By Melissa Houghton
I could watch a movie a day, my apple, to keep the blues away. I enjoy sitting in a theatre, settling in and watching each story unfold. I arrive early to see the trailers or there’s no point of leaving the house; I want the full moviegoer’s experience when I’m out for my movie day pick. I’m a dying breed of bum-in-a-theatre-seat kind of cinephile. Full disclosure: I also watch Netflix, a bummer there aren’t any trailers, but I do like that sound when it kicks in.
My top 10 list is numbered but in no particular order which of them is the best on my list. They are all my movie babies and I simply cannot choose a favourite.
These moments are a collection of images and ideas that are etched on my mind, or perhaps made me feel I was experiencing the action in the scene. Moments that have made me cry, sing or scarred me for life. Three, four or five minutes on screen that I’ll never forget. My hat’s off to the power of film and to the minutes that move us. Warning: Spoiler alerts.
Alien (1979): The WTF Moment
The movie that hooked me on sci-fi. I was a teenager when it was released and on my first movie date with a guy named Francis. He was wearing English Leather cologne. I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I’m convinced the actors received specific direction to achieve the most natural response on film. I remember whipping back in my seat and gasping for breath, feeling like it was happening to me. On the spaceship Nostromo, the crews’ statis back home is interrupted when they’re awakened by the ship’s AI navigator, Mother, and their course reset to investigate a distress signal in deep space. Out on their discovery mission a crew member, Kane (John Hurt), is infected by an unknown organism that attaches itself to his face. On the directive of the ship’s doctor, Ash (Ian Holm), Kane is brought back onto the ship against the authorization of the ranking officer, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Kane is unresponsive for a time and Ash can’t figure out how to remove the unidentifiable appendage. A short time passes and Ash calls all personnel to the med-bay and announces that it has come off Kane on its own. All that’s left is gelatinous cartilage. Kane’s crewmates are ecstatic he’s recovered, but has he? Kane gets up, they’re all laughing and joking together when Kane announces that he’s starving. The entire crew heads to the mess to have dinner. The moment. Ridley Scott probably gave a director’s note to the cast that something extraordinary will happen to Kane and you will all, in character, react to what happens to him unscripted and improvise. Hurt gets suited up with the “something” but the rest of the cast doesn’t know what happens next, to help react to the moment in character. My guess, this was done in one take. Alien spawned four sequels and two prequels. Weaver was an Oscar nominee for her sophomore turn as Ripley in the sequel Aliens (1986).
Leaving Las Vegas (1995): Shopping at the liquor store.
Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) is a Tinseltown screenwriter with a blockbuster problem. Ben loses everything because of his alcoholism. Out of chances at work and in love, Ben is fired and devastated when his wife leaves with their son. Ben hits rock bottom and leaves for Las Vegas with nothing but his BMW, a six-figure severance cheque and a plan to kill himself. How? Ben is determined to slowly drink himself to death. In this scene, Ben shops at a skidrow liquor store to buy enough booze to carry out his alcohol-induced suicide. He dances his way down the aisles carefree and on top of the world. I believe Ben is sick, feels despair and out of touch with reality. This scene stays with me for two reasons. The soundtrack in the moment is “Lonely Teardrops” covered by Michael McDonald. The lively rendition as the backdrop for Ben’s march towards self-destruction, underscores in three minutes what Ben isn’t saying about what lies beneath the surface. Clearly he’s going through an existential crisis and the grip of substance abuse is uncontrollable and has a vise on his soul. I have seen this hold on people that are dear to me. It’s difficult to get someone you love to stop hurting themselves if they’re too scared or sick to do it, and don’t want your help. In his struggle with alcohol abuse, Ben is fragile and can’t stop himself from carrying out his death wish; to escape from the emptiness he feels and his failures. He’s unable or unwilling to shake his alcohol demon. Mike Figgis directed and wrote the screenplay based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name written by John O’Brien. O’Brien killed himself by gunshot in 1994, two weeks after learning his book was to be made into a movie. The film was made for $3.5 million and garnered substantial critical accolades and audience praise. Cage won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading role in 1996.
True Romance (1993): The Sicilian scene.
Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) is consigliere to mobster Blue Lou Boyle. Coccotti, along with backup thugs, show up at the trailer home of former cop Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper), to extract the details on the whereabouts of Worley’s son Clarence (Christian Slater). Worley knows that Clarence has run off with his hooker girlfriend, Alabama (Patricia Arquette), but doesn’t know the extent of trouble Clarence is in with Boyle or that he killed one of his drug dealer-pimps. Worley plays it cool and relaxes assuming he will be killed no matter what, so doesn’t disclose he knows where Clarence is. Worley turns the interrogation on its head when he decides to give Coccotti a history lesson on the origin of Sicilians, delivered with wit and icy contempt. Quentin Tarantino wrote the screenplay for True Romance and said the Sicilian scene is one of his top two favourites he has written for film. The scene is edgy and laced with racist dialog.Tarantino’s infusion of dark humour and tension in the moment builds unconventionally and to an inevitable climax in five minutes of verbal violence between Coccotti and Worley. It’s a bold scene and Walken and Hopper are two of my favourite actors. I can’t forget Walken’s smile throughout the moment or the subtle pleasure he expresses when he kills Worley, as Coccotti of course. Warning: Explicit language and opera (Lakmé’s Flower Duet- mi piace).
Planet of the Apes (1968): Head of Lady Liberty.
Astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his crew awaken from deep hibernation to discover they have crash landed on a deserted island. The marooned team quickly learns they are in hostile territory when they find themselves hunted beside a primitive race of humans. Running for their lives, Taylor and his men are eventually captured, enslaved and used for experiments, at the hands of a society of talking apes, now the dominant species. The apes have gained intelligence and reasoning, and formed a structured new world order, seemingly on a distant planet. Taylor and his companion Nova (Linda Harrison) escape to safety. Taylor is horrified to realize he is back on Earth in the distant future, when he comes across the Statue of Liberty partially submerged near the shoreline. This was the first film I watched and felt there had been an apocalypse on Earth and humans had finally met their match. Written by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and Michael Wilson, Planet of the Apes is rated higher on Rotten Tomatoes at 88% compared to a recent iteration of the franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes at 81%. I’ve watched all the Apes films including the reboots.
The Deer Hunter (1978): One Shot
Nick (Christopher Walken) served in the Vietnam War alongside his best friends from south of Pittsburgh, Michael (Robert DeNiro) and Steven (John Savage). The three men endure unspeakable horrors on the battlefield, but stick together and escape captivity and torture at the hands of a group of Vietnamese fighters. Nick is suffering from PTSD and doesn’t return home with Michael and Steven. They lose track of him in Saigon and Michael goes back to find Nick before the city falls. Nick, now called The American, is hooked on heroin and thus far manages to survive playing Russian roulette for money. The American has been used by a Vietnamese hustler in a deadly game of “one shot”. Michael buys his way into a game of one shot with Nick. Nick doesn’t remember Michael. At the table, with urgency Michael lovinging reminds Nick of the trees and memories of back home. On their hunts Michael was known to kill a deer with one shot. With gun in hand and needle marks up his arm, Nick seems to remember and recognize his friend but for a fleeting moment. You see a quick shift behind Nick’s eyes. I’ve watched The Deer Hunter more times than I can count over the years. For me, it’s one of the saddest films about war and its aftermath on veterans and their families. However it’s also a gripping story about loyalty and friendship. The film was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1996, and sits at #53 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. Walken won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1979.
Pulp Fiction (1994): A Shot of Adrenaline in the Chest
Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) is the wife of mob boss Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Marcellus leaves one of his thugs, Vincent Vega (John Travolta), to babysit Mia for a few days and hell breaks loose when she accidentally snorts heroin thinking it’s cocaine and is overdosing. The heroin belongs to Vincent. He rushes Mia to the home of his drug dealers hoping to save her. His dealers, Lance (Eric Stoltz) and Jody (Rosanna Arquette) are swearing and freaking out that Mia is close to death on their living room floor. Jody and Lance quickly decide to restart Nina’s heart by administering a shot of Adrenalin. With the massive injection made directly to her heart, you only get one chance, Nina is revived in the nick of time. A visually intoxicating moment of comic relief written by Quentin Tarantino. Warning: Explicit language.
The Godfather (1972): Sonny’s Execution
Sonny Corleone (James Caan) rushes out in a blind rage to rescue his pregnant sister Connie (Talia Shire), at the hands of her abusive husband Carlo (Gianni Russo). What Sonny doesn’t know is that he has been set up by Carlo. His execution is payback for the decision Sonny made to execute a rival crime boss in retaliation for the attempted murder of the Godfather, his father, (Marlon Brando). I appreciate the element of surprise in a film. I consider this one of the more interesting moments because Sonny is acting out of love and concern for family, and is cut down by violence: an often bloody and inescapable bi-product of life inside the dark underworld of la cosa nostra. Adapted from a novel of the same name, written by Mario Puzo, this is on my list of desert island films. I see something new each time I watch it. Warning: Graphic violence.
The Birds (1963): Birds on the Jungle Gym
The film that scarred me for life. I’m scared to death of birds to this day mostly of this scene. I avoid congregating birds, don’t like when they’re perched on hydro lines above my head, and really, why do they walk brazenly near your feet? Thanks Alfred Hitchcock. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) visits a hamlet called Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of lovebirds to the younger sister of handsome bachelor, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Strange things begin to happen when Melanie arrives. She’s nipped by a seagull, local bird species are acting in peculiar ways, and a neighbour is discovered dead in his bedroom with his eyes pecked out. Melanie volunteers to pick up Mitch’s sister at school. As she’s waiting outside she notices that birds are quietly taking seat on the jungle gym in the playground. Melanie goes inside and informs the teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), to get the children home as quickly as possible because she suspects the appearance of this flock of crows is a terrible sign and potential danger. Melanie, teacher and children all leave the classroom and they’re told to run home as fast as they can. The birds swoop down and attack the children as they flee for their lives. It’s a frightening scene and the reason I hate birds.
My Fair Lady (1964): Eliza Singing
Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle. It’s sheer joy to watch her in this role. When Eliza is carted off to bed after a day of successful breakthroughs with Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison), she dances and sings her way to sleep with “I Could Have Danced All Night”. I love this scene simply because it makes me feel happy. It reminds me of how succeeding at something can make you feel light, sparkle and shine. I found a clip with Audrey Hepburn singing the song in her own voice, but for the Hollywood film it was dubbed by a soprano, Marni Nixon.
Bambi (1942): Bambi’s Mother is Killed in the Forest
Bambi is orphaned and alone in the world to fend for himself. I suppose this was necessary to test his resilience and show how he comes of age. I never discussed this scene with my family when I first saw the movie. However, I could relate for other reasons the sense of abandonment Bambi felt after the tragic loss of his mother. I loss my mother almost ten years ago. There is a hole in my heart. Enough said.
Childhood memories of sitting with hushed audiences in dark theatres – before, during and sometimes after a shocking conclusion, shaped Melissa’s love of movies. Her passion for film spans many genres and go-to’s are Indies, Sci-fi and Costume dramas. An image of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Ladyexplains her life-long love of hats. Melissa works in marketing by day. She feels the arts saved her life and is a devoted year-round and festival volunteer for several arts and cultural organizations. She’s been a Toronto International Film Festival volunteer since 2003. Melissa recently fulfilled a wish to join the Sundance Film Festival volunteer roster and has a desire to meet Robert Redford. Melissa will be returning to Sundance for her fifth straight year in 2019. During this Sundance working-vacation, Melissa volunteers on the Artist Relations Box Office team as Box Office Associate. Melissa’s desert island picks are Alien, The Godfather, The Witches of Eastwick, Little Miss Sunshine and My Fair Lady. Melissa’s focus will be independent films. By the way, she has not met Robert Redford, yet.