The Year in Film: The Ten Best Scenes of 2016

SPOILER ALERT: Scenes—like, from movies—are described below.

Keep up with all of our Year in Film features here.

Dinner Party, Allied

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There are more immediately violent and actionful scenes in Robert Zemeckis’s glamorous throwback intriguer, but a long scene at a dinner party hosted by spy couple Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard best shows off the director’s by-now second nature virtuosity. Without spoiling anything that’s not in the trailer, Pitt has just recently been informed (to his disbelief) that his wife is a German double agent, and so the exaggerated schmoozing and surreptitious chats with a suspiciously Freud-goateed guest that he observes take on new meaning. Much else goes on, including more fine work by Jared Harris and a festive couple sneaking upstairs to canoodle in the daughter’s room, and the scene gets its own exclamation point when a hit Luftwaffe plane nearly decimates the whole cast. Justin Stewart

 

Violence montage, Cameraperson

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For most of its runtime, Cameraperson is constructed from discrete clips separated by black intertitles detailing the location of the next footage. As a result, both montages that occur in the film have an intrinsic power, but this accounts for very little of the impact that the latter montage contains. Beginning with various locations where atrocities were committed during the Bosnian War, the montage soon expands outwards, freely mixing locations and occurrences from the well-known (Ground Zero, Tahrir Square, Wounded Knee) to the obscure (a church in Rwanda where many were massacred, a hotel used for executions in the Liberian civil war). Even though it comes in the middle of the film, the scene almost acts as a mission statement, using the viewer’s preconceptions of these events while creating new associations that emphasize the universality of this violence. Ryan Swen

 

Diner Date, Certain Women

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Awkward flirtations are almost always fodder for comedy in movies, but Certain Women plays things honestly in showing Lily Gladstone’s Jamie kind-of, sort-of asking out Kristen Stewart’s Beth to a local diner. The scene recalls the subtle class illustrations of Jaws, with poor rancher Jamie sticking to water as grad student Beth orders food she does not bother to finish. Their interactions, of Beth dispassionately hanging out while Jamie fixates on her, are heartbreaking, and small character details, like Stewart wiping her mouth with a napkin still rolled around her silverware, abound. In a film flush with carefully observed moments of naturalistic interaction, this scene stands far ahead of anything else in its complex simplicity. Jake Cole

 

Climax, The Invitation

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Karyn Kusama’s small film hasn’t and won’t make too many tony year-end lists, but it’s a devilishly entertaining ride anchored mostly on dialogue and performance, about a dinner party with cultish overtones that turns sinister. The long, slow burn would still be worth it even with a dud ending, but The Invitation acquits itself with a satisfying but ungratuitous burst of necessary violence and tension release and a creepy final shot, not to mention John Carroll Lynch (Fargo’s Norm Gunderson) as the party’s most off-putting attendee. Justin Stewart

 

The Turkey, Krisha

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Cassavetes surrogate Trey Edward Shults’s film is a tour de force of intense auteur-driven angst and point-of-view filmmaking, and the pivotal turkey scene sums it up. A trainwreck of an older woman wants to win back her family at a Thanksgiving gathering, but she gets covertly drunk and epically bobbles the perfectly basted and burnished turkey—in slow motion. It’s the linchpin of a compellingly unpleasant study in chronic misbehavior and social punishment. Jonathan Stevenson

 

Jimmy’s East Side Diner, Moonlight

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Act 3 of Moonlight is where director Barry Jenkins decides to let us in on some of his cinematic obsessions. It’s also when the characters decide to put aside their facades and allow themselves room to become who they are in their hearts of hearts. Neat trick, that. As Jenkins channels the timeless drifting choreography of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, childhood best friends Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland) gently cruise each other amidst the social traffic in Jimmy’s East Side Diner, where Kevin now works. Chiron lets his tough-as-nails persona melt a little when Kevin smiles at him, and suddenly he’s a boy again, but with a full realization of what he might be allowed to feel. And then Kevin puts Barbara Lewis on the jukebox and suddenly it feels as if the whole place might melt with longing and lust. Jenkins travels a long dark landscape in Moonlight, but that he earns a moment that loaded with sensual portent and joyous anticipation is a truer testament to his direction than any catharsis that might follow. Scout Tafoya

 

The part in Popstar where they get attacked by bees

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Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was the funniest comedy of the year, and almost no one saw it; it’s almost like people were impatient to ignore it so they could get to asking how they missed it in the movie theaters. If I have a complaint with the film’s fake-documentary style, it’s that it doesn’t allow for as many glorious tangents as the previous Lonely Island movie, Hot Rod. But there are exceptions, none better than the scene where former boy-bander Conner (Andy Samberg) orders the crew to shut off their cameras so he can talk to his associate Harry (the invaluable Tim Meadows)—only to fight off a swarm of angry, angry bees, depicted entirely by audio and transcript appearing on a black screen. It’s a brief detour, but a smart one, playing on Conner’s continually captured life of oversized spectacle. Also, I laughed really hard because Samberg and Meadows screaming is almost always funny. Jesse Hassenger

 

Courtroom Flight Recreation, Sully

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Part of me wants to nominate the odd scenes in which Tom Hanks’s Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger ducks into some grotesquely sanitized, faux-Irish Midtown bar and gets recognized by bartender Michael Rapaport, all good-natured excitement and offering a namesake drink (a shot of Grey Goose with a splash of water). The scenes feel dashed-off, but so they should in such a phony setting in a film by One Take Clint. But the public hearing flight simulations near the end of the film make up the most important scene, in which Sully is able to confront the bureaucrats with the human factor that they didn’t allow into their algorithms, and triumphs. It might not be as showstopping as American Sniper’s sandstorm, but the scene’s exciting, and there might be something personal and meta-cinematic for the filmmaker, visually going back over the crucial moment of a man’s life and seeing the different ways it could have gone. Justin Stewart

 

Shootout, Three

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Nothing really happens in Johnnie To’s Three until it does. Set exclusively within a hospital, particularly on one ward, Three creates tension out of busyness, suspense out of movement. It’s all a buildup for a shootout that involves criminals, doctors and nurses, cops, and cops disguised as doctors and nurses. Simulating one long take, the camera, alternating between slow and fast motion, picks out details—papers scattering, bodies falling in midair, blood spattering from gunshot wounds. It’s an orchestration of chaos and pandemonium, and scored to Cantopop singer Ivana Wong’s sweet theme song, “Zhi Hu Zhe Ye.” Tanner Tafelski

 

Caleb’s death, The Witch

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Horror films generally keep the child death toll at zero, yet they keep endangerment as an emotional trigger. In his stunning debut The Witch, director Robert Eggers recalls the unrestrained cautionary tales of old by making children his first casualties. Though newborn babies rarely survived in the 17th century, the kidnapping of Samuel hits hard even before we see him churned to mush in a witch’s lair. He was an innocent, much like his brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), whose sinfulness is a product of nascent hormones.

Seduced by a witch’s kiss, Caleb seems possessed, begging God’s forgiveness as he burns internally. He even spits out a bloody apple. According to Eggers, this was the film’s most difficult scene to shoot; the camera is pushed and pulled by Scrimshaw’s violent hysterics. It’s a break from the precise shots of before, signaling his family’s own crumbling order. After calm has set, his family joyed by his recovery, an excited Caleb stares up at his god, requesting his embrace. In a single shot, he laughs in hope, breathes deeply, then breathes no more. Eggers doesn’t cut until long after Scrimshaw’s pulse halts. Max Kyburz