Cinematic Verisimilitude: Twenty great movie moments

For the cinephile, there will inevitably be moments of cinematic verisimilitude with which one will become obsessed. There will be moments when a particular filmmaker touches the cinephile in such a way that the emotive force of the experience will be beyond replication. The cinephile will certainly seek to replicate such a moment, frequently using the home-viewing experience to watch the associated film repeatedly in search of it, but such moments of power come from a unique combination of the environment, the mood of the viewer and the unique and unknowing nature of the first (or at least fresh) viewing experience. Such factors cannot be replicated, but one can sometimes come close.

I am, of course, speaking of the experience of watching those particular scenes from particular films that attain some kind of almost mythical status in one’s mind. I’m speaking of those scenes that you find yourself playing over and over again to the point of absurdity, sometimes no longer even attempting to watch the film in its entirety (not because you do not love the film but because the lead up to this pivotal moment is already seared eternally into your memory). Such scenes need not be taken from works of high-art, frequently they are quite the opposite – surprising moments of perfection that capture the viewer before they even know it. And frequently, such moments are produced not solely by what appears on the screen, but through the emotive power of musical composition.

So here are twenty moments with which I have been incredibly enamoured at some point in my life. The list is obviously not exhaustive – just a glimpse – and the films are in a deliberately eclectic order. I have elected not to include clips because, in those instances where a reader may not have seen the film, I would not wish to ruin the experience by decontextualizing the moment or showing it in this aesthetically inferior forum. My hope is that this list might direct others to films which they have not yet encountered.

patherPather Panchali (1955)

A poor mother sits by her sick daughter’s bedside; the doctor has given orders that she must avoid exposing her daughter to any draught. Their rickety old home, brimming with cracks and gaps, cannot fight back the hammering force of the windy night. She is powerless to protect her daughter from the world. An absolutely devastating moment which reminds us that access to the simplest of resources could make the difference.  Satyajit Ray’s Bengali masterwork, very much in the vein of the neo-realist works happening in Italy at the same time, was the first Indian film to garner significant international praise.

MV5BMTkxNTQ5NTI0Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwODgzMDc4__V1__SY317_Blade Runner (1982)

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”

So begins one of the most powerful monologues of all time, delivered by a cyborg (Rutger Hauer) to his nemesis, hunter and possible compatriot (Harrison Ford). I must have viewed this scene four hundred times, and it is without question one of the most satisfyingly layered moments in popular American cinema. Ridley Scott would never engage with such complex material (successfully) again.

MV5BMjA5MDY0NzM2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzI2NTA0MQ@@__V1__SY317_CR5,0,214,317_Bicycle Thieves (1949)

A young boy sees his poor father expose himself to the ultimate indignity in his attempts to provide for his family, becoming the very type of person who caused the family’s misfortune in the first place. Anybody who has not seen this tragic film, and the scene with which it concludes, must expose themselves to it as quickly as possible. Vittorio De Sica’s brilliant The Bicycle Thieves reminds us that harsh circumstances can force human beings to engage in immoral acts, even if they are not immoral human beings.


Once Upon a Time in the WestOnce Upon a Time in the West (1968)

There are at least a handful of unforgettable scenes in this film but the one I find myself replaying on an almost weekly basis is that of the final duel between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. Morricone’s unparalleled operatic score, Leone’s massive vistas and intimate close-ups, the incredibly powerful performances of the two men and the greatest narrative reveal in the history of the western make this the supreme duel in cinema.


SunriseSunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

A man takes his wife out on a boat trip with the intention of murdering her so that he can begin a life with his malevolent mistress. His emotional struggle is tangible, and until the scene’s final moments, we don’t know which way he’s going to go. I believe the lead actor even had bricks tied to his feet to increase the heavy burden resting on his shoulders. The gender politics of this film could be politely described as out-dated, but there is no denying the power of F.W. Murnau’s filmmaking.


robocopRobocop (1987)

For those unaffiliated with the double-edged sword of Paul Verhoeven’s American films, Robocop might sound like a poorly titled schlock-fest. The reality however, is that this uber-violent comedy-thriller is an ingenious satire on the dangers of consumer culture and the evaporation of the people’s power by corporate interests.There are countless moments of absolute genius in this film, but perhaps one of the funniest has a malfunctioning product empty hundreds of rounds of ammunition into a senior executive to the point of near evaporation. The CEO’s horrified response upon seeing this ‘glitch’ occur:

“You call this a glitch? We’re scheduled to begin construction in 6 months. Your temporary setback could cost us 50 million dollars in interest payments alone!”

ropeRope (1948)

A unique example for the list, Hitchcock’s film is comprised of one long scene. A gay couple murder their friend for the sheer thrill of proving that they can get away with it, then place him in a box which they subsequently turn into a buffet for a dinner they are hosting. As the guests show up (all of whom are intimately connected with the victim), the murderers cannot help but leak hints of their crime throughout the night.


conanConan the Barbarian (1982)

Am I joking? No – I am one of the few people willing to stand by this film as a genuine classic. The direction is perfect, the score is sublime and the performances get the job done. The decision to hire mainly sporting figures is a positive not a hindrance, giving the film a primal roughness that is entirely appropriate. Schwarzenegger may not be the next Brando, but he is Conan, the embodiment of pure human endurance.

Once again, this film contains many scenes that I find incredibly powerful, but the one I enjoy most of all is at the very beginning. Conan’s father takes him to a mountain and explains to him the nature of life and the glory of steel – a final moment before they are parted for eternity: “The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts.”

ikiruIkiru (1952)

This quiet, calm and incredibly powerful film follows the story of a middle-aged Japanese bureaucrat who discovers that he is terminally ill. Seeking to right the banality and emptiness of his life up to that point, he seeks out experiences in decadence to fulfil himself before finding salvation in the most simple and righteous of achievements. One scene, the details of which I’ll avoid covering here, sees this simple man find contentedness for the first time. A great moment in cinema.


once upon a time in americaOnce Upon a Time in America (1984)

Sergio Leone’s sweeping epic vision of America in all its horror and glory is perhaps the finest gangster film ever made. Much of the film’s emotional power centres around a single devastating moment, in which a little boy pays the ultimate price for his forays into the criminal world, and another loses twelve years for an act of revenge. A potent moment in a film that is certainly Leone’s highest achievement.


le cercle rougeLe Cercle Rouge (1970)

Perhaps the film that Jean-Pierre Melville should be best known for, even if that honour tends to go towards Le Samourai. This taut French crime-caper, heavily steeped in Melville’s love of the myth of the criminal code (despite his total contempt for the criminal element in the real world), features the most meticulous heist sequence in the history of cinema. Anybody with even a passing interest in the genre should see this film, and most particularly, this scene.


the beyondThe Beyond (1981)

Lucio Fulci’s apocalyptic horror zombie movie thing is a total mess – no arguments here. But some obnoxiously powerful imagery, effective scoring and awful dubbing have always had the effect of rendering its final scene absolutely horrifying for yours truly.


contemptContempt also known as Le Mepris (1963)

Jean Luc-Godard’s masterwork in this humble writer’s opinion (made before he managed to accomplish the anatomically impossible task of disappearing up his own nether regions), is essentially a relationship drama centred on the complexities of love and integrity in the creative individual’s universe. Perhaps the most incredible moment features Fritz Lang, filmmaking god, in a test screening as he proselytizes on the nature of film. Sacred stuff.


20012001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

This one goes without saying of course. Kubrick’s transcendent poetic ode to the dangers and potential of the human condition is among the finest works in cinema’s brief history, but for me the moment that I find more powerful than any other is the one in which Dave must shutdown HAL a powerful computer which appears to have become a malign sentient being. Tears every time.


ohayoOhayo also known as Good Morning (1959)

Yasujio Ozu’s simple tale of several Japanese families dealing with westernisation and modernisation in general (most particularly in regards to the introduction of television) is typically perfect in its execution. But the moment towards the beginning of the film when a housewife finds herself wrongly implicated in theft achieves a heartbreaking simplicity that captures the small but very real problems of day to day life.


fata morganaFata Morgana (1971)

Perhaps selecting a scene from this film (or even claiming that the film is comprised of scenes) seems a little odd, so I’ll run with the presumption that this film is a scene unto itself. Herzog’s breathtaking docu-poem is comprised of footage he took of the Sahara desert, overlaid with Herzog’s narration of some sort of Mayan myth. An oddity but an absolutely stunning one.


repo manRepo Man (1984)

This incredible work of anarchic science-fiction is an all-out assault on the establishment, the Reagan era and a kind of hellish love letter to the streets of Los Angeles. The story follows Auto (Emilio Estevez), a punkish drop-out who finds himself becoming a Repo Man to sustain himself. For me, the most powerful scene was a relatively simple one: Auto wanders the street feeling lost and dejected almost unconsciously spouting out televisual quotation as he goes: “Don’t wanna talk about anything else. We don’t wanna know. We’re just dedicated to our favorite shows: Saturday Night Live, Monday Night Football, Dallas…!”


nights of cabiriaNights of Cabiria (1957)

Federico Fellini’s powerful tale of a prostitute (Giulietta Masina) looking for fulfilment is absolutely devastating. The pivotal scene in which her trust is horrifically violated is amongst the most affecting I have ever seen. See this film.


sunshineSunshine (2007)

This incredibly efficient tale of several men and women on a mission to save the sun has been criticized by some for its jarring third act (not by me), but the brief moment when the fate of planet earth may be jeopardised by a single misstep is a chilling reminder of the precariousness of our existence.


Seven Annabelle Dances (1894-1897)

Some simple footage that I find myself returning to now and again. A brief reminder of the moving image’s power to transcend time – in this case becoming a window into the nineteenth century.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

107 thoughts on “Cinematic Verisimilitude: Twenty great movie moments

  1. “Once Upon A Time in the West”– Occasionally I look forward to seeing some diversity by an actor. I was surprised by Henry Fonda, who was usually the stereotyped “good guy”. Performing a role as a villain for a change– and a ruthless one. One of my favorite westerns. Like your blog. Look forward to your horror film listing. Thanx for visiting my site. Have a wonderful day!

  2. Pingback: Short Takes: Good Movies, not so good movies | libertarianinmind

  3. Thanks for following us. I love this post because you cover varying types of movies but you never ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen them. There’s several on this list that I need to re-watch, but I hadn’t heard of “The Beyond” before, I love me some B-movies so I’ll definitely check this one out. Great post!

  4. Well, once again you broaden my horizon – there are movies in there I haven’t heard of. But I’ll track them down.
    When I realised that I could buy almost any movie known to man through Amazon I set out to build a library of all the movies I loved in my youth. Some were not the great classics (Girl On A Motorcycle) but they resonated within me.
    One bored evening I listed a selection of the movies I’d bought (I always buy full price movies – I can afford to and someone has to keep the movie business afloat).
    The link to the list is below – but wrt this article, there is one movie missing that contained a short scene of heartbreaking proportions, in Broadway Danny Rose when Danny Rose’s chance at the big time tells him he’s going with another agent, after all the work Danny has done. The look on Woody Allen’s face when he gets the news is a truly great moment in movies.–tDs-k/

  5. What an eclectic collection of movies. Great movies, one and all, and a great post. Was hoping to see High Noon on the list, but what do I know about great movies? Thanks for following my blog!

  6. Great list-and I was happy to see Leone make it more than once-but Repo Man-now that is one of my favorites of all time-great story and fantastic soundtrack. A very underrated film-
    Thanks too for following my blog Move the Chair-I appreciate it and I look forward to reading more of your work-

  7. Appreciate all the thought that went into this. Nice layout. Very diverse list! Thanks for subscribing to my KPKworld portal. Glad you did, as it brought your blog to my attention. Looking forward to reading more! Perhaps you might consider guest blogging in my QUIET IN THE BACK! channel? Have you seen any of the films of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin? Here is my alternative look at his amazing BRAND UPON THE BRAIN: Cheers mate.

  8. I love movies, and I love a good movie blog. This was a great read – I agree about Conan, I have so many favourite scenes and lines – especially to Crom “and if you do not listen, to HELL with you!” among them – “dinner for wolf” and “Let me breathe my last breath into your mouth” – agreed about Robocop and Bladerunner too. I am challenged to pick out my favourite Asian movie scenes for my blog now.

  9. A lot of people dismiss ‘Conan the Barbarian’, but it’s one of my all-time favorites. While I loved the conversation with his father at the beginning, the scene that always stuck out with me was when Thulsa Doom had the maiden leap to her death, and his followup speech of how flesh is stronger than steel. That scene, and of course, the famous prayer to Crom before the battle on the mounds!

  10. Really enjoyed your list here and found some that I would like to try out. Funny, when I first saw the title & began reading I thought of my list and one of the first names that popped up was Repo Man. Such a classic and I am constantly reminded that “the more you drive, the less intelligent you become” – between that and generic beer, it was incredible.

  11. Thanks for a well-considered list–and the follow. 🙂 On of my fav movies if Notorious and the long scene where cary Grant rescues Ingrid Bergman from her Nazi husband and admits he loves her after all–”I was a fat-headed guy full of pain.” Too many great movies to list! 🙂

  12. Thanks for following my blog. Glad to find yours–I love film, and this post makes me want to sign up for Netflix to see the ones I’ve missed. Love love love Bladerunner, a noir masterpiece!

  13. LOVED Sunshine and feel that it’s criminal that it didn’t warrant more attention; when I mention it to people they look at me like I’m talking Swahili.

    Boyle’s movies (even The Beach) always leave me satisfied.

  14. Two moments:

    I luckily saw Tarkovsky’s Stalker on the big screen in college, And I have an utterly distinct memory of an approximately 60 second long shot of just an old-fashioned hand water pump. In the context of the whole movie, that “infinitely long” moment was very suspenseful for me. (I’d never experienced anything like Tarkovsky’s genius for shot pacing before.) This is a totally vivid memory-image for me, and it’s not on the DVD version I’ve since watched. So I have no idea if it is in the original and was cut for some reason, or if I’ve imported an image into his masterwork for him.

    Second, the final shot in Tarkovsky’s Mirror (after the Tarzan yell of the grand-child)–it’s the only shot itself (not the content, per se) that’s ever (mysteriously, I must say) reduced me to tears.

    • I’d love to see Stalker on the big screen – absolutely stunning film.

      I have to shamefully admit that for some reason I have never ‘The Mirror’ though. Will correct this immediately!

  15. Great list and a very interesting read! Rope is just sublime and The Bicycle Thieves engrained itself in my mind for months after I saw it. I’m so glad you love Robocop! I feel like I have to explain myself to cinephiles who look at me appalled when I say how it’s one of my favourite films, so it’s refreshing to see that someone else sees something in it other than an 80’s trashy movie!

  16. Great list. Another Kubrick moment (master of moments) that does it for me is in “The Shining” when Danny is riding the trike around the hotel halls and turns the corner to find the two twin girls standing there. I went to a Kubrick retrospective at the L.A. County Museum of Art recently, and there on the wall were the two blue dresses. I got chills.

    • Yes! An amazing moment. We had a Kubrick exhibition here in Melbourne a few years ago and it was an incredibly powerful experience. Seeing Kubrick’s mammoth archive of material for the film he never got to make – Napoleon – revealed just how meticulous he really was.

      I went to see an interview with his wife and had the opportunity to ask her a question – a strange feeling to be in the presence of those that have been a part of cinematic history. Her brief performance in Paths of Glory was unforgettable.

  17. Really enjoyed this list, and one of your observations stopped me cold! I have the same response to 2001. HAL was absolutely asking for it, but I get a little misty every time I see Dave shut him down.

    • Thanks 🙂

      I suspect it is because Kubrick quite deliberately makes HAL the most emotional and human character in the film. Everybody else is so cold and mechanized that they seem to have lost exactly what HAL has gained – consciousness.

      • yes, yes, yes hands down favorite scenes from 2001. All the way from the “open the pod door bay Hal” moment all the way to Hal becoming almost child like, singing “daisy” while Dave shuts him down is some of the most excruciating sequences ever seen on screen. Having seen my wife battle 2 bouts of flesh eating bacteria, several hospitalizations, pic lines, nurses, doctors, and having health issues I can attest that those scenes really do mirror real life experiences filled with grief, despair, and then hope. They are slow, painful, and you wind up being better for having them later on.

  18. hands down favorite movie of all time: Forbidden Planet. The majestic deep resonating voice of Walter Pidgeon, the beautiful Anne Francis, The truly amazing Robby the robot and the incredibly scary invisible monster of the id. I find myself continually stunned at the effects done in house by Disney studios (possibly a little biased here) that still stand up to todays standards. Quite honestly this movie is the very genesis and complete reason behind me being the science fiction geek I am today. My favorite scene is when the invisible monster tries to enter the perimeter around the spaceship/saucer and they are firing their rayguns at it and you finally see a eerie outline of what the monster may look like. It scared the everlasting crap of my 5-6 year old self staying up late to see a movie on tv and it still effects me to this very day

  19. Just as well I have lots of free time, although I probably need a freer mind to get my head around some of these films and opinions; I’ll leave the clever stuff to you and Pete.
    In the mean time I better get watching, maybe something will rub off.

  20. Great stuff, especially about Blade Runner, as well as the others. Academic quality, the opposite of my musings and ramblings. I am going to follow your blog, the first one ever!

  21. Wow, in terms of arthouse cinema and just depth of film knowledge, this beats me hands down. Furthest back I tend to go are 80s films, maybe the odd 70s one ha ha. Good list though, an interesting read. Cheers for following my blog recently too.

    • Glad you found it interesting, Michael!

      I definitely recommend branching out if you have the time… Nosferatu may be a Great start if you are willing to push to the next level… Horror of the old school.

      I’m digging your blog too!

  22. Thanks for such a thoughtful, interesting and personal article. I always rate films based on my emotional reaction so you’ve really given me some great material to go through. Fabulous variety there. I distinctly remember the moment you referred to in Sunshine – astonishing.

    • No problem, JLO. Glad you enjoyed it!

      Yeah, visceral experience is the main reason most of us go to the cinema, and it is one if the ways in which cinema distinguishes itself from other art forms – a good thing as long as it’s not used to exploit the viewer, I suppose.

      And what an amazing moment in Sunshine. Gets me every time!

  23. Awesome list, so many great films in there. You’ve convinced me to give Robocop a go and now also want to seek out Pather Panchali. Rope is my favourite Hitchcock film as well. Talking of the ’emotive force of the experience’ I went to see Les Miserables last night and although I appreciate epic musicals are not everyone’s cup of tea, I think it would be hard not to be moved by this film (or the stage musical). Particularly the scene in which the priest denys Valjean’s (Jackman) theft to the police and offers him more silver to add to what he has stolen, granting his undeserved freedom. Personally, this act of unconditional mercy set to such an epic score and strong direction and performances is a scene that affects me in the way you’ve described. Thanks for the recommendations!

  24. Cool you picked a few memorable from films I too enjoyed. I’ve never forgotten the final scene of The Outsiders where Ponyboy – C. Thomas Howell recites Stay Gold to Ralph Macchio as a new day dawns. I just quoted it yesterday elsewhere. Also Gene Hackman as the Preacher in The Poseidon Adventure as he turns the where of a hatch “what do you want from me….”. Finally James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause “You say one thing, he says another and everyone changes back again”. That is Rebel and James Dean in a nutshell. Your posting is keeper.

  25. I’ve loved RoboCop from the first time I saw it back when I was in the 7th grade. I think it’s fantastic and I hate that they’re remaking it. I also really liked Sunshine, third act and all.

  26. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly — at least half a dozen moments of glory.
    Glory – the final battle, the entire third act.
    A Clockwork Orange – most of the film.
    Brazil – most of the film.
    A Sheltering Sky – several shots, atop the ridge in Morocco, Malkovich wandering around delusional looking for music, etc.
    The Road Warrior – most of the film.

  27. Fascinating and diverse list. I’m afraid a couple of mine are real chestnuts (the “Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca, or the moment when Emma Thompson understands her husband’s infidelity in Love Actually), but for me the greatest is the climax of City Lights, when Virginia Cherrill realizes the truth about the Little Tramp (“….Yes. Yes, I can see….”). Just watched it again, weeping like a child. Never fails.

  28. A groovy list! I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries recently – Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains tops them. Lots of scenes from that could have made this! Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is also brilliant, as is Senna. Non-documentary – I’d put some Studio Ghibli in there, such as Princess Mononoke or the storm/fish scene from Ponyo. There are some great scenes in The Madness of King George, too. Ooooh, I love films!

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