As the new year begins, and awards season gets in full swing, critics will offer their insights into the best films of the past year. It’s rare such films are released in the January-February months. The beginning of the year is known as a dumping ground for films left on the shelf or unwanted flops-to-be that studios prefer you ignore.
Pairing down a list of ten, or even fifteen, films after digesting a full year of entertainment and artistry isn’t easy, and critics are often accused of going along with the popular crowd. The chances of La La Land not winning Best Picture this year are about the same as Hamilton not winning a Tony. These things often feel pre-ordained, rightly or wrongly. If you know the system, if you understand the mechanics of Hollywood and the kind of backroom campaigning that goes on prior to awards shows, you don’t need FiveThirtyEight to win your Oscar pool (given their predictions for the presidential election, it’d be best to avoid them entirely).
But what is rarely spoken of, safe for a few websites, are the best scenes of the year, those indelible moments that can only be experienced on screen. Choices like that are far more personal than your standard top ten list.
Scenes are orchestrated to evoke emotion (those tears you cried during Saving Private Ryan weren’t an accident, folks), and even lesser films can have a few stand out moments. Here are just a handful.
15. The Shallows – The First Attack
At face value, the films of Jaume Collet-Serra appear to be middling action schlock, the kind of films that, were A-Listers not in the cast, you would find go direct to OnDemand (the modern equivalent of straight-to-DVD). His work is just eccentric enough, however, to attract a wider audience. His collaborations with Liam Neeson push a little further than a standard action flick; there’s enough quirk involved to attract those big names he keeps drawing in.
And the man certainly has an eye. His best, most beautiful work to date comes from a script long on the black list. For the first hour or so, The Shallows is a pitch-perfect shark attack thriller, Collet-Serra’s camera establishing a mood always teetering between breathtaking scenery and potential dread. It often remains at water-level, bobbing above and beneath; the audiences eyes dart around the frame every time it goes under.
Then it happens. As surfer Blake Lively catches one last enormous wave, a silhouetted beast grows bigger and closer behind her and she’s thrown from her board.
14. 10 Cloverfield Lane – Twilight Zone Ending
J.J. Abrams in-universe-only sequel to Cloverfield began life as a simple script called The Bunker about a madman holding a woman hostage in a bunker. The woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) begins to adapt to her new enclosure and along with her fellow captive (John Gallagher Jr.) and captor (John Goodman) slowly become a family, each one convinced that a catastrophic event has wiped out society above them.
The cracks begin to show – both in Goodman’s apocalyptic story and his personality – and Winstead is forced to make a daring escape.
Originally, it ended there. When Abrams got his hands on it, he…well, Abrams-ed it. After her intense standoff with Goodman, Winstead discovers that his apocalypse-talk was legit and is forced to combat an alien. It’s nothing brilliant, but it makes for one hell of an entertaining popcorn ride by way of a Richard Matheson-esque twist.
13. Dog Eat Dog – Willem Dafoe’s Confession
In Paul Schrader’s little-seen, frenzied, drug-addled crime thriller, Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Matthew Cook are hired by a crime boss to kidnap the infant son of a businessman heavily in debt. To say things go awry is an understatement. It’s a mess of a film, with the director somehow channelling his 70s motifs mixed with a splash of Harmony Korine. In short, it’s difficult to say if it’s terrible or great, though it does end with Cage delivering a prolonged Humphrey Bogart impression.
After Dafoe accidentally blows the head off their target, he and Cook are forced to dispose of the body. Dafoe, a severe junkie, drives to an abandoned building off the Cincinnati pier. The two begin to carry the corpse up a ruined staircase to a spot where Dafoe previously disposed of a mother and daughter.
His rambling, ranting pleas to Cook are the stuff of drugged out nonsense. He asks his cohort to come up with list of five character flaws that he can work on to change as a person. His nonstop chattering, along the burden of carrying a corpse up a staircase that eventually falls through, leads Cook to pull out his gun.
12. Hell or High Water – Final Confrontation
Taylor Sheridan’s terrific script finds two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) robbing the various branches of the same bank throughout Texas. Jeff Bridges is the casually racist Texas ranger tasked with tracking them down.
To spoil more would be a shame, but things do of course come to a head in the final scene, as Bridges and Pine meet outside a farm house. The scene is drenched in tension, ready to explode into a hail of gunfire at any moment. But it’s the potential of violence rather than the act that makes the scene crackle. Their guns may be loaded, but so is the conversation.
11. Zootopia – At the DMV
Disney’s Zootopia follows standard themes of the company. Adversity and differences are overcome by anthropomorphic animals just trying to find their place in the world. Still, it’s charmingly funny, with several inspired animal-as-people jokes. The best was the film’s selling point; its initial trailer was simply the scene where meter maid/bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) accompanies con fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to the DMV.
The DMV was the butt of 80s brick wall stand up comics, but Zootopia manages to breathe some new life into a fairly tired routine: the DMV is run by sloths. After Bateman tells one sloth a joke, it takes a maddeningly long time for the bureaucrat to laugh, then repeat the joke to a coworker.
10. The VVitch – Black Phillip Responds
For reasons unknown, the cinematic Internet community engaged in an extensive debate about Robert Eggers’ debut film earlier this year. The question was whether or not it can be considered a horror film. It’s perplexing, as any film that features a man gored by a goat and kills a baby for witch oil pretty solidly lands in the horror genre.
After being expelled from a puritan community for – frankly – being too pure, a family lives in exile, soon to be terrorized by the titular villain. What makes The VVitch particularly engaging is not only the meticulously detailed period design, but also the perpetual sense of dread that permeates every scene.
9. The Jungle Book – King Louie
Jon Favreau‘s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic – or more accurately a live-action adaptation of Disney’s animated film – is not without its flaws. It’s episodic, it suffers from bad child actor-itis, and it’s a little too streamlined. One thing it certainly can’t be faulted for is its impressive roster of voices, from Sir Ben Kingsley to Garry Shandling (in what turned out to be his final role).
After Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is taken hostage by monkeys, he’s led through an astonishing set of ruins to King Louie (Christopher Walken). The confrontation between the Kong-sized Louie and Mowgli is shot and plays out much like one of Walken’s mob kingpin roles. He sits mostly in shadow, his soothing voice both reassuring and intimidating at the same time. Then, of course, he breaks into one of Disney’s most memorable numbers. For a brief moment, you forget you’re in a jungle at all, but instead in the Don’s private room.
8. Kate Plays Christine – Filming The Suicide
Robert Greene’s quasi-documentary about the on-air suicide of Sarasota TV personality Christine Chubbuck has an awful lot to say. It follows indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she researches her role as the newswoman for a film (a fictitious made-for-TV movie).
To argue about what’s real or fictional in a documentary like this is futile, but the main question the audience is confronted with is whether or not a film about the tragic suicide of an emotionally damaged woman should even be approached. It’s true, newspapers and television networks don’t report on suicides so as not to incite copycats, so why should film be any different?
This culminates in a scene teased throughout the movie, in which Sheil tries in vain to recreate the suicide and, in a fourth wall-breaking moment, confronts us about why we would even want to see it. Sheil may stretch the limits of her acting ability (and another argument could be made claiming that’s part of the point as well), but it hits home, particularly in an age when the “if it bleeds, it leads” axiom has been amplified online.
7. Deadpool – Angel Of The Morning
Deadpool loses a lot of the goodwill it gains in the first act by devolving into a basic origin story, but that first act almost makes it worthwhile. Particularly of note are the opening credits, which mock the entire concept of running a list of names general audiences wouldn’t care about beyond Ryan Reynolds (credited here as “God’s Perfect Idiot” as People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” cover of Reynolds floats past the screen).
Set to Juice Newton’s version of “Angel of The Morning,” the camera moves in slow motion through a car as it flips over, each credit more insulting to those involved as the last until finally, the director (who has since left Deadpool 2, but of course not over this) listed as “An Overpaid Tool.”
6. Don’t Breathe – Night Vision
Fede Alvarez’s follow up to the Evil Dead remake proved beyond a doubt that he could hold his own and, quite possibly, remain a unique voice in the horror genre. Don’t Breathe follows Jane Levy (a carryover from Dead) and two friends in bankrupted Detroit as they break into an old blind man’s house to nab a large sum of cash.
The blind man (Stephen Lang aka The Party Crasher in The Hard Way) turns out to be much more adept at killing than one would expect, and the three are locked in with him. The unrelenting tension continues to ratchet up, culminating in a thrilling scene in which Lang shuts the lights off in the basement, leading to an extended cat and mouse chase in pitch darkness.
5. Hail Caesar! – “Would That It T’were So Simple”
The Coen Bros. have always had a way with language and dialogue. Be it the icy cool noir of their debut Blood Simple or the downright poetry that is Miller’s Crossing, they always have a knack for getting under your skin.
One consistency in the Coens’ scripts, apart from their quality, is the joy they take in repetition. The Big Lebowski used it for laughs, Barton Fink used it to terrify and confound. Hail Caesar! pits pretentious director Ralph Fiennes‘ against dim cowboy star Alden Ehrenreich (the upcoming young Han Solo) to perfectly express the kind of frustrations and complications lead handler Josh Brolin encounters daily as he struggles to keep the studio out of the tabloids.
4. Captain America: Civil War – Airport Showdown
We’ve been in the age of the comic book film for over eight years now, and its taken that long and thirteen films for Marvel to perfectly capture an action scene staged as though it was a comic book come to life. After 2 hours of build-up, both sides of the fractured Avengers charge toward one another in what can only be described as a fanboy’s wet dream.
It’s a calamitous, funny, thrilling few minutes of celluloid, proving the patience that Marvel exuded in this time was worth the wait, that 8 years of anticipation could never be challenged by a mere few rushed DC films.
3. Green Room – Negotiations
Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the terrific Blue Ruin serves as its predecessor’s opposite; where Ruin was a painstaking slow burn, Green Room is nauseatingly intense. After a punk band witnesses a murder backstage at a neo-Nazi bar, they’re trapped by the owners, all the while desperately seeking escape.
A panicky, never-better Anton Yelchin, armed with a pistol and a hostage in the titular room, begins negotiations through the barricaded door with Patrick Stewart, the eerily cool-headed leader of the group. After an intense discussion, he agrees to hand the weapon through the door, only to have his hand returned barely hanging off his body.
2. High Rise – “SOS”
J.G. Ballard’s novel, not unlike his controversial Crash, took a long time to make it to screen, with directors and cast dropping in and out at various stages. At last Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field In England) took on the complicated work, which follows a near-futuristic, utopian apartment complex that falls into class warfare.
It doesn’t take long, and rather than focus on the miniscule events that lead to the building’s societal collapse, it takes place in a matter of minutes in a montage set to Portishead’s cover of “SOS.” It’s a frightening thought, that everything can fall apart within a matter of minutes. But it’s a thought not out of the realm of possibility.
1. I Am Not A Serial Killer – The Reveal
One of the year’s best films is not to be found on many best of lists, and it’s a shame. Billy O’Brien’s deceptively simple 80s throwback finds a young man named John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) convinced he has all the traits of a serial killer, though he desperately doesn’t want to become one. When bodies start turning up around town – brutally torn to pieces and missing organs – he becomes fascinated at the prospect of finding a real serial killer in his hometown.
In between helping his elderly neighbour (Christopher Lloyd) and meetings with his therapist, he begins his own investigation and believes he’s pinned a suspect. Said suspect follows Lloyd on an ice fishing expedition, with Records in tow.
Then it happens. To give away the film’s major twist, which sets up the film’s final two-thirds, would be criminal. It’s not only brilliant, but leads to a darkly funny, suspenseful, and surprisingly touching conclusion.