We're not going to try to come up with a comprehensive list of this decade's best scenes. Instead we asked each of our core movie writers to share the scenes they'll never forget and explain why.
“Cousins?,” Coffee And Cigarettes (2003)
Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes strings together a series of disconnected scenes in which celebrities play “themselves” and interact in short conversations about fame, food, music, and intoxicants. The best of the bunch? A chat between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan that has the former fawning over the latter (“Shall I be mother?” Molina says awkwardly, about pouring a cup of tea) while the latter struggles to be polite. (“I’m certainly very aware of you,” Coogan mumbles.) The conversation takes a turn when Molina first pulls out a genealogy chart that proves he and Coogan are related, then uses that tidbit to suggest a closer relationship. Coogan clumsily tries to distance himself (“I once didn’t give my number out to Sam Mendes, so you’re in good company”), until he finds out that Molina is good friends with Spike Jonze, at which point the power-balance shifts. The “Cousins?” sketch doesn’t say anything new about showbiz shallowness, but Coogan and Molina play the beats with gusto, and the accumulation of detail about what it’s like to be a Brit adrift in L.A. makes the scene feel truer than either star would likely admit.
The Cannes heist, Femme Fatale (2002)
Brian De Palma has spent most of the last two decades making hired-gun studio films (a few of which were markedly good) instead of more personal work, but he returned to what he does best with 2002’s Femme Fatale, a puckish noir riff that’s about playing with archetypes and relishing the pleasures of genre. De Palma comes out swinging in the opening, with a jewel-heist scene set at the Cannes film festival, involving a lesbian tryst, a stray cat, a dart gun, a blackout, multiple double-crosses, a Ryûichi Sakamoto riff off Ravel’s Bolero, and as many bisected frames as De Palma can squeeze into a 20-minute sequence. Much of it is utterly preposterous, of course. That doesn’t make it any less fun.
The big chase, Grindhouse (2007)
Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, half of the 2007 exploitation homage Grindhouse, starts out chatty and choppy, then resolves in arguably the most epic, thrilling car chase in cinema history, running over 20 minutes and featuring more changing fortunes and gratuitous violence than a full season of 24. Beginning with stuntwoman Zoë Bell borrowing a “Vanishing Point car” so she can play Ship’s Mast (which involves her lying on the hood of a speeding vehicle with the aid of two belts), the scene takes a turn when serial killer Kurt Russell shows up and starts tormenting Bell and her gal-pals with his stunt car. Then it takes another turn when the ladies get pissed and start chasing Russell. Tarantino does a lot with Death Proof as a whole, from exploring gender dynamics to commenting on the changing drive-in aesthetic. The chase scene is almost like the movie in miniature, starting on dusty rural roads and then moving to a busy interstate—from ’70s exploitation to the Dimension Films era, but without CGI.
A visit to the bathroom, Offside (2006)
Throughout this career, Iranian director Jafar Panahi has dramatized the absurdities of living in a fundamentalist theocracy in ways that range from the angry to the lightly satirical. Offside is a little bit of both. The movie takes place at Tehran’s biggest soccer stadium during a 2006 World Cup qualifying match, and it follows a group of ardent female fans who try—and fail—to disguise their gender and sneak into the game. Most of the movie takes place in a small holding pen, where the women wait to be bussed off to jail; Panahi moves the camera between the women and their jailers, as though following a series of scoring rallies. But in one alternately tense and funny scene, a guard escorts one of the women to the restroom, and struggles to clear the john of men (while making sure that none of them are engaging in furtive gay sex) and to keep the woman from reading any of the graffiti on the wall. In the end, she flees, and as the guard chases her, we get to see the game in the background for just a moment. Panahi uses the everyday—a soccer match, the need to pee—to illustrate the social restrictions that hamstring his country, preventing people from enjoying themselves as fully as they ought.
The “life” montage, Up (2009)
For a time, the big news in animated films involved all the famous Hollywood stars doing voice-work, but for two consecutive films at the end of the ’00s, the fine folks at Pixar proved that cartoons don’t even need voices to be effective. The opening half-hour of Wall-E is a marvel of sight gags and nonverbal storytelling, but even it doesn’t pack the punch of the five-minute montage at the start of Up, which summarizes the joy and disappointments of a long marriage in a sequence of well-chosen, word-free images. Michael Giacchino’s versatile main theme sounds alternately sorrowful and joyful as Carl and Ellie deal with all the little complications that cost them their dreams of having kids and traveling the world. It’s significant that in a montage where every shot conveys information quickly and directly—as in the pan over from a nursery-painting session to a doctor giving Carl and Ellie some bad news—the Pixar team finds time for a few seconds of Ellie just sitting in a chair, eyes closed, absorbing the ramifications of her fate. In the kind of movies Pixar makes, those moments are just as important as the jokes and thrills. Without that sense of bitterness—and how it can be overcome—the rousing adventure in the rest of Up wouldn’t mean as much as it does.
First date/reunion, Yi Yi (2000)
Yi Yi, a multigenerational drama by Taiwan’s late, great Edward Yang, explores many topics, none in more depth than the way some things stay constant in a sea of change. A little more than halfway into the movie’s nearly three-hour running time, Yang drops a quietly stunning sequence in which the film’s patriarch (Wu Nienjen) reunites with an old girlfriend in Japan for an evening on the town. As they recall their first date, Yang cuts to footage of Wu’s daughter nervously having a first date of her own back in Taipei. “The first time I held your hand, we were at a railroad crossing going to the movies. I reached for you, ashamed of my sweaty palm,” Wu tells her. “Now I’m holding your hand again. Only it’s a different place, a different time, a different age.” “But the same sweaty palm,” his old flame replies, as the camera returns to the daughter back in Taipei. And she’s right, even if the young lovers’ hands now belong to another generation.
The cruelest cut, Caché (2005)
There’s no talking about this scene without spoiling it, but also no need to. Those who haven’t seen Michael Haneke’s stunning Caché, an examination of the unnerving uses of new technology and the way old wounds linger, should see it. Those who have, know the exact moment in question, the one that sucked all the oxygen out of whatever room they were in while watching it. In a decade in which explosions got bigger and louder, Haneke delivered a silent shock that outdid them all.
Eating the ratatouille, Ratatouille (2007)
In a different sort of movie, the Peter O’Toole-voiced character of Anton Ego would remain what he appears to be on first impression: a caricature of a snooty, out-of-touch critic. Except Brad Bird’s Ratatouille isn’t that sort of movie. In this climactic sequence, a plate of ratatouille becomes a sensual connection to Ego’s childhood. The scene turns into a meditation on the emotional power of food and art, how both sustain us, and how the best of both transcends time and breaks down the boundaries between people.
Hammer time, Oldboy (2003)
Though in content they don’t have that much in common, in form, the centerpiece of Park Chan-Wook’s revenge thriller bears a resemblance to a famous scene in The Simpsons that pits Sideshow Bob against a field of rakes. At first these scenes are thrilling, then they’re sickeningly sad, and finally, they become darkly funny comments on human persistence in the face of futility. Armed only with a hammer, Oldboy star Choi Min-Sik takes on a hallway full of thugs, knocking out the first few easily, then fighting the rest in a long, drawn-out brawl—filmed in a single take—that leaves everyone involved broken, bloody, and exhausted. By the end, Choi’s character has had his revenge, but first, the film measures the cost in blood and pain.
Street fight in the camp, Children Of Men (2006)
Is this how the world will end? In shouts and gunfire? In this bravura late-film sequence in Children Of Men, a prison camp erupts into chaos, as humanity’s last hope tries to make its way to safety. There’s a bit of everyone’s nightmare here: fascists, dreadlocked left-wing revolutionaries, and Muslim extremists. But the vision of a near-future in which fragments of what used to be civilization battle over the scraps of modern life is what brings a chill to the bones. And then director Alfonso Cuaron provides a miracle to make it all stop, if only for a moment.
Dybbuk?, A Serious Man (2009)
At a key moment in A Serious Man, a character reflects that Jews tell each other stories and pass them down through the ages in an attempt to understand themselves and the world around them. The Coen brothers’ film is full of such stories, but they obfuscate more than they enlighten, most notably in a Yiddish folk-tale-style prologue where a peasant encounters a mysterious figure his fearful wife is convinced is a demonic, corpse-possessing dybbuk. The appearance of the figure in question (Fyvush Finkel) at the front door clarifies nothing. What does it all mean? How does it relate to the existential crisis of a professor in ’60s Minnesota? Who can say? It’s the perfect beginning for a film full of fables with no morals or messages. We are left with no choice but to, in the Coens’ indelible words, “embrace the mystery.”
Exchanging business cards, American Psycho (2000)
In the nightmare yuppie world of American Psycho, a man’s value is determined not by the content of his character, but rather by the elegance and sophistication of his business card. In the film’s slyest scene, Christian Bale whips out his card and purrs that its color is “bone” and its font is “something called Silian Rail,” only to have his peers counter with even fancier, more decadent fonts and colors. The kicker: To the naked eye, they pretty much look identical. It’s the film’s version of a swinging-dick contest; Bale even appears simultaneously orgasmic and traumatized when he sees the watermark and “subtle off-white coloring” of a competitor’s card. Thanks to American Psycho, an entire generation of cult-film fans can’t look at a business card without Christian Bale’s creepy image invading their psyche. As Bale himself might scream, it’s fucking distracting.
Opening scene, Inglorious Basterds (2009)
The opening scene in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II pastiche distinguishes itself through quality and quantity, clocking in at an epic 25 minutes. In one of the greatest introductions in recent memory, Christopher Waltz plays a fabled Nazi “Jew-hunter” who enters the home of a terrified farmer in Nazi-controlled France. In a scene of almost unbearable tension, Waltz toys sadistically with his prey, methodically coming around to the accusation that the farmer has been hiding a Jewish family. Meanwhile, the farmer sweats, trembles, and does everything in his power to hold onto his secrets. Waltz doesn’t need to raise his voice to engender terror in the farmer and the audience; he’s all the more terrifying for being so outwardly gregarious and ingratiating.
Tending to a frail trick, Mysterious Skin (2004)
Character actor Billy Drago has eked out a career playing mostly heavies, but perhaps his most memorable role is as a painfully scarred trick who picks up the teenage gigolo played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. The threat of sexual violence that permeates much of the film dissipates in a heartbreaking sequence where Drago takes Gordon-Levitt to a cheap hotel room, removes his shirt, and asks Gordon-Levitt to massage the lesions that cover his back. It’s a scene of terrifying tenderness and devastating emotional power.
“All These Things That I’ve Done,” Southland Tales (2006)
Richard Kelly’s alternately maddening and captivating Southland Tales is rich in stand-alone weirdness and bizarre conceits that go nowhere, but in its most stunning sequence, Kelly abandons linear storytelling altogether and gives the film over to pure pop-art abstraction. In it, a bloody, swaggering Justin Timberlake faces the camera directly and lip-syncs to Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” drinking from a can of cheap beer while dancers dressed as nurses sashay and shimmy in the background. It’s a sinister, stylized music video in the midst of a science-fiction mindfuck, and perhaps the purest possible manifestation of Kelly’s MTV surrealism and pop-culture-crazed sensibility.
The last temptation of Monty, 25th Hour
Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is filled with memorable sequences, some of which barely seem to connect with each other; it’s almost more a collection of striking setpieces than a cohesive movie. But the most artful and poignant of the lot comes in the quiet moment of clarity at the end, when crusty old Irish-bartender dad Brian Cox drives his errant drug-dealer son Ed Norton off to dutifully serve his prison sentence. Norton has been emotionally battling this moment throughout the whole film, and there’s a despairing, meek exhaustion to the way he finally gives in. Sensing his mood, and knowing there’s no more to talk about, Cox takes them both back to a more innocent time by essentially telling Norton a bedtime story. In Cox’s gentle fairy tale, told in second person as if narrating the future, Norton cuts and runs and becomes a fugitive, living his life out far from New York, and creating a new life, a new history, and a family, whom he can someday tell the whole sordid story as if it were a long-forgotten dream. Norton has already made his decision to go to prison; he isn’t likely to take Cox up on the implied offer. The comforting fantasy is just a final gift to ease the air between them and put off reality for just a few more minutes. And Lee directs it all as though it was a tender elegy for Norton’s life, a melancholy, surprisingly sentimental goodbye to their relationship, to the past, and to an unwanted future.
The pen-hunt, Memento (2001)
The innovation of Memento is in its reversal of the usual film dynamic: The story is told backward, so the audience knows where protagonist Guy Pearce is ultimately going, but not what led him there, or what his final destination really signifies. That tension between what the audience knows and what Pearce knows carries throughout the film, as viewers gain access to information that they know Pearce’s brain damage won’t let him remember. This gimmick comes to a terrible head when vengeful new acquaintance Carrie-Anne Moss reveals a horrible agenda, deliberately provoking Pearce, stating her intention to use him to her own ends, then smugly retreating, knowing he’ll forget her words within minutes. Pearce manages his life through a series of notes to his future self that explain what he’ll need to know next, and the film’s tension peaks as he scrambles for a pen, trying to stay focused long enough to remember Moss’ treachery and warn himself. But she’s already hidden the pens, and besides, given how the story takes place in reverse, viewers already know Pearce will fail, fall for her manipulations, and wind up carrying out her scheme. Which makes the pen-hunt scene all the more agonizing—and all the more cleverly executed.
Confrontation with the Balrog, The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)
Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy is all about fantasy spectacle with the serious air of significant doings: Sure, it’s all a big Dungeons & Dragons adventure, but the fate of the world lies in the balance, and the odds are dire. Much of the first film is journeying, introductions, and setup, and the scale of the situation doesn’t really become clear until the protagonists venture into the mines of Moria and encounter a vast army, ready and eager to wipe them out. And then a much worse peril comes along and sends the entire army fleeing in terror. In a way, the following sequence shows up everything silly and false about the Rings trilogy—the wide-eyed characters fleeing from one CGI combat to the next, the regrettable “Nobody tosses a dwarf!” gag, and the already-tired arrow-cam shot lifted from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. But it also embraces everything terrific about the series: the richly detailed design, the outsized emotions and even more outsized heroism, the mingled grief, awe, and renewed determination that follows a brave sacrifice. And Sauron himself isn’t as impressive-looking as the Balrog, a gigantic, beautifully rendered tower of flame, smoke, and evil. If there were a list for Movie Line Of The Year, Ian McKellen’s whispered, almost-sympathetic “Fly, you fools!” at the end of the sequence would doubtless wind up in the top 10.
“Transformation” song sequence, Brother Bear (2003)
The ’00s were a terrific time in animation, and we could cite dozens of particularly stunning sequences, from Chihiro entering the spirit world in Spirited Away to the beautifully paced “Syndrome’s plan revealed” montage in The Incredibles. (See above for appreciations of Up’s opening and Ratatouille’s climax.) But there’s something particularly trenchant and heartbreaking about this scene from Brother Bear, given that it was effectively the last meaningful gasp of Walt Disney’s once-mighty feature animation department. Like the “Colors Of The Wind” scene from Pocahontas or the “Circle Of Life” scene from The Lion King, it’s an animators’ showcase, deliberately created to show off the scope and richness of cel animation. It’s executed with an attention to spectacle and detail that doesn’t show up anywhere else in the largely unmemorable film. And even beyond the visual effects, it has a thematic subtlety that’s unusually layered for a Disney film. The story centers on Kenai, an Inuit hunter who kills a bear out of misplaced grief and anger; as punishment and teaching tool, the spirits of the north change him into a bear himself, so he can learn the gravity of what he’s done. As the magic takes hold and the spirit world rouses itself to protest the injustice of Kenai’s actions, the Bulgarian Women’s Choir sings to the hunter in Inuit, giving him an infinitely sympathetic, loving message that he (and the audience) can’t comprehend—“Your heart has turned away from me / And I will make you understand… / And all of those things that you feared will disappear from you in time.” It’s just a pretty scene in a generally disappointing kids’ movie, and yet it’s a beautifully realized metaphor for spirituality. In his rage and guilt, Kenai blinds himself to the world, and the omniscient, otherworldly force that wants to set things right can’t communicate in any language he understands; instead, it largely terrifies him, and he sees a meaningful act of compassion as capricious and baffling.
Natalie Portman and Clive Owen face off, Closer (2004)
As a movie, Closer makes for a fine play; it reveals its stage origins far too often, and a few of its scenes are downright clunkers. But at its best, it’s breathlessly seductive, particularly in the scene where Clive Owen runs into Natalie Portman at a strip club, hires her for a private show, and tries to bludgeon his way through her protective masks. It’s a terrific display of power-gaming, as they circle and fence; as soon as one scores a rhetorical victory, the other one changes the game. They’re both bringing their own needs to the table—Owen’s wife left him for Portman’s lover, and luring Portman to bed will even the score and reaffirm his desirability. Portman, similarly, wants to be back in control of her life, which she expresses by denying Owen emotional access to her, even as he’s exercising the customer’s cash-driven command over her naked body. They’re flirting with each other the whole time, but they’re also fighting to see who can get the most out of the encounter, and by the end of the scene, they’ve both won some points without deciding anything, and neither is likely to be fully satisfied. It’s beautifully written, and Portman and Owen play it to the hilt; every little smile that crosses her face means something, as do the moments where that smile falters, while he throws himself into his moment of breakdown and his quick, vicious recovery. Even their banked energy and quiet exchanges are electric.
Sunrise, Silent Light (2007)
Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light takes place on a Mennonite farm in Mexico, a world within a world so removed from the traditions and signposts of everyday life that were it not for the occasional truck passing through, the era could easily be mistaken for centuries earlier. (Even the language spoken, a German derivative called Plautdietsch, is conspicuously obscure.) The magisterial opening shot catches the sunrise, starting from near-darkness, as we hear a chorus of crickets and cows against faint streaks of clouds, then watching as light and color burst on the horizon, and day breaks across the magnificent countryside. It suggests that the Mennonites have carved out a rural idyll for themselves—that is, until the very next shot strongly implies otherwise. (Fair warning: A YouTube clip has been included above, but it can’t do justice to the power of seeing it on a decent screen.)
“I’ve Seen It All,” Dancer In The Dark (2000)
The casting of Björk as a Czech factory worker in ’60s Washington state in Dancer In The Dark led to a famously contentious relationship between the pop star and director Lars von Trier, but there’s no denying the potent combination of her voice and his talent for wrenching stories of female self-sacrifice. There are few more powerful sequences in this or any decade than the one where Björk, having resolved to shorten her life in order to improve her son’s, poignantly sings about her lack of regret. With the sounds of a freight train as a backbeat and Peter Stormare doing the call to her response as a duet partner, “I’ve Seen It All” captures the depth of her loss with raw, unvarnished passion.
Reunion at the café, You Can Count On Me (2000)
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan wrote his debut feature, You Can Count On Me, as an expansion on one long scene between estranged siblings meeting in a café. The sister, played by Laura Linney, is a responsible single mother who lives in the same town in the same house in upstate New York where she and her younger brother grew up. The brother, played by Mark Ruffalo, is a drifter screw-up who disappears for long stretches at a time and can never seem to get his life together. Nevertheless, the two share a close bond forged by their parents’ death in a car accident when they were little, and Linney can hardly contain her excitement over seeing Ruffalo again. Then he tells her where he’s been and what his plans are, and the scene quickly takes a turn for the worst. Between Linney’s crushing disappointment and Ruffalo’s shame and defensiveness in the face of her disapproval, they pick up on a conversation they’ve likely had for much of their adult lives—one that leaves both of them wounded.
“A Waltz For A Night,” Before Sunset (2004)
On paper, it sounded like the worst possible idea for a sequel: How could Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy possibly follow up the exquisite dusk-’til-dawn romance of Before Sunrise, which ended on such a perfect note of will-they-or-won’t-they ambiguity? Then for the first 75 minutes of Before Sunset, they proceed to justify themselves with an achingly poignant conversation between one-night lovers Hawke and Delpy that’s tinged with regret over the 10 years that have passed, and the unsatisfying lives they’ve led in the interim. The truth? That one night really was special, and their reunion both confirms their feelings for each other and threatens to become a fresh source of pain and regret. And then, in its final few minutes, the already-miraculous Before Sunset does something more improbable—it gives us a moment that’s just as perfectly ambiguous as the train departure that ended the first film, and one that’s just as flush with possibility.
“Going to town” montage, Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
The goofy absurdist comedy Wet Hot American Summer was made with a very specific sub-subset of an audience in mind: It’s meant to appeal mainly to Gen-X latchkey kids who trace their pop-cultural roots back to ’80s Hollywood trash, particularly teenage getaway movies like Meatballs, Poison Ivy, and SpaceCamp, or their slasher cousins Friday The 13th and Sleepaway Camp. (That probably explains why the film has such a strong cult following, and also why it was poorly reviewed by critics of a different generation.) It’s constantly commenting on itself and its influences, never more effectively than in the cheesy montage sequences that go off into ridiculous tangents. The “going to town” montage features a group of camp counselors who pile into a pickup truck and head into the all-American burg of Waterville for the afternoon. They start with detours to the library and the ice-cream shop, but their activities get less and less wholesome as the day wears on. By the end, the campers are splayed out in a seedy heroin den, shooting up and shaking from withdrawal. All in all, a fun day.