Movies are a sequence of scenes that tell a story. They reveal character traits, advance the plot, and transition us between timelines. My top ten favorite scenes of the year are described below. They made me laugh, cry, cringe, and everything in between. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did.
*Note to reader: there are spoilers throughout this article. If you haven’t seen one of the movies described in the heading, skip ahead!
10. Star Wars Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker - The Dynamic Dyad
Say what you will about The Rise of Skywalker (blech), but the sequence where Ben (Adam Driver) comes to Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) rescue as she battles Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is worthy of praise. There’s the emotional impact of Ben (FINALLY) coming over to the light, Rey’s clever transfer of the light saber to Ben through their strange connection, and then the final battle, where the two team up to take on the (apparently invincible) Emperor Palpatine. And then...Ben makes the ultimate sacrifice, after he and Rey share an impassioned kiss. It’s almost too much to bear.
9. Portrait of a Lady on Fire - “Mourir? Courir.” This is one of the best character introductions of the year. We know little about the mysterious Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) at this point - only that she is wealthy, has lived at a convent, is to be married to a rich Milanese gentleman, and her sister died by throwing herself from the cliffs outside their castle. When we first see Héloïse, she is cloaked and her back to the camera. As she steps outside and begins to walk, her hood falls. Then she begins to run - toward the cliffs. When Héloïse stops, she turns and tells Marianne (Noémie Merlant) that she has dreamt of doing that for years. Dying, Marianne asks? Héloïse replies: running. It’s a simple but brilliant and effective way of communicating Héloïse’s desire to be free of the constraints that have bound her.
8. Knives Out: Benoit Blanc’s Big Reveal This scene is everything you could want from a clever murder mystery. Blanc (Daniel Craig) walks us through the facts, telling us everything we know - and things we amateur detectives somehow missed. It’s just amazing what Rian Johnson can do when you let him create his own ending. 7. Honey Boy: The Three-Way Phone Fight Honey Boy sets itself apart with this scene. I’ll set the stage: a young Otis (Noah Jupe) is talking to his mother (voice of Natasha Lyonne) on the phone. She tells him to relay something to his father (Shia LaBeouf) - which he does, mimicking her voice. His dad yells something back. Otis repeats it to his mother in the same tone. This continues. Otis is the go-between - physically, verbally, and emotionally stuck in the middle of this fight - until it gets so loud both parents can hear each other yelling. It’s draining to watch, and it’s an immensely clever way to convey the extent to which Otis is torn between them. 6. Les Misérables: The Stairwell Fight Les Misérables is about the intersection of class, power, and humanity. Those elements come together in a destructive and dangerous final sequence in which three police officers are engaged in a (potentially deadly) battle with a group of youths from a poor housing project. The scene ends with a question - and maybe, depending on how you view it, a glimmer of hope.
5. 1917 - Running Across the Battlefield If you’ve been to the movies in the past month, you’ve seen part of this sequence in the 1917 trailer -- a brave but petrified soldier runs horizontally across the front line of a battlefield, as soldiers stream out of the trenches on his right and grenades explode all around him. It’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch that scene in full and in the context of the whole movie -- it’s tense, terrifying, and beautiful at the same time. I cannot even imagine the time and resources that went into the orchestration of that run. Bravo.
4. Little Women - The Proposal The relationship between Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) in Little Women is sweet and at the same time, feisty. The film develops their relationship slowly throughout the first part of the movie, making it easy to fall in love with the two of them, whether they’re spiritedly dancing on the porch, rough-housing, or ice skating on a pond. So when Laurie proposes to Jo - and then she rejects him - I felt Laurie’s deep pain. But at the same time, I understood Jo’s desire for independence and a life in which she feared they would come to regret their union. The scene is the perfect blend of perspectives and emotions that allows you to empathize with both characters at once. 3. And Then We Danced: The Robyn Seduction When I watched this (very short) scene for the first time, I got goosebumps and almost cried out of pure joy. Back up for one second. And Then We Danced is a touching story of a competitive Georgian dancer, Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), who must come to terms with the fact that he isn’t straight in an intolerant society (and profession). Fast forward. In this scene, a group of friends are away at a birthday party. It’s late at night. Merab is alone with his crush, who we now know likes him too. When Robyn’s song ‘Honey’ comes on, Merab throws on a wig and starts freeform dancing. He gets swept up in the melody, letting his emotions rise to match it. It’s mesmerizing.
2. Marriage Story: The Fight Everything about this scene - the acting, the dialogue, the way the scene is shot - make it feel so real. There’s frustration in this fight. There’s anger. Some hatred. But in the end, the compassion Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) have for each other overwhelms the reciprocal bad feelings. They mean what they say, but the words barely ripple the surface of the solid foundation they’ve built through their years of marriage.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire: The Fire *Note to readers: for maximum impact, play this track while you read There is something inherently beautiful about a large fire in an open field in the dead of night. Add on top of that a layer of unexpected - but magical - chanting and clapping by local women, desire, and companionship, and you have the best scene of the year. The elements are simple and there is virtually no talking, but the feelings conveyed are powerful and unmistakable.