The Best Scenes in Movie History Pt. III

blue sky with white clouds during night time
blue sky with white clouds during night time
Photo by Miriam Espacio on

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?

Dream hard, rage hard.

9 thoughts on “The Best Scenes in Movie History Pt. III

  1. I loved ‘Magnolia’. Great analysis of that movie.

    I just watched ‘Donnie Darko’ with my mom as a quarantine activity. First viewing for her. I read aloud to her your thoughts on that film—easily a favorite of mine. Heartbreaking, profound, terrible and beautiful.

    She keeps trying to “understand” the movie itself, and I see it as poetry in motion….

    1. Totally agreed, Donnie Darko is just a tone poem come to life! Such a unique flick.

      I just love Magnolia. Amazing characters and a pay off that’s so amazing.

  2. Take Two. Wrote my comment with my phone at work… got a few customers and accidentally flushed my comment. Sigh.
    Love how you’ve analysed these movies, sharing with us your thoughts. I don’t usually pay such attention. I did, however, love Magnolia and, even though I am kinda done with the “‘Murica saves the world” thing, I admit to enjoying Armageddon. The only link to Donny Darko was that I made a cake for a client 😉 Maybe I should actually watch it. I didn’t see the other two but you got me to thinking… There is one movie that had a moment that struck me. Have you seen “The Mission”? Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson… Spain and Portugal fighting over an area in Argentina where indigenous people, the Guarani live. I don’t believe in what Missionaries do as a rule but in this case, you really feel for Father Gabriel (Irons). Cardinal Altamirano must choose sides, the results of which end in bloodshed, After the massacre, he looks right at the camera, at us. It’s something else.

  3. Genuinely cannot see why the fuss about Donnie Darko. Couple of hours of my life I’,m not having back. Armageddon annoyed for it’s ‘How America saves rhe world’ jingoism, but I always enjoy Bruce Willis, and of course you get Liv Tyler, which is no bad thing at all

    1. Think Donnie Darko just felt like something new. Dug the acting, the music. The weirdness of it all, especially the time travel theories. Jena Malone. Jake G. The mom, Maggie G. The leader of the dance group. Sparkle Motion. Patrick Swayze playing… something else. Frank, the giant bunny rabbit. Mad World, what a cover… Figure it’s a one-off. Lightning hitting the point of a needle. The director’s done nothing since, nothing of any repute. Never saw anything like it.

      Armageddon, the President’s speech when the astronauts are about to go up moves me. It’s yah a little American-heavy but also something more than that. Underrated bit of dialogue right there.

  4. For some reason I thought some our favourites would intersect. I confess that I haven’t even seen some of yours. Most of mine are moments that brought me to my knees weeping. I will keep them brief as this isn’t my blog.
    – GREEN MILE – When John Coffey is about to be taken to the electric chair and there is a moment between him and the Tom Hanks character. “I’m tired, boss…Mostly, I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world…every day. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head…all the time. Can you understand?”
    – NETWORK – The scene when the old news anchor looses it and tells everyone to yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” When you see all the people that open the windows and shout it is overwhelming.
    – NEWSROOM – (my ode to TV) The very first scene when when the panel is asked “can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” Jeff Daniels response is still the most honest thing I have ever heard in my life. This was a brilliant series.
    – IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER – When Giuseppe Conlon dies in prison an innocent man and word gets around to the inmates. They lite paper on fire and release it through the barred windows and it floats up. That scene destroyed me.
    – ST. VINCENT – When Bill Murray watches the presentation the little boy makes of him to tell everyone why he is his hero…
    – A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG – John Travolta’s last scene is brilliant
    – LOST BOYS – I freakin’ own 2 copies of this movie on VHS, 2 copies on DVD & 2 copies of the sound track. Still my favourite scene is when the grandfather walks to the fridge for a drink (after saving the day) and says, “One thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach: all the damn vampires.”

    I have more but like I said, I don’t want to take over. I am going to try and watch some of your choices that I’m not familiar with.

    1. I am incredibly glad you said In the Name of the Father. The one other scene that gets me is the courtroom, when the group is freed and they surge through the crowd and past the police to freedom. That is an incredible movie of feeling. And the Lost Boys… personal favourite, I could watch that movie forever. My kids laughed so hard at that last scene.

      This is only one of the reasons I like you, Michelle. Great list!

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