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As I reflect back on each years crop of films after the dust of awards season is beginning to settle and a new year is already starting, I find myself not only considering just my own favorite films and performances, but specific moments that I find unforgettable, regardless of the quality of the overall picture. There are times when the magic, power, and wonder of the cinema is so beautifully clear that I find myself saying in my head, “this is the reason I love film”. And it could be anything from a stunning visual to a sharply scripted exchange, an uproarious joke to an honest and moving catharsis, nail-biting suspense to serene silence, a crisply edited montage to an unbroken take. These are the images and feelings that stick with us long after the lights have gone up and we’ve left the theater. So before I delve into a countdown I may or may not finish, I feel like sharing with you the ones that have stuck in my head this past year, because why the hell not? They’re why I love film. (In fact, most of them I’ve also linked video of below each entry if you wish to view them yourself) Without further ado, here’s part one of my 2016 Best Movie Moments:


 

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“Would that it ’twere so simple” – HAIL, CAESAR!

The Coen Brothers’ latest delight was the first film of 2016 I saw in theaters, and as a lovingly crafted and sculpted homage to the classic Hollywood of the 1950s, it couldn’t have been a more perfect place to start. Chock full with spectacular tributes to every genre, and absurdities and witticisms galore, there are several moments, had I not limited myself to one per film, that could have easily made the list. And while I debated with myself briefly about choosing the positively brilliant hilarity of the religious leaders scene, it was hard to argue with the comedic gold they mined from this exchange between Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) with the simplest dialogue. The absolute fish out of water, yet honest and determined, nature of Doyle clashes with the decreasingly polite and increasingly stunned and exasperated Laurentz as the two struggle to perfect one specific line reading. Shot in close up, with rapid editing, the scene grows from humorous to giggle-inducing to uncomfortable to painful to ridiculous to masterfully funny. Perfectly crafted, and even more perfectly performed, it was so undeniably great that the marketing used it for almost the entirety of the second official trailer. It’s quite possibly one of the Coen’s finest scenes in their entire filmography. (Watch the whole scene)

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“What do you call a three-humped camel?” – ZOOTOPIA

There was so much to love about Disney animation’s early 2016 release, so much that it caught me somewhat off guard. Expertly navigating complex and timely concepts and metaphors with helpful doses of charming humor, it’s one of their best, and most relevant, creations. But how to best sell such a potentially challenging pill to swallow? Once again, simplicity is the key. As if taking a page from the HAIL, CAESAR! book, they structured an entire trailer around this one scene. The two almost strangely work together in the extreme lengths to which their jokes are played out, to the point where they just become transcendent. We’ve all experienced the seeming eternity of waiting at the DMV, so the reveal of the DMV employees in Zootopia being sloths is a very cute, if potentially obvious, nod to our frustrating ordeals. But its cuteness becomes ingenious as we slowly become aware of the maximum, but nevertheless lovable, ineptness of these creatures as they perform their mundane tasks. It truly touches greatness when, as an exasperated Judy Hopps’ (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) request to run a license plate number is nearing a painfully drawn out completion, sly Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) chooses to delay the process even further by telling a joke. Once the punchline hits the ironically named Flash, the ever so gradual realization spreading across his face is one of the funniest moments on screen from the past year. It’s quite simply magical. (Watch the whole scene)

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Caleb’s Possession – THE VVITCH

There are countless terrifying, disturbing, and upsetting scenes in Robert Eggers’ nightmarish New England Folktale, it seems unfair to single out one as the most frightening. Yet the one that got under my skin the most when I first saw it is probably the most subdued, which works to its advantage. After having an encounter with a witch in the woods surrounding their farm, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is found outside in the rain, naked and hysterical. The following day, Caleb begins convulsing, twisting, but then eventually declares his love for Christ in an uncomfortable, almost sensual, way before dying. What makes it so hair-raising is that it feels so real. There is no desire to employ any kind of trickery to make it more horrifying. Eggers’ insistence on using only natural lighting pays off well in this particular moment, as the light streaming through the window above, captured beautifully by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, creates wonderful contrasts and shadows while providing an overall mood alternately eerie and divine. And the performances are top notch all around, as we witness with them something we wish we weren’t seeing but simply can’t look away. A typical horror film device executed so plainly, yet vividly, ends up being the turning point of the narrative, as the family turns on oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), leading them down a path of death and destruction. (Watch part of the scene)

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First Sunrise – MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

One of two Jeff Nichols films released in 2016, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is many things: a science fiction mystery, an intense road-trip thriller, a meditation on the nature of cults and religious beliefs, but, at its core, it’s a film about what it means to be a parent, or more specifically, a father. Enshrouded in dark secrecy from its opening moments, Nichols slowly peels back each layer to subtly establish the other-worldly nature of young Alton’s (Jaeden Lieberher) existence and the consequences bound to his abilities, most specifically a sensitivity to daylight. On the run, exhausted, and severely weakened, Alton finally convinces his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), to let him see the sunrise. Still fearing the potential repercussions, Roy cradles his son in an open field as the sun crests the trees on the horizon causing a reaction in the child like no other. It’s a turning point in not only the film’s narrative journey, but also Roy’s emotional journey of discovery and letting go. Inexplicably gorgeous, it’s captured beautifully by Nichols’ longtime cinematographer, Adam Stone, and played movingly by Shannon and Lieberher. Once it’s over, nothing is ever the same.

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I Think We’re Alone Now – 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Sometimes the pairing of the right piece of music with images, or a particular moment or feeling is enough to create a truly remarkable sequence, like a few on this list, though it’s nonetheless a tricky endeavor to pull off exactly right. Fortunately, Dan Trachtenberg’s claustrophobic and riveting 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE has cleverness in spades. After shifting our perceptions and expectations for much of its first half, this gem of a montage places us, somewhat jarringly, in the day-to-day life of these three characters (John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.) as they navigate living together in an underground bunker waiting out the apocalyptic events above, all to the perfectly on-the-nose music choice of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now”. It feels strangely like the opening credits to a sitcom we’ve  somehow forgotten, as we watch them assemble puzzles, do the dishes, re-decorate, watch movies, make peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches, and fit in a game of LIFE in their now endless free time. Thrown into the midst of a dark story that has you second guessing everyone’s possible motivations and intentions, it’s downright disorienting in the best possible way, while also relieving you of the constant anxiety and paranoia for one breath before diving in again. Once more, it’s a moment so expertly put together, one of the best trailers of the year was built to showcase it. (Watch the whole scene)

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Drive It Like You Stole It – SING STREET

A film about a boy starting a band in his new school simply to impress a girl, John Carney’s Dublin set 80s musical/comedy/drama is tailor-made to be crowd-pleasing. That is strangely both its flaw and its most winning aspect. The songs themselves are colorful, fun, catchy nods to the music of the era the boys seek to emulate and model themselves after, and the young actors bring a wonderful honesty to their interactions and conflicts, yet the journey ends up feeling fairly predictable as it plays our emotions like one of their instruments. But, in the end, I found myself just eagerly awaiting the next musical number, as the energy they inject into the story is unquestionably entertaining. And the capstone of them all is “Drive It Like You Stole It”, a delightful, electric, rousing, endlessly repeatable original tune that somehow missed major recognition this year. It would be one thing if the song itself were simply great, but the visuals built around it are just as exciting, as songwriter and frontman Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) visualizes the Back to the Future-esque music video they wish to record for their newest creation. It’s a chance to not only indulge in a rollicking, rip-roaring dance sequence that features almost every character in the film, but also an opportunity to peer inside Conor’s wishes for how things could be before reality sets back in. It’s a wonderful, brief fantasy, and perhaps that’s why it’s so lovable, even endearing. (Watch the music video featuring clips from the scene)

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Dancing – THE LOBSTER

For a film pointed to darkly satirize the nature of human romantic relationships and their place in culture and the survival of the species, it’s a particularly interesting and superb choice to focus on dancing. Dancing is such an integral part of what contemporary society continues to reinforce as courtship, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ THE LOBSTER riffs on that notion expertly in three different scenes. The first targets this specifically as guests of the hotel for singles take part in a formal dance while serenaded by the hotel manager and her husband’s rendition of “Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart”. It’s purposely brutally awkward, and cringingly funny in its relatability. It works as a hilarious opposite to an equally absurd scene, where, free from the hotel, those who wish to be single for life dance by themselves, each listening to their own personal headphones. Completely devoid of music, it’s a moment of comedic genius, and truly bonkers. As their leader says, “We all dance by ourselves, that’s why we only play electronic music”. Nothing can match the laughs induced by silent vogueing. But the most beautiful of the three acts as an understated counterpoint to the first two. Having finally met their perceived true match, David (Colin Farrell) and the Short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) find themselves trapped in a culture insistent on keeping them apart. On their own, they synchronize their music, and slowly sway together along with the breeze. It’s the rare purely romantic moment in a film world quite devoid of it, and that’s what makes it touching, even hopeful. (Watch the first two scenes: One and Two)

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Opening Credits Sequence – THE NICE GUYS

Shane Black has a special breed of comedy, as dark as his last name might suggest. For those not familiar with his similar antics in KISS KISS BANG BANG, they might not have been fully aware of what they were getting themselves into. That might’ve quickly changed as the opening credits sequence for THE NICE GUYS is a shocking introduction to his pitch black humor, and it’s one of the most unapologetic, purposeful, and bizarrely funny starts to a film that I can think of. Following a boy stealing a look at a pornographic magazine late at night, a car suddenly crashes through the living room and out through the wall. As the boy surveys the car wreck outside, he realizes the now dying driver is none other than the nude model he was just ogling in the magazine moments before, lying in an almost grotesque replica of the image. It’s insanely dark, insanely funny, and, ultimately, insanely perfect. It’s so good that, unfortunately, nothing else following it in the film reaches the heights of its twisted irony. (Watch the whole sequence)

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CMZ Scenes – POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING

I didn’t find much to love in the Lonely Island’s latest foray into movie-making, despite giving it a chance after seeing it cited on several critics’ favorites lists. It feels like a film that, although specifically a critique of current pop culture, could’ve been made several years ago when the parody style didn’t feel quite as tired as it does now. Still, there’s one diamond in the rough, and that’s this ridiculous TMZ spoof. Featuring an all-star group of comedians (Will Arnett, Chelsea Peretti, Mike Birbiglia, Eric Andre), it takes the silliness to the next level. It’s a bit that, despite being a send up of the awful celebrity gossip outlet, has no interest in landing anywhere close to reality, and that’s a good thing. It’s a short, sweet, tightly put together joke packed with strangeness and absurdity. And like the best jokes, it comes in threes, allowing each new clip to top the previous in absolute exaggerated hilarity. Why does Will Arnett keep drinking out of larger and larger containers of fluids with a straw? Why do they keep laughing non-stop? Why is Chelsea Peretti wagging her tongue around for no reason? Why is Eric Andre literally convulsing? There’s no real explanation and there doesn’t have to be. And, let’s be honest, we all want to see a picture of James Franco leaving a Denny’s. (Watch all three scenes)

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Emotional Rescue – A BIGGER SPLASH

As a story about a fictional rockstar, it makes absolute sense for Luca Guadagnino’s delicious and lavish film to be married to its soundtrack. Drawing primarily from the Rolling Stones, much of its inclusion springs from the crazy, magnificent whirlwind that is record producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his desire to enrapture others with his tales of the good old days of rock-and-roll. But once he puts on the Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” it stirs something wild inside him, and, almost intoxicated by the rhythm, he gives into his primal nature with reckless and exhilarating abandon. Strutting like some kind of peacock on display, he commands the attention of everyone in the room while expressing himself through a freely formed dance that’s energetic, sensual, bold, carefree, and full of life. And still the dance takes him further, outside to seemingly embrace the sun’s rays as his open shirt flutters about him and he’s transported onto another plane all by himself where there’s nothing left but the music coursing through his body. It’s a wonderfully rich and unabashedly fun bit of filmmaking, one that says more about a character than any bit of dialogue ever could, mostly due to Fiennes’ daring and delightful performance. It makes you feel alive just watching it, and maybe even wish you were there dancing alongside him with equal fearlessness. (Watch the whole scene)

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The Twelve Commandments – LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

There was a match made in filmdom heaven this year, and it was between the razor sharp wits of Jane Austen and filmmaker Whit Stillman. As a writer and director of comedies of manners, it’s surprising it took this long for Stillman to try his hand at adapting Austen’s work. And while Kate Beckinsale handles the flirtatious and charmingly manipulative Lady Susan of Austen’s original title as if it’s the role she was born to play, the true standout is Tom Bennett as the hopelessly awkward, oblivious, vacuous buffoon, Sir James Martin. Brilliantly introduced as Lady Susan’s daughter’s “Unintended”, he arrives at Churchill and proceeds to promptly stick his own foot in his mouth, blissfully unaware that his explanation of trying to find “Church” and “hill” just might be the most ridiculous thing anyone in the room has heard. The brilliance of any scene with James is that Stillman lets Bennett play without limits, drawing the bits to maximum length while capturing everyone else’s stunned awe at his utter incognizance. The best of these excruciatingly funny rambles finds Sir James waxing unpoetic on the “Twelve Commandments” only to be corrected that there are merely ten. Bennett has one of the most hysterical moments of the year as that lands, only to completely misinterpret it as “only ten must be obeyed”, and from there on begins to think out loud about which ones he himself might choose to disobey. Weirdly charming and lovable, but totally clueless, Sir James is one of the year’s best characters, and Bennett one of the year’s true breakouts. (Watch Sir James’ introduction)

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“I need to get her out of me” – THE NEON DEMON

If Nicholas Winding Refn’s previous film ONLY GOD FORGIVES was a messy, lengthy, borderline pretentious enigma (which I kind of loved, by the way), his latest, THE NEON DEMON, is a gigantic middle finger flipped to the audience. Visually stunning and evocative, while also unspeakably creepy and alarming, it takes every opportunity to push the envelope of what we as audience members are willing to sit through, squirming in our seats, before we can’t take it anymore. It appears Refn has absolutely no desire to conform to film narrative norms, but if he just had the right script (like DRIVE or Bronson), he’d achieve something magnificent once more. Still, for those of us somewhat enraptured with his style, THE NEON DEMON is stuffed with enough delights for the die-hard enthusiasts, or the not faint of heart. A bizarre examination of the way the modeling world chews up, digests, and spits out young women (quite literally), as well as the inherent toxic competitiveness, it ups the cringe factor with each passing scene. Even when you think it can’t possibly top being forced to swallow a knife, or it’s haunting, out-of-left-field necrophilia scene, or bathing in blood, it ups the game to it’s complete gross-out ending. As the film progresses, each individual grows more monstrous, and once threatened by Jesse’s (Elle Fanning) youthful beauty and alluring persona, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) seek to destroy her and somehow, through a ritual, obtain her attractive qualities. But it only becomes clear that the ritual is less symbolic when, in the middle of a shoot, Gigi excuses herself feeling physically ill. To say more would ruin the utter shock of watching what transpires. Like a severely twisted and nightmarish fairytale, there seems to be no limit to the lengths the characters will go to achieve beauty. (Watch the whole scene)

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Montage – SWISS ARMY MAN

One of the chief strengths of Daniels’ (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) ridiculous, yet somehow poignant, buddy road-trip film about a man and his corpse friend/all-purpose-accessory is the original music by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Mark down Hull and McDowell among the musicians who translated to film scoring with absolute ease, confidence, and brilliance. Their compositions reflect the inner musings of Hank (Paul Dano) as he makes his way home from a deserted island with the help of a farting corpse, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). Using almost whispery a capella, limited musical instruments, percussive clapping, covers of the Jurassic Park theme and “Cotton Eyed Joe”, and vocal contributions from both Dano and Radcliffe, it’s the quintessential match for the oddball and unique premise, and it’s the heartbeat of the film. And the most exemplary marriage of sequence to music is the aptly named “Montage”. Kicked off by Hank’s discovery that Manny can create sparks with his fingers, they are soon cooking over a fire as the simple lyrics “Pop-pop-corn” start off a layered melody to accompany the upcoming montage of footage of Hank discovery Manny’s seemingly endless abilities. And all of the lyrical accompaniment narrates everything they’re doing: “killed a raccoon”, “shooting some fish”, “started a fire”. It’s weirdly beautiful, warm and uplifting, and it crescendos perfectly with their celebratory party after finding a bottle of vodka. Extraordinarily put together, if all montages followed this mold, then truly “all we’ve ever needed is a montage”. (Watch the montage)

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Boxing into Dancing – THE FITS

There is no other film from the past year quite like director Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut, and no performance that exists on the same plane as the incredibly fierce and unflinching Royalty Hightower as Toni. THE FITS is a curious and elusive metaphor wrapped up in the story of a young girl’s growth and exploration of self, and all tied together in a neat, concise runtime. Toni spends much of her time training with her brother and the other boys in the boxing gym at the local community center. Yet there’s something that draws her to the girls on the dance team who are practicing in the same community center, and she eventually tries out, despite her own unsuccessful attempts to replicate the steps they’re performing. Still, unwilling to give up, Toni practices constantly to master the moves. While on the overpass she and her brother cross frequently during their training, she stops to drill the routine until she gets it right. Shot in one take by cinematographer Paul Yee, it perfectly captures Toni’s grit and steadfast determination as she melds her training as a boxer with her instruction as a dancer until it becomes this wonderful mixture that is uniquely her own. As filmed, it’s a moment in time, a journey, expertly and realistically captured, and the smile that spreads across Hightower’s face is the stuff movies are made of. (Watch part of the scene)

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Prescott the Bastard – THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER

As another feature debut, Brady Corbet’s THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER could have benefited from being a little less enigmatic and a bit more accessible. Yet, it’s still an interesting study of how tyrants are born. Loosely based on a Jean-Paul Sartre short story of the same name, it follows a young American boy’s life living in France while his father takes place in the creation of the Treaty of Versailles. The sequences following the child Prescott are carried remarkably well by child actor Tom Sweet, though their slow plotting and below the surface tension sometimes strains the patience of the audience. But it’s in the film’s epilogue, appropriately titled “Prescott the Bastard”, that Corbet’s true directorial potential shines through. As a sudden time jump following an extreme tantrum of Prescott’s and subsequent injury, we are slowly introduced to images seen earlier in the film, but now with disturbing context. Aided by Scott Walker’s jarring and eerie score, we realize that the boy has grown into a terrifying dictator through simple visual pieces of storytelling that suggest a fascist and dictatorial regime. Upon Prescott’s arrival, we learn the truth of the word “bastard”, and when he exits the vehicle, Corbet chooses to focus on a little girl’s face amidst the cheering crowd. But then the camera spins wildly, careening out of control, and disorienting the whole audience as our sense of time and place and reality is thrown to the wind as the people roar and the strings wail and the horns and drums blend and clash and then we’re left with nothing. It’s almost designed to induce sickness, physical and emotional, and it strikes painfully close to home in these particular times as the world is turned upside down by those in power. (Watch part of the scene)

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“Why’d you do it?” – HELL OR HIGH WATER

I remember thinking to myself as I left the theater after viewing this finely tuned heist film that there wasn’t a single scene that didn’t feel just perfect. From its opening straightforward intensity through its explosive, and cathartic, climactic shootout, it has abundant thrills alongside understated pathos and tragedy to connect with everyone. There is a murky moral grayness in pitting these men against each other that grants the story a rich complexity, and it’s no more present than in the film’s pregnant final scene. After the dust has cleared, the shots have all been fired, and the bodies cleared away, there’s two men left to confront each other regarding the state of this world and what they’ve done to shape it. It’s a western standoff, only armed with words that cut deep with brutal honesty while the physical weapons lay dormant but ever present. They’re looking for some meaning to it all, some kind of understanding, even if they don’t like the answers. So much is lurking beneath the surface: guilt, anger, regret, sadness, selfishness and selflessness, fear, and maybe, eventually, a hardened sense of mutual respect or admiration. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has composed a masterful exchange, one deftly handled by director David Mackenzie and expertly, but subtly, performed by the ever-reliable Jeff Bridges and a never better Chris Pine. It would be easy for the exchange to end in bloodshed, but the ambiguity and openness of their parting allows both to live on with the harsh consequences they must face, as well as providing us with thoughts that linger long after the credits. Scenes in film just don’t get much better than this.


 

And that’s it for part one! Be on the lookout for part two later this week, as well as the upcoming countdown of my top 25 films of 2016 (if I can bring myself to complete it for once).

 

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