The last segment in my compilation of the best scenes in movie history. This set of five movies is highly eclectic, totally inconsistent, and in some cases, not that well known. But the scenes noted are highly emotional and very impactful. If you haven’t seen these movies, well worth a watch.
Magnolia – and then there was a smile
It’s hard to say that Magnolia is not a genius movie with an amazing cast. Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise (totally against type), and so on. This disjointed Los Angeles-based fable of flawed characters and their intersecting arcs has the highest potential of careening in random directions at worst, and at best, of simply ending without saying anything more than that its characters are hard luck despite their privilege, and pretty much to be reviled.
Never has a movie that bleeds such darkness around misfortune turned on such a dime, however, and in this case due to the acting of Melora Waters. Abused, addicted, emotionally unstable, she’s a wonderful study in a damaged person, rejecting anything good that comes near her. And so how is it that she’s sitting in a bed, listening to the murmured promises of her would-be-boyfriend, weeping and sullen, and still nevertheless hears something that causes her to look straight at us – at every one of us watching her terrible journey? And she smiles.
How does a movie that spends so long showing us our flaws reverse its course in its very last frame on the strength of nothing more than a smile? Well, it’s an easy explanation because it is, to say the least, the most beautiful smile ever committed to film – because it comes from such a downtrodden place, and because, most especially, that smile is meant for us, the audience. It’s a gift, that smile, that pulls us out of the malaise and takes us to a different place altogether.
Speed Racer – the finish line
Don’t we want to see the good guy win? This movie written by the Wachowskis has been universally panned, although it has gained a large cult following since its release. It’s not The Matrix, to be sure. It’s based on an old cartoon and is brought to life as though it is a cartoon, with the most vivid colours and improbable laws of physics imaginable. At its core, it’s about a belief system – that car racing is pure, and that our escapes are real havens for our aching minds. Only they’re not, and corruption weeds its way in as our hero Speed tries to match the racing prowess of his brother, who died long ago.
Villains abound, racing ensues, and the odds are clearly stacked against our hero in the final race. Everyone is out to get him. But he simply drives as the music soars, dispatching enemy after enemy as the finish line approaches, and his family roars maniacally from the stands – and as those moments pass, it’s revealed what really happened to his brother, just how much hurt can be found in the moments when we just want to escape.
Don’t we want to see the good guy win? Yes, we do. And in this case, that’s exactly what we see, in the sweetest, most elevating way possible. This is a moment that makes us believe that we can make a whole new world. That this other world is indeed possible – we just need to move fast enough, that’s all.
The Thin Red Line – the charge
Back in the day, a movie called Saving Private Ryan came out, telling a tale of WWII. It won awards, though the most memorable part of it seems to be how to show people being butchered on a beach. Near that time, a second WWII movie came out, called The Thin Red Line, less a war movie and more a meditation on life brought to us by the ephemeral Terrence Malick. It might, to tell the truth, be one of the greatest movies ever made, seeking as it is the soul of we as a people.
There is brightness and evil aplenty here, never as commingled as during the American raid of a Japanese encampment. Bayonets are mounted. Shots are fired. And the Americans charge as music levels up. Some of the Japanese resist. Some sit stoically on the ground, hands together in prayer as their camp is overrun. There are no exploding bodies here. No limbs flying in all directions. But the awfulness of this great evil is palpable, and soul-searing. This is a true look into the terrible things we can become at times, the hurts we can do to each other, an awful view on humanity and how it can be perverted, far more tragic than anything its more famous counterpart has to say.
Only later do we learn the deceit, that this movie also questions the origin of whatever it is that is the opposite of evil – where does that come from? A very close second most-emotional moment in this movie is when our protagonist goes up against a platoon of Japanese soldiers himself, with inevitable consequences – and we see the reactions of his comrades, even the ones who have given up on literally everything, as they behold an existence without that one shining light in it. This is the stuff of tragedy.
Donnie Darko – Mad World
No one saw Donnie Darko coming, and no one’s seen anything like it since. An 80’s based, music-y examination of mental illness, populated by motivational speakers, giant bunny rabbits and ruminations on time travel, this movie shouldn’t work. But somehow, it ties together compellingly, from beginning to send, as Donnie wrestles with his own illness, his concepts of fate, and a coming storm as tragedy after tragedy befall the surrounding characters.
Donnie does the only thing he can think of to remove the stain of those tragedies – he resets the timeline, sacrificing himself as he does. The scene that ensues – characters who are now living rather than dead, spared heartache rather than tossed headlong into painful self-realization – is topped by Gary Jules version of Tears for Fears’ Mad World.
The piano tinkers as we dance through the lives of the characters that Donnie touched, some of whom he saved as he moved back through time. They know that something is wrong. They know that something has changed. Or were they always like this, alone in the dark, questioning who they are and where they’re going? This is moving stuff, perfectly assembled to make a statement in a musical stretch where not a word is said but everything is felt.
Armageddon – Chick
Oh come now – was it really that bad a movie? How can you be more creative than having an asteroid hurtling towards Earth and a bunch of deep sea drillers heading into orbit in two space shuttles to make a hole in the spinning rock into which they can plant a nuclear bomb? Bruce Willis, playing expert driller Harry Stamper, certainly thought it was a reasonable scenario, and he does indeed do the heroic thing, sacrificing himself on the asteroid to blow up the darn rock, saving the whole planet.
This is emotional stuff, but not the pinnacle of it. No, Bruce’s friend Chick gets the magic. He’s a gambling addict who’s thrown away his marriage, so badly that his wife wants nothing to do with him, and his son doesn’t even know he exists. Chick tries to connect with his estranged family before he goes into space, but his wife doesn’t want anything to do with him – and his son doesn’t recognize him. But they see him on television later as the President talks about this desperate plan to save humanity, and Chick’s wife reveals to her son that this man on the television, vaguely familiar, is his dad. Cue Bruce Willis saving the world.
All the other astronauts who survive come home to someone, greeted as they are on the tarmac by loved-ones. But not Chick. He’s got no one. He’s the guy that helped save the world but will be going home alone – until he tilts his head and sees his son running towards him. This is a moment of redemption. Hero of the world notwithstanding, he’s certain that he wouldn’t get this moment, but he does. He finally did something right. If you can’t feel for him in that moment, what can you feel?