The stand-out sequences from an excellent year at the movies.
As is tradition, this list has not been ranked in a qualitative order. It is, after all, incredibly hard, nay, near-impossible to numerically rank individual scenes from entirely different movies. Context is everything. Some of these scenes are throwaway moments in the grand scheme of the films they are a part of, others are pivotal exchanges in their narratives. Some are bombastic setpieces that aim to thrill and excite, whilst others are quieter affairs based around dialogue or mood. Some are crowdpleasing spectacle, others are deeply unsettling. More than any other year that I’ve been doing these supplementary lists, this instalment contains films that don’t appear on my Top 20 Films countdown (which starts tomorrow). Here, then, listed from least to most-spoilery, are the individual scenes that stuck with me the most throughout 2017.
There WILL be MAJOR SPOILERS throughout this piece. Proceed with caution.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
A lot of my favourite sci-fi is hopeful at its core; idealistic, even, about our future, and humanity’s collective response and engagement with it. That, when push came to shove, when the unknown came knocking, when progress was within reach, we would all put our best foot forward and embrace it with passion and democracy. Luc Besson appears to share my blind hope and, in the sublime opening montage to Valerian, he applies it to the birth of the International Space Station, its eventual expansion by and with the help of other countries, first contact with alien lifeforms, and humanity’s eventual subsuming into the wider galactic society. Every new meeting is happily embraced without reservations, and every single possible barrier to communication is circumvented by a simple handshake, the friendly greeting known the galaxy over. Besson packs so much hope and emotion into this single opening montage, and backs it with the absolute perfect music cue, that the rest of Valerian couldn’t hope to measure up even if it weren’t a total mess. These 4 minutes are the finest filmmaking of his entire storied career.
Edgar Wright’s main dynamic as a director, the interplay between legitimate cool and goofy nerdom as filtered through old movies and music, can be distilled down precisely to these 6 minutes of film. Baby Driver is a love letter to music in general, but it’s primarily a love letter to the way we listen to music. Finding the perfect song for just such an occasion, imagining the music video you’d make for it if given the chance, or even just grooving along like an idiot whilst sat waiting in your car; these are all angles that Wright hits during the pre-title chase, and he makes every single one of them look like the coolest goddamn thing in the entire world. The chase is spectacular, fuelled by Wright’s signature beat-specific cuts and accentuations, but it would be nothing without the pre-amble, of Baby joining in with Jon Spencer’s ad-libs, miming into water bottles, and tapping his car door in time with the snare. Rather than being an empty exercise in cool, it’s the relatable everyday little interaction that comes naturally to some that hooks the viewer in, then Wright’s going to show you just how cool that fantasy looks up on the big-screen.
Catching-up with the Browns
By the time Paddington 2 reacquaints us with the sweet-natured bear, he’s been living in Windsor Gardens for quite a while. The Browns have accepted him as one of their own, and almost all of the residents of Windsor Gardens have taken a shine to the boy in some way. Life is close to idyllic, and, through Paddington’s letter to his Aunt Lucy, we get to see all of the ways in which his mere presence has started bringing out the best selves in the street’s inhabitants. Paul King’s direction remains as charmingly showy and stagey as ever, and the whole sequence beams with positivity as this diverse snapshot of modern London life goes by, almost like a vision of what modern society could be like. There’s no more perfect a re-introduction to the world of Paddington, and King and co-screenwriter Simon Farnaby also pepper the sequence with enough of the film’s good-natured jokes to keep things from becoming too saccharine too quickly.
This is where Logan firmly demonstrates what kind of movie it is going to be. The real introduction to X-23 (Laura), on paper, should be this awesome, cool, crowdpleasing, adrenaline-pumping moment; an iconic debut in this film for a character who theoretically would mean a tonne for little girls everywhere that don’t see themselves represented in superhero movies that often. Maybe for some it still is, but for everybody else the sequence is initially awesome but very quickly becomes absolutely horrifying. Maybe it’s Laura’s primal screams of pure rage, maybe it’s the sheer amount of blood and lost appendages that are strewn about, maybe it’s because of just how much punishment she and Logan take in their frantic escape, maybe it’s because James Mangold draws firm attention to just how scrappy and frenzied and desperate the fighting from everybody is, but the cumulative effect of it all is stomach-churning. The violence – the long-awaited, R-rated violence – starts, and you immediately want it to be over, because it’s not cool and it’s not awesome. It’s just horrifying.
The Seoul chase
Bong Joon-ho’s secret directorial weapon is his keen sense of humour, and it’s one that frequently manifests in the most unexpected of ways. It can be sharp and cutting, like in Okja’s utterly vicious satire against the corporatized and morally-bankrupt food industry, it can be absurdist and loud, such as with Jake Gyllenhaal’s bizarre yet weirdly perfect turn as a washed-up children’s nature programme host, and, in the most gleefully fun sequence that Okja has to offer, it can be a farcically manic pile-up. Mija’s impromptu rescue attempt of Okja from Mirando’s forces starts with her flinging herself into a plate glass door whilst a snooty receptionist berates her, and then takes in truck clamberings, the world’s most polite eco-terrorists, a truck driver actively contemptuous of his job, a runaway super-pig, an underground mall, and finally the year’s best invocation of John Denver (in a year where it seemed like every other film was also infatuated with the same two John Denver songs). Not only is it glorious fun, it’s also highly reminiscent of the king of madcap chase sequences: Steven Spielberg.
The Ultimate Weapon
The LEGO Ninjago Movie
I somehow did not have this spoiled for me. The reveal of what The Ultimate Weapon is comes rather early into LEGO Ninjago, after the kind of hype that normally trails debuting WWE wrestlers, so I guess it makes some kind of sense to give it away in the marketing, but I managed to avoid it through what I am going to put down as sheer dumb luck, and I am so glad that I did. Garmadon has conquered Ninjago City, all hope seems lost, and then Lloyd bursts in with the forbidden Ultimate Weapon, pointing it directly at his evil father. He presses it… and nothing happens. A few moments later, however, we discover that what Lloyd was holding was a laser pointer designed to summon the real Ultimate Weapon: a cat. Not a LEGO cat, not a talking cat, an actual live-action cat awkwardly green-screened into its surroundings that proceeds to chase the pointer and destroy the city. You could have heard my laughter from about 3 towns over at that reveal; it’s the hardest I have laughed at anything all year, and they should not have given it away in the marketing.
A gentleman calls
A Quiet Passion
By this point of A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson’s depression and self-loathing has taken her over so completely that she has practically cut herself off from the rest of society, confining herself to her room and forcing any prospective gentleman callers to converse with her from the bottom of her staircase, believing that they would recoil in horror should they catch sight of her. Her barbed conversation with Mr. Emmons appears to have gone like most others – he attempts to coax her out, she rebukes him with cutting barbs – yet it is clear that he has struck a chord with her as, that night, she proceeds to dream about a man that resembles him stealing a way into her house to see her. She awaits with gaslight in a chair by her open door as he ascends the staircase, adulation spreading across her face. But her self-loathing is so deep-seated that even in her dreams she can’t conceive of what such an encounter would be like when he does make it up the stairs, and so the door closes of its own volition, once again leaving her painfully alone. The next day, when he calls, she viciously scorns him, and Mr. Emmons does not return again.
Choose Life Redux
“Choose Life,” as I mentioned back in my review of T2, has always been a toxic, bitter, childish, nihilistic monologue delivered by a self-centred hypocritical drug addict. It’s a mantra designed to make the person who believes in it feel superior to society around them and therefore feel excused to drop out and waste their lives making no contributions to the world around them and driving any and all of their friends away through their own selfish destructive behaviour. In Trainspotting, we all mistook it for being cool because Danny Boyle’s filmmaking was so propulsive and Iggy Pop was blaring on the soundtrack and the film’s refusal to moralise loudly meant that less-attentive people could lose themselves in the fun. T2, the movie-length sobering comedown, reprises “Choose Life” midway through, updated for the 21st Century, now delivered by an embittered and terrified Renton who has realised exactly how badly he has fucked up his life, and that there is no better path available to him, so has resigned himself to venomously lashing out at the world at large in a desperate failing attempt to tell himself that he is still better than everybody else. The result reveals what “Choose Life” has always been: pathetic and sad.
Since Clover returned to her family’s farm in the aftermath of her brother’s suicide, she’s refused to allow herself the opportunity to grieve, instead distracting her mind from what has happened via busywork, making funeral arrangements, tending to the farm, and pulling at threads in an attempt to rationalise Harry’s fatal decision that would also allow her to blame anyone else but him or herself. It’s not until now that she starts to confront the grief head on, even if it’s just defensively. The priest conducting the ceremony is gently forcing Clover to confront those largely suppressed feelings whilst deciding on a reading, whereupon Clover attempts to firmly shut down the notion that she feels some kind of guilt with the 4 most quietly devastating words I have heard in a film all year: “I wasn’t even here.”
Within souls interlinked
Blade Runner 2049
The relationship between K and Joi is one of undeniable tragedy no matter how cynical one reads the inherent artificiality of it – one is a Replicant uncertain of whether his nature as a product of a multinational corporation means he has no soul, the other is an Artificial Intelligence manufactured and programmed by that same corporation to service its customers in whatever way their needs desire. Two souls, playing at the concept of romance, whose programming leave it forever uncertain as to whether the other’s reciprocations are real, and physically incapable of finding something, well, physical. Even Joi’s attempt to provide K with what he wants end up heartbreakingly out-of-sync, literally as she orders a prostitute that K had briefly met earlier in the film to provide the physical sensations she can’t. The two drift in and out of one another, Joi incapable of fully losing herself in this woman, always on the outside looking in, forever apart.
No other scene better epitomises Girls Trip than the already legendary exchange in which Dina explains to a confused Sasha and an intrigued Lisa – who is only just now venturing back into the dating scene after a painful divorce, and is worried that she won’t be able to satisfy men the same way that her younger, more-experienced counterparts can – what grapefruiting is. Grapefruiting, which is a real thing for the record, involves sticking a cut-open grapefruit over a man’s penis and using it to jerk him off whilst simultaneously giving him a blowjob, and, just in case in her descriptions left everyone confused as to how it works, Dina gleefully demonstrates with props whilst the other two ladies look on in bemusement. The audacity makes it stick out, particularly with director Malcolm D. Lee and writers Kenya Barris & Tracy Oliver’s refusal to cut the scene short, but it’s Tiffany Haddish’s complete commitment to and bizarre joy in the bit that truly makes the scene. Most comedies would be content to leave the exchange there, but, because Girls Trip is not most comedies, the film pays it off later on, along with several other fantastic running gags, in a way that elevates the entire thing to an all-timer.
Badly-used faux-one-take sequences are the bane of my film-viewing experience. Yes, I get it. You watched Children of Men in Film School, can stage a scene that lasts longer than 60 seconds without needing to cut between 3 different cameras, and can at least semi-disguise the seams in your construction. Bravo(!) Gold star(!) Quit drawing attention to your being a special little snowflake! David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde makes its centrepiece one of these showy indulgences, except that not only does he purposefully not even attempt to properly hide the seams, he also brings something that pretentious hacks like Revenant-Iñárritu forget in their showiness: thematic context. Leitch’s faux-one-take – encompassing a gun battle, a brutal 2-on-1 stairway fight, an even more brutal scrap on the ground floor, and finally concluding with a car chase – demonstrates in step-by-step detail exactly how fucked Lorraine’s extraction mission becomes, and the knockdown, drag-out scrambling required to keep it on the rails. The cool that cloaks the rest of the film dissipates, and what’s left is scrappy, desperate, and so very painful.
In a crowd
The Road to Mandalay
Lien-Ching goes through so much shit throughout The Road to Mandalay – being falsely evicted by her sister, raided by Thai immigration authorities, fired from her abysmally-paying job, creeped on by a quintessential self-styled Nice Guy, repeatedly denied the legal papers required to allow her to start making a life for herself, and frequently robbed of all her money by some circumstance or other – that it’s a wonder she doesn’t crack sooner. But when she does, upon finding out that the very expensive though fraudulent papers she paid extortionate amounts of money for aren’t even convincingly fake, the moment is pure devastation. Riding on the back of A-kuo’s moped through the city in the pouring rain, surrounded on all sides at a roundabout by a tonne of uncaring traffic, Lien finally bursts into tears, tired of everything. But director Midi Z forces us to watch from an uncaring distance, Lien being just another body in the crowd, her sobs failing to register above the rumbling of all of those engines and the sheer distance between her and the camera. By the time A-kuo has navigated back around the roundabout, Lien has recomposed herself because the world around her does not care about her pain nor its release.
“You know I can’t give you the keys, right, babe?”
I could have picked any number of sequences from Jordan Peele’s racially-charged, painfully incisive, masterclass in Social Horror, but I had to give the edge to the moment when the Armitages’ facade drops completely and Chris realises just how fucked he truly is. The reveal that Rose has been in on the trap comes just before, yet Peele knows that a large percentage of his audience are going to be desperately trying to convince themselves that it’s not true, that it couldn’t possibly be true, and so proceeds to twist the viewer’s nerves as much as he possibly can. For those who don’t want to believe it, it’s an exercise in leaning ever closer to the screen begging for the inevitable to somehow not come true. For those who already know the truth, the joy (if one can call it that) is in watching Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris slowly come to the exact same realisation as the other half of the audience in the exact same way, all as Peele drags out the tension to absolute breaking point. It’s masterful crowdpleasing filmmaking intertwined seamlessly with biting social commentary, and the moment that Alison Williams’ Rose drops the act and utters that line is one of the most spine-chilling in all of Film (perhaps) this decade.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
They actually did it. The geniuses at DreamWorks Animation actually did it. Captain Underpants is such a faithful, loving adaptation of the titular source material (a series of beloved children’s books by Dav Pilkey) that they even found a way to work in the Flip-o-Rama, cleverly utilising it as a way to visualise the first half of the film’s action-packed finale on a very constrained budget. But it’s not just a meta-gag designed to play upon the unconventionality of Captain Underpants’ modest production. It’s also the filmmakers reverently treating every last aspect of their source material, realising it all on-screen, and saying that this silly thing you loved as a child mattered and deserves its moment in the sun. Even Harold accidentally tearing one of the pages carries the feeling of a shared understanding between filmmaker and viewer, rather than being a joke at the expense of the format. In this moment, and even with every other aspect of the film up to this point having gotten Captain Underpants dead-on, I was whisked back to 2003 and my first time reading one of those books in my school library at age 9, and that meant something to me.
Spider-Man: Homecoming never manages to get going until close to the end, when it’s revealed that The Vulture, the villain that Spider-Man has been battling throughout, is the father of Liz, the crush that Peter is taking to the prom. At the exact moment that Peter’s two lives collide together with the genuine, palpable stakes and danger that have eluded the film up to that point, Homecoming takes off like a rocket, especially since it wastes no time in having Vulture piece together the coincidences that have been nagging away at him since Peter turned up on his doorstep. It’s brilliantly tense, with menace constantly bubbling under the service, and it’s topped as soon as everybody arrives at the dance where, with Liz out of the car, Vulture calmly but forcefully lays all of the cards out on the table and informs Peter of exactly what will happen if he leaves the dance early. During this sequence, it becomes immediately clear what was missing from Homecoming up until then, but that doesn’t lessen the impact.
A Cure for Wellness
Is it worth an entire film’s worth of build-up? Probably not. Is it a thematically rich or emotionally heavy scene? Not really. Is there a whole lot to say about it? Seeing as I’ve been struggling with this one paragraph for the last half hour, I’d say no, definitely not. Still, few images stuck with me this year in quite the same way as watching Dane DeHaan have a giant tube forcibly shoved down his throat – in a manner where you can see the outline of the tube pushing out of his neck, no less – before Jason Isaacs pumps his body full of water and eels. In spite of the myriad of flaws in A Cure for Wellness, it at least gave me a sequence that I could not erase from my memory no matter how hard I have tried.
“Let the past die.”
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
If Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, and I refuse to drop the Episode VIII part of that title (sue me) – is basically Star Wars adapting Book 2 of Avatar: The Last Airbender, then this is the moment where Zuko rejects the chance to side with the rebels and instead retrenches himself in the Fire Kingdom’s loyalty. Technically, I’m cheating with this entry, since this is several scenes stretched over half an hour of film, intercut with the other strands of Jedi’s plot, but the cumulative effect is superb misdirection and even better storytelling. There’s the initial thrill of Kylo’s bisection of Snoke, the pure awesomeness of Kylo and Rey fighting side-by-side against Snoke’s elite Praetorian Guards in some of the best lightsaber-related action in the entire franchise, that sinking realisation that Kylo and Rey are addressing the same problem from different ends of the spectrum – Kylo in the belief that burning down the entire system is the only way to truly start anew, Rey by instead retrenching in the hope that sustained meaningful change can occur and that nobody has to be left behind by it (as it were) – and finally the symbolic splitting of Anakin’s lightsaber as these two opposing ideologies, which met briefly and fantastically in the middle, split off again into opposite directions to fight for control of the galaxy once more.
Immigrant Song (Reprise)
A lot of more idiosyncratic filmmakers who get drafted into hundred-million-dollar blockbuster tentpoles eventually lose their voice in the giant Third Act CGI blowout that all hundred-million-dollar blockbuster tentpoles are required by law to have; subsumed by generic and often-weightless chaos. However, like James Gunn before him, Taika Waititi never falls victim to that pitfall with the climax of Thor: Ragnarok. In fact, if anything, the Standard Marvel Action Finale reveals an until-now-unknown side of Waititi that is perfectly at home with making genuine crowdpleasing sequences of spectacle, as Thor and friends attempt to hold the line against Hela’s forces for long enough to allow Asgard’s citizens to escape. Thor’s newly-harnessed lightning powers see him carving through mooks like a hot knife through butter, Loki finally gets to display some combat prowess, the Hulk suplexes a giant wolf, and, my personal favourite, Valkyrie’s entrance in full-regalia is heralded by actual goddamn fireworks before she goes to work. And all set to a reprise that could not have been more well-earned.
It’s over. Armed police have surrounded the mall that the young wannabe terrorists who make up Nocturama’s protagonists have made their safe haven for the night, and the few who are aware of this information also know that none of them will be going home in handcuffs. In response, one of the kids connects their phone to the same booming stereo system that they’ve been abusing all night long and plays one final song: Blondie’s “Call Me.” Why “Call Me?” Who’s to say, but even those who aren’t exactly aware that their reckoning is inbound seem to infer that something is a miss just from hearing it. Some start making futile preparations, others carry on doing whatever it was they were doing, and some just… dance, losing themselves in abandon for 3 and a half minutes before everything goes to shit. In the context into which Bertrand Bonello drops the song, it becomes something akin to a haunting funeral march.
What were your favourite scenes of 2017? Let me know in the comments. Tomorrow: we begin the countdown of my Top 20 Films of 2017.
Callum Petch, grab the camcorder, we can make it a movie.