanna explains Wall Street to Jordan Belfort
Sometimes, all it takes is just one character talking, and if they're interesting enough, it buys you more intrigue than any amount of special effects ever could. In a year that revolved around Matthew McConaughey, his best performance, easily, came during this scene. It perfectly encapsulates the tone, moral (or lack thereof), expectations, and humor of a film that blasted the roof off of audiences, many of whom were turned off by the sheer intensity of the material. That the movie was controversial works to its advantage, as it shows an uncomfortable side of America in a celebratory, satirical scope that brings to life the perspective of scam artists with absolutely no remorse for what they are doing. And of course, in comparison to basically every other Wall Street investor depicted in the film, Mark Hanna's philosophy is saintly, which makes his brief presence in the film all the more memorable. To top it off, the weird humming/chest thumping thing that Hanna does is a warm-up ritual McConaughey does between takes, and it was Leonardo DiCaprio's idea to include it in the scene.
Woody, Kate, David, and Ross try to steal Ed Pegram's compressor
It's hard to find a standout performance moment in Alexander Payne's plodding Nebraska, as most of the film's best moments come in small quips and gags at the expense of its lead character, Woody Grant, or in random asides by his feisty wife Kate. But there is a fantastic scene roughly halfway through the movie when David and Ross get a zesty excitement in their eyes at the prospect of stealing Ed Pegram's compressor out of his shed. It's a masterful use of comedic timing, as the camera lingers curiously on the confused expression of Woody and Kate as they watch their children carry the large machinery out to the car. The next several minutes features a great, surprising series of beautifully-delivered lines from all four characters as they realize that their plan may not have been as well thought-out as they'd imagined. There's also a great down-to-earth performance by an elderly couple who force Kate to improvise a reason they are sitting in the car's backseat on their property. It's a great example of the kind of humor that you can achieve when you stray outside the realm of a traditional 3-act structure and focus instead on finding nice, little moments that you wouldn't get in a more conventional tale.
8. This Is the End
Emma Watson comes to James Franco's mansion
The performances in this apocalyptic comedy are powered by fame, humor, and jaw-dropping scene choices that throw the hapless stars into the most ridiculous scenarios you can imagine. It's one long romp with a bunch of awesome celebrities as the cast hides in James Franco's "fortress", struggling to survive in the midst of Armageddon. It is also a great showcase for the performers, many of whom go to great lengths to show themselves in the most unflattering light possible. The sheer silliness of James Franco's performance combined with the slime coming out of Danny McBride's mouth could make a film of its own, but there are many other great performances as well. One of the film's many high points, and arguably its funniest, comes when Emma Watson bursts into the house wielding an ax. The house's residents attempt to make her feel welcome and safe, leading to one very awkward conversation and a triumphant reaction from Hermione herself.
7. Captain Phillips
Muse forces Captain Phillips into the lifeboat
In a film based on real-life events, the actors playing the Somalian gang that kidnaps Phillips give such realistic performances that it's hard to believe they are actors at all. When the lights went up, I would have believed anyone if they had told me that the actors were real pirates carrying out a real kidnapping during the filming. It's a frightening moment when these drug-addled assailants, spurred to improvise when their mission captain gets captured by the crew, force Phillips into the lifeboat they are planning to escape on. The Somalians are clearly out of their depths here, driven by the unshakeable belief that they can salvage their original plan and get Phillips to the coast of Africa, and that desperate refusal to give in results in some of the best acting you will ever see. As the scene progresses, and Phillips glances out the window to see more and more naval ships outside, the impending doom of the pirates hangs ever greater on the expressions of the performers, until the manic fear of death drives all the boat's inhabitants to a gut-wrenching conclusion.
Stone Realizes the ISS landing shuttle is out of fuel, has an encounter with death
Gravity's signature special effects take a backseat for a moment near the end of the film as Ryan Stone's desperate struggle to return to Earth hits a low point. After escaping from the ISS shuttle and steering clear of a deadly combination of both netting and debris, she discovers that the landing vehicle, which she was planning to use to pilot over to the Chinese space station, is out of fuel. To make matters worse, the Chinese man she is speaking to on the radio turns out to be broadcasting from Earth, of no help to her. Stone chuckles, a quiet death in her hopes, and powers off all the lights and oxygen. She lays back, content to die.
Fortunately, the brain works funny tricks when deprived of oxygen, and Stone soon finds herself face to face with Kowalski, who has returned in an astonishing feat of survival. He turns to Stone and delivers a small pep talk, calmly, reassuring. The casual read that he gives the lines is beautiful understatement in a scene that was incredibly courageous to tack onto an otherwise straightforward story. As an interesting side note, George Clooney himself wrote the scene!
5. Blue Jasmine
Jasmine discusses her mental health problems with Ginger's children
Cate Blanchett unleashes herself in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, giving reverential treatment to the ancient art of acting. Watch her body language, her half-faced droop and otherwise generous assortment of facial tics, her infusion of a hilariously repressed tension in her body that manifests in strained hand gestures and nervous fidgeting in situations that make her uncomfortable. Listen to the thick accent she adopts, which a quick Google search reveals to be completely invented, with no discernible origin. Watch the way she uses props (she almost always has something in her hands), from worshipping alcohol to flinging her purse around. Just her eyes are a performance of their own, which flit about nervously when the character is unsure, while fixating confidently when she has amassed the necessary defense mechanisms she clearly needs to maintain her delusions.
The film has a strong supporting cast, but for standout I had to choose the scene where she babysits Ginger's children at a restaurant. It's a great monologue, and gives us as viewers a chance to just sit back and marvel at the depth of Jasmine's richly-developed character. Her expression could cook the alcohol right out of her glass.
4. 12 Years a Slave
Edwin Epps forces Solomon to whip Patsey
For points on courage, this scene clearly ranks as the year's number one outing. It's a moving, heart-wrenching, hate-filled scene that forces Solomon to do the unspeakable, while a revenge-minded, lustful slaver and his equally vindictive wife egg him on. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to film a scene as violent and twisted as this one. What's interesting about it is that it doesn't go over the top all at once - it builds in a way that feels real, forcing us to endure Solomon's pain with a burning sense of helplessness. The anguish building on Chiwetel Ejiofor's face is difficult to watch, and Michael Fassbender's Epps is brilliantly cold, an ugly man whose loose chain of decency has been removed by alcohol and paranoia. And Lupita Nyong'o, who opens the scene with a heartfelt plea for a bar of soap, is beyond courageous in her portrayal of pain, despair, and tortured misery.
Samantha and Theadore make love for the first time
In a year of ambitious films, Her was arguably the second most ambitious (next to Gravity), and easily the headiest, a sprawling intellectual feast for the lonely heart as humanity struggles to grapple with the modern questions of how to love, how to live, and what makes us human. Samantha, the artificial intelligence that is designed for Theadore based on a limited number of vague questions, is a richly developed personality that stretches far beyond the interpretation of a standard performance (as conventionally understood through the litany of honors critics and awards shows give out). Samantha is funny, curious, alluring, authentic, and reassuring in a way that takes the viewer off guard, and Scarlett Johanssen's beautiful voice rings through and pulses through the screen with a vulnerability almost unachievable for most actors even when they have the luxury of being on screen. And Joaquin Phoenix, starring in his second masterpiece performance in a row after The Master, needs no introduction after this.
The film's most touching scene comes when Samantha and Theadore make the first dip into the throes of a sexual relationship, which manages to make a fairly pornographic soundscape come across as sweet, meaningful, and ethereal all at once. Love and adventure blend into one harmonious experience in this moment of the film, elegant and wondrously simple, and one of the most romantic sex scenes I have ever seen depicted in film.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
Jordan Belfort and Donnie Azoff overdose on Lemmon Quaaludes
You either hated this scene or you loved it, but no matter who you are, I guarantee you remembered it. How to describe the performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill during this sequence? "Over the top" hardly touches it. "Intense" would be a ridiculous understatement. "Theatrical", "bizarre", and "nauseating" might come a bit closer. But I have to call it brilliant, developed, and it impresses me as realistic enough. The IMDb trivia page on the film is worth a read for a lot of great tidbits on the scene, including, among other things, that the real-life Jordan Belfort coached DiCaprio on the nature of the drugs and that it took 70 takes to get the ham to stick to his face. Additionally, Martin Scorsese provided a drug expert on the set, with Jonah Hill saying in an interview with Vibe, "The way she expressed it about being on that many Quaaludes is that your finger feels like it weighs 10 pounds."
I also can't help but note Scorsese's crafting of the scene. Count the number of steps on the staircase Belfort has to descend as he leaves the hotel to confront Donnie, then count them again in each shot. The Popeye animation was a nice touch and adds an eerie sense of narrative detachment from the character's fate that still resonates all the same.
1. American Hustle
Irving Rosenfeld, Richie DiMaso, Sydney Prosser, Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Carmine Polito, Paco "Sheik Abdullah" Hernandez, And One Surprise Guest Meet At a Casino
David O. Russell's American Hustle is a menagerie of nuanced characters with deep, energetic, meaningful motivations. It could be argued, I think, that the four best performances of the year all came from American Hustle's central cast (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence), with Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito up there as well. They are hilarious. They are stark contrasts from one another. And they are so very much fun to watch as they bounce off of each other in the complex world of emotions that course through the plot of American Hustle. I was tempted to inlcude the 10 second microwave-exploding scene that Lawrence steals earlier in the film on this list, but ultimately, nothing compares to the payoff we get when the entire cast convenes at a casino to discuss the revitalization of Atlantic City with "The Sheik" and some mobsters from Florida. The film's characters are the best-developed of the year, and this scene brings the goods that such development can earn for you. We go in knowing that the scene is a ticking time bomb of unpredictable possibilities, given Rosalyn's destructive behavior and the Sheik's less-than-convincing facade. And my oh my, does this scene take a plunge into a strange, beautiful story.
An inseparable part of this scene's brilliant performances is attributable to the editing and music. The scene's opening shots of characters arriving inexplicably brings us to a surprising slow-motion shot of Richie and Sydney emerging from a thick cloud of smoke while Elton John's Yellow Brick Road reaches its rousing chorus. Then we get inside - look at the reaction shots on Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence as they eye each other upon first meeting, which we see intermittently while also cutting to Bale's nervous awareness of those reactions and Cooper's blind lust for mission success. The scene's mood turns on a dime repeatedly to go from anxious to hilarious to downright frightening, then to funny again and then really sad. It's one of those rare moments in movies that we really don't know what will happen next.
Once inside the backroom where the gang meets the surprise character, the story unfolds very quickly and leans heavily on the strength of its well-defined series of characters. Irving and Richie each make a lot of short comments that speak volumes, given what we know about them, and that help to keep the scene's drama engaging. The blank expression on Michael Peña's Sheik Abdullah is perhaps the funniest part of the scene, given the distinction between who he is supposed to be and who he actually is.
Then, of course, there is the scene-within-a-scene that unfolds in the hotel bathroom. Did you know that it was actually Amy Adam's idea to have Jennifer Lawrence kiss her? The question burns on my mind, what is going on inside Rosalyn's head? She is clearly going through some sort of transformation, the importance of which cannot be understated when it comes to developing intrigue in a scene. Rich characters are caught up in big swings of change that leave them vulnerable, and Lawrence's Rosalyn is an excellent portrayal of someone going through such a change in a logical universe that defies reason. She needs attention, she craves validation, yet some part of her needs to be explosive and unpredictable. One senses that deep down Rosalyn knows exactly how much pain she causes other people, and feels helpless to do anything about it. It's also clear that she does love Irving, in spite of the grief she causes him. It's small wonder that she sails straight into the arms of a mobster by the scene's end.
Finally, we end on a satirically-uplifting note when Mayor Carmine Polito takes the stage to sing the praises of Atlantic City's revitalization. Polito is perhaps the only genuine character in the whole film. And that, it seems, may be the point. It's heartbreaking, in a way, and a worthy send-off to a great scene.
When I started First Class Reels, I rarely spent much time thinking about specific scenes in film, much less which ones I liked or felt worthy of distinction. Each scene was a cog in a larger machine, I reasoned, and thus there was little incentive to go over which scenes stood out as my favorite for the year. However, once I set out to develop short two-minute scenes that A) feel like they could actually be from a movie, B) hold your interest from start to finish, and C) give you an appreciation for the actors, I started to recognize certain choices in films that struck me as particularly bold. I study scenes for inspiration and am struck by the diversity of stories that individual scenes tell, the rules they break, the dynamic nature of action that keeps you leaning in to see what happens next, and mostly by how many scenes manage to hit the ball out of the park by not being memorable at all, but instead moving you invisibly to the next scene without drawing too much attention to that particular moment.
Given those standards, what do you think of my work? Is there anything you think I could learn from the scenes listed above, or maybe from something I left off the list? Give a comment below with your thoughts and maybe your own favorite scenes from the year!
First Class Reels