Better than Vanity Fair’s 25 Most Influential Movie Scenes

Yesterday afternoon, while cheerfully taking my zillionth Twitter constitutional, I found Katey Rich’s tweet in which she noted her involvement in an article for Vanity Fair which named, in the eyes of critics K. Austin Collins and Richard Lawson (and presumably some assists from the rest of VF’s movie staff), the twenty-five most influential movie scenes of the past twenty-five years or so.

If you’d like an easier link, follow this one. Lawson and especially Collins are both pretty close to blind retweet status for me anyway, and I really enjoyed their choices and their write-ups alike. I decided that while I don’t have the ability to call up Jeff Bridges or Dylan Tichenor to get an answer about the way a scene was made, the rest of this exercise—darn it, the interesting part!—is within my power.

I’ve tried to adhere to the general spirit of the Vanity Fair list. One scene per movie, listed in order of year of release as opposed to superlatives, yes to spoilers, no particular emphasis on what years or filmmakers might be present other than what might be influential, has to have been ’95 on, being intentional about what “influence” means as opposed to some other complimentary adjective. “Influence” is a tricky word, because that implies a level of intentionality on a filmmaker-to-filmmaker level which, given my previously stated lack of access to filmmakers, I can’t speak to. I’ve worked backwards, basically; I picked themes or ideas that I thought were important or underrepresented on the original Vanity Fair list and tried to find early examples of them in mainstream movies.

Finally, I have not stolen any of the twenty-five scenes or films that Vanity Fair is using, even though I think about sixty percent of the list they’ve got is pretty hard to argue with, and I’d like to note that I am ticked that they got to Children of Men before I could. (I mean, phooey on them for coming up with this idea I’m stealing!) If there’s one area where I think I diverge significantly from Vanity Fair, it mostly has to do with tone. Their article, short of swiping at low-hanging fruit in the Star Wars prequels, is largely positive. My rejoinder is not as celebratory as their work, though I’ll do my best to not make this a “cinema is dying, everyone” post because that’s not something I believe even a little.

1) KEYSER SOZE — The Usual Suspects, 1995, directed by Bryan Singer

Speaking of “not celebrating,” let’s start this off with Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer, a match made in some perfidious Hollywood malebolge. The ending of The Usual Suspects is pretty sweaty even by the standards of a positively perspiring picture. Chazz Palminteri’s wild-eyed epiphany, the pictures on the wall, the sound of all the evidence Verbal pulled from Kujan’s wall to tell his improvised story. It all leads up to that shot of Spacey’s crooked shuffle straightening out into a confident gait, the real exclamation point on a movie that was one long run-on sentence waiting for that punctuation. The twist ending of the mid-late ’90s—given the figure it centers on in this film and Se7en, maybe we should be calling it “Lost in Spacey”—is the true signifier of this writing tic which dominated the late ’90s. It’s not merely a Scooby-Doo style reveal, or finding out that Waldo Lydecker is the culprit in Laura some fifty years before this. It’s this sense that the reveal itself matters more than the buildup, is weightier than the facts of the case. If Waldo Lydecker tried to kill Laura Hunt, then there are true stakes to that decision given his closeness to her. If Verbal Kint happens to be Keyser Soze and not Dean Keaton, that doesn’t change the price of rice; what it does, on the other hand, is create gaping mouths in the audience. It’s an ending which trickled into Disney movies within two decades, as every villain in every movie from Wreck-It Ralph to Frozen to Zootopia is just Verbal Kint waiting to straighten up and fly the coop.


2) The White House explodes — Independence Day, 1996, directed by Roland Emmerich

Two years before Armageddon, five years before 9/11, and sixteen years before The Avengers, Independence Day asks us what it would look like if our symbols of governance and our great cities were blown away in an instant while the whole world watched. Osama bin Laden seems like a more important figure in the story of why American movies have shown so many cities getting totaled than Michael Bay, but Emmerich beats them both to the punch here. For city-destroying moments, you may have to go back to Gojira to find an example of a metropolis being ended this thoroughly and horribly. While Independence Day lacks what makes Gojira like, really good, it does set the standard for this kind of enormous destruction which would become not merely rote but expected in blockbuster films. And while it doesn’t use CGI, like Deep Impact or The Day After Tomorrow or San Andreas, its use of models makes it more of a gold standard than anything else. For the shock value of seeing the White House or an L.A. skyscraper go, we have to start here.


3) Lady and the Tramp discourse — The Last Days of Disco, 1998, directed by Whit Stillman

If you get into the backgrounds and bios of most of the people you follow for news, politics, movies, music, sports, and the like, it is shocking just how many of them went to private school. So many of them are related to someone who got a break fifty, sixty, a hundred years ago and have just taken the tube down that lazy river. I bring this up because the “Lady and the Tramp is actually about preparing girls to ignore nice guys” take that Josh gives in this scene is exactly the kind of take that scampers about from verified people on Twitter. Cultural criticism based primarily on nostalgia and familiarity; hazy twentysomethings from good families basking in their shared background; the concern trolling elements of the take itself, which is not really about concern for women so much as it is every incel’s prayer. The Internet, especially the Internet where people can become the main character on Twitter for a day, is right here.

Ah—were you looking for a movie-related influence in there? The Last Days of Disco is maybe a little late to the indie party, and it would be just as easy to pick a potentially more influential (read: earlier) film in Bottle Rocket or Kicking and Screaming or Before Sunrise. Even looking beyond the Discourse, there’s something grabby and attention-getting in this dialogue that comes to characterize the preciousness of a lot of this shinier indie fare which is both conceptually simple and fairly original. Charlie Kaufman and Ari Aster are in this moment, whether or not either one would recognize it or cop to it.


4) Historical faves meet personal faves — Shakespeare in Love, 1998, directed by John Madden

I had a hard time picking which kind of postmodern, backwards-facing moment I wanted to emphasize, and for a while I had the scene from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in which Ford reenacts the killing of James for an audience; one could also point to the assassination of Adolf Hitler by the Legends Shoshanna, Marcel, Donny, and Omar in Inglourious Basterds as another noisy offshoot. As we faced the end of history, our cinema started looking back and inserting us into it no matter what it did to the integrity of the historical record. Bill and Ted and Tom Stoppard all got in on the act together. Shakespeare in Love does not translate the Bard of Avon to sunny California but keeps him, albeit sexier, in London, and it looks for reasons to a made-up problem, stapling the names of real people onto characters who bear little resemblance to them and inserting literally Gwyneth Paltrow into that mix. (I haven’t counted which actors are most represented here, but Gwyneth Paltrow seems to keep showing up.) No moment in Shakespeare in Love, and few moments in its wake, have combined our murky understanding of that very distant past with what we assume to be clear hindsight like that scene where Queen Elizabeth gets on stage and stares down a woman (!) playing Juliet. All’s well that ends well, for Viola wins her wager, Bill gets high praise, and history doesn’t have to arrest us with its unpleasantness.


5) Learning a lesson — American History X, 1998, directed by Tony Kaye

American History X barely made back its budget—you would have needed to triple its gross to get it back to the level of The Horse Whisperer—but you can find the effect it’s had on any number of movies about race in America since then. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to turn a troubled kid around, even when he’s leading a neo-Nazi cell in his hometown. It just takes an empathetic Black man who can take the time to reach him and make him think differently about things. It was tempting to choose the scene where Derek curbstomps that Black guy, because there’s absolutely been a cottage industry in violence against Black people which mostly serves as violence as spectacle and less as a treatment of how bad that is. This scene is as insidious in its own way, putting the responsibility on people of color to change white minds. This is not so far off from more popular, safer fare like Green Book, Crash, or The Help; the image of Klansmen or their neo-Nazi descendants as bumbling buffoons is not that far off from what’s in Django Unchained.


6) Hyperlink cinema — Magnolia, 1999, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

In the late ’90s and early ’00s, interconnected grand stories from people like Stephen Gaghan and Paul Haggis were red meat for the smart set and Oscar membership alike. (Traffic, Syriana, deep breath, Crash…) Even true arthouse auteurs like Michael Haneke were not immune to this particular style, as evidenced in his excellent Code Unknown. Alas that Code Unknown is a year behind Magnolia, a film which owes more to Short Cuts than a film like Crash owes to Forrest Gump. (This is me saying that hyperlink cinema has roots far deeper than just like, the ’90s. There’s a lineage!) I’ve still chosen what I think is one of the more elegant sequences from what I’ve always thought was a fairly messy movie, in which most of the principal characters from very separate subplots are united in song. Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” takes over, and we click from Melora Walters to John C. Reilly to Philip Baker Hall, etc., as cuts and music do the work of creating togetherness in the way one link takes you from one webpage to the next. It is a huge leap from this four minute sequence to the fifty hours of the Infinity Saga, but without those hyperlinking qualities set forth in a movie like Magnolia I’m not sure we get there.


7) Meet Jar Jar — Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, 1999, directed by George Lucas

At first I was upset that Vanity Fair stole Revenge of the Sith from me, because I was amped to go on a rant about how we’ve been trained by that film to feel sympathy for our devils, so much so that we drop “Sympathy for the Devil” in our origin stories about people whose surnames are “De Vil.” Then I sat back and thought about what a gift it was to be spared the necessity of such a rant, and while for a minute I toyed with the idea of going with one of the many, many effects shots in Attack of the Clones, I couldn’t not choose Jar Jar Binks. The presence of a circus clown in this movie for kids horrified the many adults who, having been raised on the Star Wars films as children, made the bizarre assumption that the next generation of Star Wars movies would be made for adults. Jar Jar Binks was the target for so much of that vitriol (although Jake Lloyd was not spared in this movie any more than Hayden Christiansen or George Lucas’s dialogue would be in his entries), and his, I’m sorry, jar-jarring appearance in the early going of The Phantom Menace would make him the patron saint for every character in a major franchise who was met with displeasure by the hooligans who replaced fans.


8) The birth of prestige horror — The Sixth Sense, 1999, directed by M. Night Shyamalan

The Sixth Sense really relied on that twist to sell itself, and the reason I know that is because no one talks about this movie now that we all know how it ends. (If I were not the movie half of a podcast which goes through noteworthy best of lists, I don’t think I’d remember that this is on the most recent AFI top 100!) On a first viewing, Shyamalan crafts a story which can be unnerving, and Haley Joel Osment’s performance as a scared little boy who doesn’t stop looking scared as increasingly freaky ghosts pop into his life at inopportune times is great. But the scares, while adequate, are not much more than that. The twist drives this story as surely as the twist drives Fight Club or The Usual Suspects. And just as much as the subtext of horror has primarily become text, whether you’re watching Ari Aster or some other prestige horror darling, The Sixth Sense is probably most powerful when Cole and his mother bond for the first time; (extreme WandaVision stan voice) it’s about grief. Those seeds of a genre in which the stated signifiers of the genre are less important than what can be discussed through them start here, when a little boy under his covers confides that he can glimpse the deceased.


9) Digital photography for digital content — Bamboozled, 2000, directed by Spike Lee

The accession of digital photography and the diminution of film is probably the most important change in the medium and the business of the past twenty-five years. (Attack of the Clones is still speaking to me for this reason!) Combine that with the power of hatewatching and rage clicks and you have the future of an industry in the time of the Internet. It should not surprise anyone that Spike Lee found a way to get to both before just about anyone else. In this scene, where Damon Wayans pitches Michael Rapaport on a 21st Century minstrel show for their network, Lee finds multiple threads: the way controversy drives engagement, the way white people love to watch Black people, the way that irony has been murdered by modern times. And of course, he shoots it all on digital.


10) Microcosmic history — Remember the Titans, 2000, directed by Boaz Yakin

Remember the Titans is not a prestige film unless your definition of prestige is “the most shown movie in American classrooms when the teacher is out sick (2001 to 2006).” However, you can see the DNA of Remember the Titans in The King’s Speech, Argo, and Green Book more than you can see the DNA of Hoosiers in Remember the Titans. After all, this is not really an underdog story. The talent of the T.C. Williams players is never in question; only their ability to integrate is. What it is is a story in which a giant historical moment has been boiled down to a digestible, entertaining series of vignettes, and we are guided through it via a charismatic leading performance from a big star. It’s like social history except without the hard work or the painstakingly assembled charts. If you want to know about racism in the Jim Crow South, the movies say, watch Green Book. If you want to understand integration in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, watch Remember the Titans. In this scene, Herman Boone has taken his team on a pre-dawn run to the Gettysburg battlefield and compared the necessity of their learning to come together and win to the necessity of the Union soldiers’ working for victory. It’s gaudy, to say the least, but it’s not all that different from the similarly cloying voiceover of the titular king’s speech or the transition to an American century implied by the successful liftoff of Tony and the embassy runaways in Argo. (Just for the record, I would rather live in a world where Remember the Titans wins Best Picture than any of those other three actual Best Picture winners, and it’s not even a question for me.)


11) “SomeBODY once told me…” — Shrek, 2001, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson

Given that it just turned twenty and the Internet got into a tizzy about Scott Tobias’ retrospective on it, I’m not sure that I have to say all that much about the way that Shrek changed the game in animated movies for children. Where I differ from an increasing critical consensus that lauding Shrek was a mistake is that I think the movie still holds up well enough. It is treacly towards the end, to say the least, and there’s a case to be made that I should have picked the “Hallelujah” sequence because of our obsession with reinterpreting songs for the worse in movies and trailers. But the problem Tobias and his friends identify with Shrek is a problem with the industry’s rush to make copycat versions of this story which pokes fun at a genre for three-quarters of the movie before falling in line at the end. In other words, the problem is that Deadpool exists, not Shrek. Mike Myers’ Scottish accent is felonious, but Eddie Murphy is giving an otherworldly vocal performance that deserves even more praise than it already gets. In this opening credits sequence, Shrek does all sorts of stuff that kids are bound to love and which even the Genie from Aladdin wouldn’t dare to do, like fart fish to death and burp a fireball. He also signals a ruder and cruder path forward, with all of the glee and none of the subtlety he has when he sneaks up on the lynch mob at the end of the clip.


12) Classical hangout — Ocean’s Eleven, 2001, directed by Steven Soderbergh

While the all-star cast is less important now than it was twenty years ago, the sense of “God I want to hang out with those people” reached all-time highs during that same timeframe. Take this one up to about 2:35 and you get the fountains, the pan which lets us see all of the conspirators’ faces (save Danny’s) looking on after a job well done. There’s an incredible sense of satisfaction these men all share, a wordless pleasure signified with nods and smirks and pats on backs and sprays of water as they leave the scene of the crime one by one. Ocean’s Eleven is beloved because it’s a heist movie and people love heist movies like they love their mothers. It’s also beloved because it’s a great hangout movie, and people want to feel like they’re up there getting that appreciative, peaceful look from Brad Pitt or Matt Damon, like they know those people because they’ve internalized how much they love them. It’s a rowdier scene, but watch that part of Age of Ultron where everyone tries to pick up Thor’s hammer and tell me that doesn’t owe a little debt of gratitude to this simpler, sweeter scene.


13) “Infernal Galop” and “Lady Marmalade” mash-up — Moulin Rouge!, 2001, directed by Baz Luhrmann

Speaking as someone who actually cares about what happens to musicals and worries that we’ve had fewer great ones in the past twenty-five years than at any other point since the silent era, it does not necessarily warm my heart that I’m including this scene from Moulin Rouge!. Liking this movie is probably about as controversial between tomatoes and popcorn as liking Shrek—I happen to like both—and this scene, for all the well-earned allegations of muchness it leans into, represents the angle that most of the live-action movie musicals since have leaned into as well. It has gone big, almost to the point of incoherence. Arguably none of them have done it as well: not the Rob Marshall or Tom Hooper efforts, not the other jukebox joints, not the Disney rhinestones. What they do have in common, though, is the sense of an easily grasped hook. Luhrmann has chosen breakneck editing, but how different is breakneck editing as a hook than “singing badly” per Les Miserables, “accidental horror” per Cats, “please don’t actually check the reference point” per La La Land, or ABBA per Mamma Mia? Overkill is the thing, and the high-conceptualization of musicals is here when a penniless writer walks into the red windmill.


14) “With great power…” — Spider-Man, 2002, directed by Sam Raimi

To be honest, I don’t know how Vanity Fair let me take this one. I think if you told me I could have my pick of all the influential scenes, this would be top-three, no questions asked. The superhero/franchise/IP era of mainstream movies lives to reconsider this pablum over and over and over again. This is every Batman movie, this is every Infinity Saga movie. If you’re not doing “family,” you’re doing “power/responsibility.” Anyway, this scene was gift-wrapped, moving on.


15) How many endings can one franchise hold? — The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003, directed by Peter Jackson

To be clear, I don’t mind that Return of the King goes on a little bit. It’s wrapping up not a single three-hour film but three three-hour films, and I think some allowance must be made for that. I’ve included the Grey Havens, though, because I think it’s a) probably the right ending for this series and b) symbolic of the bloat that other people focused on making ten to twelve hours of story tend to lean into. Alan Sepinwall is not the first person to identify that problem, but as usual he was one of the more cogent canaries; in this post he gets into why television is best when it’s built around episodes as opposed to being built around, as the meme goes, the ten- or thirteen-hour story. If you’ve ever been frustrated that it takes two or three episodes just to get to the starting point in a TV show (hahaha, who am I kidding, this is every TV show), or if you’ve ever thought that a movie should have just ended as opposed to adding a couple codas (I’m talking to you, Lincoln), blame Return of the King for doing it right and then getting away with it. This is Shrek but for screenwriting.


16) “But why is the rum gone?” — Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003, directed by Gore Verbinski

There is no Tony Stark without Jack Sparrow, and there is no Harley Quinn without Tony Stark. After years of action heroes being musclebound Stallone or Ahnold types, or, if you’re more sensitive, handsome gym dwellers like Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves, here’s Johnny Depp wearing eyeliner, using “savvy” as punctuation, and prancing about like he knows where the floor is made of lava. It is a brilliant and unorthodox performance. Granted, there are multiple scenes where he uses his sword like Errol Flynn or Kirk Douglas, or where he swings about like Errol Flynn again or George of the Jungle. But the magic of this particular piece is that they’ve distilled the hero of this blockbuster franchise not to be like Luke Skywalker but to be Han Solo after a bender. Since this performance, there’s been enormous pressure on our heroes to make us laugh before, after, and during the pugilism. It’s not enough just to have a dad joke like “You’re fired.” There have to be quips and callbacks and goofy things to entertain us from all angles, and there is no more important moment in that trend than a very woozy Jack Sparrow trying to ascertain life’s most important question: “But why is the rum gone?”


17) Sentencing — Monster, 2003, directed by Patty Jenkins

By the time we’ve reached this point in the film, we have almost gotten used to Charlize Theron in the Aileen Wuornos getup. Audiences who had followed her since the ’90s in stuff like Mighty Joe Young or The Legend of Bagger Vance would know that her beauty was an important element of her star image; it still is, at that. I’m not including this scene because it’s proof of her being adequately uglied-up for the camera, a stereotype of Oscar-winning performances for women which I’m not sure holds anymore. I’m including this because it’s the most recognizably Wuornos moment in the film; if there is something about her that the average moviegoer would know, it’s Wuornos in that prison jumpsuit or, just as good, in the mug shot. Theron looks very much like her, thanks to the folks in the makeup trailer. More importantly, in that moment we can match Theron to her antecedent. We can grade her performance on the rubric. There are two flavors of acting, and by flavors I really mean press junket topics, which have dominated the prestige mill in this century. One is the acting of hardship, by which one puts on or takes off a bunch of weight, or goes to enormous lengths to suffer like the character. That version is already being done by Daniel Day-Lewis and bastardized by many others at this point. The other is rubric acting, in which we can match the person acting to the real-life person with such fidelity that we assume it must be true. The early takes on this approach, by people like Theron and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, tend to be pretty good. It’s in the decadent phase we’re in now—Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Renee Zellweger in Judy, Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, the entire casts of Bombshell and Vice—where we give awards and worse, recognize good acting on the basis of whether it matches a real person adequately.


18) Revealing Totenkopf — Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, 2004, directed by Kerry Conran

Fine, so this isn’t the scene precisely, but I dare you to find a scene from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow on YouTube.

The Vanity Fair list took the scene from The Two Towers where Gollum and Smeagol fight with each other and in the interim there is no actual physical person in a live-action movie on screen. I’ll admit that is a better example of what I’m after than this is. In Sky Captain, the villain of the piece is a mad scientist named Totenkopf who is out to destroy the world or some other equally naughty thing. As our heroes penetrate his base, his voice reverberates throughout, threatening them and warning them against coming any closer. In the end, they find out he’s long dead; so too is his voice, for his voice is Laurence Olivier’s. There’s more of a straight line between Andy Serkis and Josh Brolin as Thanos, certainly, than there is between Sky Captain and Infinity War. But there is absolutely a connection between this moment and the Peter Cushing recreation in Rogue One. There’s a connection between this moment and the de-aging which is now becoming more and more common in mainstream film. It no longer has to be alive and there for us to see or hear it on screen; the reveal of Totenkopf proved that.

(For more on this topic, which I’ve written about at some length before, you can follow this link.)


19) Memes — Downfall, 2004, directed by Olivier Hirschbiegel

I don’t know how many people have seen Downfall, which is a pretty interesting movie which gets at much more than Hitler’s mindset in the final days of the Third Reich. I am absolutely certain that more people have seen the clip from this movie with new dialogue, in which Hitler is kicked off of XBox Live, or in the many adaptations thereof in which any number of things that Hitler could get upset about set him off in front of his generals and closest advisers.

The memes matter. In the early days, fan magazines and star profiles were the key texts of making a movie run. In our parents’ lifetimes, it was important for the actors to go on late-night talk shows and do publicity. Now, the memes feed the wolf, and while Downfall is not the first film to rely on those memes to gain greater reach than it may have found organically or in the old way of doing things, it might be the first movie which became better known for its viral presence than it is known for its presence as a movie. Somewhere, a heavily bearded Robert Redford is smiling.


20) “What do you want?” — The Notebook, 2004, directed by Nick Cassavetes

If you tell me it’s not necessary to include the second-most important PG-13 romance of the past quarter-century, I wouldn’t argue with you. On the other hand, have you watched a network drama in the past fifteen years? Like everyone else on the Interwebs, I interact with this scene primarily because it includes that wonderful “What do you want?” line over and over again; as a man married to a woman who knows she’s hungry but doesn’t know what she’s hungry for, I understand that one meme on a cellular level. But actually watch it again if you haven’t in a while. Titanic is about two people who are right for each other but who are separated because of social differences; in other words, it’s Romeo and Juliet. The Notebook is a romance which goes in a very different direction, and in this scene you can see how the two of them are really, truly not right for each other. They barely tolerate each other on a personal level, they do not see eye to eye, they cannot make a go of it without fighting. Yet what they want is still that other person, and more than differences in background or money or life experience, that sense of “the romance is that if they listened to their brains instead of their privates they would keep themselves apart” instead of “the romance is that the world keeps them apart” is fundamental to so much of the romance stories which have come out since.


21) Mystery money — Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, 2005, directed by Alex Gibney

“How does Enron make its money?” is one heck of a question, and a number of movies, non-fiction or otherwise, which postdate the Recession have asked similar questions. Enron is a kind of progenitor to Inside Job and The Queen of Versailles, to The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short. This sequence, where you can watch Jeffrey Skilling squirm a little bit under the pressure of Bethany McLean via Henry Waxman, is one of the most suspicious about American corporations and their faces since the 1930s, getting at the heart of a truth which I think is undeniable politically and which the movies are now catching up on: your banker is not your friend. Heck, he’s not even your banker.


22) The way of the future — An Inconvenient Truth, 2006, directed by Davis Guggenheim

In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to.

Roger Ebert’s review of this movie speaks to the lightning-struck quality of the doc; in a decade with two major Michael Moore pictures, March of the Penguins, and Super Size Me, this may still be the key documentary of the decade. It’s even more impressive when you consider that Davis Guggenheim is basically just filming a PowerPoint.

Gore’s tone throughout is serious in this film, as you’d expect, but it’s politician serious, high school principal serious. It’s not until we get to this sequence where we start to see what would happen to Beijing and Shanghai, San Francisco and Florida, Manhattan, once Greenland and west Antarctica start melting. Gore is discussing the armageddon, and he is not overselling it in his voice or his visuals. He has seen the future and he has come to tell an unbelieving public what Sennacherib or Nebuchadnezzer intends to inflict on them. If you take a look at the Oscars for Documentary Feature in the fifteen years or so before An Inconvenient Truth and the fifteen years since, there’s a difference. The ones before it overwhelmingly have to do with the historical past, or a historical figure; the Holocaust is there time and again, for example. But afterwards, the number of documentaries which are bout the recent past or even the future skyrocket; a quick look says that half are explicitly political. Michael Moore, who Vanity Fair already got, definitely contributes to that. But so too does this terrifying and humanist sequence in An Inconvenient Truth.


23) Comedy as morality — Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, 2006, directed by Larry Charles

Jon Stewart. John Oliver. Stephen Colbert. Samantha Bee. Trevor Noah. Jimmy Kimmel! And, above all, Sarah Cooper. When a Republican comes to the presidency, liberals look to comedians behind desks to save the day, to make them laguh, to feel like they’re resisting by chortling. When Borat finds these three guys from the University of South Carolina and sets just enough bait to get them to start popping off racist opinions, that is more than just comedy. It’s journalism. It’s almost a crusade, and while one could choose and should choose any number of scenes from Borat as influential to the movies that came in its wake, the past five years have proven that the idea that you can resist through comedy is catnip for half the country.


24) Avengers Assemble — The Avengers, 2012, directed by Joss Whedon

Allow me a smackerel of self-plagiarism:

he most important shot of the 2010s, at least as far as popular and commercial cinema go, is in this movie. The camera starts by looking up at a roaring Hulk, and then continues counterclockwise around this circle of brightly colored heroes. Iron Man is floating in the background of that shot, and we see him turn and land as the camera touches on Hawkeye, arrow drawn, Thor, hammer at the ready, Black Widow reloading her handgun, Captain America fastening his shield tighter, and finally Iron Man, now on the ground, looking up and completing this circle of six heroes who are deploying themselves in a desperate resistance against untold thousands of alien shock troops. In that moment, The Avengers takes us back to the dream factory. William Faulkner said that every Southern boy dreams of being in that grove of trees in southern Pennsylvania on July 3rd; there are a lot of Zoomers out there who dream of being the seventh member of such a circle, facing down incredible odds and yet absolutely assured of victory. It’s the certainty that makes this so wonderful, I think, a guarantee of emotional closure before you even have to sink yourself into the emotion.

–me, from this MCU ranking

If you don’t think this is one of the most influential scenes of the past quarter-century, go prod a DCEU stan about why their brand doesn’t have anything this good and see what burbles up.


25) Nicecore — Paddington 2, 2015, directed by Paul King

Admittedly less a scene than a line of dialogue, I felt a certain obligation to include the Internet’s favorite movie, the sequel to a story about an amiable anthropomorphic bear and his endlessly understanding English family. After a decade or so in which difficult men and their nasty doings dominated television and more than held up their end of the film catalogue, nicecore is in. Indiewire has a good piece about nicecore that you can peruse (alas that I am so behind on all this stuff, curse my actual day job), and in a media environment with two separate movies about Mr. Rogers, it’s Paddington 2 is its lead. “If we are kind and polite,” Paddington tells grumpy prison chef Knuckles, “the world will be right.” This is a very endearing sentiment, especially when spoken by a little bear who sounds like Ben Whishaw and whose prison uniform is pink because something red got in the wash. It is also empirically false, which makes it the perfect center-left antidote to the Trumpist worldview that nicecore seems to be reacting to in the first place. Props to Paddington 2 to basically summarizing Parks and Recreation in a single soundbite, though.

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