Ever since I was taken to see my first film at the tender age of 3 (‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’) I’ve been inextricably captivated by the magic of film. As I grew up, my love for film grew too. From the ‘spectacle’ of jaw dropping effects to heart-wrenching emotional moments, I was surprised to find the films that I looked up to seemed conversely to be looking into me; to be understanding me in a way I couldn’t myself. Film gave me the emotional language to process what I was feeling and how it connected with the feelings of others.
With thousands of hours over 100 and more years, the most creative people have been trying to portray the ‘human condition’ in all it’s hues and shades; it’s all there on screen, just waiting to be explored.
Anyway, all histrionics and hyperbole aside (for the briefest of moments!) I thought I would have a go at sharing with you (dear reader) my very favourite ‘movie moments’ from the history of cinema I’ve been privileged to see so far. Of course there are so many amazing films I have still yet to see, and if I lived 3 lives I’d never see them all (isn’t that an exciting thought?!).
These are not necessarily the most famous, the best created or the most notable films ever made. They are not even my only favourite films to choose from; there are many more in which I could choose any one number of scenes.
But these examples are individual and particular scenes that have resonated with me personally; scenes that have moved me to deep emotional reactions (whether that was to laugh, to cry, to wonder or to think) and these examples have stayed firmly in my mind and in my heart many years after the credits have rolled.
This is a very personal collection of moments that are important to me; but I really hope this blog post inspires you to revisit your favourite movie moments and to consider sharing them in the comments below.
It should also go without saying that there are a huge amount of spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the films in question, so please read on with caution!
Lights, camera, action….let’s get started!
1. City views: Metropolis (1927)
Its amazing to think that we can still watch a film that was made nearly 100 years ago, but thanks to the tireless work of archivists one of cinema’s most impressive early films is still available to watch and admire for the stunning piece of work that it is.
There are many things that make this film stand out from other films from around the time. It is one of the first ‘science fiction’ films (not forgetting of course films like ‘Voyage to the Moon’ some 25 years earlier!) and it’s certainly one of the first to explore the idea of a dystopian future; with the unfairness of an unequal society and the oncoming threat of technological advancement being the main moral discussions raised by the film.
Overall there are two scenes that really stick in the memory from this film for me, and I could have easily picked either of them. There is the scene where ‘Maria,’ the revolutionary heroine is cloned into a robot doppelgänger (in the most impressive early metermorphosis film technique).
And then there is the grand sweep over the city itself; with all it’s stunning art-deco skyscrapers and it’s World War One style planes flying overhead. Of course it’s a series of models, but its so well done that it still stands up today as an inspired vision of the future. Just to put it in context, this is some 4 years before the completion of the Empire State Building in New York.
The plot of the film cleverly uses the emergence of the huge buildings of the metropolis as a literal class division; with the wealthiest living decadent lives at the very tops of the skyscrapers; blissfully ignorant of the toil and danger that the workers at the very bottom of the city are going through to keep their city running.
The scene of the aerial sweep over the city is still stunning, and has gone on to influence many other scenes in other classic films like Bladerunner (1982) and Star Wars (1977-).
2. Opening the door to a whole new era: The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Don’t worry, I won’t be choosing all of my favourite moments based purely on their technical brilliance. Many films are technically very impressive (‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘Ben Hur’ for example), but they don’t necessarily move me emotionally in the same way as the films on this list. Wizard of Oz is one of those films that manages to be both an incredible spectacle and a timeless story that you never tire of.
There are so many classic moments from the film that I could choose from, but the one that I think is truly inspirational is relatively early on.
Dorothy, who has been carried in her home by tornado, lands in a new world and opens the door into Oz. The ‘black and white’ world of her Kansas home is transformed into the lush coloured palette of this fantasy world; and we as a viewer are simultaneously transported from decades of ‘old’ cinema into a ‘brave new world’ of technicolour with the opening of a single door.
The symbolism of this transition from one era of film to another cannot be overstated, and the film uses such an ingenious way to do this…opening a door and introducing the viewer to a new technology and a new way to watch films.
This pivotal moment still wows me to this day every time I see it, and it’s is definitely one of the most memorable moments in film history.
3. Ilsa enters: Casablanca (1942)
Although at it’s heart a ‘war film,’ Casablanca is a surprisingly emotional, multi-layered story of the choice between morality and conviction and the pull of your heart. The setting of the ‘no man’s land‘ of Casablanca in World War II (not yet occupied by either the axis or the allies) teeters on a knife’s edge as a strategic port for refugees and resistance fighters to escape to America. This creates a claustrophobic, hemmed in feel to the film throughout, which only exacerbates the emotions of the main characters. I won’t ruin the plot, but surficed to say there is a lot of history and misunderstanding between main characters Rick (played by Humprey Bogart) and Ilsa (played by Ingrid Bergman) which creates a palpable friction in the scene where they stumble into each other in Rick’s bar.
Ilsa has instructed the piano player Sam to play the former couples’ song ‘As Time Goes By.’ Rick, unaware that Ilsa is there, comes storming over; furious that the song which he had banned is being played, only to be confronted by his former love.
The camera focuses in on Rick’s reaction, and Bogart manages one of the best ‘dual emotion’ reactions I’ve ever seen on an actor’s face. I’m not sure quite how he does it, but he manages to look both excited and sad to see her at the same time. It’s a wonderful piece of acting and really sets up the viewer’s understanding of the inner struggle of the character for the rest of the film.
4. Off the rails: Brief Encounter (1945)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Brief Encounter is a ‘stuffy,’ ‘old fashioned‘ film; due in no small part to the very ‘plummy‘ accents of the lead characters.
However, if you watch the film a couple of times you may be very surprised (as I was) at just what an emotionally charged film this really is.
It’s a fairly ‘run of the mill’ plot of a housewife who falls in love with a Doctor. But it’s the execution of the film that really makes this an absolute classic. Celia Johnson’s descent from respectable middle-class suburban restrained lady into a person who is so over-powered by her feelings that she almost throws herself in front of a train to escape her overwhelming feeling is one of the most compelling and effecting I’ve ever seen.
This is enhanced considerably by the swelling of the music, the sounds of the train screaming into the station and the interesting use of a tilted camera angle to signify her own disorientated feeling. As she pulls herself just shy of the approaching train, a strand of her well kept hair falls in front of her face and we see the wild desperation in her eyes as the train lights speed past them. It manages to be both incredibly upsetting and suspenseful at the same time, and is beautifully shot, directed and acted.
5. ‘I know you’re hurting Mr. Gower‘ : It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
There are many classic scenes which are talked about in It’s a Wonderful Life, the most common of which is the sentimental and gratifying finale. This ending is often the first thing modern viewers will have seen in Christmas clip shows or even referenced in many other Christmas films that came out years later. But this is a shame in a way, because it can give people who haven’t seen the film the misconception that this is a whimsical and over-sentimental Christmas film; which could not be further from the truth.
At it’s heart, It’s a Wonderful Life is actually a fairly bleak, dark film throughout. It starts with a man contemplating suicide, and then goes on to show how he got to this point; his verve for life being systematically stripped away by events that have forced him to put the needs of others over his own dreams and aspirations, to the point where he is destitute and penniless and has to kill himself to save his family from poverty. The moral of the story isn’t ‘it’s a Wonderful Life if you have a, b and c,’ it’s a reminder that each life is important and effects the lives of everyone around it.
It’s an incredibly moving film. Every time I tell myself I won’t well up, but by one of the most early scenes in the film, I’m a gibbering wreck.
The main character ‘George Bailey’ is a young boy at this point, working in a drug store. He arrives at work to find his boss, Mr. Gower, drinking heavily in the back of the store. George discovers a letter which has informed Mr. Gower that his son has been tragically killed. Distracted by grief, Gower doesn’t pay attention to the medication he is preparing and gives George pills that would have accidentally poisoned a child if George hadn’t realised the mistake. But young George takes note of the jar and tries to warn him. Gower is too drunk to understand what George is telling him and sends him away so he can be alone to grieve. When Gower finds out George didn’t do the job he was asked, he hits out in a drunken rage, slapping the young boy in his face, making his ear bleed. Instead of concentrating on his own pain, George cries out that he understands why Mr. Gower is upset and that he was trying to save him from making a mistake. Mr. Gower, seeing what he’s done hugs Georgie, who promises not to get him in trouble and forgives Mr. Gower saying ‘he knows he’s hurting.’
It’s one of the most emotionally complex scenes I’ve ever seen and always knocks me for six. On the one hand, you’ve got the pain of the older man who has lost his son and is acting in the most uncharacteristic way. On the other hand you’ve got the young child, showing a maturity and compassion that belies his years. Then you have the friction of the situation which turns to fatherly love when the misunderstanding is cleared up. It’s a very powerful and poignant scene which is wonderfully acted by both actors involved.
6. ‘The mirror, it’s broken‘ : The Apartment (1960)
The wonderful 1960 Billy Wilder film ‘The Apartment’ is a comedy-drama which follows the lives of insurance building workers who are lacking the courage to do what is right in their personal lives. You have Jack Lemmon’s character Bud, who has got himself into the difficult position of having to loan his apartment to the philandering managers at the company (after he lends it to one colleague to change for dinner in, word gets around and it spirals from there). His own personal life is seemingly ‘for hire,’ with no room for him in it. He meets Fran (played by a young Shirley McClaine), an ‘elevator operator’ (back when they had those!) who is also struggling with her personal life, having unwittingly fallen in love with the manager of the firm, believing him to be unmarried.
The most pivotal scene between the two main characters comes about half way through the film. And the interesting thing is that they are both unaware of what has changed, we are alone as the viewer in having all the pieces of the puzzle.
Going into the scene Bud has heard his boss boasting about his affair with one of the employees, and how she had thrown her mirror at him and broken it, when he had refused to leave his wife (omitting of course that she never knew he had a wife in the first place!). But doesn’t realise it’s Fran that is being discussed, who he already has feelings for.
As Fran goes into the scene, she has just discovered that the boss she thought she was having an honest relationship with has had several affairs before her and that she is just the latest in a long line of his ‘office conquests.’
The change comes as Bud and Fran have a private chat at the office Christmas party. Fran passes Bud her mirror as he wants to see how his new hat (he has brought with his promotion) looks. As he stares into the broken mirror, his face falls as the realisation of who Fran is dawns on him.
The scene is well directed for a number of reasons. Firstly, you have the juxtaposition between the revelry of the party going on around them with the intimate discussion they are having. Then you have the notable change in mood from Bud, who starts the scene in giddy excitement over telling Fran about his promotion, only to have his heart crushed as he realises the woman he loves is the woman that has been seeing his boss. Then you have Fran, who is trying to restrain her own heartache. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions in one scene.
7. ‘We keep going through it because we need the eggs‘ : Annie Hall (1977)
You may notice a theme emerging throughout many of the scenes I’ve picked – they are very ‘bittersweet’ in feel.
I can cope with sad scenes, I can cope with happy scenes, but put the two together and my heart can’t take it!
Nowhere is this more simply and perfectly demonstrated than at the end of Woody Allen’s quirky rom-com ‘Annie Hall.’
Throughout the film we’ve seen the life of a relationship between two neurotic, loveably flawed people, who have brought out both the best and worst in each other’s character, until they finally outgrow each other.
At the end of the film, they console their differences and go their separate ways, but not before the film replays the highlights of their time together, scored by a beautifully intimate performance by actress Diane Keaton of ‘Feels Like Old Times.’
It plays out as an echo of our own failed relationships, which destined to end and yet we still suffer their memory because it was worth the all-too-brief emotional highs (and lows) they gave us. We’re glad they have finished, but it doesn’t stop us remembering them fondly. The very essence of the struggle between our head and our heart that causes the bitter-sweet feeling at the end of Annie Hall.
8. Disco scene: Airplane! (1980)
From the sublime to the gloriously ridiculous; this is my favourite scene from a film that has me aching with laughter throughout. Airplane(!) is possibly the most relentlessly silly film I’ve ever seen and there are so many jokes your head is spinning by the end.
The scene that really stands out for me though is the ‘disco’ scene, where the two lovers meet. Lampooning recent box-Office smash ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ The scene sees Ted Striker attempting to woo his love-at-first-sight partner Elaine with the most over-the-top dancing, whilst all around them bar fights and murders are taking place in the seediest of bars they are dancing in.
I rewatched the scene and actually counted at least 25 jokes (mostly visual) in the space of 6 minutes, that’s over 4 a minute!
It’s one of those scenes that just makes you smile, and I never tire of watching it.
9. Battle of Endor: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Going back to the introduction, this is the first film that I saw at the cinema, and the first to really introduce me to the ‘grand spectacle’ of film. It might not be the best of the Star Wars series by a long shot, but the space battle at the end of the film is still one of the most visceral, exhilarating experiences on screen, especially on the big screen, and for me it’s difficult to beat.
10. ‘As the world falls down‘ : Labyrinth (1986)
Another childhood favourite, Labyrinth introduced me to the enigmatic David Bowie and to one of my first ‘crushes’ Jennifer Connelly. Little did I realise at the time that my 7 year old crush on a 14 year old Connelly was a lot more appropriate than Connelly’s character Sarah’s crush on a 40 year old Bowie, but at the time it seemed perfectly acceptable that here was a girl on the cusp of womanhood; being pulled in both directions between her childlike world of fantasy and her adult leanings towards the mercurial Goblin King.
Nowhere is this inner-struggle more apparent as Sarah lapses into a hallucination (or is it?) of a ballroom masquerade dance; where the Goblin King dances around with different masked women, who mock and goad Sarah as she searches for the object of her desire and derision.
It’s a beautifully shot, unnerving, psychedelic dream sequence with gorgeous costumes, a set that incorporates the mirrored, curved edges of a literal bubble and wonderfully romantic music that fits the scene perfectly – ‘As the World Falls Down,’ sang by Bowie himself.
It’s magical and timeless and utterly enchanting.
11. Mary and Max finally meet: Mary and Max (2009)
Sorry, it’s another tear-jerker of a bittersweet ending again.
I was caught off guard by just how effecting this claymation gem is. The voice work and the characters are so relatable and the plot is so heartwarming that you can’t help but be sucked in to the heart of the story of two unlikely friends who become soulmates through pen-letters across the world; finding a common bond in their own lonely lives.
There are plenty of laugh out loud moments and tears throughout the film, but it’s the end crescendo to the film that really stays with you. When Mary travels across the world, only to find Max has died just before she got there; she decides to sit with him for a while talking to him in his death. It’s a truly life-affirming but conversely tragic end to the tale, underscored perfectly by the Humming Chorus by Puccini (itself a sound that manages to be simultaneously happy and sad), and again it’s a scene that floors me every time I watch it.
So there we are. There are probably hundreds of classic poignant moments that I have left out and will kick myself for later. One that immediately comes to mind is the incredibly moving first 20 minutes of ‘Up’ (2009), which will no doubt move into this list in a future reconsideration.
But for now I hope this has inspired you to consider the moments in cinema that have really moved and inspired you over the years. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Thank you for reading.