The best film scenes of 2014

The best film scenes of 2014

Great scenes, like great movies, adhere to no single formula. Some of them work only in relation to the moments that occur before and/or after them. Others play like miniature movies themselves, their appeal independent of the feature-length films that house them. What all great scenes have in common, though, is their ability to imprint themselves on a viewer’s brain. In anticipation of our best films of 2014 list, which drops on Thursday, we’ve singled out 22 of our favorite scenes from the year in cinema. They’re in no particular order—save for the first one, which several contributors cited and we’ve hence decided is the year’s best. Fair warning: Some of these entries, including the first one below, disclose major plot points. Proceed with caution.

Scene of the year

The ending, Whiplash

Those who haven’t seen Whiplash yet should probably skip right past this glowing appraisal of its final minutes, and rush to the nearest theater showing it. Those who have seen the film should finally catch their breath and read on. In the closing scene of the movie, aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) suffers one last humiliation at the hands of his abusive mentor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who takes revenge on his star pupil by providing him with the wrong sheet music for a climactic concert at Carnegie Hall. Rather than accept defeat, however, the musician returns to his kit, answering this cruel betrayal the only way he knows how: by drumming his ass off—this time to his own beat, guiding the ensemble with an improvised burst of virtuosic playing. Nearly all of Whiplash operates on a level of pure anxiety, entwining the nerves of its audience and protagonist. And so this parting display of showboating talent, which director Damien Chazelle stages with all the kinetic verve of a car chase or a battle sequence, feels downright liberating in its sense of cathartic release. A true marvel of editing, composition, and performance, the scene would be a contender for the year’s finest even if seen completely out of context. What clinches its victory, though, is the troubling ambivalence lurking beneath the awe-inspiring spectacle: We’re watching not just the birth of a future jazz legend, but also the consummation of a truly toxic relationship—the moment, in other words, when one obsessive sociopath finally rebuilds another to his exact specifications. It’s equal parts disturbing and rousing, a thunderous cymbal crack on the beating hearts of its audience. [A.A. Dowd]

The deformed man, Under The Skin

The first half of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin establishes a hypnotic pattern: An alien in human guise (Scarlett Johansson) picks up unsuspecting men, seduces them into accompanying her into a dilapidated-looking house, and, once inside, does away with them, in a fashion disturbing and visually striking in equal measure. But just around the film’s halfway mark, the alien picks up a man with a facial deformity. Their conversation, in a moving car, first proceeds in simple alternating one-shots as she asks him questions and repeatedly compliments his hands. But when she asks him to touch her face, they share the frame, and later one-shots are closer, more intimate. At first, she seems to simply assume a gentler seduction tactic. While she does bring the man back to her lair, she eventually allows him to leave without suffering the same fate as the others. When she stares at her own shadowy reflection that night, she may be catching a glimpse of empathy. The sequence is fascinating in its own right, but even more so for the way it reverberates through the rest of the movie, knocking the Johansson character off her axis and setting the second half of her quiet story in motion. [Jesse Hassenger]

First race, Need For Speed

The year’s best, purest chase scene—technically a street racing scene—is one part old-school style, one part newfangled tech. Shot on Canon C500s—beefier, 4K variants of the low-light-friendly cameras used to shoot micro-budgeted projects like Blue Ruin and Blue Is The Warmest Color—it follows five gleaming cars as they rip through a vivid small-town nightscape, saturated in sodium-vapor orange. The camera style is self-consciously 1980: slow zoom-ins at the starting line; passenger-side handheld shots of the drivers; the kind of natural, unaffected shaking that happens when a cameraman is trying to keep a speeding car in the frame. And, for the bulk of the scene, there’s no music, only the snarl and squeal of the cars. Five engines, half-a-dozen vicious turns, and a train barreling into the distance—nothing more is necessary. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Inflating and deflating the male ego, Force Majeure

Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure is a stinging critique of the male ego, and it reaches a crescendo during a late scene in which a pitiful husband and father (Johannes Kuhnke)—having already proven his spinelessness by ditching his clan in order to save himself during an apparent avalanche at their ski-vacation resort—enjoys a beer with his best mate (Kristofer Hivju) at the bottom of the mountain. There, the two men are approached by a woman who tells them that her friend thinks they’re the best-looking guys at the place, news that naturally boosts their self-esteem. That high doesn’t last long, however, since just as they’re enjoying the praise, the woman returns to apologize for having relayed the compliment to them; it was really intended for two other nearby gentlemen. Left deflated beyond repair, they vacillate between anger and embarrassment, which Östlund depicts in a protracted single shot that reveals the clownish emptiness of their macho pretenses. [Nick Schager]

The safe wager, Dom Hemingway

Just out of prison following a 12-year stretch, expert safecracker Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is looking for work, among other things, until a former associate named Lestor (Jumayn Hunter) tells Dom his skills are now useless, as newfangled electronic safes are impossible to crack via methods of a dozen years past. Since Lestor despises Dom, he offers him a deal: If Dom can open Lestor’s personal safe in less than 10 minutes, he’ll give him a highly lucrative job. But if Dom fails, Lestor gets to cut off his dick, right on the spot. Writer-director Richard Shepard plays this ludicrous ticking-clock scenario to the hilt, devising both a wholly unexpected safecracking method—no gentle taps and slowly twisted dials here—and a diabolical punchline. Mostly, though, it’s just a hoot to watch Law’s high-octane performance dovetail with a rare moment of concentrated focus for his character. Dom is ostensibly working feverishly to save his penis, but the expression on Law’s face throughout is pure, uncut fun. [Mike D’Angelo]

Creating the universe, Noah

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a work of conflicting aspirations—a Biblical epic that wants to be intimate and spectacular, “realistic” and fantastical, accommodating of both serious spiritual inquiry and talking, CGI rock monsters. The film’s most fruitful attempt at reconciling seemingly contradictory positions arrives during the centerpiece sequence, when Noah (Russell Crowe) recounts to his family the story of God creating the universe. Billions of years pass through simulated time-lapse photography, and as single-cell organisms transform into fish, which soon slither onto dry land and turn into something else entirely, it becomes clear that Aronofsky has incorporated evolutionary theory into his retelling of Genesis 1. Fundamentalists might balk at this revisionist take on scripture, but it’s hard to imagine anyone shrugging off the grandeur of the scene—a montage of blooming nebulas, scampering species, throbbing forbidden fruit, a menacing serpent, a glowing Adam and Eve, and Cain murdering Abel in striking silhouette. Noah has no shortage of grand imagery, but only this flashback to the beginning of time inspires a religious (or at least near-religious) awe. Cinephiles both devout and secular should give thanks. [A.A. Dowd]

The whoring bed, Nymphomaniac, Vol. I

Lars Von Trier’s epic study in carnal (and non-carnal) knowledge features plenty of explicit sex, but it’s a fully dressed, gatecrashing Uma Thurman who provides its most blistering, passionate sequence. After more than an hour spent exploring heroine Joe’s sexual self-indulgence, Nymphomaniac abruptly serves up a comically ghastly reminder that her actions have consequences. Into Joe’s apartment strides Thurman’s Mrs. H, her three young sons in tow, in order to confront their philandering father. “Confront” isn’t quite the word, though, since Mrs. H opts to channel her anger through relentless bitter sarcasm, congratulating her husband and Joe on their shared happiness and taking the kids on a tour of the premises, so that they can see what Dad will be up to from now on. “Would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?” she politely asks Joe, in the scene’s signature moment. Thurman plays this minor role (it’s the character’s sole appearance) without an ounce of vanity, digging so deep into Mrs. H’s feelings of debasement that all she can finally do, at the end, is emit a truly bloodcurdling shriek. [Mike D’Angelo]

End credits montage, 22 Jump Street

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 22 Jump Street is the rare comedy sequel to equal its predecessor. Even more impressive still, it manages to surpass the original at that least likely of moments, the end credits. Having already spent its entire feature-length runtime making self-referential jokes about the derivativeness of sequels, 22 Jump Street goes that extra step—and then a few more—by delivering a montage of phony upcoming follow-ups, replete with clips and poster art. From “Culinary School” and “Foreign Exchange Students” to “A Semester At Sea” and “Traffic School,” it’s a sequence that pushes the material’s auto-critique craziness into outright absurdity, especially when Seth Rogen momentarily appears in “Sunday School” as a replacement for Jonah Hill (apparently due to a “contract dispute”). At once dim-bulb silly and cannily critical of its own inherent existence, it’s perhaps the best end-credits sequence in movie comedy history—as well as a capper that mocks (to the point of negating) the need for any further franchise installments. [Nick Schager]

Terror in the tent, Willow Creek

For much of its running time, comedian Bobcat Goldthwait’s first stab at found-footage horror seems content to operate like an affectionate goof on The Blair Witch Project. The film does, however, make a late attempt at eliciting goosebumps instead of giggles, and the results are quite effective. Having retreated to the woods in search of the elusive Bigfoot, amateur filmmaker Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his patient girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) are awoken in the middle of the night by strange sounds coming from outside of their tent. Goldthwait captures the subsequent gauntlet of terror in a single, 20-minute take, locking his camera on the faces of his increasingly alarmed characters, who sit paralyzed with fear as the noises get louder, closer, and weirder. It’s a marvelously suspenseful sequence, relying on not just the credible distress of the actors, but also the claustrophobia of the tent—a structure that limits our view of the surroundings, allowing the imagination to run wild with thoughts of the beasts surely lurking on the other side of its flimsy, nylon walls. As in Blair Witch, what we envision is much scarier than anything we could be shown. [A.A. Dowd]

“I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie,” God Help The Girl

God Help The Girl has half a dozen lovely little production numbers in a variety of moods, but Stuart Murdoch’s musical is never more delightful than when it engages with the pure joy of making and experiencing music, crystallized in the scene scored to the song “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie.” James (Olly Alexander) brings troubled singer-songwriter Eve (Emily Browning) to some kind of civic center, where the supporting members of their band are playing an afternoon dance attended mostly by the elderly. When Eve joins them onstage to sing and her song kicks into full-band ebullience, minor miracles abound: Dancers who look ready for a community-college production of Grease appear from nowhere; bandmate Cassie (Hannah Murray) arrives at just the right time; and Eve seems to forget her problems, however briefly. Murdoch cuts around madly; it’s exactly the kind of dance number that makes purists complain about not being able to see the dancing. But intricate choreography isn’t the point here; Murdoch stages a dance party halfway between homemade reality and music-video dreams. “Hell do I care what I look like when I feel this good?” the song asks—though as it happens, everyone looks pretty great. [Jesse Hassenger]

The classroom, Snowpiercer

Bong-Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer was the summer’s best action film, and it peaks when Chris Evans’ rebel leader, guiding his insurgency through a train that houses the last survivors of a global environmental apocalypse, arrives at the car where young children are being lectured by their teacher (Alison Pill) on the myth of their train’s creator. After the bleakness of their prior environments, Evans and company’s arrival in this brightly colored elementary-school compartment is jarring, and made more so by Pill’s overly cheery demeanor, which carries with it more than a whiff of madness. Basing its art-deco designs (both in terms of the classroom, and the historical video that the kids watch) on those found in the popular Bioshock first-person-shooter videogame series, the sequence has an unsettling strangeness that eventually erupts in a paroxysm of violence. Evil is rarely more chilling than when it comes in the form of a sunshiny mentor. [Nick Schager]

“The Step You Can’t Take Back,” Begin Again

A man (Mark Ruffalo) slumps over a bar, his left shoulder jutted toward the camera. He hears a guitar and a woman’s voice; slowly, he begins to peek over his arm, as though he were a sun reluctant to rise. The camera stays on him for almost 45 seconds, only revealing the singer—a songstress (Keira Knightley) with an acoustic guitar, awkwardly perched on a stool—once the chorus starts. This is actually the second time this scene has played out in Begin Again; the first time was at the very beginning of the movie, from her perspective, with the camera landing on his big goofy grin as she got off the stage. Now, the viewer is seeing it—and hearing it—from his angle, as he eyes the next act’s instruments and starts imaging a full-blown, Starbucks-playlist arrangement. Begin Again—a music-business musical that serves as a kind of spiritual sequel to director John Carney’s earlier Once—is largely bogus, but this sequence, its only lapse into overt fantasy, feels completely authentic. That’s thanks in so small part to Ruffalo’s performance, which turns what should be a simple reaction shot into a glimpse into a character’s soul. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Dave Schultz’s interview, Foxcatcher

For all the praise being heaped on Steve Carell’s transformation into a beaked, aristocratic sociopath, the best performance in Foxcatcher required no prosthetic noses. As Dave, the older and more decorated of the two Olympic-champion Schultz brothers, a bulked-up Mark Ruffalo finds layers of feeling his co-stars aren’t quite afforded. His showcase scene—and arguably the film’s single strongest moment—is the one in which Dave is forced to speak about the influence his sponsor and coach, John Du Pont (Carell), has had on his athletic career. At the behest of a filmmaker, who’s making a presumably propagandistic documentary on Du Pont, Dave struggles to explain the man’s coaching strategies (which are basically useless) and to muster up a single word of praise. When the director requests that he describe Du Pont as a “mentor,” Dave valiantly attempts to swallow his pride—and Ruffalo makes his thought process palpable, a small storm of emotions passing across his face. It’s a miniature master class in acting, and one of the brief, promising instances in which Foxcatcher threatens to burst its bubble of oppressive melancholia and become a stealth comedy of discomfort. [A.A. Dowd]

The wedding dance, In Bloom

Movie musicals may have gone out of style, but a dancing interlude can still elevate the pulse of just about any film. In Bloom, a Georgian drama about two 14-year-old girls and a gun, reaches its emotional apex during the mid-film scene in which one of them, Natia (Mariam Bokeria), marries a man she barely knows, at her family’s behest. Her best friend, Eka (Lika Babluani), is visibly upset during the reception, and even calls Natia into the bathroom at one point to ask whether she loves her new husband. (The answer: “I guess I do.”) Upon emerging, however, Eka suddenly takes the center of the room and performs a lengthy solo dance as the other guests stand around her in a circle, clapping and cheering. What’s remarkable about this routine is the wealth of contradictory feelings it somehow conveys—Eka’s decision to elbow past everyone and take command of the dance floor is at once a defiant, fuck-you gesture; a burst of self-liberation; and an ardent declaration of love for Natia. Plus, Georgians really know how to dance—when a standing Eka picks up a napkin from the floor with her teeth, you’ll feel the urge to whoop and holler, too. [Mike D’Angelo]

Destruction of the city, Pompeii

Paul W.S. Anderson—the widely maligned English director behind Resident Evil, Alien Vs. Predator, and The Three Musketeers 3D—has a real knack for organizing and diagramming space, and though Pompeii, his first blockbuster-budget production, is slow-going at first, it hits its stride once it comes time to depict the destruction of the titular city street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. Obsessed with bunkers, mazes, and caverns, Anderson can’t help but turn the city grid into yet another of his deathtrap tunnel systems. He envisions the destruction of Pompeii as one long set piece, with characters scampering over bodies and ruins, trying to outrun a ship that’s been forced inland while fiery debris rains down in the foreground. It’s brisk and breathtaking. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

“Time In A Bottle,” X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Recently, every year has had at least three or four superhero movies, and all of those superhero movies have at least three or four action sequences, many of which involve gigantic airships and/or collapsing buildings. It makes sense, then, that the most memorable superhero action of the year would be a bit more granular, focusing on the use of a single superpower. In Bryan Singer’s mutant-packed X-Men sequel, Professor X, Beast, and Wolverine enlist super-fast mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to help break Magneto out of his metal-free holding cell in the Pentagon. When the group is discovered and security guards open fire, the movie switches to Quicksilver’s point of view as he flips on his Walkman and springs into action, running up and down the walls with the nonchalance of a morning jogger, scored to the quiet strains of Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle.” With a few gentle tweaks, he knocks out cops and sets bullets off course; when the film returns to normal speed, the conflict is over in a matter of seconds. This interlude is a sustained moment of playfulness in an otherwise fairly serious superhero epic, and a reminder that the X-Men movies distinguish themselves by toying with the idiosyncrasies and possibilities of their universe’s vast array of mutants, not by getting into a building-destruction contest. [Jesse Hassenger]

Sex and violence, Gone Girl

Gone Girl’s first half is a slow-drip mystery, but it’s the second half of David Fincher’s adaptation—after the big twist is revealed—that taps a truly sinister vein. The story’s malevolence reaches a fever pitch during the scene when Amy (Rosamund Pike), now a captive of her creepy ex-boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris), finally “gives in” to his carnal wishes and takes him to bed. It’s an encounter of sexual aggression and manipulation that Fincher stages with mounting unease, until the moment the white lingerie-clad Amy, beneath her lover on the bed, suddenly and swiftly slices his throat, coating herself in blood at the very moment that he climaxes inside her. More chilling still: After letting him bleed out, Pike straddles him and then flips her blood-soaked hair out of her face—an offhand gesture of aggravation that speaks volumes about the depths of her mercilessness. [Nick Schager]

Opening credits, Godzilla

“Even with nuclear weapons there is no guarantee that the creatures will succumb,” declares the witty opening credits sequence for Hollywood’s latest iteration of Japan’s favorite monster. “Evidence show [sic] that it is likely the creatures will come back with David Strathairn’s head.” That’s what the text reads for a split second, anyway—only by freeze-framing the DVD can one catch more than a few words—before everything other than DAVID STRATHAIRN is redacted. Superimposed over stills ranging from Darwin’s Origin Of Species to news coverage of the Bikini Atoll tests, all of the credits are accompanied by alarmist phrases that are swiftly blacked out, creating a deliciously paranoid mood (augmented by Alexandre Desplat’s urgent score) before the story has even begun. There are even some in-jokes among the barely visible text: Bryan Cranston’s credit includes the phrase “Walter Malcolm has claimed that government men dressed in white lab coats routinely appear at site,” which is redacted in a way that leaves the words “Walter” and “white” visible by themselves for a fraction of a second. With “Malcolm” in the middle. [Mike D’Angelo]

Two decades of messages, Interstellar

Christopher Nolan has developed an inaccurate reputation as a chilly filmmaker with a Kubrickian detachment from human emotion. Despite superficial 2001 influences, Interstellar seems almost designed to correct that assumption, never more effectively than in a single scene that essentially involves space pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) sitting down to check his messages. Cooper has been on a planet that experiences time far more slowly than Earth, and upon his return to his ship, he watches a series of video messages from his children, received in the hour or so that he was gone. In a few moments, he watches them age over two decades. Because it’s a Nolan movie, this scene also contains plenty of information: about what’s happened on Earth while Cooper has been gone and where his plot-crucial daughter Murph is now. But the exposition feels secondary to the emotional wallop of Cooper’s family life accelerating without him. In a movie of amazing sights, it’s the simple passage of time that hits the hardest, culminating in the final video message, from now-grown Murph (Jessica Chastain). When she finishes a goodbye to her father, thought to be lost in space, Nolan cuts to the other side of her camera and follows her as she returns to her job—bringing the movie to this decades-forward Earth for the first time. The transition doesn’t span anywhere near the amount of time traversed in the most famous cut of 2001, but it’s a similar technique, hurtling the audience ahead into the next phase of the story. [Jesse Hassenger]

“Pretty Girl Rock,” The Rover

Set in a depressed (and depressing) post-apocalyptic Australia, The Rover adopts a mood of consistent despair, rarely allowing for even the faintest trace of levity. Maybe that’s why the belated arrival of a bona fide pop anthem on the soundtrack—briefly replacing the ambient, dread-infused hum of Antony Partos’ original score—qualifies as downright triumphant. As the film’s mismatched road warriors (played by Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson) wander into the Outback during a protracted wide shot, director David Michôd cues up Keri Hilson’s narcissistic earworm single “Pretty Girl Rock.” It seems like a bitterly ironic song selection, until the scene cuts to a nighttime image of Pattinson’s tragic simpleton sitting alone in a jeep, softly singing along to the suddenly diegetic music. From here, the tune takes on a melancholy quality, with Michôd employing it as a creature comfort from another era—a bittersweet blast of nostalgia, a sonic relic of the more hopeful world that now exists only in the rearview mirror of these characters’ lives. As needle drops go, it’s eccentric and weirdly, powerfully affecting. Also, good luck getting that damn song out of your head. [A.A. Dowd]

The Red Circle, John Wick

Chad Stahelski and David Leitch are both veteran stuntmen, which explains why their debut feature, the superbly entertaining John Wick, happens to contain some of the most energetic, best-directed action sequences in recent memory, with the standout being the movie’s centerpiece, in which Keanu Reeves’ eponymous ex-hitman shoots his way through a nightclub/bathhouse called the Red Circle. Starting in the back of the club—where silhouetted henchmen are dispatched one by one while Kaleida’s “Think” slinks on the soundtrack—and then bursting into the main floor, Collateral-style, it’s as much a dance piece as a gunfight. Reeves and an ensemble of stunt performers roll, tumble, shoot, and reload, over and over, moving through pools of blue and magenta light, always oriented around the camera and the geometry of the space; this is amped-up action as kinetic art. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Lip-sync duet, The Skeleton Twins

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig prove themselves adept serious actors in The Skeleton Twins, starring as siblings reunited after a 10-year estrangement. The movie itself doesn’t often transcend its indie-dramedy roots, but it generates more feeling than it might have otherwise due to its stars’ chemistry, and the SNL-honed comic timing they bring to their depressive characters. The movie’s strongest juxtaposition of angst and crowd-pleasing comedy comes when Milo (Hader) comes home to a frustrated Maggie (Wiig) demanding him to get his shit together. He attempts to cheer her up by silently putting Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” on the stereo and beginning to lip-sync, imploring her to join him. Maggie resists for well over a minute before finally, hilariously giving in to the emotive cheesiness—the mugging equivalent of an expertly delayed chorus. It’s the kind of goofy bit Wiig and Hader could’ve sold on SNL, and the movie draws on that history to make Maggie and Milo especially convincing, and touching, as family. [Jesse Hassenger]