Top 10 Movie Scenes of 2013… So Far

We’re more than halfway through the year and there is already a lot to discuss in the world of cinema. Depending on where you live, the first half of 2013 has either been a really great or really terrible year at the movies. If you live in the suburbs, chances are that you’ve only been exposed to the lame tent-poles pictures, which means that your view of the film year so far is pretty grim. If you live in a city like, say, New York, you probably think that the film year is more or less as good as last year, which means that it is pretty great. You think this because city dwellers are often exposed to quality films throughout the year, as opposed to suburban communities who have to wait until Oscar season. That is, if you are a suburbanite who enjoys artistic films or independent films or any kind of film that isn’t a sequel with a lot of explosions, then going to the movies isn’t that exciting until September when the first Oscar release comes to your town.

The point I am trying to make is that the first half of 2013 has offered about as many great films as the first half of any other year, just as it has given us plenty of junk. What also remains the same is the relative inaccessibility of these great films. The internet is a valuable resource if you want to know what is playing, i.e. Metacritic gives us the highest scores and Indiewire keeps an eye out on the independents, but it doesn’t really help you if you want to see a movie that is only playing in four cities. Therefore, until studios smarten up and start releasing their films to VOD, you might have to read my list, take my word for it, and remember to watch the films when they become available to you.

This list highlights ten of the best scenes of the year so far. I decided to focus on individual scenes because there are plenty of other lists that countdown the best films, and frankly there are only so many times a person can see Before Midnight at the number one spot. Okay, okay, we get the point, Before Midnight is the best film of the year. But why is it the best film of the year? If we break these lists down to focus on individual scenes, perhaps we can begin to understand why they are so great . I also focus on specific scenes because they are more fun to discuss and debate. For example, it is relatively useless to debate whether or not Before Midnight is the best film of the year because there is nowhere else to go from there other than to agree or disagree, but specific scenes can be analyzed and discussed in different ways. Moreover, it is more interesting to debate whether or not a certain scene from a certain film is the most memorable scene. For example, is the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas (1990) the best moment of the film, or is it the “Funny like I’m a clown?” scene? Finally, I believe that a lot of work goes into making a film, and most halfway-there or year-end lists that highlight the overall best films tend to overlook films that aren’t masterpieces but do contain moments of brilliance. On this list, you will indeed find some of the best films of the year, but you will also find failed experiments, which inevitably leaves little room for certain films this year that are excellent but that don’t contain a memorable scene that can stand alone, i.e. Stories We Tell and Something in the Air.

With that, the list:

10. What Richard Did: Father and Son Conversation

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What Richard Did is a powerfully realistic film about a South Dublin teenager who maintains a carefree existence until one bad decision changes his life. Richard (Jack Reynor) is respected by his friends, popular with the girls, and has a promising future ahead of him as he approaches college. But when one night of alcohol infused poor judgement gets out of hand, and he accidentally beats another man to death, he is faced with the crushing realization that life isn’t always going to work out in his favor. The film does not offer any easy answers, because Richard’s actions seem out of character and we are just as appalled by his behavior as those closest to him. However, we feel like we know Richard, and we understand that he is a good person who acted irrationally. One of the most harrowing scenes in the film comes when Richard finally breaks his silence and tells his father what he did. Life is complicated, and the scene shows us that Richard is still a child who has a lot to learn about himself and the world, and his father does nothing but hugs his son and lets him know that he is going to be okay.

9. Spring Breakers: Britney Spears Sing-Along

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Harmony Korine’s latest film is a mess, but there are moments of greatness and it would be a shame to dismiss the work entirely. For example, James Franco’s performance is weird and wonderful, and the film looks and sounds great, even if the visuals are what I would call artistic mumbo-jumbo. However, there is one scene that will undoubtedly keep the film alive for years to come and give it a cult following. The scene to which I refer involves James Franco and the girls gathering around the piano as they sing Britney Spears’ “Everytime.” The scene is deliberately absurd and ridiculous, as the song plays over a montage of slow motion violence, but it is captivating and campy and impossible not to enjoy. Further, it perfectly exemplifies a film that exists solely to provoke and cause outrage. Spears, like the young starlets of the film, worked hard to destroy her squeaky clean image, and in many ways the scene can be viewed as an ironic critique of the young starlets that are singing along to the song. Is this what young girls have become? And are Korine and his stars correct to suggest that young girls want to become this?

8. Trance: First Therapy Session

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Like Spring Breakers, Danny Boyle’s Trance isn’t a masterpiece, but it does contain moments of artistry. I admire films like these that are ambitious if not successful as opposed to safe tent-poles like Man of Steel or Iron Man 3. The film can best be described as a hyper-kinetic techno-thriller for the digital age, as it follows an art auctioneer (James McAvoy) who teams up with a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) in order to retrieve a stolen painting. The scene in question occurs early in the film as the art auctioneer meets with the hypnotherapist for the first time, and what follows is a tense game of cat and mouse. To spoil the surprise would be to ruin the enjoyment of the film, but the information we learn in this early scene sets up the mystery of Dawson’s character who will continue to confuse us until the film’s conclusion. For some reason, a similar film Now You See Me became a surprise box office hit, but Trance is more interesting, more artistic, and more daring. The first therapy session between McAvoy and Dawson displays the deceit at the core of this fascinating film.

7. Frances Ha: Paris

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For many, Noah Baumbach’s latest is the film of the year, and Greta Gerwig gives the performance of the year as Frances, a twenty-something New Yorker who doesn’t know what to do with her life. I agree with this, and one of the reasons why is a perceptive scene in which Frances travels to Paris for no reason in particular, which seems to be the catalyst for most of the decisions she makes. The reason why the scene is so memorable, though, is because it is relatively plain. That is, Frances spends most of her time in Paris sleeping, which highlights her flippant, aloof personality as well as the inability of Paris to spark an ounce of ambition in her. Frances is a wayward traveler, and although she is happy and able to experience life’s pleasures, the trip to Paris demonstrates how different she is from others, and how unable she is to get out of her own way.

6. Beyond the Hills: Botched Exorcism

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The recent films from Romania have set the bar high as they explore the dimensions of the human spirit with such depth and precision, and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills is no exception. The film highlights the friendship between two women, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur), who have a vague past, and now Voichita has joined a convent and Alina wishes to recapture their relationship. In the film’s third act, Alina is overcome with an abrupt sickness, and the convent decides to perform an exorcism on her in order to release her from the erratic behavior that accompanies her ailment. The exorcism goes horribly wrong in a tense scene that conveys the limitations of faith and its potential to cause damage. Beyond the Hills is based on a true story, and what happens to the characters by the film’s end is heartbreaking but necessary, and it is all because of this exorcism gone wrong. 

5. Ginger & Rosa: Ginger’s Confession

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Ellen Fanning gives one of the strongest performances of the year as Ginger, a young English girl in the 1960s who develops a passion for political activism. Her best friend, Rosa (Alice Englert), has little interest in nuclear warfare and is more concerned with exploring her sexuality. Eventually, Rosa has an affair with Roland (Alessandro Nivola), Ginger’s intellectual, revolutionary father. This leads to a climactic scene that is nothing short of spectacular, in which Ginger is forced to confess her secret and confront the fear that comes with telling the truth. It is heartbreaking that Ginger’s loss of innocence occurs by experiencing events second-hand. The first event is the war that rages far from where she is, and the second event is the sexual activity between her best friend and her father. The way director Sally Potter and Fanning handle this scene, with such delicacy, is masterful.

4. The East: Dinner Ritual

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Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij collaborate for a second time on The East after a successful if somewhat overrated debut with Another Earth (2011). Their second feature is much better, and it follows Marling’s Sarah as she infiltrates The East, an anarchist group of young adults who wreak havoc upon major corporations. There is a lot to recommend in this film, including Marling’s terrific star turn and the film’s refusal to turn The East and the corporations they attack into either heroes or villains. What I find most captivating, however, is the way the film allows the audience to gradually get to know The East and their idiosyncratic lifestyle. In a way, the film serves as a fictional ethnographic study of a specific way of life, and as Sarah learns all of the rituals and daily habits of the group, so do we. Consider, for example, the first night Sarah eats dinner with The East. Each member of the table is forced to wear a straight jacket, and if they don’t want to go to sleep starving, they must pick up the spoons with their mouths and feed the person sitting next to them. The scene illustrates a strange ritual that shows what Sarah, and we, are in for.

3. Like Someone in Love: Car Ride

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If you’ve never experienced a film by Abbas Kiarostami before, you might as well start with the luminous Like Someone in Love. While not as intriguing as Certified Copy (2010) or as influential as Close-Up (1990), the film manages to be one of the Iranian master’s very best works. It is a swoon of a film that features dazzling images of Tokyo, and one of the most memorable moments happens as one of our main characters rides in the back seat of a car. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a young prostitute whose next job is to please an older professor Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), and the scene in question follows Akiko as she is driven to Takashi’s house. In this scene, we see the sadness of Akiko’s young life, as she must choose prostitution instead of spending time with her grandmother as originally planned, and who waits for her as Akiko secretly passes her in the car. In addition, we see a beautiful, brightly lit Tokyo that Akiko will not get to experience. These nights and her youth are passing her by, and the scene captures the loneliness, angst, and melancholy of her existence.

2. This Is the End: Apocalypse on James Franco’s Lawn

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Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s hilarious comedy about celebrities who survive the end of the world is one of the best comedies in recent years and an instant classic. While there are plenty of great lines and shocking moments, the funniest scene occurs early in the film when disaster strikes and James Franco’s lawn becomes a bottomless pit that swallows up anyone in its path. Kevin Hart falls one minute and Azis Ansari falls the next. A few moments before this hilarious mayhem, however, Michael Cera sacrifices his star image for what is arguably one of the funniest death scenes in film history. It involves a cell phone and a pole and it is easily the most inspired moment in the film. There are a lot of people who would rather go to the DMV than spend time with Seth Rogen, James Franco, and company, but I defy anyone who doesn’t laugh out loud at least once in this film, and especially in this scene.

1. Before Midnight: Hotel Scene

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How can the hotel scene in Before Midnight not be the best scene of the year when it is one of the best scenes of any year? The third installment in the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset romantic trilogy is littered with classic scenes, from the car ride to the dinner conversation to the walk through Greece. Still, the most intense and, let’s be honest, the one we were waiting for is the prolonged argument in the hotel toward the end of the film. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) finally release all of their resentment, anger, bitterness, and regret that they have avoided confronting since Jesse decided to leave his wife and son for Celine in a funny, passionate, and incredibly uncomfortable exchange of insults, confessions, and stark realizations. We’ve encountered scenes like this before, especially in films like Contempt (1963) and Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and television series like The Sopranos (1999-2007), but rarely has an argument between two fictional characters hit so close to home. Perhaps this is because we’ve grown up with Jesse and Celine and followed their relationship from youthful idealism in Before Sunrise (1995), hopeless adulthood reinvigorated by second chances in Before Sunset (2004), and now the plain reality of a new marriage, kids, and more responsibility in Before Midnight. We care because we know how rare it is for couples like Jesse and Celine to get together in the first place. If they grow apart from one another as time goes by, what will happen to the rest of us? If this picture perfect couple cannot find a way to be happy, what does that say about most of us who rarely find our soul mates and instead have to settle for a person who is nice and, if we’re lucky, shares at least one of our interests? The reason why these films work so well is because they are idealistic and realistic at the same time. The relationship between Jesse and Celine is a fairy tale that we can actually believe in, because moments like the hotel scene resemble our lives in so many ways.

So far, 2013 has been a great year for the movies, but only if you have ventured away from the tent-pole franchises. As you can see from this list, the best offerings so far have been independent and foreign films that most likely haven’t even come to your town. This is unfortunate, but you can rest knowing that they will get there sooner or later, and that you will have at least 10 interesting and exciting cinematic experiences to look forward to in the future.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.

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14 Comments

  1. Great list! And I’m glad you included the Spring Breakers one because it really is fantastic. And you nailed the best scenes in Linklater’s and Kiarostami’s latest films. I’ve felt underwhelmed by the movies thus far this year, but thanks for the reminder that there were at least some great scenes.

  2. Great choice for your best scene!

  3. Kathryn Graham

    I’d forgotten how much I liked Trance, thanks for reminding me!

  4. Would have fancied more scenes from world cinema where we have seen a lot of great movies this year, but yet, some not too typical choices that I approve of. Good job.

  5. Nicholas Devin

    I love the idea behind this list. Great concept! I love the scenes you have added too, but I was expecting to see a scene from The Place Beyond the Pines within there.

  6. David Startup

    Absolutely have to agree with the scene from Before Midnight coming first – an incredibly true, captivating and heartbreaking scene of emotion; it may be the only time I’ve ever watched a film in the cinema when I was literally on the edge of my seat. Forget the year, it’s probably one of my favourite scenes of all time too!

  7. Like Someone In Love has many breathtaking scenes. The film is a really good examination of social interaction. There are sequences throughout the film were there is no dialogue spoken for five to ten minutes at a time. Instead, the director allows the pictures to tell the story to the viewer without dialogue. Its these quiet scenes that are this film’s biggest strength. Happy that it was mentioned here.

  8. Brett Siegel

    I love these kinds of lists! I think Spring Breakers is the best movie so far this year, and if I had to pick a scene to represent the film, that would be the one (closely followed by James Franco’s “look at my shit!” speech). Like the whole movie, there’s something insanely hypnotic and relentlessly ambiguous about that scene. You’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh or cry or just let your jaw hang there on the floor. I’ve also listened to “Everytime” more times since that movie than I’ve ever listened to any Britney Spears song ever, so that in and of itself is a major feat.

  9. Jemma Baddock

    Haha this is a great read, thank you!

  10. In many ways my favorite part of What Richard Did was the first 45 minutes before the central incident. Abrahamson is great at observing and capturing the complexities of late teen-age life with subtlety and a fresh eye. But when it gets to the big twists and the big themes, I felt it laboring more, working at it’s effects instead of letting them happen. It’s not that the 2nd half isn’t good, it’s that it lacks the power the set up and situation seems to promise. It sticks to it’s ambiguity, but it starts to feel just a touch like an intellectual conceit, not an exploration of darker human truths.

  11. Vic Millar

    I might give the multi-generational dinner conversation scene from Before Midnight the slight edge, yet that whole final sequence in the hotel was so intense and emotional it’s hard to choose. That scene in Spring Breakers is also fantastic (as is the whole movie). I was trying to think about what would make my list that you didn’t include, but I can’t think of individual scenes I’d pick out of Upstream Color or Stories We Tell, because both of those flow better as a whole and aren’t episodic. Great article as always!

  12. Christopher Dibsdall

    Yet to see any of these films, but I am a fan of the scene in Star trek into darkness where the Enterprise is spiralling towards the Earth. I thought it was masterfully executed action.

    But then I’ve been too busy with uni to watch many films this year

  13. This is an inventive and witty article. I loved how you intelligently focused on many scenes and highlighted reasons why they are the best of the year. I would also like to point out two scenes that stood out to me. One was the Channing Tatum death scene in Side Effects and the other is the dinner conversation from Django Unchained.

  14. GERARD KENNELLY
    0

    the look on dennis quaid face
    at the barbecue at the end of ‘At Any Price’

    haunting,, just amazing acting from him

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