The Best Movie Moments of 2013
1. The quaalude crawl in The Wolf of Wall Street.
I can’t think of another scene in the past year equal to the sustained madness on display here. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort and Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff acquire a bottle of vintage Lemon quaaludes (hallucinogenic sleeping pills from the 1960s) and prepare for a night of mad highs. But the pills don’t seem to be working, so they keep popping them. Belfort gets a call from his P.I. and he leaves to the country club down the road to use the payphone. As he’s on the phone listening to his P.I. discuss how his home phones are tapped, the pills kick in. And they floor Belfort, literally. As he puts it, he discovers the “cerebral palsy phase,” and starts crawling across the floor to get to his Lamborghini, barely able to make his limbs function, much less crawl.
If this scene were only a few minutes long, it’d be one of the funniest in the film, but it wouldn’t make this list. But because it keeps going and going, showing us Belfort’s long trek back home and the ensuing fight with Azoff to get off the phone, complete with Belfort rolling down a brick staircase head first and squirming his way behind the wheel like a snake working its way into a air duct, it achieves a startling level of awareness.
The world we live in sees people like Jordan Belfort as the movers of our economy. Sure, he was arrested for financial crimes, but that was just a slap on the wrist. He got out and published a book and now coaches other people on how to become money-grubbing cheats in their own right. Belfort is the sickening, lustful id of our times. He is capital greed unleashed. We empower people like him, uphold them. But in this scene, this hilarious scene of insanity, we see Belfort for what he really is: nothing more than a worm inching back to his hole.
2. The fight in the hotel room in Before Midnight.
The people we know best can also hurt us the most. That's the rationale of this climactic scene of Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke's Before Midnight. Finally together for nine years after a romantic evening in Vienna and a missed flight in Paris, Céline and Jesse have a night to themselves away from their daughters while spending the summer on the Greek coast. After a meandering walk to the hotel, they begin to turn on each other and pick each other apart. Rather than a continuation of the romance and infatuation, familiarity has bred contempt. Past wrongs and personal ticks are brought up and wielded against each other as weapons. A showcase for the actors, the effect of seeing the fairy tale devolve into a version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is devastating.
A long-term relationship offers plenty of time to gather ammunition to use on your partner during a fight; similarly, Before Midnight's penultimate scene relies equally on the relationship cultivated with its audience over 18 years and three visits with these characters. The audience's investment in this kind of long-term storytelling also makes the barbs sting more sharply when we think back upon the naïve lovers of Before Sunrise. While the first two films in the series and the first half of this film make use of their European tourist vistas, setting Céline and Jesse's fight in a nondescript hotel room that could be anywhere shatters the fantasy and anchors their grievances in the real world.
Part of the appeal of Before Midnight is seeing Céline (Julie Deply) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) finally together after 18 years. But rather than simply indulge the audience's romantic fantasy, the hotel room fight actually succeeds in making us feel real emotional pain.
3. The flag falling in The Wind Rises.
How do you convey the way the world perverts a person’s art? That even the most beautiful things will be made to serve destruction and the broken nature of our world? With a shot. In Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful final film, Jiro Horikoshi finally succeeds in building the zero fighter. It cost him years of sacrifice and hardship. By the time he succeeds, his wife is dead and war is upon Japan. As it is their function, his beautiful planes are sent into war. None survive and neither do the men piloting them.
In the final moments of the film, we see the heaps of destroyed planes from World War Two. The film cuts to a shot of a flag flowing in the wind, and then suddenly, the wind fails. The flag falls. Jiro’s creation is snuffed out just like all art is snuffed out.
The Wind Rises is a celebration of the creation of art, and an examination of the hardship that goes into making such art. But it also recognizes that in the end, all the creations you spend your life building will amount to nothing. They will be blotted out just as you are blotted out.
In the end, all you’re left with are your dreams.
4. Solomon hanging from the tree in 12 Years a Slave.
A noose around his neck, Solomon hangs from a tree, his toes barely touching the ground. There is no background music. All we can hear is the quiet of the hot Southern afternoon, and Solomon scratchily gasping and choking, as he tries to keep himself high enough to keep from strangling. Director Steve McQueen holds the wide shot for a long time. An excruciatingly long time. Slowly, a few other slaves start to go about their work in the background.
This horrific form of punishment that the audience has had so much difficulty watching is just business as usual in slave-owning, nineteenth-century America. Solomon’s excruciating exertions to survive hanging encapsulate his 12-year struggle to survive the calculated suffering and dehumanization of slavery.
McQueen displays similar techniques throughout 12 Years a Slave, using long takes and meticulous framing to force his viewers to witness the evils of slavery, but none was more potent.
This was a moment of expert filmmaking used to a powerful effect.
5. Gipsy Danger unleashes the sword in Pacific Rim.
If we are to grant the big budget blockbuster its pleasures, they come for the most part in the form of those spine-tingling moments that evoke childhood glee. Think the climax of the original Star Wars with the destruction of the Death Star, or the reveal of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. It's a combination of potent imagery and plot satisfaction. This past summer's Pacific Rim understood that. During a battle with a kaiju which surprisingly reveals its wings and carries the giant robot, Gipsy Danger, high into the atmosphere, the Jaeger pilots also have their own surprise at a point when they seem out of options. The mecha pilots deploy a sword, and as Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) shouts "For my family!" in Japanese, they cut the monster in two!
If the idea of a robot with a sword fighting a giant flying monster doesn't sound cool to you, you are probably not the target audience of this film. But the scene works because it solves the escalated stakes by utilizing imagery drawn from the mecha Anime that inspired Pacific Rim. It's the classic moment when the heroes seem all out of options, but wait! -- there's one more thing! It's a common trope of childhood storytelling brought to the big screen with fantastic special effects.
Del Toro's deep knowledge of genre filmmaking serves him well in scenes like this one. Even Mako Mori's climactic battle cry adds to the moment, making it one of the film's most satisfying scenes. It's the kind of movie moment that makes you want to cheer. A moment all too rare in most of today's blockbusters.
Amid the heaps of wreckage and blurs of destruction that cluttered the action spectacles of 2013, a couple memorable moments showcased the potential of 3D special effects for storytelling. The already famous, 17-minute-long, digitally-composed first shot of Gravity made me feel like I was floating in space alongside Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Though subdued in comparison to the overextended, hyper-tense bulk of the film, I found its achievement to be the most significant of the film, the impression of performing mundane activities in zero gravity being so necessary before throwing us into emergency situations. Similarly, Baz Luhrmann’s quiet opening to The Great Gatsby, with its combination of old-timey movie charm and 3D angular art deco patterns, tries to make us feel as though we are literally being drawn into the film—all this before the music gears up and we zoom about with Luhrmann’s roving camera through Fitzgerald's roving story.
In contrast to the innovative achievements of the above moments, the climax of Mud stands out in my mind as the product of skillful classical filmmaking. When Ellis is bitten by some cottonmouths, Mud must race the boy to the hospital, by boat and then by dirt bike, in order to save his life. Director Jeff Nichols makes it abundantly clear that Ellis’s situation is dire, and that every minute that passes makes things worse. Mud even measures out the progress of the venom with a marker. The rhythm of the editing conveys the flow of the great river, the speed of the boat, the wind against the bike.
The execution of the individual sequence is not only great, but it also fits so well in the film as a whole. Early in the film, the boys disturb the puddle of water snakes, and their presence lingers in the back of our mind like Chekhov’s gun.
In terms of character development, the climax magnifies the relationship between Mud and Ellis and puts it to the test. Ellis’s life is now literally in Mud’s hands, and Mud must prove whether he is the rogue he appears to be or the good heart deep-down that we suspect and hope for.
Movies are full of moments when we want the heroes “to make it,” moments in which we desperately care about the images on screens that we take for people. This is a great example of such a moment.
There were a lot of moments in 2013 that struck a chord with me aside from the five mentioned above. Anton rightly lists the climax of Mud—it tests McConaughey’s mysterious character at the centre of the film and makes the judgment that he is a morally righteous man who doesn’t hesitate to do the right thing when a crisis arises. There are various scenes in other films that could easily be listed above. The final scene in Captain Phillips where Captain Rich Phillips breaks down into shock is maybe Tom Hanks’ best acted scene ever. It shows how our Hollywood notions of action heroes don’t take into account the physical and psychological strain they go through. As well, the scene in Drug War where Captain Zhang impersonates both Haha and Chang is a virtuoso moment of tension. It examines Timmy Choi’s loyalties while also showing Zhang’s talent for improvisation and deception. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. And if I had to pick just one frame from this past year to keep forever, it’d be the introduction of Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, with Leo smiling holding his champagne coupe as fireworks explode in the background. That is how you make an entrance!
For me, though, the moment of the year would be the ending of The Act of Killing where Anwar Congo tries to retell his story of killing communists on the storefront roof and can’t bring himself to finish, dry-retching instead. The Act of Killing is about exploring the human capacity for evil and how very complex human beings, not simplistic monsters, are responsible for that evil. If the entire film the killers seem to be spitting in the face of everything that is decent, the final scene is a refutation of such cold-hearted amorality. In this scene a sliver of conscience has crept back into Anwar Congo. In the making of this film, Joshua Oppenheimer has made him feel the shadow of guilt for the atrocities he committed. In the end, the only option Anwar has remaining is to retch. He tries to purge himself of the evil contained within, but nothing comes out. One cannot exorcise their own evil so simply. Blood cannot be washed from one’s hands.
For me, 2013 struck a great balance amongst the myriad pleasures that cinema can offer, from large scale to small scale, technologically driven to actor driven. We all seem to agree that the quaalude crawl in The Wolf of Wall Street deserves to go down in cinema history, but beyond our Top 5 there were a lot of other gems. Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai returned with his film, The Grandmaster, about the kung fu master, Ip Man. Appropriately, it opened with a stunning martial arts display, as Ip Man faces down numerous enemies in a rain soaked Hong Kong courtyard. Choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), it combines fantastic imagery with Wong’s sharp eye for composition. Close-ups of faces convey Ip Man’s steely determination, and the fight never devolves into chaos. A shot of the rain whipping off of Ip Man’s wet hat highlights the kind of visual pleasure that Wong is known for.
Animation offers an opportunity for an artist to control mise-en-scène to the utmost degree, and the other Ghibli film that made my top films list, From Up on Poppy Hill, offers a scene that takes full advantage of this. As the characters work together to clean the Latin Quarter, their campus clubhouse, the filmmakers detail the various jobs they do and in doing so lend the building itself a kind of character of its own that is rare in film, let alone animation. It’s these kinds of scenes that give Ghibli films their personality, avoiding the sterility and generic nature of so many other films.
Artists giving homage and borrowing liberally from other films also lends scenes a kind of unique cinematic pleasure. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha offers numerous callbacks, its black and white New York story recalls Woody Allen’s Manhattan. But there are other more obscure references. One of the films most purely pleasurable moments has Frances dancing down the New York streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Not only is this one of the first expressions that show Frances as a dancer, her joy apparent in the scene, it also is a reference to a scene in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, where Denis Lavant propels himself down the street to the same song. It’s the best kind of reference that works on its own for those who don’t get it (as I didn’t the first time), but also adds to the scene. It’s an expression of pure physicality put on film and it works.