Truly great scenes in otherwise bad movies are difficult to find. Much harder than the inverse (a list of which I’ll be posting shortly). If a movie is bad, it’s typically just bad. But below, I’ve come up with a few examples of when bad films showed great promise, if ever so fleetingly. Please note that I’m not using this list to focus solely on performances (i.e., great performances in bad movies), but rather entire sequences. Remember to share your favorite scenes from bad movies as well!
School Daze (1988)
To be clear, Spike’s Lee second film, School Daze, is not a bad movie. It simply has the misfortune of being stuck between one of the finest debut films by an American filmmaker (She’s Gotta Have It) and one of the finest films ever made (Do the Right Thing). Point being, School Daze doesn’t come close to measuring up to Lee’s best work. That is, however, until the film’s final sequence (and, more specifically, it’s final line). I’ve discussed School Daze’s “Wake up!” conclusion on this site before (like in my favorite fourth wall breaks list), but it deserves repeat discussion. In three short minutes, Lee courageously encapsulates the intention of his film, and demands that we wake the fuck up about race in America.
10. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Shark Out of Water
It’s the Scream method of surprise: establish your main character (who is played by your film’s only notable star), and kill them off when no one suspects it. If you saw Deep Blue Sea in the theater, you’ll never forget how shocked everyone was when this happened, and how hard everyone laughed after.
9. Alexander (2004)
The Battle of the Hydaspes
Oliver’s Stone’s Alexander is such a slog, but its recreation of The Battle of the Hydaspes is masterful. It’s the sequence that lets brilliant cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, flex his skills, which is mainly why the scene is such a success. The slow motion, the grainy film stock, the fish-eye lenses, the desaturated color (soon replaced with overblown, high contrast reds). It’s the only part of Alexander worth remembering.
8. Escape from L.A. (1996)
Basketball Death Challenge
Escape from L.A.’s most iconic scene has Kurt Russell and Peter Fonda riding what is perhaps the most cheaply rendered digital wave in the history of film. But the film’s best scene is the basketball showdown. Russell’s Snake Plissken has to make 10 points on a full sized court. Problem is, he has 10 seconds between shots, and each shot has to be made on the opposite basket as the one before. It’s an amusing sequence that has fun playing with double tension (if Plissken misses a shot, he dies… but he’s also on the government’s clock for another main objective). And apparently, Russell made all the shots himself.
7. Mission to Mars (2000)
Roger Ebert said it best. In his dissenting review of Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars, Ebert quoted Howard Hawks’ definition of what makes a good movie: “Three great scenes. No bad scenes.” Mission to Mars nearly gets there with the first part, including a mesmerizing set piece in which a spaceship runs into a few small meteors, the result of which is slowly, horrifying fatal. It is arguably the last truly great Brian De Palma sequence De Palma has put on screen.
6. Watchmen (2009)
The Times They Are A-Changin
Watchmen is two hours and 42 minutes long, and its ingenious opening credit sequence, in which history is rewritten thanks to decades of help from the titular superheroes, is the only part worth mentioning.
5. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Duel of the Fates
In terms of staging, composition, and tension (not to mention that music), this is still my favorite fight in the Star Wars saga.
4. Zach and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Guilty as Charged
Justin Long’s brief turn in Zach and Miri Make a Porno is one of the best scene stealing cameos of recent memory. The movie as a whole is a wash, but there is no end to my enjoyment of Long’s performance as a Los Angeles gay porn actor (with the best voice of all time), crashing his boyfriend’s high school reunion. Simply perfection.
3. Hereafter (2009)
The Tsunami; Bryce’s Breakdown
Clint Eastwood’s noble but overly sentimental Hereafter actually contains two great sequences. First, the tsunami set piece that opens the film is truly horrifying. It really puts us in the perspective of What in the ever loving fuck would I do if that thing was coming toward me. Watching that clip again, I immediately break into an anxious, hot sweat.
The second, more poignant great scene in the film is Melanie’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) reaction to having a psychic (Matt Damon) contact the spirit of her dead father. That poor girl.
2. The Village (2004)
“Don’t Let Them In”
The moment Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) grabbed Ivy’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) outstretched hand and quickly moved her inside, The Village had me. James Newton Howard’s score cues up beautifully (his Oscar nomination was well earned), and Roger Deakins’ slow motion cinematography is so fitting. The film does ultimately let us down (like when it all but repeats this scene later), but for a moment, M. Night Shyamalan was delivering on his promise as a filmmaker. If only for a moment.
1. Hi Mom! (1970)
“Be Black, Baby”
Brian De Palma’s Hi Mom! isn’t much of a film. For most of its running time, I struggled to follow it, mostly because there was nothing in the film worthy of holding my attention. But the film’s extended “Be Black, Baby” sequence is one of the best, most audacious sequences I’ve ever seen on film. I wrote about this scene at great length in my Directors post on De Palma, but essentially, in just 17 short minutes, De Palma manages to examine, critique, and cry afoul to the way race is viewed and handled in America. The film was made in 1970, but it still hits just as hard today. I’ve just rewatched the embedded sequence above and thankfully, its effect is not diminished if you watch it out of the context of the entire film. However, if you do watch all of Hi Mom!, you’ll know that “Be Black, Baby” comes out of nowhere, and astonishes us with its veracity.
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