Once, after banging our heads against a wall for the better part of three hours, a fellow writer snapped closed her laptop and said “This isn’t working. Let’s think of it this way. Movies are all about moments. What are the five moments we want everyone to remember after seeing our movie?”
So we spent another several hours arguing about that.
Ultimately, I wish this story had a happy ending, but the screenplay we were co-writing never did get off the ground. However, her point about moments has always stayed with me. Though each of us recalls and deciphers movies based on our own criteria, it is often the great moment that stays with us long after the rest of the movie has faded. Great moments by no means guarantee great movies, but they are at the very heart of cinema.
Here then are 12 memorable cinematic moments from 2015. The first five are simply indelible images – the perfect shot, if you like. The remaining seven are scenes, scenes that capture something so special that they transcend a mediocre film, and push a good film to the greatest heights.
Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s first movie in eight years has won awards all over the world. It is the year’s most beautiful film. Fans who prefer tight narratives may well find the story difficult follow. Well, I did anyway. But the imagery will still with you regardless. Realistically, you could choose any one of several dozen frames as its best, but I most recall the embittered princess-turned-nun Jiaxin, dressed in her shimmering white robe, standing atop a small bluff as a larger bluff looms behind her and the wispy fog rolls in between. It speaks of mystery, of a character both part of and divorced from the natural world in some ancient way. It is a magical image.
Tangerine – Razmik and Dinah alone at Christmas
This is actually a double shot, both of which are part of the montage that begins the denouement of Sean Baker’s indie gem. Both the cabbie Razmik and the hooker Dinah have been abandoned on Christmas Eve. Baker films them both sitting alone with Christmas lights around them. Those lights have always seemed oddly out of place in the LA sunshine, but now they act as a sad taunt to two sad characters. Not bad for being recorded on a couple of iPhones.
John Crowley’s romance is winning awards left and right, and they are all deserved. This is a marvelously sweet story that never gets sappy for even a moment. And this is where it ran the greatest risk of a saccharine overdose. Eilis has returned to Ireland to deal with a family tragedy, leaving her husband Tony to worry that she may never come back. But she does. She waits for Tony as he leaves his plumbing job, casually leaning up against a wall, a sly smile on her face. The moment Tony sees her, all is right in the world. It is the perfect summation of actress Saoirse Ronan’s glorious performance, moving from timid and vulnerable to grown-up and confident.
45 Years – Kate sees Katya’s picture
Another tour de force performance by an actress. Charlotte Rampling’s Kate, married 45 years to Geoff, begins to question their seemingly happy relationship when news of Geoff’s long-deceased girlfriend Katya emerges. As Kate explores Geoff’s past, she begins to lose more and more of her own identity. In one extraordinary sequence, she flicks through some fifty year old slides of this ghost. Director Andrew Haigh frames the image so that we see Katya’s smiling image in bright foreground as Kate looks on with the horror of realisation from the darkened background. This sets the stage for the powerhouse climax.
This is my favourite image of the year. Four innocent children are riding on a train from their home in the small Estonian coastal town of Haapsalu to Leningrad where they will compete in a fencing tournament. The youngest, Marta, is the first to awaken and see the big city, and she quickly rouses the others. Director Klaus Haro films the children from outside the train, so that we see the reflection on Leningrad imposed over the stunned, ecstatic faces. And what pushes the shot over the top is the face of their teacher, Endel, looming behind them, not nearly as excited. Endel knows he is likely travelling to his own doom by returning to Leningrad, but the smiling faces of the children explain his actions. It is a beautiful, complex, and very touching image.
The End of the Tour – Lipsky searches Wallace’s darkened office
James Ponsoldt’s movie features a dynamite performance by Jason Segel as reclusive author David Foster Wallace. Reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) has been travelling with Lipsky on a book tour trying to decode the mysterious writer. Early on, there is a scene in which Lipsky beds down in a small room in Wallace’s house, with stacks of Wallace’s novel towering over him. That is bookended by this scene toward the end, in which Lipsky, still desperate to figure Wallace out, sneaks into his dark office searching for … anything. But Lipsky will not find whatever it may be in that dark room, a perfect metaphor for any attempt to see inside the head of a writer like Wallace.
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s first feature is one of the most audacious debuts this century. A drama set in a Ukrainian school for the deaf, all of the characters speak in untranslated sign language throughout. It can be difficult sledding for a while, but the story and the characters begin to emerge very clearly over time. By the time the main character, Serhiy, reaches a breaking point in the film’s final frames, we have a pretty good idea of what he is thinking. And yet nothing can prepare us for what happens, made all the more terrifying by the silence which envelopes this world.
Kingsmen: the Secret Service – the church fight
Harry Hart is a potent secret agent, part James Bond, part Jason Bourne. But neither James nor Jason ever had to fight his way out of a church filled with homicidal maniacs, driven to kill by evil SIM cards. The suave Colin Firth turns into Bruce Lee in this action tour de force, 3+ minutes of ballet and mayhem set to Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird.”
Paolo Sorrentino’s movie centres on an exclusive resort in the Alps where the rich and famous come to get away from the world. But they cannot get away from who they are. Old and young alike are restless. At the centre of it all, Michael Caine’s composer/conductor Fred Ballinger struggles with the realisation that he has always preferred music to people. He is constantly attuned to the music that surrounds him and in one beautifully surrealistic moment, he finds himself alone in a pasture, surrounded by wind and leaves and a field of cows and their bells. Fred forms all of this into another musical creation, and seems genuinely content for the first time.
Spotlight – Sacha finds Father Paquin
If Rachel McAdams wins a Best Supporting Actress award, it will be for this scene, in which her Boston Globe reporter knocks on the door of retired priest Ronald Paquin (Richard O’Rourke) and gets the shock of her life. It is a powerhouse moment from a powerhouse film.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is a ten year old boy who is recruited to the roving army of a rebel warlord after his entire family is slaughtered. He forms a friendship with the mostly mute Strika, another boy who adopts the façade of a cold-blooded killer. But both Agu and Strika are just boys in an impossible situation, a Neverland in which the horrors are real. When Strika is seriously wounded, Agu, barely big enough to carry himself, lifts his friend and carries him through the jungle in one of the most poignant moments in any recent film.
Room – Jack’s escape
The most riveting scene of the year. Five year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has been prepared for this daring escape by his desperate mother. He reviews her instructions over and over as the terrifying Old Nick takes him outside of the shed Jack has lived in his entire life. Of course, the plan goes nothing like clockwork, but Jack’s bravery and will to survive overcome extreme obstacles. This is the midpoint of the movie, and a more pulse-pounding sequence is hard to find. And the entire sequence simply consists of a young boy going for a ride in a truck.
There are others, but I’ll stop there. I’m sure you have your own favourites as well. Weak year or strong, there always will be those moments we long to experience when the lights go dark and projector starts turning.