Cinema is filled with scenes which capture brilliance. Whether in the way they contrast emotions, surprise the viewer, or bring subtle plot points to their conclusion, these scenes are notable for their “wow” factor and their memorability. They have power.
I submit that the five (well, six if you count the Honorable Mention) scenes I show here are some of the best, most artful scenes of cinematic history.
WARNING: Spoiler Alert. The movies below are all years-old classics, but the discussion will divulge aspects that you may not wish to read if you have not seen them but plan on doing so. Read no further unless you accept that.
Honorable Mention: the ending of No Way Out
This action thriller from 1987, starring Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman, is highly underrated — it’s really quite a breathless roller-coaster ride. The pivotal scene below is the movie’s conclusion and a stunning plot twist; in it we learn that the hero, Costner’s naval officer character, is in fact a Soviet mole. The genius of this scene is twofold in its unexpectedness and in the way it ties together seemingly unrelated plot points in such a neat fashion. The scene tucks in so many corners with such an enjoyable twist, it deserved mention here.
Number 5: the ending of Blade Runner
Any aficionado will tell you, the only Blade Runner worth watching is the director’s cut. This version of the movie is important mostly for a key scene omitted from the theatrical release: Deckard’s unicorn dream. That dream scene is absolutely critical; it ties to the scene below.
I particularly loved the pacing of these final few seconds, with the tension building to the dramatic exit. I was on the edge of my seat as Deckard, relieved to find Rachael alive, hastened to escape his apartment with his love. As Deckard nodded to himself over the origami unicorn — clearly a ‘message’ left for him by Gaff — the point came crashing home: the unicorn dream was a manufactured memory of a fictitious animal, and Deckard himself was a Tyrell Corporation replicant.
The final moment, as they step into the elevator and the doors swiftly close — followed only by credits — is possibly one of cinema’s most brilliantly elegant endings.
Number 4: the ending of The Thomas Crown Affair
Another brilliant twist ending in this 1968 crime thriller. Faye Dunaway, playing an insurance investigator, has fallen in love with the master criminal she is pursuing, played by Steve McQueen. He has contrived a test of her love and loyalty by staging another crime and placing the temptation of the pursuit and victory at her feet; in this climactic final scene Dunaway, magnificent actress that she is, captures the defeat, shame and pain of the failed test. Brilliant timing and camerawork hit like a punch.
Number 3: the baptism scene in The Godfather
This is probably one of the most famous scenes in this batch, and certainly one of the most memorable: the baptism scene. Coppola exercises more genius in these five minutes than most filmmakers do in whole careers.
The stark contrasts make this scene work so well. One life is coming into the world while other lives are leaving it; a man partakes of a holy church rite even as he has ordered the deaths of his enemies. The beautiful interiors of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral compare so starkly with the seedy murder scenes, and Coppola’s use of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor works brilliantly — listen closely to the way the music changes from scene to scene, from baby to assassin.
Number 2: the opening of Apocalypse Now
Like the scene from The Godfather, the opening to 1979′s Apocalypse Now makes a deep impression. The slow-motion Huey helicopters, the explosion of napalm that rips through the trees, all set to Jim Morrison’s haunting vocals from The End…these combine into an unforgettable four and a half minutes. Every time I watch this I find myself nearly hypnotized by the song and the visuals — it takes Martin Sheen’s opening line of “Saigon. Shit.” to shake me from this state.
Number 1: the beer garden scene in Cabaret
This 1972 film won eight academy awards. Set in pre-World War Two Berlin, we watch the the dark undercurrents of Nazi influence beginning to rise.
The strength of the movie itself notwithstanding, this scene is absolutely breathtaking. It is not the movie’s conclusion but it very well could be, perhaps even should be. It is everything good cinema should be: artful camerawork, powerfully emotive content, and social commentary.
The scene opens with a young, handsome boy singing a beautiful song, his clear voice, angelic visage and lilting lyrics giving it a hymn-like quality. I particularly like how masterfully the camera is employed here, for the scene’s illusion of innocence begins to crumble as darker details are gradually revealed: the boy’s swastika armbad, the Hitler Youth uniform… as the lyrics adopt a darker, more jingoistic tone, people from the beer garden rise and join in with strident vigor. Even the boy’s face has changed — an aggressive expression has replaced the picture of virtue, and we now see an Aryan youth where before stood an altarboy. All the illusory beauty of the opening has now gone, and arms are lifted in Nazi salutes…a dark harbinger of things to come.
Note the elderly man whose head-shaking incredulity at the surrounding crowd is clearly the minority opinion. I also love the devilish grin from the Master of Ceremonies; it’s as if he alone knows what is to unfold.
A bit of trivia: although the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” has been adopted by White Pride groups, it was written for Cabaret by two Jewish gay men, John Kander and Fred Ebb.