Great Moments in Cinema: Part 1

Welcome to Great Moments in Cinema, a new place for me to list out some of my favourite moments in film history for your reading pleasure.  With a topic as broad and potentially endless as this, I am hoping to turn Great Moments into a recurring piece, so keep in mind that these choices are going to be somewhat random and not meant to be taken as a comprehensive list in any way.  They’re more a reflection of my feelings right now at this moment.  To be honest, I’m shocked to have gone this long since creating 35mm without posting some sort of list-based piece (expect more in the future).  So without further delay, here is Part 1 of Great Moments!  I hope you enjoy!

NOTE: This list contains some serious SPOILERS that include clips from the film!  Read carefully if you don’t want to ruin anything for yourself…

10. Samuel L. Jackson Gets Eaten by a Shark (Deep Blue Sea, 1999)

I figured I’d start off this list with a shocking and hilarious scene that really caught me by surprise the first time I saw it.  After just barely surviving the flooding of their underwater laboratory (due to attacks by genetically super-intelligent sharks), the surviving crew find themselves holed up in a submarine diving chamber where they begin to fight and bicker, buckling under the weight of their seemingly hopeless situation.  Enter Samuel L. Jackson with a motivational speech, using his past experience surviving an avalanche to point out the need for everyone to return to a level-headed state where they can begin to work together towards survival.  Everyone calms down, starts to nod along and get it together, then just as his speech reaches its climax, BOOM he gets eaten!  Easily one of the funniest and most memorable deaths of Sam Jackson’s career (and that’s saying something), this ridiculous scene also managed to make this otherwise mediocre film stick out in my mind for years afterward.

9. Stealing the NOC List from Langley (Mission: Impossible, 1996)

While it certainly lacks the explosive action of the later sequels (Tom Cruise actually doesn’t fire a gun in the entire film!), I think many would agree that Brian De Palma’s 1996 original remains the strongest of the Mission: Impossible films thanks to its engrossing plot, strong performances, and numerous scenes of thrilling espionage.  On top of the list of such scenes remains the mission to break into the CIA headquarters in Langley in order to steal the NOC list (which contains the true identities of all IMF agents).  Most will remember this as the scene where Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is seen dangling upside-down from the ceiling on a harness just inches above a floor that is rigged with an extremely precise pressure-sensitive alarm.  Of course that’s not his only problem, as Hunt must also avoid the employee who works at that particular office, as well as deal with laser sensors, temperature changes, and a suspiciously untrustworthy teammate (played by the fantastic Jean Reno).  But then again, this is called Mission: IMPOSSIBLE, so these sorts of things are to be expected.  To be honest, there’s not much more to say about this scene aside from the fact that it offers one of the most tense and engrossing 10-minute spy sequences that Hollywood has ever produced, and it had an enormous resonance in pop-culture upon the film’s release.

No clip for this one 😦

8. Jack Burton kills Lo Pan / Thunder Explodes in Outrage after Seeing Lo Pan’s Body (Big Trouble in Little China, 1986)

John Carpenter’s bizarre fantasy/adventure/comedy is full of memorable moments, but one of the most surprising and unexpected comes in the film’s climax, when the completely useless American hero Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) finally faces the immortal emperor Lo Pan (James Hong) in the flesh.  After attempting to hit him with his trusty throwing knife and missing completely, Jack and love interest Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) look at each other in supreme disappointment.  Since Jack has spent the entire film screwing up and failing to do anything heroic when it is demanded of him, this failure comes as no surprise.  Lo Pan playfully picks up the knife and examines it before throwing it back at Burton in an attempt to kill him, when out of nowhere, Jack instantaneously catches the knife mid-throw and sends it back directly into Lo Pan’s head!  The moment comes as such a shock that I had to rewind and rewatch it two or three times.  Jack then follows the kill with his catchphrase (“it’s all in the reflexes”) which is finally used in a context that makes sense.  Then immediately following these events, Lo Pan’s 2nd hand man by the name of Thunder comes by and sees his master’s body, becoming so outraged that he literally just explodes.  It really has to be seen to be believed.  This film is truly one of Kurt Russell’s finest moments of ironic comedy and remains a hidden gem of the cult world.

The clip of this scene starts at the 0:30 sec mark of the following video.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t show quite as much of the Lo Pan scene that I would like, but you do get to see Thunder explode.  Consider it two for the price of one!

7. Tina’s Death (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984)

Despite what some sequels or recent reboots might lead you to believe, the original Nightmare still stands the test of time as one of the best fantasy/ slasher films of all time, offering a menacing introduction to one of horror’s greatest icons: Freddy Krueger.  This is largely due to the dark dreamlike tone of the film, but also to the surprising and memorable kills, the first of which stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.  Of course I’m referring to the demise of blonde-haired Tina, who is murdered in her sleep by Freddy after a particularly creepy nightmare sequence, while her boyfriend stands by helpless and confused, watching cuts happen in front of his eyes with no explanation.  Soon she is dragged up the wall and onto the ceiling, kicking and screaming as she fights off her invisible attacker.  The practical special effects are extremely effective in this scene, offering a haunting image that isn’t easily forgotten.  But what is all the more more shocking is the way in which the film has been actively establishing Tina as the main character up to this point.  The very first scene of the film centers on Tina in a dream, where she is chased by Freddy through his boiler room, and barely manages to wake up in time.  It is only after this establishing scene that we are introduced to her network of friends who comprise the main group of characters (including the true heroine, Nancy).  Similar to the shower scene Hitchcock’s Psycho which changed the whole structure of that film by killing off the protagonist halfway through, Craven toys with the conventions of structure by killing off the character with whom the audience is most strongly invested up to that point.  Certainly one of the director’s finest moments, Tina’s death still serves as a chilling reminder of how scary Freddy (and Craven as a filmmaker) used to be.

WARNING: Not for the squeamish…

6. “Let me tell you about my boat” (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004)

Perhaps one of the most memorable and fascinating scenes from Wes Anderson’s quirky comedy about the journeys of washed-up aquatic explorer / documentary filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is the introduction to his ship, the Bellafonte.  With Zissou offering some beautiful narration, the camera roams from room to room on a crane-arm delivering an intimate description of each part of the vessel while the crew is seen carrying out their daily work.  For this scene, Anderson ambitiously created a massive set of the ship in full scale, split down the centre with the profile facing camera so as to reveal each room and section of its interior, complete with actors occupying them.  It is also set to one of the film’s best musical tracks, which sounds blissful when combined with Bill Murray’s incredible voice.  The scene is fairly brief, but remains one of the film’s greatest achievements, capturing the sense of wonder that drives the Life Aquatic forward into the depths of the ocean, and to the unknown…

You might want to turn up your speakers for this one.

5.  Armored Car Chase / Street Showdown (The Dark Knight, 2008)

We all know the scene I’m talking about – it was the most explosive and entertaining scene in the entirety of Nolan’s Bat-masterpiece, and probably the best candidate from that film to make my list (the runner up being the opening bank robbery scene).  After his aggressive attempts to overturn an armored car containing Harvey Dent are stuffed by Batman, the Joker (Heath Ledger) finds himself in a pair of high-stakes showdowns with the caped crusader.  The first has him playing chicken while driving an 18-wheeler towards Batman’s Batpod, which results in the Joker’s truck being flipped on end; while the second has the clown prince of crime staring down the approaching Batpod and taunting Batman to hit him head-on.  Being the good hero that he is, Bats swerves at the last minute and crashes, leaving himself unconscious in the hands of the madman until help arrives from an unexpected source.  Not only does this whole combined sequence play out like a wet dream for comic-book geeks everywhere, but it also perfectly highlights the central contrast and relationship of necessity that exists between these characters, wherein Batman’s moral decision not to kill is continually challenged by the Joker, who quickly makes it his goal to see how far he can push Bats before he will break.  Oh yeah, and the whole thing was filmed in IMAX.

(click through to watch the clip on YouTube)

4. Arnold vs The Predator (Predator, 1987)

This film by John McTiernan (who would go on to direct the original Die Hard the following year) remains one of the all time greatest pieces of sci-fi / horror cinema, fueled largely by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physical presence as well as the exceptionally cool and original design for the Predator.  After opening with a standard black ops mission in the jungle, the film quickly begins to shift from an action tone to more of a horror direction as Dutch (Arnold) and his team realize they are being hunted by a cloaked alien predator.  One by one they are killed off until Dutch is the only one left, at which point things become more primal and savage.  Covering himself in mud to avoid the Predator’s thermal vision, Arnold hides and begins to set traps in the jungle, luring the alien hunter towards him and attacking in stealth.  It is not long before his string of success runs out, and the Predator finds him and beats him to a pulp, tossing him into a small hole in the ground.  Then, when he looks as if he is cornered, Arnold attempts to bait the monster into a trap, screaming “Come on! kill me, I’m here! Do It! Come On! Do It NOW!” and so forth. But the Predator is wise to Arnold’s plan, and circles around…only to land directly beneath another trap!.  This whole sequence and the ending that follows are just so dark and tense – full of this constant growing madness and intensity – that it quickly takes you over and sends you down a spiraling path alongside Arnold into the Predator’s savage world of hunter and hunted.

Here’s a brief clip of the ending of the scene.  It doesn’t have the best image quality, but it’ll have to do.

3. Sanjuro and Hanbei’s Showdown (Sanjuro, 1962)

Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai films of the early ’60s were very much an inspiration for the Spaghetti Westerns of Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone in the late ’60s, which can be seen by the fact that Leone essentially remade Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) with his 1964 film Fistfull of Dollars.  The notable scene of awesomeness that makes 3rd on the list comes from Kurosawa’s follow-up film to Yojimbo entitled Sanjuro, which also stars the same character played by Toshiro Mifune (who is basically the Japanese Clint Eastwood).  Coming at the very end of the film, this scene provides the perfect example of the quintessential showdown that would become the staple of Leone’s later Westerns.  After nearly escaping without conflict after pulling off his rescue plan, Sanjuro is confronted by the villainous henchman Hanbei and forced to draw down in a fight to the death, despite his reluctance to kill.  After a long staredown there is a flash of action, and we see that Sanjuro has sliced Hanbei before the villain could even get his sword out!  The outrageous Kill Bill-style spray of blood that follows the incredibly fast killing strike is definitely the most shocking and memorable part, causing this scene to remain a timeless moment in cinema that also provides a perfect example of Toshiro Mifune as the samurai with no name.

2. Opening Train Station Scene (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968)

By the time he released Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone had already established himself as the master of the spaghetti western genre with his revolutionary Man with No Name trilogy.  For his next epic masterpiece, Leone lost his star Clint Eastwood but kept every bit of style and grit that drove his previous westerns.  A perfect example is the opening scene, which functions in many ways as an essential blueprint for the entire spaghetti western genre.  At an isolated train station, three men in trenchcoats appear minutes before a train is due.  The station worker is bound and placed in a closet, while the three men – who are clearly up to no good – wait for the train to arrive.  The following ten minutes or so is comprised of shots of each of the men passing the time in various ways with no dialogue as the credits slowly roll.  Each shot in this sequence speaks volumes about the style and conventions of the genre, and the potential of the moving image to speak volumes in subtle grandeur.  One shot is particularly memorable as one of the men watches a fly buzzing around his face before catching it in the barrel of his gun.  Once the train finally arrives, the men engage in more aggressive stances and wait for a passenger – the harmonica-playing man with no name played by Charles Bronson – to emerge so they can kill him.  After several drawn-out minutes of anticipation and intense staring, Bronson drops all three men in classic Eastwood style, taking a superficial wound for his troubles but living to fight another day.  This is easily one of the greatest scenes from the western genre of this era (and of all time), and sets the tone for what would follow in the rest of this gorgeous masterpiece.

Sit back, this is a long one folks.  Or just watch the last few minutes for the showdown if you don’t have the time…

1. Roy Batty’s Death (Blade Runner, 1982)

After spending the entire film hunting down and murdering those who designed him, Roy Batty (a Replicant or artificial human, played by Rutger Hauer) chases Harrison Ford’s Deckard (a Blade Runner or Replicant-killer) in an eerie game of cat-and-mouse that takes place in an old abandoned apartment building.  Being physically superior to Deckard in every way, and knowing that his 4-year lifespan is nearly up, Roy has no inhibitions and begins to act like a savage animal, toying with Deckard and inciting hysterical fear in him so as to make him understand what it’s like to “live in fear”.  After their chase leads Deckard to the rooftop, he soon leaps further than he can reach, and finds himself hanging on to the ledge for survival as Roy stands over him victorious.  But in a sudden twist, Roy chooses not to kill him and instead pulls him to safety before sitting down and speaking to him in a strangely calm state.  What follows is one of the most beautiful monologues of all time, as Roy contemplates his own death and the end that it brings to not only his future existence, but also to the loss of all of the memories and experiences he has amassed during his life.  This introspective and touching moment is given further weight by the fact that it comes from an artificial human, who shows more humanity in this moment than any of the actual humans in the film.  It’s a scene that still gives me goosebumps, and reminds me what truly great cinema is capable of achieving.

It should be seen in context, but here’s the clip anyways… (click through to watch on YouTube)

Thanks for reading and remember this is only the beginning… expect some more Great Moments in the future!  Also, please feel free to share in the cause and leave some of your own examples in the comments section.

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~ by Mark D'Amico on August 20, 2011.

One Response to “Great Moments in Cinema: Part 1”

  1. I love this, Mark. There’s so many possibilities to do with it. I love, LOVE, that you included Deep Blue Sea, the greatest B movie of our generation. That scene from Blade Runner is also one of my favourites too.

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