20 Great Scenes from 20 Great Movies

One might be surprised to discover that my two favourite scenes of all time from movies are both from films directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. About two months ago, I revealed my favourite scene of all time and promised to try and work on a list of great scenes. Well now I’ve finished compiling the list, and here it is, unleashed. They’re in no particular order, as it would be too hard to rank them, but I’ll start off with my second favourite scene of all time.

1: The Drug Deal Scene, Boogie Nights (1997)

Everything in this scene is pitch perfect. The tension works brilliantly, with the firecrackers and nervous tics. And the soundtrack… unbelieveable. You’ve got to hand it to P.T.A., he can pick the right music for any movie and it suits perfectly. There’s also a 45-second closeup of Mark Wahlberg (6:30-7:15) that is perhaps my favourite shot in the movie. Not because I like Mark Wahlberg, but just because it’s a perfect little piece of Anderson, and it reveals so much about Dirk Diggler without saying a word. Fantastic.

2: The Goy’s Teeth, A Serious Man (2009)

A perfect example of what makes the Coen brothers so unique. They can have a long, rambling, incredibly interesting monologue with virtually no meaning and it makes sense. The scene is both fun to watch and full of anticipation. Sure, it might be a let down to discover there’s no point in the whole thing, but it’s part of life. A lot of what we go through is long, tedious and has no real affect or reason, and yet, we live through it. The truth is, some questions weren’t made to be answered, and this scene sums it up perfectly.

3: The Street Shootout, Heat (1995)

Michael Mann’s visually daring 1995 heist movie features one of my personal favourite sequences of extended violence and warfare. Imagine a gritty shootout between many men, placed in the middle of a bustling street. Might not sound like the most original idea now, but back in 1995, it sizzled.

4: The Briefcase, The Killing (1956)

Though I sadly cannot find a video for this fantastic final scene to Stanley Kubrick’s heist movie, I can assure you it is brilliant. When two thieves are getting on to a plane escaping with millions in a briefcase, the unexpected happens, the briefcase opens, and all Hell breaks loose. A visually stunning shot, that in some ways anticipated Kubrick’s whole career.

5: Gutterballs, The Big Lebowski (1998)

A perfect combination of stylistic music and sexual innuendo combined with the Dude’s love of bowling, this priceless sequence makes the entire movie worth watching and symbolises (like #2) the uniqueness of the Coen brothers. No other director/s could have pulled this off.

6: “Hello, Dimitri?”, Dr. Strangelove (1964)

If there was a top prize for awkward, subtle humour in film, Dr. Strangelove would be a definite contender for top spot, and this scene explains exactly why. It makes me laugh every single time I watch it, and the first time I saw it, I was in tears by the time it ended. Fantastic. If you like to think you have anything resembling a sense of humour, you must see this movie.

7: Alice’s Monologue, Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

This is not actually the whole scene, but it’s enough of it to get the point across. Nicole Kidman is absolutely fucking fantastic in this scene, spitting out each line perfectly in character and in a manner that almost puts the viewer into the same drug-induced trance as her. A fantastic look at the effects of marriage and human relationships, this is definitely the film’s highlight.

8: Mr. Blonde, Reservoir Dogs (1992)

There are a lot of scenes which deserve a spot on here from QT’s breakthrough debut and it was really tough making a decision, but no other scene has the raw impact and masochistic beauty of this brilliantly filmed violence overblow. QT laughs in our faces and left me gaping when Mr. Blonde exited the warehouse and everything changed for those brief few seconds. He’s a genius, and this scene is a testament to his ability.

9: The German Girl, Paths of Glory (1957)

I hope you have a box of Kleenex, because you may be about to cry. The following is technically two scenes, one in which Kirk Douglas tells his boss where to stick his promotion (my favourite line in the film occurs at 0:59, listen for that one), and in the second part, in a scene that really is a testament to the heartlessness and cruelty of war, a German girl is forced to sing by a bunch of rowdy, drunken, ogling American soldiers, but the unexpected happens. Seriously, this scene… I cannot express my love for it enough, and it is one of the main reasons it’s placed so high among my favourite movies of all time. The best scene Kubrick ever directed. Ever.

10: Perfect Day, Trainspotting (1996)

Apparently, embedding is disabled so you can watch it here if it doesn’t work. What follows is an example of Danny Boyle’s great talent. He hear combines a scene where we see the protagonist Renton (Ewan MacGregor) take a “final” hit of heroin, and uses the best possible music to ironically describe the hellish levels to which he has sunk. Spectacularly depressing.

11: The End, Dogville (2003)

I warn you now, do NOT watch this scene if you have not already seen the movie. It contains spoilers that should NEVER be spoiled. It is the almost perfect, sadistic ending to Lars von Trier’s amazing stage-play filmed Dogville. It’s definitely in my Top 5 for jaw-dropping scenes. You will be stunned.

12: The Club Silencio, Mulholland Dr. (2001)

A beautiful, artistic, memorable scene from David Lynch’s amazing movie, this is a really well-done look at the thin line between dreams and reality, and how easily we can be tricked.

13: Don’t Leave, Magnolia (1999)

I know I’ve mentioned and shown this scene all over Southern Vision a few times, but if you haven’t seen it, it really is worth it. In general, I dislike Tom Cruise as an actor. But in this scene… wow, he really packs a punch that’s difficult to shake. Amazing portrayal of grief and loss.

14: Plastic Bag in the Wind, American Beauty (1999)

The scene has such emotion, and beauty, that there’s really nothing much left to say that Wes Bentley doesn’t say himself. Great background score from Thomas Newman, one of my favourite musical score composers of all time.

15: The Pool Scene, Let the Right One In (2008)

Almost poetic in its use of strewn body parts, sudden deaths, and great audio, this scene forces the audience to use their imagination which produces much more horrific results than any scary imagery. A beautiful, terrifying scene.

16: The Boardwalk Scene, A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The perfect combination of sickening violence and amazing classical music, Stanley Kubrick’s controversial masterpiece features countless great scenes of amazing direction, but this one tops them all.

17: Standing In Line for a Movie, Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen’s famous comedy works more like a series of hilarious sketches, and it’s difficult to pick just one, but when I watched it the first time, this scene really struck me as very funny, and has been parodied often in pop culture.

18: Lovefool, Hot Fuzz (2007)

This list would go uncomplete without a reference to the funniest of all the hilarious scenes in this Edgar Wright classic. The look on Simon Pegg’s face is hysterical.

19: The Copacabana Shot, Goodfellas (1991)

You’ll have to skip to two minutes before the actual shot starts, but it is a brilliant one. One of the most famous and influential tracking shots in all of cinema, this really pumps up the class in this Scorsese classic and is one of the many reasons it is as brilliant as it is.

20: Dreams, No Country for Old Men (2007)

A fitting way to finish off this list is with the disquieting, eerie, brilliant final scene that tops off an amazingly fantastic movie. Tommy Lee Jones leads the Coen brothers’ western-style classic to an awesome conclusion.

There, that’s my list. There’s plenty more I could add, but this is enough for now. So, what do you think? Anything you’d like to add? Leave a comment below.

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About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on July 7, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Wow what an impressive list!! I was nodding all the way down, great.

    Any list that includes Hot Fuzz and Big Lebowski is a winner from me!!

    ALthough I think we may fall out when I say that I just don’t get the appealy for A Clockwork Orange….sorry. To be fair I only watched it recently and just got bored waiting for this ‘mega violence’ to happen. Ah well. Friends?

    Great work though matey

    • Thanks. They’re two great comedy movies, and I could never forget about them.

      It’s okay about ACO. I have a friend who hates it, too, and I suppose it won’t please you to know it’s one of my top ten films of all time (forgive me???). It’s a film you need to have a thinking cap on for, and it’s not really about the violence.

  2. I love tracking shots. The first time I truly experienced/recognized tracking shots was with GoodFellas. It is a brilliant scene. The second time was with my all-time favourite movie Pulp Fiction. There are 2 truly amazing track/shots:
    a) When Vincent & Jules go to the guys’ apartment in the early morning hours. I think this scene should have been included here (or you could have chosen your favourite of the several awesome scenes from Pulp Fiction).
    b) I prefer the second tracking shot. It’s not as great, but I enjoy it even more (probably my favorite tracking shot and one of my favorite scenes). It’s where Butch has to go his place, because his GF left his Father’s watch (and we all know the backstory of the watch) there by mistake. The shot tracks him coming out of his car a block (or street) across and follows him as he walks towards his apartment through a dirty/dusty field between the streets, ending with him climbing over the fence and reaching his apartment block.

    • I agree with you, those shots are magnificent. However, my favourite tracking shot in a Tarantino movie is still and will always be the Mr. Blonde tracking shot in Reservoir Dogs.

  3. Many good choices; some of them make me think you must be me. That Boogie Nights sequence is mind-blowing, and I’d say it even edges out Ray Liotta’s paranoid, coke-fueled errand run near the end of Goodfellas. I also very much like, visually, the dialogue-free scene near the beginning, where not-yet Dirk Diggler poses in front of the mirror, as a peppy pop arrangment of Bach plays in the background and the camera spins around the room (a sequence that was no doubt inspired in part by John Travolta’s mirror-posing scene in Saturday Night Fever.) As much as I like The Big Lebowski, it’s become kind of a cliched favorite of people who think of it as a stoner movie and are too lazy to commit to some of the Coens’ more challenging, less ingratiating work. (Bravo for your inclusion of A Serious Man, in which I love the final shot best, and also every scene with the character Sy Ableman.) Two other great moments from largely overlooked Coen films: the hoop-rolling sequence from The Hudsucker Proxy and the haircut montage near the beginning of The Man Who Wasn’t There. (The Coens have said that an actual poster on a similar theme was the original inspiration for that film.) The Man Who Wasn’t There also has what I think is the most visually stunning image in all of the Coens’ oeuvre: the car sailing across the screen in slow motion during the crash scene near the end. (Partly CGI’d, as it turns out! This is how special effects should be used!) In addition to the hilarious one-sided phone call from Dr. Strangelove … for some reason, the scene in which George C. Scott is in the bathroom, offscreen, and his mistress relays the phone call to him line by line never fails to crack me up. Scott gave one of the great comic performances of all time in that movie–he was legendarily furious with Kubrick for “tricking” him into playing the character over the top–and it’s really too bad that we never again saw that side of him for the remainder of his career. I do, however, strenuously disagree with the plastic bag scene from American Beauty–I think Sam Mendes took a risk there, but failed. It comes off as maudlin and just reeks of trying too hard to be “artistic” and serious.

    • Wow. Thanks a lot for all of those great selections, japecake. I must say, I have had issues in the past with that American Beauty scene. Ultimately, it’s Thomas Newman’s music combined with Sam Mendes’ direction that makes it worth it, even if it does seem flawed.

  4. Sorry Tyler, but I haven’t seen a lot of these movies as a lot of them are too dark/violent for my taste. I have to agree w/ you that Street Shootout scene in Heat is great and memorable indeed. Interesting to learn that you actually don’t like Tom Cruise as an actor, I thought that he’s one of the reasons you like Magnolia so much (I mean, the fact that you already thought highly of him). I don’t like him much either, but he’s turned in some great performances, i.e. Collateral.

    • Ah, that’s okay Ruth. I know you don’t like the darker movies but I can’t help it! Some of them are really, really good!

      Yeah, I don’t like him in general. I love him in Magnolia (and Collateral, as you mentioned), and it gives me faith that he has the ability to act well, but his career is actually pretty disappointing in general. I wish he’d shape up and do more roles like Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut and Collateral. Those are my three favourites of his.

  5. Very good this blog,I love it.Congratulation !

  6. Hi, Tyler and company:

    The scene you have questions about in Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ centers more around a suitcase, not a briefcase. Sterling Hayden checks in the suitcase prior to his flight to freedom. The suitcase is tossed on a luggage trailer to be loaded on the plane.

    Enroute, the trailer turns into the prop wash of another airliner. The suitcase fall, tumbles and opens up disgorging stacks and stacks of un-banded bills. Thus creating one of the most dramatic, fallen faces denouments in cinematic history.

    • It is brilliant, isn’t it? If you find a video of it online, I sure would appreciate the URL. I looked everywhere, though, so I don’t think it exists.

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