Today I’m putting out a decidedly lighter blog post that was ridiculously fun to write. A few weeks ago, Zach, a good friend of mine, challenged me to come up with my ten favorite film scenes. So I did.
Having finished the list, one of my takeaways is that I should probably pursue a more varied palate of films, as many of these are blockbusters and childhood classics. But then again, maybe that’s part of why these scenes are so great: they are able to deeply connect with so many people.
With that said, let us begin:
10. “You Are Who You Choose to Be”, The Iron Giant
I saw this movie at a “Sneak Peak” showing when I was seven years old. And for a seven year old, this climatic scene ensured I was emotionally wrecked for days. You could say this is my Old Yeller.
Don’t watch this scene unless you have already seen the movie or don’t mind it being spoiled. Either way, it will still make you shed a tear.
9. Duel of Fates, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
For all the flak that Lucas’ long awaited return to a galaxy far, far away received Phantom sure has some dang great scenes. I still believe the opening scene is a fantastic way to thrust us back into the Star Wars world and reacquaint us with the mysterious majesty of the Jedi; especially when Qui-Gon Jinn is calmly ramming his saber through a melting metal door. And then of course there’s the pod-race, which doesn’t receive nearly as much credit as it deserves. But the scene that does rightly receive its due is the Duel of Fates, a lightsaber battle that has yet to be topped. Heck, if the movie had replaced the duel with a five-minute long black screen, it might have still made the list thanks to the power of the John William’s greatest musical composition.
8. “Have you ever seen another knife like it?”, 12 Angry Men
I might have seen this scene more than any other on this list by virtue of showing it to all my students, in six different classes, every single year. Rather than tire of it, I have foudnd that getting to experience the surprise of this scene with a new audience each time has only increased my love for it. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, 12 Angry Men is about a jury tasked with deciding whether a 16-year old boy accused of stabbing his father to death is actually guilty. All eleven of the jurors believe it’s an open-and-shut case at the outset, but Henry Fonda’s singular dissenting voice eventually leads them to see that the case is not as clear-cut as it seems. The film is notable for taking place almost entirely in one room and for the palpable tenseness the director was able to build simply through letting these various characters argue and discuss the case. It leads to the type of movie where a man suddenly jamming an exact replica of the killer’s switchblade knife into the table carries more shock and awe than a dozen Michael Bay explosions. And I also love the dismissive line from the third juror after the initial shock: “What’s that, the discovery of the age or something?”
7. Too Strong, Remember the Titans
Pros of Remember the Titans: Makes you want to hug those closest to you. Makes you want to love everyone. Makes you want to go work out until your sweating blood. Makes you admire Denzel Washington. Makes you wish all high school jocks were this cool.
Cons: Perhaps oversimplifies racial tensions by suggesting that all division can be solved by just throwing two groups of different races together on a football team.
Pros: On the other hand, after seeing this movie, maybe football can solve everything.
6. Ahab and Moby Dick, Warrior
This is the most affecting of my favorite scenes. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and redemptive, displaying the fall of a good man back into misery with his personal demons right before the angry, brooding, verbally abusive son that pushed him there. But like Joseph’s words to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” The tenderness Hardy’s character is finally able to demonstrate is the emotional climax of the movie, foreshadowing the eventual reconciliation with his brother. I like that order. Before a horizontal relationship could be mended, the vertical one – of a father to a son – needed to first be made whole. And this scene demonstrates both the horror of what can happen when fathers and sons are against one another, and the beauty when grace finally wins.
5. Iron Man Arrives, Iron Man
I am convinced that the best magic any story can achieve is that special moment when you see and feel evil at its peak, and then good comes in at the very last second to irrevocably and unhesitatingly demolish it. This is a “magic” so often cheaply or generically attempted to capture that to witness an authentically great example of this moment is like finding gold. Iron Man’s arrival in this scene can be seen as a metaphor for “good”, but also for “Marvel Studios” in general. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the visceral rush audiences felt when they finally saw Stark’s gloriously heavy-powered, indestructible, straight-up cool armored self in action was the catalyst for the ongoing Reign of Marvel. It is also helpful, in the final seconds of this scene, to understand Iron Man as representing Marvel Studios, and the tank as a nice fill-in for our collective wallets.
4. Batman Interrogates the Joker, The Dark Knight
This scene is the heart of the entire Dark Knight trilogy. I’d go so far as to say this duel of words is the best fight scene in the trilogy. The uneasy contrast and similarities between Ledger’s Joker and Bale’s Batman are brought into focus through this argument, and the jarring shifts between the Joker’s restrained, incisive logic and his careless, callous laughter makes you feel the same way Batman does: completely at a loss for how to handle an evil of this nature. I want to say so much more about this scene, but I’m really failing for words to describe what makes it so compelling; this is simply a tour de’ force best experienced firsthand.
3. Finale, Inception
This is string of scenes void of any meaningful dialogue and held together by one of Hans Zimmer’s finest works. It hits hard the first time you see it, but it hit me far harder with each subsequent viewing. Once you know the end that is coming, each scene, and each raise in the musical intensity only serves to increase your anxiety for the conclusion. A favorite aspect of this scene for me is the moment the children reveal their faces. That is the payoff of the entire film, and the moment of sweet victory for the protagonist. And it’s something that you can take home with you, in a sense; in a movie focused on dreams and the ways our minds can deceive us, a person’s face is revelation of truth. Nolan and Zimmer did a great job at making the audience feel that victory. (And yes, Cobb is actually awake. However, I love the subtle toying with the audience that Nolan does with the top at the end).
2. The T-Rex, Jurassic Park
This scene is what movies were made for. The sights, the sounds, and the sheer, heart-pounding, awe-inducing spectacle of seeing a T-Rex right in front of you, as realistic as any living creature you’ve ever witnessed is why we go to the theater.
1. The Lord of the Rings
Yeah, here is where I shamelessly cheat. There is no way I could narrow down my favorite Lord of the Rings film scenes to just one; heck, there’s enough of them to fill this entire list. I have managed the near impossible, however, and narrowed it down to four, with the caveat that these four could be swapped for any other four scenes at a moment’s notice.
A Demon of the Underworld, The Fellowship of the Ring
Look at everything I said about the T-Rex. Now, instead of a T-Rex, just put a “molten-lava, winged, horned, whip-wielding, five story tall demon” in its place. Yeah.
I saw the Fellowship when I was ten years old. Each scene was revelation, but none as awe-inspiring as the moment the Balrog’s forms rose out of the flames. At the time I had been partly familiar with Lord of the Rings due to having previously seen the animated movies. From that starting point, I vaguely remembered that the Fellowship ran across a great monster in the tunnels, but I thought the mountain troll the Fellowship encounters in Jackson’s film was that monster; and that scene itself was amazing enough. But after the troll was slain and the Fellowship made a break for it, that dark, guttural roar filled the Mines of Moria as well as the Eagle Ridge theater. Then the build-up: the look of terror on Legolas’ face; Gandalf’s ‘you’ve got be freaking kidding me’ expression, followed by his frustrated rebuke of Aragorn – who the audience believes is the most bad-ass hero in the movie thus far – and his belief that they might actually have a chance if they fought the beast; the progressive collapsing of the mines as the beast nears. That build up made you wonder what could possible be so great and terrible, and the reveal answers that question quite satisfactorily. Add to these qualities the fact that this scene is also one of the saddest moments in the trilogy, then throw in one of the most quotable lines in all of film, and what yo’re left with is the same, breathless reaction my Dad and I shared the moment the scene ended: wow.
The Fall of Helm’s Deep, The Two Towers
If the The Battle of Helm’s Deep wasn’t punctuated by a kamikaze sacrifice used to set off a bomb that sends sends an entire stone wall sky high and then sends the remaining pieces crashing down upon the rest of the army, it would still be one of the greatest battle scenes ever put to film. But it does in fact have this scene. Tolkien’s imagination and Jackson’s eye for epic shots meld seamlessly in this scene.
Ride of the Rohirrim, The Return of the King
Clearly. The thrill of the good guys arriving just in time to save the day might never be so palpably experienced in a movie scene better than it is felt here. Shore’s music does so much in this grandest of moments.
Simply the most beautiful scene. The eternal echoes found in this scene are nearly too many to count: the joy of the rightful King claiming the throne, the reunion between the King and his beloved that he sacrificed to save, the King singing over his people, and the King bestowing the highest honor on the humblest of men. In Aragorn, we see a man of power. In Frodo and the Hobbits, we see meek and unassuming innocence and strength. And in this scene, we see the beauty of both in full focus: kingly glory delighting to give ordinary humility the highest honor.
Honorable Mention: Introduction, Dumb and Dumber
This scene – I’m talk about the first minute specifically – will never not make me laugh.