The Best Movie Moments of 2015


The following contains spoilers for the movies mentioned.

1. Rey force-pulls Anakin’s lightsaber away from Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

It’s all in the music. John Williams’ score for The Force Awakens plays with themes from the past six Star Wars movies, but, for the most part, it’s remarkably unreliant on them to provide this new film with its musical power. That restraint makes the recurrence of the “Binary Sunset” theme from A New Hope in this climactic moment all the more powerful. It’s the moment when the force fully awakens in Rey (Daisy Ridley) and she steps into the shoes of Luke Skywalker from the original trilogy.

The moment takes place after the film’s emotional climax, in which Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has killed his father Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and defeated Finn (John Boyega), who had valiantly attempted to defend an unconscious Rey. At the end of their duel, Ren knocks Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber from Finn’s hands before dealing him a violent blow, sending it flying across the woods where it deposits itself in a snowbank, much as it did in the Wampa’s cave in The Empire Strikes Back. Having lusted after the lightsaber for years and believing it to be his inheritance, Ren sheathes his own blade and moves to “force-pull” the lightsaber into his hand, intent on using it to kill Finn and Rey. However, just as the lightsaber starts to loosen and fly towards Ren’s hand, it moves past him and lands in the palm of Rey, who stands over Finn, defiant, finally able to embrace her destiny. Williams’ music swells and the film pauses for a moment to take in this significant moment. Abrams holds on a wide shot of Rey’s and Ren’s equal astonishment at what just happened. The audience is stunned too.

If there is a stand-up-and-cheer moment in 2015 cinema, this is it. The sizeable lump in my throat left over from Han Solo’s demise grew impossible to ignore. It’s always special when the cinema achieves these sorts of “movie-magic” moments, when a film runs over a viewer’s emotions and pulls him or her entirely into the film. But this scene is not a matter of the mind turning off and enjoying the spectacle on screen. Instead, it’s the moment when the film’s emotional and thematic frameworks intermesh completely. Even from a critical vantage point, the shot of Rey holding the lightsaber is powerful, coalescing the film’s themes of standing up for the light after a moment of extreme darkness. (The scene’s location even visualizes this, the cold dark forest and drifting snow embodying the darkness, and the glowing lightsabers the lone beams of light.)

This scene is an example of what I love about big movies: a moment like this takes advantage of the communal experience of seeing a movie in the theatre, when you and perhaps hundreds of strangers experience similar feelings and thoughts, when you’re all equally stunned and reassured by a shot, and that, for a brief moment, the fantastic thing happening on a digital screen in front of you becomes honestly and truly real. That’s magic.

2. Jay is chloroformed while she plays with a flower in It Follows.

There are plenty of scary scenes in It Follows that could have fit on this list—the arrival of the giant man in Jay’s bedroom is particular nightmare fuel for me—but this scene is scary in a different way than most of the film’s other moments of horror. It’s both beautiful and haunting, portraying that slip from bliss to terror, much like a dream turning to nightmare, or the moment a passionate relationship goes sour.

After having slept with Hugh in his car out near an abandoned parking lot, Jay lies in the backseat, playing with the flower of a weed on the ground outside the car door. She reminisces about her adolescence and past hopes for the future. Although she never articulates it, she seems to be struck by the dissonance between expectation and reality. Now that adulthood has found her and she’s experiencing a form of the romance she imagined as a child, she’s a little melancholy. However, despite reality’s shortcomings, Jay is at peace with herself and her relationship with Hugh. She’s content. And then things go sour.

We see Hugh get something from the truck and come lie next to Jay in the backseat. But his tenderness quickly turns to violence as he covers her mouth with a rag soaked in chloroform. She struggles but eventually succumbs to the chemical. Her hand goes limp and the flower slips from her fingers. Mitchell holds on the sight of her limp hand and the flower slowly moving from her recent touch. Just as the flower has escaped her, so has innocence.

3. The American convoy heads into Juárez, Mexico in Sicario.

The entirety of Sicario is an exercise in extreme tension, putting the viewer’s nerves in a vice in the opening shot and cranking it tighter and tighter throughout its entire running time. Its tensest moment is when Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) accompanies Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) to Juárez, Mexico to bag a cartel crony and escort him back to the United States.

The scene starts with aerial shots of the convoy crossing a bridge into Mexico and heading to the rendition site. As they pass through side streets, Kate and the other Americans watch for bogies and other potential threats. They spot headless corpses hanging from an overpass—the cartel’s handiwork. Eventually they bag the target and head onto a bridge to pass back into the United States, but they find themselves stuck in traffic. They’re open targets and they’re surrounded on both sides by cars full of cartel gunmen. Eventually the Americans leave their vehicles and target the gunmen, instigating a gunfight so they can dispatch their enemies and move across the border with their asset intact.

When the gunfight starts, it’s almost a relief. The tension has become so unbearable that you almost feel sick. While the extreme tension of Sicario is not exactly a pleasurable feeling to have while watching a movie, you have to marvel at the formal prowess of its director and crew. This is a remarkable action scene, utilizing visual storytelling, patience, and sound design to full effect.

4. Brian experiments during the Pet Sounds sessions in Love & Mercy.

I can’t think of a movie scene that conveys creative discovery and experimentation better than the Pet Sounds sessions in Love & Mercy. When Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) convinces the rest of the Beach Boys to tour Japan without him, giving him space to compose their new album, he sets about reinventing the band’s sound in a series of recording sessions with the famous Wrecking Crew session band. Brian’s ideas are unheard of for pop music. At one point he brings animals into the studio to provide the titular pet sounds. At other points, he ignores years of musical convention in favour of his imaginary tunes. My favourite moment is when Brian tells his musicians to play two different bass lines in two different keys, and one of them asks him, “How does that work?” His simple response: “It works in my head.” And he’s right.

There’s not much visual experimentation being done here, but director Bill Pohlad captures the enthusiasm of Brian’s musical discovery. Brian is trying his most fanciful ideas out, trusting his instincts and convincing the skeptical session musicians in the process. Creative innovation is rarely interesting to watch on screen, but this montage of scenes captures not only the spark of genius in Brian’s ideas, but also his pure joy in implementing them. It helps you to understand both the essence of Brian’s talent and the complexity of his contribution to pop musical.

5. The openings of Bridges of Spies, Son of Saul, and Spectre.

The opening of a film can encapsulate an entire movie, alerting viewers to what they should expect in the coming minutes, cueing them into tone, style, and subject matter. The best movie openings can go further, visually defining a film’s themes within a few minutes of screentime. Although it’s a cheat for this list, the openings of Bridge of Spies, Son of Saul, and Spectre all operate similarly in capturing the essence of what you’re getting from each film—and are arguably the best parts of each film.

In Bridge of Spies, we see the Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) lead the feds on a foot chase through New York City. Spielberg is operating in the classical mode here, creating tension through clear framing and juxtaposition. There’s no exposition. No cinematic trickery. Just a careful collection of shots showing men moving this way and that, which defines both the narrative conflict of spies and the thematic conflict between man and the state. Bridge of Spies is an old-fashioned thriller, using blocking and camera movement to convey theme. This opening sets the table for the engrossing story to come.

In the opening moments of Son of Saul we see Saul (Gézá Röhrig) herding a fresh batch of Jewish inmates into the gas chambers. He keeps them in line, ushering them into the change rooms where they take off their clothes, folding them neatly aside for later, and then into the gas chambers, where the guards lock the doors behind them and gas them to death. The shot doesn’t cut until the last of the victims has stopped pounding on the doors and screaming for help. This is a brutal opening to a film, punishing from the get-go. And it’s completely appropriate. Son of Saul is not an easy film to watch, but these first five minutes clue you into the unrelenting extent of Lázló Nemes’ vision. Just as the opening shot doesn’t cut away from the screams of the victims in the gas chamber, Son of Saul is not a film that will cut away from the most disgusting and atrocious actions occurring in Auschwitz, Birkenau. And just as the camera never leaves Saul’s face during its opening minutes, the entire film never leaves Saul throughout its narrative, demonstrating that this is the story of one man’s journey through hell.

Finally, in Spectre we have another unbroken tracking shot, one that captures the scale of this twenty-fourth entry in the James Bond 007 series. The camera cranes down into the streets of Mexico City on the Day of the Dead and finds James Bond, sporting a skeleton mask and matching tuxedo, as he follows a sinister gentleman in a white suit. It follows Bond through a nearby hotel lobby, up the elevator, into a room where he’s going to bed a beautiful woman, and then out the window as he sets up a vantage point to assassinate the gentleman in the white suit. Only then does it cut. The shot is opulent, massive, impressive, but totally over-the-top. There’s no narrative purpose for it to be one unbroken shot, but that seeming superficiality doesn’t detract from its grandeur. Spectre might not be the best Bond film in the series, but this scene is surely one of the franchise’s best openings. It manages to embody most key elements of the Bond icon: an exotic locale, literal spying, surprising reveals, franchise references, seduction, humour, fashion, gadgets, and, of course, Bond doing what he does best, which is killing. If Spectre is a film of impressive bigness, both in theme and scale, this blatantly grand opening shot captures its aggressive extravagance.

Another Five:

The final freeze frame in Brooklynis a beautiful ending to a touching film. As Tony (Emory Cohen) leaves work and says goodbye to his pals, he looks across the street, and there, leaning against a brick wall is his wife, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), smiling coyly, wearing a gorgeous dress and cardigan, her suitcase by her side, ready to move forward in their lives together. He rushes across the street and embraces her. The frame freezes and we fade to black. Director John Crowley has captured young, clear-eyed love in a single image. I also greatly admire Donnie’s first professional boxing match in Creed. Unbroken long-takes have become somewhat ubiquitous in filmmaking as of late, but that doesn’t detract from how impressive they can be when utilized properly. In Creed, director Ryan Coogler decides to film the entirety of Donnie Johnson’s (Michael B. Jordan) first professional boxing match without a single cut. The camera follows Donnie into the ring, focusing on his and his opponent’s preparations, before moving with them as they fight through two rounds. The length of the shot forces us to acknowledge the sheer endurance required of boxers, as well as the complexity of their movements throughout the ring. It’s a flashy visual choice used for great thematic effect.

Some of the best movie moments of 2015 were also courtship scenes. The scene where Sir Thomas Sharpe dances the waltz, “European-style,” with Edith in Crimson Peak is dazzling. After convincing her to attend a ball with him in Baltimore, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) snubs his intended dance partner for Edith (Mia Wasikowska), who’s taken aback by his romantic gesture. While Sharpe’s motivations for courting Edith grow suspect over the course of the film, this initial moment of romance, where Sharpe waltzes Edith around a ballroom, a lit candle held between their hands to demonstrate the smoothness of their motion, captures the doomed romance at the heart of this gothic tale. It also shows that Crimson Peak has more on its mind than merely scaring the audience. Sergeant Troy courting Bathsheba in the woods in Far From the Madding Crowdis another stunning courtship scene from 2015, although one that’s more subtly sexual. Troy (Tom Sturridge) meets Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) alone in a dark forest and when there, demonstrates his ability with his saber by furiously slicing the air around her without touching but a hair on her head. His confidence and charm win over the supposedly icy Bathsheba, even though he’s a disastrous choice for a husband. The scene makes it clear that it’s Troy’s dangerous sexuality that draws Bathsheba to him—and shows, for at least this moment, why Troy’s charms are impossible to ignore.

I also don’t want to miss mentioning the concert in Detroit in Straight Outta Compton. After the Detroit Police Department threatens N.W.A. with harsh penalties if they play “Fuck tha Police” during their show, the rappers bring their concert to a standstill, explaining that the authorities tried to intimidate them and ban them from expressing themselves. And just as the audience fears they’ve cowered to police pressure, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) comes forward with his microphone and blares the infamous song’s aggressive opening words. The place lights up and the rest is history. This thunderous scene in a film full of sound and fury distills the frustrations and righteous anger of the African American community into one electric concert scene. It’s a rush.