As often happens this time of year, I’m looking over the vast, long list of movies that entertained, intrigued, and invigorated us all this year, and I’m struck by the embarrassment of riches – and not just in terms of great films overall, but the individual scenes and songs within them, which have affixed themselves to my 2016 movie-going memories. So let’s take a moment to recognize the big scenes and little touches that made these movies special.
Sing Street: “Drive It Like You Stole It”
John Carney’s loosely autobiographical story of teenage bandmates in ‘80s Dublin is full of wonderful little slivers of truth and musical numbers that both rock and charm, and the best of those comes in the run-up to the climax. The homemade music videos of this high school rock band have managed to not only showcase their music, but provide protagonist Conor with an excuse to hang out with his dream girl; she’s helped him devise their most elaborate production to date, a video set at an “American prom” in the 1950s. When the time comes to shoot it, it turns out they can’t quite pull it off. But as they play the song, Conor sees, in his mind’s eye, the way the video should be – and, in its cameo appearances by not only the girl but his divorcing parents, his disapproving headmaster, and his antisocial brother, the way his life should be as well. In that brief but perfect sequence, writer/director Carney captures how, more often than not, artists use their fiction to remake their reality into something more palatable; when the song is playing, Conor can get everything right that’s going wrong in his life. Plus, the tune is catchy as hell.
Everybody Wants Some!!: “Rapper’s Delight”
Not much is happening, plot-wise, in this scene early in Richard Linklater’s rowdy recollection of his days as a college softball player in the early ‘80s (a movie that, now that I’ve put them next to each other, would make a fine double-feature with Sing Street). But this isn’t exactly a plot-heavy movie anyway; it’s a hang-out flick, and works that vibe best here, as the upperclassmen take new kid Jake (Blake Jenner) out for a drive, and the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit comes on the radio. They pipe in to rap along, taking turns and handing off, and Linklater stays with them for a good long while (not the full 14:35 of the album version, but still). Some films would just give us the first few lines. This one just lets it go, mostly because it just seems to enjoy them enjoying the song so much.
Moonlight: “Hello Stranger”
Another musical moment, and one where the entire axis of the movie seems to shift. In the final section of director Barry Jenkins’s three-act exploration of young black male sexuality, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has come to a diner to visit Kevin (Andre Holland) – whom he shared a tender, intimate moment with years earlier, an encounter of vulnerability that he’s since done his best to bury. But then, out of the blue, Kevin calls, and tells him that a song on the jukebox made him think of his old friend. After a meal and some awkward small talk, Kevin finally gets around to putting the record on the jukebox: Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger.” And with each poignant lyric (“Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby ohhh / It seems like a mighty long time”) the moment becomes more loaded, and the longing becomes more clear. Jenkins lets the song play, holding on these faces of these two men as they hear the song, regard each other, and consider what happens next.
Toni Erdmann: “The Greatest Love of All”
Towards the end of Maren Ade’s comedy/drama, father Winifred (Peter Simonischek) and daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), have, for reasons to complex to explain here, bluffed their way into a family Easter gathering, masquerading as a German ambassador and his secretary. Before they make their exit, Winifred offers to sing a song as a thank-you; it makes about as much sense as anything else that’s happened, so their hosts accept. He sits down at the keyboard and begins to play Whitney Huston’s “The Greatest Love of All,” and his high-powered daughter, after a moment’s resistance, straight up goes for it. It’s not just a funny bit – it’s totally in character. This is a woman who, embarrassed though she may be, must do everything well, so she belts it with gusto and precision. It’s organic to the story they’re telling first, and then it’s a funny bit. Most movies can only manage to do one of those things at once.
La La Land: “A Lovely Night”
They’ve met a couple of times, and it hasn’t gone well – he (Ryan Gosling) spurned her (Emma Stone) when she caught him in an embarrassing moment, and she repaid him for that by creating another one. But the day has stretched into night, and he’s helping her find her car, and the impossibly purple sky and the twinkling lights of Los Angeles are sort of spectacular, and then (as they often do in La La Land, and they used to do in a lot of movies), they start to sing. It’s a lovely little number, one of those songs where they mean one thing and sing another – “What a waste of a lovely night,” he shrugs; “I’m frankly feeling nothing,” she assures him – and as they do, she changes from her heels to a pair of two-tone shoes that look an awful lot like his. And then it’s time for them to dance, and it’s glorious. Watching them move together, in these sumptuous floating takes, feels like what movies are all about.
The Nice Guys: Gosling Channels Costello
Gosling had himself a pretty good 2016, between his all-singing, all-dancing debut in La La Land and his uproarious turn in Shane Black’s buddy private eye action/comedy The Nice Guys. We’ve seen him fight, emote, and smolder in other films; in this one, he also revealed himself to be a damned fine physical comedian, most notably in a beautifully executed bit in which he matches wits with a bathroom door, and loses. But his best moment comes a little later, when he takes a tumble off the balcony of a Hollywood hills home, and finds himself seated next to a dead man on the ground below. The sputtering, gasping, whining, pointing, panic-ridden take that follows is a dead-on tribute to Lou Costello, and it’s hilarious.
The Edge of Seventeen: The date
Few aspects of being a teenager are as painfully awkward as attempting casual, grown-up sexuality, and that discomfort is rendered with laser accuracy in this scene from Kelly Freamon Craig’s wise and wonderful directorial debut. Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a bit of an emotional tornado, thanks to her instability at home and the recent hook-ups of her big brother and her best friend, so she tries to take control of her destiny by reaching out to her bad boy crush with an explicit offer of sex. But when the time comes, neither is quite sure how to act; he just goes for it, which makes her nervous, which makes her crack a joke, and it all goes downhill from there. The turmoil of this scene, which takes Nadine from control to snarkiness to desperation, could cause whiplash in the hands of a lesser filmmaker and actor. Instead, it rings with the authenticity of a documentary, and the concurrence of feelings Steinfeld conveys when she finally flees his car is what great film acting is all about.
Hell or High Water: “What don’t you want?”
“Now, let’s see what they got to eat here.” The diner scene in Hell or High Water has fuck-all to do with the plot, in which Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are tracking bank robbers Chris Pine and Ben Foster. The Rangers are just stopping for lunch, and that’s when the “T-Bone Waitress” (per the credits), played by Margaret Bowman, arrives. “Y’know, I’ve been workin’ here for 44 years,” she tells them grumpily, with a tone that tells you they haven’t been 44 easy years. “Ain’t nobody ever ordered anything but T-bone steak and a baked potato,” she explains. “So either you don’t want the corn on the cob, or you don’t want the green beans, so what don’t you want?” And she proceeds to tell them exactly what they’ll be eating and drinking, with absolute authority; it’s a small-town character so authentic, it’s easy to think Bowman’s not an actor at all, just some grouchy waitress they encountered during the shoot and threw into the movie. (She’s not; in fact, she’s accumulated 25 credits since 1989, including bit roles in No Country For Old Men, Bernie, and The Lone Ranger.) But she makes a hell of an impression – so much so that CBS Films is legitimately campaigning her as a Best Supporting Actress nominee. “Well, tell you one thing,” Bridges announces, after she’s “taken their orders.” “Nobody’s gonna rob this sonofabitch.”
The Witch: Exorcism
Robert Eggers’s Puritan horror folk tale is such a dull roar of dread for so long, you sort of acclimate to it; it’s not that nothing’s happening in its early scenes (quite the contrary), but that it treats it all so matter-of-factly, barely speaking above a whisper even when the unspeakable is happening. But the picture really starts to jolt around the two-thirds mark, when all of the fear, paranoia, grief, and despair of its events thus far culminate in this scorching symphony of prayer, possession, and death. Holy cow, does this scene do a number on you.
The Handmaiden: The bath
For all the Sapphic gymnastics in Park Chan-wook’s twisty erotic thriller, the sexiest scene is the one that shows the least. It comes early in the relationship between the handmaiden Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) and her mistress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee); Sook-Hee is actually a con woman there to prep Lady Hideko for her partner’s seduction, but finds herself powerfully drawn to the woman herself. So there she is, bathing Hideko (who sucks on a lollipop) and sanding down a sharp tooth, but the ritual slowly, slyly becomes much more than just grooming. Chan-wook frames the scene in exquisite, tight close-ups, and modulates the audio so that their very heavy breathing overtakes the soundtrack; by the end of that scene, everyone in the theater is out of breath too.