Thursday, December 13, 2018

Top 15 Pure Cinema Moments That Make Me Cry

“Pure cinema” can be defined any number of ways. Lately, it seems to be an alternative meaning for avant-garde cinema, but for me, a pure cinema moment is when a movie utilizes varies aspects of production (direction, cinematography, performance, music, editing) and marries them together flawlessly. Such moments can make us sit up right. They can give us chills, and they can, in the most special of instances, cause us to cry. 

Below are 15 such moments for me. This is far from an all-encompassing list; these were simply 15 pure cinema moments that I felt like sharing. Please do feel free to share your favorite pure cinema moments as well!

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Also sprach Zarathustra
The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in a movie theater was a revelatory experience. In 2014, I was lucky enough to see the film at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, a massive, 800-seat theater that has been an L.A. staple for more than 55 years. I had always wondered why 2001 begins with several seconds of a black screen, as Gyorgy Ligeti’s haunting “Requiem For Soprano” sets the tone. When I saw the movie in the theater, I finally realized why. In 1968, “Requiem For Soprano” was the cue for people to take their seats. Once seated, the curtains were slowly pulled back, as Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” began to play over the film’s opening credits.

As the curtains were pulled back in the Cinerama Dome that summer evening in 2014, the pure cinema of 2001 hit me entirely. I began to cry before a damn image was even shown. Virtually any scene from 2001 could be listed here, but seeing it in the theater made the movie come alive in a way I never anticipated.

Cries and Whispers (1972)
“I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.”
-Spoilers- Cries and Whispers is a movie that knows pain. For nearly all of its 90 minutes, the film captures rage, death, and resentment in such an unflinching manner. Which is what makes its optimistic ending that much more impactful. It was uncommon for Ingmar Bergman to end his films so blissfully (which is bittersweet here, as the end is actually a flashback), but the image of the four women dressed in white, happily and healthily enjoying some fresh air, is something I’ll never forget. What a profound and hopeful way to end a film consumed with such dread.

The Godfather: Part II (1974)
“I can handle things – I’m smart!”
I’ve written about this scene before, but watching Fredo (John Cazale) defend his treacherous actions to his younger brother, Michael (Al Pacino), is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen on film. For one, it’s the physicality of Cazale’s work. From the way he uses that chair, almost like it’s an extension of himself, to the way his hands shake violently as he gets more upset. And then there’s the emotion of the scene. Fredo is literally fighting for his life here, and instead of calmly explaining what he’s done, he finally speaks up, ultimately declaring that he’s competent, he’s good, he’s smart. This is a devastating admission of guilt that gets me every time.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)
“Do you know the Tango Hustle?”
Saturday Night Fever is full of incredible dance sequences, but my favorite is when Tony (John Travolta) and Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) practice their moves to “More Than a Woman” by Tavares. For much of the sequence, Tony and Stephanie are feeling each other out, getting a sense of how the other moves. But once they move their rehearsal into a bigger space, things begin to fly.

Tony asks Stephanie if she knows the Tango Hustle, and the camera frames them in a wide shot. The song slowly turns from diegetic sound (playing in the rehearsal room with them) to non-diegetic sound (playing over the soundtrack), as the dancers take flight. The key moment for me comes at 1:35 in the clip above, when the dancers kick their heals out, and the camera cuts to a low-angle tracking shot of the two performers. The cut to that low-angle shot, and the subsequent moves by Travolta and Gorney, are what make this scene my favorite dance sequence in film. No bullshit.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
“We made it!”
I could include the whole chase sequence from E.T. on this list, but the moment Elliott (Henry Thomas) realizes he’s trapped, and E.T. lifts the entire group high into the air to escape, represents a cinematic joy that is rarely matched. The quick cuts to Elliott’s face, the close-up of E.T. making up his mind, John Williams’ music, the lift off – this is pure cinema at its finest. The adult men stand on the ground, baffled by what they’re seeing. And so are we. Please pass the damn tissues.

The Untouchables (1987)
The Gun Toss
The Battleship Potemkin-inspired Union Station sequence in The Untouchables is, perhaps, the finest set piece Brian De Palma has created. There is so much parallel action going on in this scene that to break it all down would take several paragraphs. (I cannot imagine how difficult it was to shoot this.) But the moment it appears that Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) won’t be able to save the baby, or himself, in slides George Stone (Andy Garcia), cool as a fucking cube, who tosses Ness a shiny pistol, and saves the baby. The slow motion shots of Stone running into frame and throwing the pistol, matched with Ness catching the gun, never fail to bring tears to my eyes. Such seamless execution.

Malcolm X (1992)
“Here, at this final hour.”
I believe I was 12 years old when my dad sat me down and showed me Malcolm X. I remember thinking, as I do now, that it was an important and immersive film. But when the final scene began to play, I was so confused by what I was seeing. Shortly after Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) is assassinated, Spike Lee’s film concludes with an extended documentary passage, showing clips and photos of the real Malcolm X, while Ossie Davis recites the same eulogy he delivered at Malcolm’s funeral in 1965.

“Wait, what is this?” I remember saying. I had seen movies based on real people, but I had never seen a narrative movie dedicate so much time to clips of the real person. “Just watch,” my dad quietly replied. And what I did see were five incredibly moving minutes of cinema. In showing the real Malcolm X, Lee didn’t take away from Washington’s performance. He enhanced it. He gave the man a face, a voice, a purpose. This end passage confirms Malcolm’s worth as a man, and as a historical figure. It brings tears to my eyes just writing about it. This scene changed my perception of what a film can do. And that certainly does not happen often.

Ali (2001)
“It is over! It is over! It is over!”
I’ve written about this scene before as well, but I believe Michael Mann’s recreation of The Rumble in the Jungle is as good as film boxing gets. The entire sequence is a full display of technical bravado, but for me, the pure cinema moment comes shortly after Ali (Will Smith) knocks George Foreman (Charles Shufford) down. As the ref counts Foreman down in slow motion, the camera, now running at regular speed, finds Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), who is wide eyed and nodding silently to the ref’s count. Everyone else is losing their minds at the prospect of Ali regaining the championship title, but there’s Dundee, nodding patiently, waiting for the official knockout. There’s something about Silver’s wide-eyed stare that really takes it out of me. And Jon Voight, as Howard Cosell, yelling “It is over! It is over!” is a perfect way to punctuate the moment.

The New World (2005)
“That you, our child, should live.”
When James Horner delivered his beautiful score for The New World to Terrence Malick, he was gutted to find out that Malick chose to score the film with classical compositions instead. The main musical thread throughout the film is Richard Wagner’s “Vorspiel to Das Rheingold,” which ultimately plays over the film’s remarkable conclusion.

The entire end sequence to The New World is a masterful display of pure cinema. The camera movement, Christian Bale’s teary performance and hushed voiceover, and, of course, Wagner’s music, all help make this one of Malick’s crowning set pieces. It’s a shame that Horner’s music didn’t make it in the film (it really is incredible), but I cannot imagine any sound other than Wagner’s to carry us away.

Children of Men (2006)
“Stop! Cease fire!”
This is pure cinema showcasing the best that humanity has to offer. It has been 18 years since the world has heard a baby cry, and when that miracle becomes a reality, everything stops. Some people kneel in prayer, others stand in complete shock, and some, like Clive Owen’s character, move forward in hope. This is such a profoundly moving scene, in its subtext, but also in the way it is executed. A baby cries, and it stops a war. If ever so briefly.

Man on Wire (2008)
“Death is very close.”
Seeing Man on Wire in the theater represents one of the most memorable movie going experiences I’ve ever had. The theater was completely full, and the moment Philippe Petit stepped onto the wire between the two World Trade Center towers, you could hear a pin drop. During the initial 20 seconds of Petit’s walk, the moment is scored only to the gentle sounds of wind, and Erik Satie’s beautiful “Gymnopedie No. 1.” But the subtext is clear. What a glorious remembrance of what was.

Shame (2011)
“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”
Steve McQueen’s Shame is arguably the movie I’ve talked about the most on this blog. It is an unflinching, beautiful work of art that I will be indebted to forever. The highlight of the movie, for me, is the extended sequence in which Brandon Sullivan’s (Michael Fassbender) demons show their true, horrific face. Brandon, having just had a lengthy argument with his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), descends onto Manhattan, moving with reckless abandon, as his addiction drives his every tortured action. The sequence is edited with McQueen’s trademark fractured narrative, and it ends with a haunting realization: Brandon enjoys none of this. As a viewer, you may think nights like this are what Brandon relishes, but in fact, it’s the shame of his addiction that propels his life.

No scene from modern cinema has hit me as hard as this scene did. I first saw Shame on December 4, 2011 at the Landmark E Street Theater in Washington, D.C. It rocked me to my absolute core. You don’t forget moments like these. They stay with you.

The Tree of Life (2011)
“You will be grown before that tree is tall.”
Like many films on this list, I could declare damn near any sequence in The Tree of Life as pure cinema, but the one that always stays with me is a brief shot during the sequence of young Jack growing up before our eyes. As Jack finally finds his footing, there is a brief shot from behind as he runs playfully through the house. There’s something about the low angle of the shot, and the insanely wide lens of the camera, that captures this movement so gracefully. This is the type of pure cinema moment that I have trouble putting into words. You may see a toddler running, but I see life. As I’ve said before, this shot lasts two seconds, but it’s a visual poem that will live with me forever.

Interstellar (2014)
“Come on, Tars.”
Interestingly enough, I saw Interstellar for the first time at the Cinerama Dome, the same theater I saw 2001 in. To be clear, the Dome is a magical place that can elevate any film, but the power of the docking sequence in Interstellar transcends theatrical location.

The music (The. Music.), Matthew McConaughey’s sweaty, dedicated performance, the unified cinematography and editing – it all creates a sequence that defines pure cinema. The moment I saw the shot of the two spacecraft finally synching up the spin (the shot begins at 2:30 in the above clip), I literally whispered “No. Fucking. Way.” aloud to myself, and began to cry. This scene captures nearly every aspect of film working together flawlessly.

Phantom Thread (2017)
“Are you here? Are you always here?”
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), bedridden from food poisoning, quietly wakes up and notices the ghost of his mother standing before him. She’s young, innocent, silent, and the wedding dress she’s wearing makes her look equally beautiful and haunting. “Are you here,” Woodcock gently asks. “Are you always here? I miss you. I think about you all the time. I hear your voice say my name when I dream, and when I wake up, there are tears streaming down my face. I just miss you, it’s as simple as that.”

Those lines tell us everything we need to know about Reynolds Woodcock. They inform us of the root of his tediousness, his control, his anger and rage. But they also show that this is a man fully capable of love and compassion. Ultimately, Reynolds Woodcock is an adult boy who never got over the tremendous loss of his mother. And my god, how perfectly Jonny Greenwood’s beautiful music accentuates the emotion. Truth be told, the first time I saw Phantom Thread, I almost excused myself from the sold out theater, because I could not keep it together during this scene. What a profoundly revealing moment.

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  1. The end of City Lights makes me cry every time.

    1. I was this close to including that scene, because what a moment it is. Great choice!

    2. I cry in movies from time to time. But I don't cry when I see them again. Except with City Lights. I've probably seen it close to ten times over the decades. and I cry every time.

    3. It just hits you so hard. The entire movie comes down to that moment, and it is executed perfectly. Pure cinema, indeed.

  2. Those are amazing moments. It's tough to say what I can add as there's a lot of moments in cinema that do bring out something emotional as Tony is right about that ending. I'll try to make this list here:

    1. Once Upon a Time in America-The scene where the young Noodles is being sent to jail as he gets a look at his friends as they look on knowing they won't see him for a while. It's a simple yet effective shot matched perfectly with Ennio Morricone's music.

    2. Breaking the Waves-Bess' prayer to God asking him to bring her husband home. The anguish of it is just devastating.

    I think that's all I can think of for now.

    1. Those are two excellent choices. Breaking the Waves, man, that one hits so damn hard. I need to watch that and Dancer in the Dark again. Part of me misses that emotional side of von Trier.

  3. I've got the Godfather trilogy on my Blind Spot this year so I'm looking forward to experiencing that scene.

    I kept trying to think of what I would put on a list like this and it's really hard. The No Man's Land scene in Wonder Woman came to mind. I was tearing up during that and kept asking myself "why?" It was just so beautiful.

    1. Exactly! I found it difficult to put many of my choices into words. Because, really, it's all about the overall beauty of the moment.

  4. That Interstellar scene is incredible. I didn't like the movie as a whole but that scene was worth sitting through it. Zimmer's music in that moment was insane

    1. I know a lot of people who aren't a fan of that film, but I know very few people who aren't a fan of that scene. It just kills.

  5. Amazing moments and I love you picked some not-so-obvious choices! I just watched the Man on Wire clip and very moving with his life in the balance. You can understand his friends breaking down remembering that day. A miracle!

    Other moments that can bring a tear to my eye:
    Tears in the Rain scene from Blade Runner
    The ending of La Dolce Vita on the beach
    About Schmidt when he goes up the stairs to read the letter
    The Place Beyond The Pines - ending scene

    1. Damn, Chris, these are great picks. About Schmidt! That final scene is my favorite moment from any Alexander Payne film. I think ol' Jack hit it perfectly.

  6. The ending of The lives of others, the protagonist buying the book, the seller asking him if it is a gift, and he answering no, that is for him. I think of that scene and i'm moved.

    1. GREAT choice. I really need to watch that movie again. In fact, I wish more people still talked about that one. It's so damn good.

  7. I remember reading your review of Interstellar a while back. I'd never really heard about that expression before - "pure cinema" - but it stayed with me, I don't know why. It makes it sound like film makers are some kind of alchemists, and that emotion is what they hope to distill to it's most potent and unaltered form.

    I'm not easily moved to tears, but I found that, for me, the few films that succeeded almost always did it through music. It was the case last year with the ending of Call Me by Your Name or the year before that with the epilogue of La La Land. More recently, Ally's final song in A Star Is Born broke my heart.

    1. LOVE all of those picks, and they all got a hold of me as well. "Emotion is what they hope to distill to it's most potent and unaltered form." That is essentially what Roger Ebert always said a great movie should do, and I think that is a great way to describe a pure cinema moment.

  8. "You may see a toddler running, but I see life." DUDE. That sentences resonates with me so much. I saw The Tree of Life with a sold-out crowd, and everyone loathed it. But I just remember feeling so overwhelmed by what Terrence put together. There's definitely two ways of seeing that film.

    I know everyone hates Interstellar, but that docking sequence is incredible. It's almost hypnotizing. I'm obsessed with the history of Cinerama. I'm so jealous you saw it at the Dome. :P

    Haven't seen most of these, so I put them on my letterboxd watch list. Nice picks! :)

    1. Thanks Katy! I'm SO happy you like that Tree of Life sequence. And every time I see a Malick movie in theaters, there are walkouts. The Tree of Life is right up there with the most walk outs I've ever seen. Some people can dig his style, others can't.

      And I LOVE Interstellar! It's definitely a little too big at times, but I will always adore that movie.

  9. Like you said, the entirety of 2001 is pure cinema defined.

    Some other picks:

    M: The opening scene. You know danger's coming the second you see Hans Beckert's shadow. My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw Elsie's balloon flying away, and her ball roll down the hill.

    Excalibur: The last ride of the Knights of the Round Table. "O Fortuna" blasting on the soundtrack as they ride through an orchid of fresh blossoms. It's such a gorgeous shot. Camelot has been restored to prosperity!

    Othello (the Orson Welles version): The murder of Desdemona. The lighting of this scene... wow. The visuals of a nightmare.

    Melancholia: The opening. The end of the world as visual poetry. Plus I'm just a sucker for Wagner.

    Pather Panchali: I can't quite explain the effect this scene has on me. Just that Akira Kurosawa's quote, "To live without seeing one of Ray's films is to live without seeing the sun or the moon," really clicks after seeing it.

    Under the Skin: Like 2001, the entirety of Under the Skin can be taken as "pure cinema". To choose a moment, let's go with the scene where we finally see what happens to the hitchhikers who've been seduced. The eerie music, the indescribable imagery. I don't think I can ever be certain of just what's happening, but I feel like I understand it on a deeper level.

    Possession: Many people's main takeaway from this film is the subway scene, and for good reason. But enough has been written on it that I'll instead go with this scene, The big movements of the actors, and the camera to match. This is pure hysteria on film.

    The Shining: I consider The Shining to be the most well-shot horror film of all time. Like Possession, it is madness visualized. This is probably best represented by the iconic long take following Danny on his Big Wheel, riding around the endless corridors of the Overlook.

    Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Devil's Tower sequence. The music, the ship, the hope. I saw it on the big screen during its re-release a few years ago, and nearly cried.

    Amadeus: The ending. Salieri declares himself the Patron Saint of Mediocrity, and absolves all of his fellow immates, as Mozart's music and laughter sound off in his head.

    Barry Lyndon: The Epilogue. "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled. Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now." After everything that has come before, this is the best portrayal of Kubrick's philosophy that the universe is not harsh, but indifferent.

    The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Tie between The Ecstasy of Gold and the standoff. Two masterfully edited moments, played to Ennio Morriocone's haunting score.

    Eraserhead: In Heaven, everything is fine.

    1. These are fantastic choices. You know, I thought about Possession a lot when writing this post. Funny that you mentioned it here, but I love that. And many sequences in Amadeus and Barry Lyndon epitomize the idea of pure cinema. Great picks all around.

  10. This was a joy to read, should do one myself

  11. Omg this post is truly spectacular. This should be a blogathon. A lot of surprises here...that scene from the GodfatherII is so heartbreaking. What an outstanding scene and performance...I'd almost forgotten it until now :)

    1. Thanks Courtney! That'd be so cool if other bloggers ran with this idea and posted their favorite pure cinema moments. I'd love to see them all. And thanks so much for the tweet!

  12. F--king awesome as always, AW...shame I haven't seen many of these, but that Children of Men scene is a favorite.

    Outside of this list, one of my favorite pure cinema moments has to be the hallway fight scene in Oldboy. It's so incredibly visceral and ridiculous, I almost can't handle it.

    1. Thanks man! GREAT call on that Oldboy scene. That is definitely pure cinema at its finest. I'm still in complete awe of that shot.

  13. For me, Interstellar is Nolan's most emotionally affecting movie- the scene where Cooper is watching the transmissions from over 20 years is terrific.

    1. I agree, and its the emotion of the film that I'm most tied to. I don't think it's a perfect movie (the handling of the Affleck/crop burning/Topher Grace stuff throws me out a little bit), but I still absolutely adore that film.

  14. The ending of Rocky is one that always gets me. When the fight is over, the music starts swelling up, they announce that Rocky has lost, but all he cares about is getting to Adrian. I have watched that movie countless times, but the ending always brings a tear to my eye. And as much as i love the sequels as well, it almost makes me wish this was a stand alone movie. It does kind of diminish the ending when Rocky says he doesn't need a rematch and we know he will eventually will go on to defeat communism with his boxing.

    1. Great choice. That ending really cements the fact that Rocky isn't a boxing movie, but rather, a love story. And I hear you about the sequels. It's crazy to imagine a world where there is just one Rocky film.

  15. Fun Fact: The first kid who says "I am Malcolm X!" is played by Denzel's son John David Washington, star of BlacKkKlansman.

    1. Isn't that cool?! God, I just love everything about that movie.

  16. This post is a thing of beauty. From the ones you’ve chosen I particularly love the one you’ve chosen from The New World and Shame. Some cinema moments that make me cry (the ones that come to mind right now, because there are a lot…):

    - The scene from The Indian Runner when the dad (Charles Bronson) watches the old Super 8 movie of his sons when they were kids with Jefferson Airplane’s Comin' Back To Me on the background.
    - The booth scene between Harry Dean and Kinski… Sam Shepard’s words + Wenders’ camera, magical.
    - The Lawrence of Arabia famous cut.
    - Liza Minelli singing Maybe This Time in Cabaret.
    - Marion’s dream from Another Woman. The final interaction between Rowlands and Hackman always moves me to tears.
    - I'm not particularly fond of Atonement (besides the images and the performances, the story is a bit too much for me) but the 'Come back to me' scene shot in reverse, the blue mist, the green dress and red lights... wow. Impressive.
    - Leonardo DiCaprio running down Revolutionary Road.
    - Must add that scene from Earrings with Radiohead's song.

    1. This is a GREAT list. I love that scene in Another Woman. God, I need to watch that one again actually. That scene brings me to tears every time.

      And, of course, your last pick was such a nice thing for you to choose. I really thought we tapped into something special with that sequence. I'm still proud of it, all these years later! Thank you!