By Clarisse Tenreiro
The art of filmmaking has the ability to take any idea, feeling or thought and turn it into a mesmerising piece of cinematic artistry. It can push you into another world, another dimension and reveal to the eyes more than simple visual perceptions. Like a recipe, it sometimes needs the exact amount of specific ingredients to make a forever-lasting impression on the curious cinephile longing to taste it. While there are hundreds of movies that have gotten the formula right in its entirety, there are also specific moments in cinema that stand out on their own. Whether it be because of the strength of a character, the cinematographic beauty of certain shots, the flawless performance of an actor, the clever writing of a dialogue or the impeccable combination of various aspects of its making, there are certain moments in movies that one simply does not forget. Here is a list, in no particular order, of 10 scenes or moments in cinema that have, one way or another, imprinted themselves in my memory and reinforced my absolute admiration for the 7th art, galvanising me into seeking more and more of what cinema has to offer.
10. The Opening Scene in Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Inglourious Basterds’ opening scene is the perfect example of Quentin Tarantino’s outstanding screenwriting skills. Of all the incredibly entertaining movies that carry his signature, this scene truly demonstrates his mastery in writing the type of dialogue that creeps throughout an extended timeframe without ever losing hold of the audience’s attention. Set in 1941 Nazi-occupied France, this first chapter introduces Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Hans Landa, also known as the “Jew Hunter”, entering the house of a farmer for an interrogation concerning the whereabouts of a Jewish family. For the duration of approximately 20 minutes a verbal exchange between the farmer and the colonel ensues, in which tension fills the room from the very first minute the scene begins until the screen switches to another setting. When the “Jew Hunter” asks questions he already knows the answer to, the character becomes the human form of intimidation at its best. Every word, every utterance coming from the two men subtly echoes the underlying meaning of the dramatic situation with an incredible strength. The slithering dialogue is filled with apprehension and written in such a smart structure that it makes this scene perfectly capable of working as a short movie just by itself. As the first scene of a two and a half hour movie, it truly sets the whole film in motion with grandiose power, striking me every time, no matter the number of times I’ve seen it.
9. Final Scene in Thelma and Louise (1991)
The final scene in Thelma and Louise (1991) is no other than one of the most legendary endings in film history. After an adventurous road-trip through the clay-coloured desert landscapes of the U.S. southern states, Thelma and Louise reach the end of their journey. From unhappy housewives and waitresses locked inside an oppressing societal system, they’ve turned into fugitives and tasted the spontaneous adrenaline of freedom. At the edge of the majestically-shot Grand Canyon, they finally find themselves enclosed by several police cars. Instead of surrendering, they look each other in the eye and decide to drive forth off the precipice, concretising their liberty to the limit and leaving a world that has imprisoned them, as women, for far too long. This scene is one of those moments in film one cannot forget. However, while the dramatic effect of the storyline’s ending is in itself a key player for the everlasting impression on the viewer, it is the importance of this ending that strikes even harder. By driving off into the end of their lives, these two women refuse to give in to what lead them into their problems in the first place. While this final action is a form of protest, it is also a sad representation of the consequences of the way society has treated them. Here, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon truly become Thelma and Louise through strongly emotional and powerful performances that admirably honour the last few minutes of these two amazing characters.
8. Clarice and Hannibal’s First Encounter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I can confidently state that one of my favourite characters in film history is without a doubt Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It therefore goes without saying that the scene of Clarice Sterling’s first encounter with the incarcerated sociopath had to have a place on this list. Although within this hugely influential and critically acclaimed film Hopkins’ character only appears on screen for the extent of 16 minutes, he manages to steal the viewer’s sense of control and safety from the very first second his figure appears, staring right into the camera and through it, into our own eyes. He takes control of the situation from the start with his calm, steady voice and piercing blue eyes that barely blink. The atmosphere is cold, unsettling, and through the unstable conversation between the two one feels the constant presence of apprehension. Hannibal Lecter is such an unconventional character that one cannot seem to grasp the functioning of his being. While this lack of control we feel over the character is what gives him the strength in existing feverishly in the story and consequently making the audience terrified by his cannibalistic psychotic nature, it is exactly this fear and adrenaline that pushes one towards him. Silence of the Lambs takes the reins and truly immerses the viewer into a psychological horror movie worth everyone’s time.
7. The Pale Man Scene in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy drama Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is truly an extraordinary cinematic masterpiece. With its stunning visuals and elaborate storyline that shift between two worlds, one darker than the other, it has become one of the most respected fantasy movies of all times. While there are several moments worth remembering, there is one in particular that stands out and that is no other than the iconic scene of the Pale Man. As Ofelia, the 11 year old girl living in the 1944 Francoist Spain, begins the second task given to her by a fantastical faun, she finds herself facing a spine-chilling monster with dangling skin and whose eyeballs are placed in the palms of his hands. By lifting them in front of his pale face too see her, the Pale Man simultaneously looks right into the audience’s eyes and delivers an impressive scene of horror and suspense. While it’s a concise and simply-structured scene, that doesn’t drag itself through numerous perils and misadventures, its exceptional cinematographic execution, visual effects and score work together perfectly in bringing Del Toro’s imagination to life and leaving a long-lasting print in the viewer’s mind.
6. Salma Hayek’s Dancing Scene in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Although listed here, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) is not a particularly good movie. While the first half is definitely worth the watch, the second half steals away its potential for a good ending and transforms its initially-intriguing plot into a plot-less chaos of action-driven nonsense. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Quentin Tarantino, it tells the story of two criminals who take a family hostage and force them to drive into the Mexican desert. After arriving at a strip club, the crime story switches into an action-filled catastrophe in which the characters must now fight against a roaring crowd of hideous vampires. Except for those who enjoy long-lasting scenes where blood-splashing creatures and exploding body parts take centre stage on the theatre screen, it simply isn’t a movie I would personally recommend. Nevertheless, before this sudden switch occurs, Salma Hayek makes an unforgettable entrance that undeniably deserves a spot on this list. In this particular scene, Hayek plays the role of a dancer who majestically enters the stage of the strip club with a snake wrapped around her and bursting flames in the background. Through a simple yet incredibly sensual choreography, she steals her audience’s attention and delivers a breathtaking rhythmic performance to the sound of Tito & Tarantula’s song “After Dark”, making this scene an incredibly memorable moment where music and dance simply click perfectly on screen.
5. Jane and Travis’ Last Talk in Paris, Texas (1984)
When Paris,Texas (1984) is about to reach its ending, director Wim Wenders gifts the world with one of the most beautiful scenes on the downfalls of love. The whole film is a cinematic work of art, where love and the pain it can cause is explored through a perfect combination between its storyline, enveloped in a stunning cinematography, and the flawless performances of Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski. However, this scene is especially striking due to its load of emotional force. Just like the rest of the people who have witnessed this masterpiece and praised its excellence, I too stand in front of the screen and admire the raw and powerful images given to me in this great scene of the heartbreaking reunion and sad confession between Travis and Jane. After not having seen each other for four years, they finally reunite through the one-way mirror of a room in a strip club where Jane works. This scene’s visual composition works as a contrasts with the rest of the movie, where Travis is often seen in vast, deserted spaces. Here, both characters face each other in a very interesting setting: one that literally and metaphorically portrays a moment of intimacy within their distance and isolation. Although they’re together, they’re also alone, each in their own place, just like they might have been in the past without realising it. While the camera switches between the two, each are given the right amount of time for the audience to truly feel the emotion that gradually develops on their faces. This scene of Paris, Texas (1984) hits me every time, as it beautifully creates a portrayal of love’s defeat with the ending of a story, within a story.
4. Sequence in Apartment Scene in Le Mépris / Contempt (1963)
Jean-Luc Godard’s drama Le Mépris (1963) carefully constructs the decay of a screenwriter and his wife’s marriage through rigorous dialogue and aesthetic visual composition. Inside a central chapter of the storyline that follows the couple, played by Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot, strolling around their half-furnished apartment, arguing and reconciling back and forth, Godard inserts a sequence of shots combined with a voice over of both characters. In it we see a naked Bardot laying on a white fur carpet, followed by images of moments that have passed as well as images that are still to come. In this section, we hear the thoughts of both characters in relation to their romance, a reflection and introspection of each individual within themselves. It’s like they’re revealing, within a rational and clear mindset, the things they know about themselves and the other, thoughts that they don’t say to each other yet say to themselves. To me, it seems like a pause in the unfolding of the story, a breath of air from the downfall of their relationship. In its realistic approach, this sequence speaks loud as it demonstrates precisely what happens in people’s everyday quarrels and separations. While one is conscious of one’s own actions and the analysis of a problem, it is often only to oneself that these realisations are divulged. Together with artistically beautiful shots, the writing of this scene is meticulously expressed in beauty and delicacy when Bardot’s voice whispers the thoughts “I’ve noticed that the more we doubt, the more we cling to a false lucidity, in the hope of rationalising what feelings have made murky”.
3. Church Scene in The Tree of Life (2011)
Very few other films have emotionally and spiritually moved me the way The Tree of Life (2011) has. This film portrays life, death, belief, love, growth in the purest form motion picture can offer. It is like a sequence of photographs, it is poetry, painting, thought and in all it’s possible forms provides beauty, reflexion, understanding. It switches between the story of a middle-class family in 1960’s Texas, the reflections of the family’s eldest son in the present day and sequences illustrating the creation of the earth. These are explosive, grand, majestic. You can see every water drop, every sparkle of fire hypnotically bringing you closer to the heart of its formation. Although every bit of this movie has deeply affected my philosophical curiosity and enhanced my love for the cinematic art form, there is a specific scene that I feel belongs on this list. Around the first 60 minutes, we see the family sitting inside a church, listening to the preacher talking about Job. It is a perfectly orchestrated scene. The working-together of the close-ups of the characters’ faces with an establishing shot and a voice over of the sermon delivers an outstanding structure that flows with grace. The speech’s references to the inevitable appearance of sorrow in life, to God’s presence and the suffering He can give or take overlay with the movements and views of the characters in a way that gives meaning to the sermon’s words in relation to the family’s individual connections. While it needs to be seen in the context of the whole film, it is an extraordinary handling of a visual metaphor and stands out for its cinematographic fluidity and microcosmic nature in regards to the universal meaning of the film. Although this is a brief explanation that leaves out a lot which would clarify the importance of this scene, I hope it is enough to spark the curiosity of anyone who has not been subjected to the beauty of The Tree of Life. It is a pleasure to the eye, an enlightenment to the mind and a cleansing to the soul.
2. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now (1979)
The scene of Apocalypse Now (1979) in which the U.S troops fly over a Vietcong position and attack its inhabitants to the blasting sound of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries has not only become one of the most iconic moments of Coppola’s film but also of American film history itself. It is a scene that sucks the viewer into the madness of the Vietnam War, and through it, encompasses the essence of the whole film’s portrayal of this horrifying historical chapter. Colonel Bill Kilgore, leading the attack, represents not only the ruthlessness and violence that now lives within the men that are exposed to such a war but especially the complete insanity that has taken over their sense of reality. While the approaching helicopters majestically fly over the sunrise in the distance, they deliver the sensation of patriotism and heroism propagated between the fighting soldiers, however as soon as we’re with the armed men and hear the Colonel say “Use Wagner, it scares the hell out of the slopes, my boys love it”, the reality of the situation hits the screen: that the war is a senseless massacre destroying everybody’s moral consciousness to the core. The surreal fact of playing music from the helicopter’s loudspeakers is just as surreal as the war itself. All of this confusion, madness and absurdity is exceptionally portrayed through the dialogue, the shots composition and the incredible cinematography achieved in between the walls of what is known to have been one of the most disastrous productions in cinema (documented in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary Hearts of Darkness (1991)).
1. Final scene in Black Swan (2010)
Darren Aronofsky has a very particular approach in telling stories on the big screen, often focusing on a specific character and the dark paths of the human mind that can lead it to an irreversible ending. Black Swan (2010) is an extraordinary psychological horror depicting how a ballerina, obsessed with achieving artistic perfection, looses touch with reality and spirals down into her own delusional world. The final scene works as the climax of all climaxes that this movie gradually reveals throughout Nina’s quest for the ultimate performance of excellence. As she spins vigorously on the theatre stage, the famous music of The Swan Lake ballet by Tchaikovsky rises to the skies reaching the highest level of intensity for the grand finale, in which the ballerina, although still blinded by her own fixation, realises she has danced her way up to her own destruction. Natalie Portman’s performance as Nina is flawless. All aspects of the movie come together perfectly in this final scene, delivering one of the best endings I have seen on a movie screen. The emotional weight it has gathered up throughout its storyline junctures into unison, resulting in a poignant resolution that leaves the viewer broken but also alleviated from all the psychological intensity, just like Nina. All that is left are the last words of Portman’s character, which I absolutely attribute to Black Swan : “It was perfect.”
Clarisse is a Portuguese and German film enthusiast currently living in the Netherlands.
Fascinated by the art of cinema from an early age on, she undertook Filmmaking Studies
in Amsterdam in order to experience how the magic of the moving picture comes about in
practice. Having worked on several minor projects such as music videos, short films and
impression videos, she has also written for The Cinemaholic and undertaken a research
on auteur cinema for her Bachelor Thesis, where her interest in film criticism and history
was put to work. Psychological thrillers and biographical dramas are among her favourite
genres of the big screen.