Sure, it's easy to rattle off a list of your favorite movies -- but what about your favorite individual scenes? This can be tricky, because even your favorite films don't necessarily have a specific scene that stands out above all others. And I'm not talking about scenes you "like"; I'm talking about the scenes that make you want to throw on a DVD at 3 a.m. when you're tired and drunk and slovenly but can't bear the thought of going to bed before you catch just that one scene... for the 250th time.
There's a lot to cover here with my top 20, so let's get right to it, with one rule in mind: Only one scene per movie. Otherwise my list would just be a ranking of various segments from "Jaws" and "Glengarry Glen Ross," and what's the fun in that?
Heather's picks (Coming soon)
Dan's picks (Coming soon)
Edit: YouTube links now included for scenes with no strong adult content. Some others are available on YouTube, but readers of an appropriate age should search them out for themselves.
1) Steven Spielberg's action set-pieces (1975-84)
* Quint's Last Stand ("Jaws")
* The Opening of the Ark ("Raiders of the Lost Ark")
* Thuggee Ceremony ("Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom")
After the shark leaps onto the deck of the Orca, the grizzled sea captain Quint puts up an epic struggle as he slowly, inevitably, slips into the beast's jaws.
Upon opening the Ark of the Covenant, ghostly specters are unleashed and the Nazis are swept up in the fire and fury of God's wrath.
Indy and his companions discover the entrance to an ancient Thuggee temple, and witness an unholy act of human sacrifice.
I could try to choose between them, but what's the point? These sequences, all filmed in the prime of Spielberg's career, are the scenes that first made movies come alive for me. And in the 20-plus years since, I haven't seen anything else even approach the kind of electricity and genuine sense of danger Spielberg was able to generate here. Pure, unbridled movie magic.
2) Who is Keyser Soze? ("The Usual Suspects," Dir. Bryan Singer)
Don't know why I didn't see it coming, but I didn't. It remains the most effective and shocking twist ending of all time, and no matter how many times I see it, I'm still transfixed. As Det. David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) sits in that unfamiliar police station, surrounded by all the pieces of the puzzle as they slowly start to come together in time to John Ottman's commanding score, we see some of the most dazzling editing tricks ever pulled.
3) "Sodomy" ("Meet the Feebles," Dir. Peter Jackson)
Oh, how could I not? I love to see new and creative and just flat-out bold feats of filmmaking, so of course I continue to be stunned speechless every time I watch this climactic sequence from Jackson's X-rated Muppets satire. It's an extended machine-gun rampage committed by an obese hippo set to the tune of a song called "Sodomy" performed by a gay fox, so call it base and stupid if you will -- but you can't deny that it's one hell of a memorable way to end a movie.
4) "Wilkommen" ("Cabaret," Dir. Bob Fosse)
A close choice between this and "Mein Herr," but I'll give this opening musical number (featuring Joel Grey in his Oscar-winning performance as the impish Emcee) the edge simply because it sets such a perfect tone for the rest of the film -- one of bawdy joviality and decadence and complacency, but tinged with a sense of impending doom. Plus, it's just so damn catchy.
5) Revenge of the Giant Face ("Inglourious Basterds," Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Man, do I love me some dead Nazis. Note that this entry refers not to the entire chapter of the same title, but specifically to the sequence of shots that begins with the Bear Jew (Eli Roth) launching his attack on the screening room guards, and ends with the theater being blown to bits. What occurs in between is, technically speaking, the most impressive work of Tarantino's career -- a blistering combination of cinematic homage (DePalma, I'm sure, is beaming with pride), rapid-fire editing (RIP, Sally Menke) and impeccably staged mise-en-scene that leaves you feeling charged.
6) Prologue/"One" ("Magnolia," Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Actually two scenes, encompassing roughly the first 15 minutes of Anderson's kaleidoscopic character study. The prologue, narrated by master illusionist Ricky Jay, uses three stories of impossible coincidence to demonstrate fate's role in the universe. This jumps immediately to the opening title and a quick-edit introduction to the film's main players set to Aimee Mann's rendition of "One (Is the Loneliest Number)." A movie geek can't help but be overwhelmed by the sheer mastery of technique that Anderson displays here.
7) Ricky Roma's Rant ("Glengarry Glen Ross," Dir. James Foley)
Most people would cite Blake's (Alec Baldwin) "brass balls" speech as the best scene, but I've always been more tickled by the pride-obliterating spanking Roma (Al Pacino) gives to Williamson (Kevin Spacey) after his childish stupidity costs Roma a real estate sale. Mesmerizing and infinitely quotable, it remains cinema's most awesome profane rant.
8) Finished ("There Will Be Blood," Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
The single most insane thing I've ever seen in a serious motion picture. The whole "I drink your milkshake!" spiel was run into the ground by people who never even saw the movie, but in context, it's absolutely inspired. (And, incidentally, is taken directly from a transcript of a 1924 congressional hearing on the Teapot Dome scandal. The more you know...) In an Oscar-winning performance as an oilman driven mad by greed and misanthropy, Daniel Day-Lewis sells the whole thing like no other actor possibly could. This last, Biblically epic scene -- in which Day Lewis' Daniel Plainview has his final, long-overdue showdown with Paul Dano's conniving preacher Eli Sunday -- is merely the finest moment in a perfect film.
9) Opening Shootout ("The Killer," Dir. John Woo)
Operatic in tone and movement, this beautiful, lyrical action sequence is hands-down the highlight of Woo's illustrious career. Before he started embarrassing himself stateside, Woo was the king of the Hong Kong action picture. Watch this scene and you'll immediately see why -- it's like Sam Peckinpah decided to do a blood-soaked homage to Douglas Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession."
10) The Killer Inside ("Sleepaway Camp," Dir. Robert Hiltzik)
It is my primary goal in life to get as many willing souls as possible to experience the cult-movie nirvana that is "Sleepaway Camp," so I'll try to keep this entry spoiler-free. It must suffice to say that Hiltzik took what could have been a dime-a-dozen "Friday the 13th" ripoff and turned it into something infinitely more creative and unsettling. This is thanks largely to the final scene, in which the summer-camp killer is revealed in a manner that is not only unnecessarily nasty and mean-spirited, but also hilariously bold. One of the all-time great shock endings, it will leave you feeling delightfully dirty. DO. NOT. MISS. IT.
11) Massacre ("The Wild Bunch," Dir. Sam Peckinpah)
"Bonnie and Clyde" was a vital precursor, but cinematic violence truly exploded onto the screen with the release of Peckinpah's post-western ballad. The climax is legendary -- often imitated but never equaled -- as the Wild Bunch embrace their fate in a gory showdown with the Mexican army. Simply beautiful.
12) "Everybody Knows" ("Exotica," Dir. Atom Egoyan)
Only Egoyan could turn a striptease sequence into an almost unbearably sad meditation on guilt and loss (he's aided by a particularly seductive and ambiguous Leonard Cohen song). It isn't until after the film is over that you fully realize what, exactly, was going on in this scene, and in retrospect the emotional weight hits you like a ton of bricks. I'm seriously tearing up as I write this.
13) Showdown at House of Blue Leaves ("Kill Bill: Volume 1," Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Nobody does an extended action scene quite like Tarantino. This is his most famous and most elaborate, as Uma Thurman's vengeful Bride takes out not only the Crazy 88, but also Chiaki Kuriyama's mace-wielding schoolgirl body-guard Gogo Yubari, and her primary target, Lucy Liu's yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii -- all in magnificently gory detail. Plus, martial arts master Gordon Liu (no relation) makes anything awesome.
14) Swordfight on the Cliffs of Insanity ("The Princess Bride," Dir. Rob Reiner)
This initial meeting between Indigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and the Man in Black (Cary Elwes) offers some more of the best swordplay in movie history, and also some of the greatest banter. Used to have fun re-enacting it as a kid.
15) The Ink and Paint Club ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," Dir. Robert Zemeckis)
My brain goes into geek overload whenever I watch Eddie Valiant's (Bob Hoskins) entrance into the 'toon-centric Ink and Paint Club, the centerpiece of which is a perfectly rendered tit-for-tat between Donald and Daffy Ducks. The two become increasingly antagonistic as they duel their way through Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2," and if you're listening carefully, there's no denying the scene's shockingly subversive racial overtones. Talk about bold.
16) One-Way Ride ("The Long Good Friday," Dir. John Mackenzie)
British crime boss Harold Shand (Hoskins again, in an immortal performance) finds himself being held at gunpoint in the back of a car by revenge-minded IRA assassins. Mackenzie's camera stays still, fixated on Shand's face as he slowly begins to realize that all his strength, all his power and influence and brute ferocity, are now meaningless. Here's a man who has lost everything to his own arrogance, and the range of volatile emotions that run across Hoskins' panicked --and, at last, resigned -- face is hypnotic to behold.
17) Inquirer Celebration ("Citizen Kane," Dir. Orson Welles)
"Citizen Kane" is genuinely one of the most entertaining, flat-out fun movies ever made, and don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise. This is basically "pick a scene," but in the end my vote goes to the celebration sequence that takes place just after Welles' media mogul Charles Foster Kane has purchased the top staff of a competing newspaper. Welles' revolutionary, virtuoso techniques are on full display here, and that song ("There is a man... A certain man...") is beyond catchy. And now I can't get it out of my head.
18) Louie's Restaurant ("The Godfather," Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
No other scene in the history of cinema has generated tension quite like this one. As Al Pacino's young Michael Corleone comes back to the table to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey -- essentially making a decision to forfeit his life to crime -- the mix of fear and anger and doubt on his face is the stuff of truly great acting.
19) Opening Credits ("Chinatown," Dir. Roman Polanski)
It's just the title cards, played out over the first piece in Jerry Goldsmith's legendary, hauntingly romantic score. But in some magical way, this low-key prelude captures the very essence of the film. I've seen the movie perhaps 20 to 30 times, and still, no other single scene speaks to me -- in that poetic, completely indefinable way -- like this one does. Go figure, huh?
20) Ship's Mast ("Death Proof," Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Like I said, Tarantino does an action sequence like no one's business. In this unrelenting 20-minute chase scene, stunt woman Zoe Bell (playing herself) lies strapped to the hood of a muscle car, going at incredible speeds with only a belt to keep her secure as a maniac tries to run the car off the road -- an innocent game of Ship's Mast gone horribly wrong. And then the tables are turned, as the hunter becomes the hunted in an amped-up girl-power finale. In terms of stunt logistics, this may well be the most impressive action scene ever filmed.
And there ya have it.
Care to share some of your picks? Do any of mine make you want to stab me in the eye and set me on fire? Whatever the case, don't be shy.