A few weeks ago I began to make a list of my favorite movie moments, which was inspired by Patton Oswalt’s book Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. And while I had originally intended to finish it that week, a little event called San Diego Comic-Con kind of got in the way, among a number of movies and comics coming out which I had to review.
Nevertheless, the following are my top five movie moments. And while it was a difficult task selecting these, I’m excited to share them here.
5) Clark Kent rattles off the contents of Lois Lane’s purse in Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)
I don’t care how many people say that the original Superman movie is outdated. I still see it as the masterpiece that it is, a movie which transcends any of the major superhero blockbusters of the modern age. Yes there have still been some great ones to come out in recent years, but none quite match the cinematic artistry and storytelling of Donner’s iconic take on the Man of Steel.
In this scene, after Clark (Christopher Reeve) and Lois (Margot Kidder) get mugged and Lois fends off the guy on her own, Clark uses his X-Ray vision to see what’s inside her purse. This is after he pretends to faint so as to hide the fact that the mugger shot him but caused no harm to his bulletproof body. After collecting himself, he then poses a question to Lois regarding how risky it was to defend herself against the gunman: “Really, Lois, supposing that man had shot you? Is it worth risking your life over ten dollars, two credit cards, a hairbrush, and a lipstick?”
It isn’t until after he says this that he realizes how suspicious it sounds, and when Lois asks him how he was able to identify the exact contents of her purse he simply replies, “Uh, wild guess”, in an innocent manner. Between Reeve and Kidder’s flawless chemistry and the delightfully paced dialogue by legendary screenwriter Mario Puzo, there’s so much to love in this scene. Whereas the majority of modern blockbusters get lost in endless displays of visual spectacles, it’s the character moments like the one here that make this movie such a classic.
4) Tesla’s Entrance in The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
The Prestige came out a year after Batman Begins, and while it would take The Dark Knight in 2008 for Christopher Nolan to become one of the most recognizable and widely-regarded modern filmmakers, this film is one of his earlier gems and remains an all-around stellar combination of mystery and character drama. Telling the story of rival magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) in the late 19th century, The Prestige has all the tenants of a Nolan film, with its non-chronological storytelling, complex characters, and relentless suspense.
In this scene, Angier aligns himself with the real-life inventor Nikola Tesla, who’s brilliantly portrayed in the film by the late, great David Bowie. As he ascends from an elaborate electrical device of his own design, both the framing of this shot and Bowie’s theatrical mannerisms create a majestic feel and aesthetic. Both Nolan and his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister know exactly how much detail to imbue into each shot so as to make moments like this one count.
3) Hogarth and the Giant sitting in Dean’s junkyard in The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, 1999)
The Iron Giant is my favorite animated movie of all time, so I knew it had to make this list somewhere. With this scene, the humanistic scope of the film is captured brilliantly in a single shot. After the young rascal Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal) has his robotic companion The Iron Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) spin him around in the air like a fighter pilot, the two sit in their friend’s junkyard next to one another. It’s a simple, albeit touching moment, as the film’s Spielberg influenced material comes to the forefront of a heartfelt story full of humor, action and imagination.
2) The opening scene in Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
Aspiring filmmakers can learn as much from watching and studying Edgar Wright’s movies as they can from a semester of formal film school. The UK writer-director is not only a master of quippy dialogue and corky characters, but especially of visual comedy. And with Shaun of the Dead, his 2004 zombie film parody and the first entry in his outstanding Cornetto trilogy, this aspect of the auteur’s style is particularly well exemplified.
In this scene, rather than use an establishing shot like most movies to introduce the setting and characters, Wright opens with a close-up of the movie’s titular protagonist Shaun (Simon Pegg). Here, information is gradually revealed to the audience for comedic effect. For instance, when Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) talks about how his clingy and lazy best friend Ed (Nick Frost) is interfering with their relationship, we don’t know until a moment later when the camera pans out that Nick is standing right next to them. Many comedic filmmakers seem to think that the jokes characters say are sufficient, when in actuality film is primarily a visual medium, no matter the movie’s genre.
1) Henry and Karen’s first date in Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
So this one is a bit more obvious, but that doesn’t make this iconic scene anything less than perfection. It’s been written about countless times, and the defining factor is always that it’s a single shot with about a three-minute run time. Here, the camera follows Henry (Ray Liotta) and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) from behind, shifting and swerving as the couple moves through the interiors of the gangster headquarters. Scorsese uses this scene to show Karen’s transition into the underworld, and how she’s swept into it all in an utterly intoxicating fashion. It’s a classic moment in a classic film, and one that has inspired numerous directors ever since.