Before we begin the countdown, let’s take a look at the year’s best individual scenes.
Just like last year, this list is not ranked – excepting the final entry, because you end on the showstopper, that’s just common sense. More so than full movies, it is basically impossible to properly rank individual scenes against one another in any meaningful way. Some scenes are phenomenal specifically because of the context leading up to them, others are small moments that are somewhat inconsequential on the rest of the narrative yet leave a profound impact upon the viewer. Some are the film’s climax, others are its very beginning. Some are standouts in some of the best films of the year, others are bright spots in otherwise miserable turdfests. So, submitted for your approval, here are the 20 scenes that stuck with me the most throughout 2016.
There WILL be MAJOR SPOILERS throughout this piece, including multiple film endings. Proceed with caution.
The press conference
Zootopia is a Great Film that tangibly, noticeably, sitting-up-in-one’s-seat-in-admiration-at-the-realisation becomes a Phenomenal Film once it reaches the two-thirds mark. The case appears to have been sewn shut, the bad guys appear to have been locked up, Nick and Judy have become good friends and Nick is even ready to apply to become a police officer like Judy. All that’s left is for Judy to address the media in a press conference, figure out how to cure the Predators that have somehow gone savage, and then we can roll credits and head home safe in the knowledge that the day was saved and that anybody is capable of anything if they strive hard enough! Nick preps Judy with how best to deal with the pressures of answering an interview, Judy hands back the blackmail pen, and begins the press conference.
Then she starts being flustered by the press’s relentless hounding and, out of a misguided desire to stick to what she believes are the facts of the case, repeats a line she heard from a scientist at the make-shift research facility: “clearly there’s a biological component.” And then Judy keeps talking, and keeps talking, and keeps talking, espousing the same discriminatory “savage predators” rhetoric pushed on her by her parents and the societal system she inhabits, that she claims to have risen above, as incontrovertible fact whilst Nick looks on in hurt horror. Judy steps off the stage, completely unaware of exactly how offensive she had just been, and Nick proceeds to not only repeat to her in no uncertain terms the full weight of her words, he also calls her out on her shit prior to this scene (the Fox Spray) and her weak justifications (“Oh there’s a THEM now?”). It’s the exact sequence where Zootopia openly announces that it really is going there, that it is going to do what lesser animated films wouldn’t and make its protagonist just as bad as its villains because, in this moment, Judy is. We are all prejudiced, what makes a difference is how we respond to being called out on that fact.
“Rio” – Demo recording
The best parts of Sing Street all arrive in the early going, as it lays the relatable and realist groundwork required for its crowdpleasing escapist finale to work. The scenes of Connor pulling together a band from scratch, talking about the sound he wants to achieve with nonsense buzzwords, bullshitting his way through conversations about other bands based on what he’s overheard from his older brother, finding the only Black kid in Dublin and cajoling him to join their band because the manager thinks it will add some “edge” to the dynamic, smoking cigarettes and debating band names rather than coming up with songs. All of which are painfully relatable to anybody who tried to start a band whilst still in school, but none are more painfully relatable than Sing Street’s attempted demo recording of Duran Duran’s “Rio.” A mess of shifting tempos, flat singing, dropped notes, and a keyboardist who absolutely cannot play, it’s the perfect example of young kids trying to run before they can walk, and it’s hard to argue with Brendan’s assessment when he stomps the offending cassette out of existence.
“You have permission to engage the target.”
Eye in the Sky
Throughout the entirety of Eye in the Sky’s unbearable pressure-cooker moral dilemma, very rarely does the question of whether it is truly morally justifiable to put the young girl caught in the drone strike’s blast zone in danger come up with any of the characters. Much of their points come down to legality, the ticking-time-bomb nature of the situation, what it would look like politically if this got out or if they did nothing, almost like they all know that they cannot justify the answer they would give if it came down to a purely moral judgement. That’s why it’s a genuinely satisfying relief when Lieutenant Watts refuses to comply with Colonel Powell’s request to engage at just over the film’s midpoint. He doesn’t have a legal or political reason for holding fire, he just knows that he cannot take the shot without giving the girl ample time to get to safety because, dammit, it’s the right thing to do. He may have to couch his reasoning in the rule book in order to get her to back off for the time being, but it’s clear that his true reasoning has nothing to do with procedure. For a brief moment, compassion prevails. It doesn’t last, but at least it’s something.
The wolf pack
I have mentioned before my belief that the Looney Tunes just don’t work particularly well outside of the medium of shorts – the constraints, looseness, and contained nature of the form allowing them a manic, unpredictable, and, well, looney spark that’s hard to translate outside of a seven minute short. Warner Animation Group’s second feature-length theatrical film since their return, Storks, tries its damndest to pull that off, though, and in its best moments comes surprisingly close to tapping that energy. That kind of crazed, making-it-up-as-we-go-along, rapid-fire gag fest reaches a zenith when Junior and Tulip are captured by wolves. From the random bickering over whether the pack needs a new Alpha, to the sheer totality of their falling for the little baby, right up to the madness that comes from their inexplicable talents of transforming into whatever object or mode of transportation is needed at the time, this five minute sequence of film has more genuine gut-busters than the vast majority of 90 minute comedies.
“In the good old days…”
Ava DuVernay had a long debate over whether or not this particular scene of Donald Trump should stay in 13th or not, since she wished to make a documentary that would remain fiercely relevant, which including Trump carried the risk of instantly dating. Ultimately, she kept it in, not just the right call based on the results of the election, but also because she correctly understood that Trump is a symptom of the disease and not the disease itself. Trump is White Male Supremacy personified and, as demonstrated by some truly chilling callbacks to footage previously used in the documentary, his rhetoric is nothing new. It’s what swept Nixon to power in the 70s, it’s what would sweep Trump to power in 2016, and it’s what has normalised racist violence and aggression for centuries – a pining for “the good old days” when White people could harass and abuse and beat Black people in the street for no reason and get away with it. DuVernay knew, as did so many others that we didn’t listen to until it was too late, that this election was all about racism, and if you didn’t agree with that after watching this sequence then you clearly were not paying any attention.
There is an art to stupid comedy, a cleverness and effort that most people don’t realise as they laugh at an incredibly stupid pun or a well-timed dick/fart joke. It’s an art that Sausage Party understands majorly, with every last one of its dumb puns and visual gags – six-packs of Canadian beer that can’t stop saying “sorry,” a Jewish bagel named Sammy Bagel Jr., a packet of meat loaf lip-synching to a Meat Loaf song – being so refined and thought-over that laughter in spite of oneself is the only acceptable response. This goes double for any and all of the film’s most audacious gags, where it pushes its premise to the absolute extremes in search of well-earned appreciative laughs. But Sausage Party saves its stupidest pun and its most audacious gag for the very end. After the food has successfully murdered all of the humans in the supermarket, they have the place to themselves and no need to remain in their packaging. So they do the one thing they’ve been dying to do all film: they hold an orgy. It’s utterly ridiculous, brilliantly repulsive, completely hilarious, and all in service of quite possibly the stupidest visual pun in the history of cinema. How’s that for a climax?
Is it cheating to put a full 15 minutes of film, comprised of several scenes, onto a list of best scenes, treating it as just one whole sequence of film? In this example, I’d argue no. First contact in Arrival is not just the moment where Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly are first confronted with the Heptapods. It’s not just the moment where they first enter the antechamber and deal with the shift in gravity. It’s not just the sequence where they’re on the hydraulic lift and Donnelly runs his hand along the ship as the lift moves into position. First contact in Arrival begins from the moment that Banks and Donnelly fly over the cordoned-off line separating the public and the military site, as they and we get our first full look at one of the Heptapods’ spaceships up close, the strange cloud and air formations around the site, as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s wailing violin communicates the sheer imposing scale of what they and we are about to walk into.
Fact of the matter is that every last second of the lead-up to our first glimpse of the Heptapods is vital to the eventual reveal itself. Denis Villenueve, screenwriter Eric Heisserer, cinematographer Brandon Young, and Jóhannsson all know that first contact, even benevolent first contact, would be an absolutely terrifying, nerve-shredding experience for anybody placed in that situation, and the build-up would be absolutely unbearable. So Arrival goes to great lengths to deliberately show every last step of this process in order to properly communicate the gravity of the situation. We are helicoptered into base camp, go through medical check-ups, get brief introductions to those on-base, squeeze into uncomfortable hazmat suits, take the long ride over to the ship… It both intentionally deflates the mystique of first contact, befitting the hard sci-fi route that much of Arrival operates on, and builds up the tension to boiling point. By the time that the Heptapods finally show, through a shroud of fog, the exact degree to which we are all out of our depth becomes painfully clear, and that’s without even seeing the truly alien designs on the other side of the glass.
The airport fight
Captain America: Civil War
You can level a lot of complaints at Civil War, many of which I shall over the course of this series, but as pure blockbuster cinema, pure spectacle, in its best moments, it’s almost unrivalled by anything else in its field this year. Fact is, Marvel Studios have done an outstanding job at crafting its various characters into distinct personalities and always remaining true to them and their own personal arcs, inarguably to a fault. It also means, however, that Civil War’s big centrepiece, the showdown between Team Cap and Team Tony at Leipzig Airport, manages to realise the joy of comic book fight sequences better than almost any other ensemble superhero film to date. Yeah, there really is no reason for everybody to be bitterly fighting each other, which the film acknowledges by having them each fight with (for lack of a better term) kid gloves, but The Russo Brothers do a phenomenal job at making the sequence be more than just a CGI spectacle. Every character fights in a noticeably different manner to one another, with different degrees of intensity or familiarity with one another, and with different strengths and weaknesses to one another, and the result is a genuine joy to watch. There’s a reason why the Honest Trailer reacted to any flaw in the rest of the film by cueing up this scene again.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
The best parodies work on multiple levels. For one, they work on a base level with jokes that land regardless of one’s familiarity with the target of the parody. For two, they gain an extra level of resonance if one is aware of the general concept being mocked. But, for three, they become immediate all-time classics when the parody comes from a specific target of that broader concept. And so it is with Conner4Real’s first single off of his “more personal” second solo album, “Equal Rights.” On the base level, the joke is hilarious purely as a result of how quickly it goes off the rails from its intended message – eventually devolving into a list of hyper-masculine things such as hot wings, flying kicks, drum solos, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. On a more specific level, it’s a brilliant takedown of both hip-hop’s homophobia and straight allies who are so fragile and self-centred that they are incapable of preaching for change without reminding others of how they themselves are totally not gay, you guys, but not that there’s anything wrong with being gay. And on a hyper-specific level, it’s a hysterical (if slightly belated) parody of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ same-sex equality advocating mega-hit “Same Love.” But, of course, the biggest laugh of all arrives from the punchline, with Ringo Starr bluntly noting that Conner “is writing this song for gay marriage like it’s not allowed, it’s allowed now.”
Undoubtedly the boldest aspect of Ben Wheatley’s attempt to film the supposedly unfilmable J.G. Ballard novel, High-Rise, comes at about the film’s hour mark. Munrow has just committed suicide based on false information provided by Laing, Wilder is on-edge over the complete lack of police response to said suicide, and the lower floors are really feeling the brunt of the upper floors’ mass consumption of power. Things are about to blow up, and something’s got to give. This should be where we begin witnessing the second act breakdown of society in the High-Rise in great detail. Instead, Wheatley and Amy Jump practically gloss over the whole process, relegating it all to a montage that happens around Laing’s rapid descent into obsessive isolationism, retreating from his work and putting his energies into decorating his apartment with little care for total societal collapse. It’s jarring, but it serves a fiercely timely point: complete systemic societal breakdown can happen within the blink of an eye if you choose to retreat into your privilege and let it.
“Would that it were so simple.”
Wordplay is arguably the Coens’ main forte, there’s a reason the story of Peter Stormare incorrectly thinking they’d made a typo in the opening of Fargo has gone down in their legend. Their way with words, the rhythm and delivery and diction of said, is masterful and the backbone of many of their most iconic sequences. Hobie Doyle and Laurence Laurentz’s attempts to get the former, a talent-challenged but pretty Western star being forcibly rebranded by Capitol Pictures into a more conventional prestige picture leading man, to be able to properly say the aforementioned line is one of their best examples yet, particularly the subtle escalation as the scene goes on. But, really, the whole scene is gold, from Hobie’s issues opening the set door, to the squeaks of his shoes as he walks, to Laurence’s constant insistences to Hobie that he be called Laurentz, the entire sequence is just a comic delight. The true genius, however, is that it never becomes mean-spirited. Even throughout it all, the joke is never on Hobie as a person so much as it is his generally being out of his depth and Golden Age Hollywood itself because, after all, The Coens are rarely needlessly cruel.
“Forward” is accompanied by images of the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown holding up photographs of the young Black sons who were ripped away from them far too soon by a racist police force with the legal power to get away with it. “Freedom” is accompanied by a sequence set in the American Deep South during what is almost certainly implied to be pre-Civil War. The transition is no happy accident, since Beyoncé’s paean to Black Womanhood acts as both a condemnation of how little progress towards some semblance of equality for this group has been made by the rest of society, and a celebration of Black women’s resilience in the face of this oppression and strife. In particular, “Freedom” alternates between a group dinner, a talent show, and defiant images of Black women stood in solidarity, demonstrating the unity and joy that got them, and continues to get them, through the worst of times. And for those who can’t grasp that, the moment when the backing track first slams in on the chorus after Beyoncé belts out the first verse unaccompanied is just as powerful.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Kubo and the Two Strings is not a film that is exactly lacking for striking, memorable, and just plain gorgeous animated images but, even so, Laika absolutely outdid themselves when our trio of heroes go in search of The Breastplate Impenetrable. The set design and lighting throughout this whole sequence are simply beautiful, particularly down in The Sea of Eyes that Kubo becomes entrapped within, but the fight between Monkey and one of The Moon Sisters is truly astonishing to behold. It’s the ferocity from both participants, the impacts that director Travis Knight refuses to shy away from or tone down, with an intensity in both action and vocal delivery that are rarely seen in the realm of family animation nowadays. Then it’s all capped off with a reveal that, despite its obviousness, hits with the force of a bomb, a genuine fist-pump-worthy moment thanks to everything leading up to it and Charlize Theron’s perfect delivery.
The first time I watched this scene, and I have friends who can vouch for me on this, my eyes did not stop focussing on the bottom-left hand corner of the screen. Notice just how often Dan Trachtenberg goes back to that low-angled shot of Michelle and Emmett at the table with Howard just off-screen. He returns to it constantly and you eventually pick up on something, Howard’s hands are in the frame and they basically never stay still, particularly becoming more irritable the more that Michelle and Emmett interact with each other. John Goodman’s performance of Howard plays majorly off of a physicality you don’t often associate with the actor but is something that the film goes to great lengths to make you realise. Howard is a large, seething, terrifying figure and the knowledge that he can snap at any moment means that one instinctively keeps an eye on him at all times for some kind of forewarning. It is impossible to relax when you know what damage those hands can wreak.
The dinner scene is the first big blow-out of all of that tension 10 Cloverfield Lane had been relentlessly boiling up since the opening frames, and Trachtenberg plays all of the elements like a symphony orchestra. The staging of the scene and intentionally limited shot choices hem in the claustrophobia of the film even tighter, Michelle’s quiet resilience in the face of immediate danger adds an extra thrill as we see how she attempts to manipulate proceedings to her advantage despite the very real chance of them turning deadly at the drop of a dime, the measured trusting pacing of the editing that drags out the tension well past the point of bearability. When things finally go off, it’s chaotic, scrappy, an adrenaline-fueled scramble for safety… at least until we are all confronted with almost irrefutable evidence that maybe Howard isn’t lying after all, which only makes that sinking feeling worse.
The VVitch is a morality tale but, unfortunately for its cast, it’s a morality tale from 17th Century Puritanical New England; the kind where so much as briefly thinking about sexual desires is enough to condemn you to a swift punishment from an angry, vengeful God. This is the Devil’s land, and the business of Sin is plentiful when you’re dealing with the strict repressive laws of God in the fervently religious age. This oppressive, isolated atmosphere becomes its most unsettling once Caleb becomes lost in the forest. A maturing, hormonal boy separated from any women not biologically related to himself, women he has been having impure thoughts about, he becomes easy prey for the witch (or potentially witches) lurking in the forest, hypnotised as he is by the sight of a woman in a red hood. Director Robert Eggers draws upon fable-type imagery here, but of the menacing, violent and unsensitised sort, his camera locking us into the path of the woman and refusing to allow us any escape, whilst an unholy choir heralds the inbound doom with a terrifying inevitability. All you can do is wait for it to be over, because there is no escape from this.
The trip to Iceland
The following makes just as much sense in context. New Mexico Detectives Terry and Bob are on the trail of an informant of theirs, Reggie, who has made off with $1 million in criminal cash that the detectives have decided is their property to parts unknown. After busting some heads, they get a tip that Reggie has absconded to, of all goddamn places, the far away country of Iceland. Because Bob and Terry have very little compunction for doing actual police work but get very agitated when stuff they believe to be theirs is taken away from them, the two travel to Iceland. They eventually stand in the middle of some village square and use their crack detective skills to find Reggie. No, wait, that’s a lie. Terry tells Bob that they’ll just look for the first Black guy they spot and then chase after him. Bob is about to question the idea when, wouldn’t you know it, they just happen to spot Reggie as, by Reggie’s own admission when they share a pint at a pub later on, Reggie’s choice of geographical hiding location was not a particularly smart one.
The end of the story
The Little Prince
Kids are smarter than we give them credit for and can handle way more than we estimate them to be capable of, but even then there are limits. The Aviator, after becoming fast friends with The Little Girl, spends much of the film effectively trying to prepare her for his eventual passing, particularly once he develops a nasty cough. The Little Prince becomes the vehicle for this attempted preparation the further on it goes, especially after the titular Prince meets The Aviator in the Sahara Desert. The Prince’s eventual willing acceptance of his impending death, personified by the Snake that The Aviator initially tries to fight off, is demonstrated to be no sad thing. It’s even noble to embrace the eventual arrival of death, for the impact you can have on people even just for a short time can mean that you’re never truly gone. Unfortunately, some lessons kids just aren’t ready to hear or fully understand. Even grown-ups take a while to accept their eventual fate, it’s no surprise that The Little Girl is not yet ready to.
Can’t stop the signal
Jyn, Cassian, and all of the other members of Rogue One are dead, obliterated (if they weren’t killed already) as a result of a low-power shot from the Death Star. Jyn and Cassian embrace the inevitable, holding each other as the shockwave barrels its way towards them, and then they are gone. But Rogue One keeps on going, for though Jyn and company have completed their part of the mission, they are still just one part of the larger rebellion, and The Empire have not magically disappeared now that the Death Star plans have made it to a rebel ship. And in the face of the embodiment of the full power of the Dark Side, a group of otherwise anonymous rebels proceed to sacrifice their lives and attempt to hold the line in order to ensure that the plans get to safety. As a direct result of these rebels and all of the rebels wiped out on the surface of Scarif, the events of A New Hope and the eventual downfall of The Empire are set in motion. For rebellions may be built on hope, but they are fortified by the actions and sacrifices of those who recognise the greater picture and the roles that they can play in it.
The Edge of Seventeen
You’re going to learn when we get to its eventual entry on the Top 20 that I relate a hell of a lot to Nadine Franklin, the protagonist of the criminally slept-on The Edge of Seventeen. Her complete incapability when it comes to socialising, her crippling self-loathing, and her constant hopeless isolation are written and portrayed so accurately and so idiosyncratically that I found myself watching many segments of the film through my fingers in relatable cringe-based sympathy. Hardest of all comes when Nadine attends a party with now-former best-and-only friend Krista, who is really only there with Nadine’s brother Darian than Nadine. Being talked to and accepted by people other than Nadine for the first time in possibly ever, Krista effectively but not maliciously ditches her best friend to go and play Beer Pong with her potential new group of friends.
This leaves Nadine stranded at a party with nobody else to talk to, nobody that she knows, and no ride home. There’s a part of her that wants to make that contact, to try and make new friends in the same way that Krista is able to right in front of her eyes, but her deep-seated self-loathing and false belief that she has nothing in common with anybody else leads to her merely aimlessly ambling around the party, cancelling every attempt at conversing with somebody before she even starts. The one time she accidentally manages to strike up a real conversation with someone, an unintentionally hurtful comment only re-enforces her sense of isolation and she makes her escape from the scene. It’s quietly painful viewing, particularly since I have been in exactly this kind of situation far too many times before.
“You just got Holtzmanned, baby!”
Like it was ever going to be anything else, come on. Theodore Shapiro’s kick-ass orchestral rendition of the Ghostbusters theme adds the kick required to push the scene over the top, but this is all about Holtzmann. This is what all of Ghostbusters had been building up to, a sequence in which an incredibly entertaining, super-weird, non-sexualised, well-written, and lovable female character like Dr. Jillian Holtzmann got to cut loose, bust ghosts, and kick ass without that action being her sole defining character trait. This sequence encompasses the ideal of what female-fronted blockbusters could be like, and, given my prior-stated reasons for my infatuation with Holtzmann, it never fails to leave me giddy, pumped, and grinning from ear to ear every single time. Bustin’ never felt this good.
Got your own personal favourite movie scenes from 2016? Let me know in the comments below! Tomorrow, we begin the countdown of My Top 20 Films of 2016.