Sure, an entire movie can make poignant observations, cause laughter cramps, or shake us to our core, but sometimes it doesn’t need that much time to get us there. A single scene can hit these emotional beats and cement a film in our minds, even if it isn’t necessarily from the highest quality movie.
These succinct sections can achieve perfection in a way that large, unwieldy things like movies can only aspire to, and that’s why everyone at Film Inquiry wanted to highlight our favorite scenes from all of cinema. Of course, we couldn’t limit ourselves to just one (you might have heard the team’s audible groan if we had) so you’re getting a list of everyone’s ten favorites, with special attention paid to their top pick.
Tynan Yanaga: Auld Lang Syne from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
As a moviegoer, I’ve always been enthralled by scenes capable of capturing the communal nature of life on strips of celluloid. These serendipitous moments are imbued with electricity and the intangibles that turn plot points and words on the page into something we can all but imbibe sitting in a theater seat. The final minutes of It’s a Wonderful Life provide one prime example.
Every time I watch George Bailey’s revival, I feel like I’m in the room with a whole host of friends – this whole community of Bedford Falls — and I am privy to this euphoric joy they have in their midst.
Old Hollywood’s favorite sentimental ditty, “Auld Lang Syne” works its magic and in the often dubbed and manicured dream factory, there’s hardly a more mellifluous sound than the drawling chorus of Jimmy Stewart – his daughter in arms – as his beaming wife stands beside him. It’s such an authentic expression of humanity.
The drinks are flowing, bodies bustling, faces beaming, as everyone of any importance in his life shows up to rally around him. It’s as if right in front of George, crammed into his drafty home, are the fruits of his labor – the outcroppings of a selfless life – an immaculate portrait of charity and brotherly love. Certainly we remember Zuzu’s immortal lines but Clarence’s note is just as poignant: No man is a failure who has friends.
After so much tragedy and tribulation, this jubilation all but embodies what I aspire to in my own life. Whatever assails me, my desire is to live a life founded on the bedrock of fellowship. Because it is one of the greatest enjoyments this world of ours avails us with. What’s more, I see it as a foretaste of an even brighter future.
Rest of Tynan’s top ten: Singin’ in the Rain from Singin’ in the Rain, Opening from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Le Marseilles from Casablanca, Appearance of a shadowy Harry Lime from The Third Man, I Am Your Father from The Empire Strikes Back, Final showdown from Shane, Mt. Rushmore from North by Northwest, Restaurant opening from Playtime, Buster Keaton escaping his pursuers from Sherlock Jr
Emily Wheeler: Joe Tries To Land from Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Ever an efficient filmmaker, Howard Hawks puts on a masterclass in world-building in Only Angels Have Wings. His tale of professional pilots in South America is as foreign to those of us pounding away at cushy desks as a full on fantasy, and the reality of this world is established in a scene that slides from calm professionalism to devastation with shocking swiftness.
After Bonnie (Jean Arthur) appears in their little enclave and attracts the flirtatious attention of the men, Joe (Noah Beery Jr.) is sent up for a routine mail run. Fog rolls in, though, and Joe turns around to beat the bad weather. With Geoff (Cary Grant) trying to guide him in, Joe has several increasingly close calls at the runway. Deeming the fog too thick, Geoff orders Joe to circle above the clouds until they break, but promises of a steak dinner with a new lady means Joe won’t stay in the air. His last attempt at the runway is a disaster, and as the seasoned men quickly turn their back, Bonnie is seemingly the only one in shock.
It’s a tight few minutes that holds the audience riveted and reveals everything you need to know about the men at this outpost. They are skilled, determined (some might say stubborn), and entirely alone with their emotions, unable to give them the time of day for fear that they might interfere with their next run. Even a minor slip means death, and with that established the movie is free to poke at their soft spots for every ounce of expression they have to give.
Rest of Emily’s top ten: future fantasy from Mommy, hallway panic from Upstream Color, no eulogies from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a good life from The Bridge on the River Kwai, the lunch from I Am Love, “Time After Time” dance from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, loading the dishwasher from Rachel Getting Married, comparing scars from Jaws, diary confrontation from Notes on a Scandal.
Kristy Strouse: The Restaurant from The Godfather (1972)
I had a tough time picking my favorite scenes, and many came to mind in my quest (some that eventually didn’t even make the top ten). How amazing is the intro to Trainspotting? Or how gut-wrenching is the moment that Liam Neeson watches the girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List? One isn’t comparable to another, exactly. So, where to begin?
There is such a unique pool of incredible films to choose from, with such a variety of genres. I decided to go with one of my all time favorite films as my first: The Godfather. From there, it was a matter of choosing a scene, and what better one than a moment that Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) can never come back from? This is a decision to not only get into his father’s business, a path he swore he wouldn’t take, but to execute a hit that would upend his life. Michael was a soldier, but this was different. This is revenge, but it’s also a choice with consequences that will reverberate for the next two movies.
As the scene unfolds and he talks to his intended victims, in both Sicilian and English, you know what’s coming. There’s a sense of dread: will he do it? Al Pacino is so exquisite in this scene, truly, as he portrays his internal debate with caution, while also playing up the confident Corleone son. It is an exercise in restraint, in the showing of emotion and not indulging in rage. From the beginning to the end you see the change in Michael, any innocence and naivety gone.
Now, here, in this scene, is where the real Godfather is born.
Rest of Kristy’s top ten: call it from No Country for Old Men, robbery and “Jessie’s Girl” from Boogie Nights, opening scene from Inglourious Basterds, opening scene from The Dark Knight, the blood testing from John Carpenter’s The Thing, Andy’s escape from The Shawshank Redemption, Copacabana from Goodfellas, Tiny Dancer bus sing along from Almost Famous, introducing the Tenenbaums from The Royal Tenenbaums.
Lewis Punton: Goodbye from Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
When it comes to companionship, nothing brings the best out of people quite like the threat of an almighty impending doom, a statement that rings wildly true throughout 2012’s apocalypse infused Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a film built on a structure of friendship, trust, and the outrageously authentic performances of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.
Putting aesthetics and all else aside, the closing third of this seriously flexible script houses a sequence reluctant to do anything other than completely steal the feature, pushing the story through a funnel of outstanding reality, boiling performances down to a moment of sheer human complexity, all whilst crushing any notion of an imperfect finale. Now, let’s talk about that goodbye.
As the film meets its inevitable end, Dodge and Penny are left with little more than their truest sense of honesty, spending their closing moments of life together sharing memories of Penny’s family whilst Dodge takes his last dose of pure companionship, condensing the entire runtime down to an extremely rich, human conversation.
With the clock ticking, and Carell giving a perfectly reactionary performance bursting with heart, this scene screams the essence of the feature as a white flush engulfs the frame, reminding us of the reality of an otherwise complex existence all whilst asking the question: what does it mean to be human?
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World isn’t a perfect film, it certainly has its issues, but with a final sequence hellbent on etching itself into a viewers truest idea of partnership, it’s hard not to forgive the film for such insignificant faults.
Rest of Lewis’ top ten: who needs the radio? from Dumb and Dumber, expectations vs reality from 500 Days Of Summer, hoverboard introduction from Treasure Planet, with great power… from Spider-Man, circle The house from Signs, Huey Lewis and the News from American Psycho, longboarding from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, synthesizers galore from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Qui Gon’s meditation from The Phantom Menace
Bree Duwyn: Arriving In Oz from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Despite the struggle behind selecting my favourite film scenes, my top pick came relatively easy just because of the personal significance for me behind The Wizard of Oz and the coveted moment Dorothy (Judy Garland) and Toto arrived in the Land of Oz.
This scene is by far one of my favourites in the film, as the house spins in the winds of a twister, finally landing in a technicolor world filled with munchkins, magic, lions and tigers and bears oh my! As she steps into Oz, bright-eyed and curious, the yellow brick road gleams and you can’t help but imagine what could be found at the end of it. As Dorothy delivers her infamous line “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” I can’t help but feel a rush of nostalgia from all the years I’ve spent watching The Wizard of Oz with my mum, which happens to be her favourite film.
The Wizard of Oz is one of the world’s cinematic classics because of how the film bewitches the imagination, all while transporting the audience on an outlandish journey into a magically immersive universe.
From dressing up as the Wicked Witch of the West for Halloween as a child to singing select songs from the film, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, The Wizard of Oz, despite being nearly a century old, will always be a film close to my heart with its magical creatures and colourful world of raw creativity.
Rest of Bree’s top ten: “Tiny Dancer” sing-a-long from Almost Famous, Andy escapes Shawshank Prison from The Shawshank Redemption, group therapy from The Breakfast Club, opening scene from Pulp Fiction, Professor Perlman’s speech from Call Me By Your Name, O Captain! My Captain! from Dead Poets Society, screaming lambs from The Silence of the Lambs, end scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, shower scene from Psycho
Zoe Crombie: “Country Roads” from Whisper of the Heart (1995)
When thinking of the best movie scenes, it’s easy to gravitate towards more bombastic, sensational moments, even within films as calm and low key as the works of Studio Ghibli. Images like the forest guardian at night in Princess Mononoke and the introduction of the Spirit World in Spirited Away are awe-inspiring and stick with you long after because of their scale alone.
My pick for the best film scene of all time isn’t particularly exciting – it’s just two teenagers partaking in a duet as they cover John Denver’s “Country Roads” with adjusted lyrics. But the way that it manages to represent the optimistic, joyful, awkward tone of the rest of Whisper of the Heart, as well as the message of determination and creative passion at its core, makes it one of my all-time favourites.
Our protagonist Shizuku has arrived at the house of Seiji Amasawa, a boy from her school who she can’t seem to shake. After revealing that he is a young violin virtuoso and explaining his ambition to become a master craftsman, he begins to play Denver’s classic, willing Shizuku to show off her work and sing the new lyrics she devised. The song reveals some of her loneliness and insecurity, but the joy clear in her swaying and grinning and the amateurish charm in her untested vocals suggest that she, like Seiji, is firmly committed to personal and creative growth. The two practising together perfectly demonstrates the gradual, collaborative nature of the creative process, and rather than judging the two on their merits as artists, you are instead enthralled by the purity in their expression.
The remainder of the film of course expands on these concepts, but the scene in isolation remains impactful, particularly when Seiji’s grandfather and his friends join in with their own instruments; there is no age limit on creative joy, and regardless of what level you have reached, your voice matters.
Rest of Zoe’s top ten: super freak from Little Miss Sunshine, ending from Casablanca, diner nightmare from Mulholland Drive, opening from Don’t Look Now, ending from The Shining, Harpo’s serenade from Horse Feathers, train chase from The Wrong Trousers, Charlie’s death from Hereditary, battle of the bands from School of Rock
Aaron Berry: The Picasso Story from F for Fake (1973)
Orson Welles’s final cinematic statement, F for Fake, was a playful profile of artificiality, fraud, and lies in art. The culmination of what begins as a documentary about famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, then evolves into a beast of a film essay, is an extended sequence where Welles and his partner Oja Kodar recount Kodar’s time as a model for Picasso, and how the resulting paintings were later forged and displayed by her grandfather. It’s re-enacted in a dialogue between Kodar and Welles, shot in this void of a set as they repeat the words traded between Picasso and old man Kodar.
It’s a biting and engaging exchange that really makes one wonder how heavy the tension between two clearly great minds were in their debate about fakery… until Welles reveals that it never happened. The film ends with this note, along with Picasso’s quote of art being “a lie that makes us see the truth.” Those final twenty-two minutes are the greatest expression of that fact, and the genius of Orson Welles even up to his last work. What matter is it if something is fake? It’s fun, is it not?
Rest of Aaron’s top ten: the creation of the world from The Tree of Life, Anton Ego’s review from Ratatouille, movie set brawl from Blazing Saddles, “Rose Tint My World” medley from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Stan’s daughter sings from Killer of Sheep, the blackface montage from Bamboozled, Cassiel and the jumper from Wings of Desire, the silent heist from Rififi, the ritual from Rosemary’s Baby
Faisal Al Jadir: The Flower Lady Reunites With The Tramp from City Lights (1931)
The look on the Tramp’s face is that of pure unadulterated joy as he finds himself reunited with the the once blind Flower Lady, now cured and captain of her own enterprise. Both of them were among society’s overlooked and pitied citizens, but while she genuinely struggled to support herself and her grandmother, the Tramp seemed content in masquerading as an anarchic symbol of anti-establishment, practically inviting the population to indulge in an eternal commitment to mock him in every respect. It was through her, however, that he learned to be unselfish and absorb the weight of other people’s misfortunes, and recognised her efforts to succeed. While his inherent goodness also got him the taste of the “good life” (after he saved a drunken millionaire who switches identities before and after hangovers), it ultimately didn’t matter to him as much as the assurance that she was afforded a better life.
After finally engaging in proper eye contact outside her flower shop, the Tramp, embarrassed of his appearance, tries to walk away, as she tries to give him a flower and some money. Holding his hand turns her smile into curiosity, and she suddenly feels his clothes only to recognise him as her saviour. She holds his hand tightly, and brings it close to her chest. As she is now a recognised, respected member of society, she lets him know that she accepts him for who he is, warts and all.
For the Tramp, it no longer matters that he went through betrayal, discomfort, humiliation, pain, rejection, or having to pay for crimes that he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter that his efforts to help her practically made him a hero. He has learned humility and has accepted his place in the world. And now, he is finally content.
Rest of Faisal’s top ten: execution by firing squad from Paths of Glory; attack on Sal’s Pizzeria from Do The Right Thing; sniper ambush from Full Metal Jacket; Rupert Pupkin performs for his imaginary audience from The King of Comedy; Travis tells Jane a story from Paris, Texas; water burial from You Were Never Really Here; an omelette breakfast from Big Night; putting on the cowl for the first time from Batman: Mask of the Phantasm; Washizu betrayed from Throne of Blood
Those are some of our favorite film scenes. What are yours?
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Emily is a film addict, TV aficionado, and book lover. She's currently in training to become a crazy cat lady.