Spirited Away – Train from Nothing to Nowhere (youtube)
Spirited Away is one of those magical films that feels unlike anything else. It’s pure magic, every second. And that magic often takes the form of the strange and crazy, as the story revolves around a demon bathhouse, where the spirits of Japanese folklore come and gather to relax. There is all sorts of chaos, all kinds of colorful characters. It’s noisy chaos.
But then the heroine Chihiro has to go on a journey to find a witch to solve her problems. And to do that, she needs to take a train through the spirit world. With her companions, including the shadowy No Face that she’s befriended after healing it of its corruption, she boards the train that stretches across the endless waters of the spirit world.
The ride itself is what’s so evocative. After the chaos of the world that they’ve been in for the first half of the film, the spirit world is an empty landscape of flat water. Chihiro, who we’re introduced to as an impatient girl with little regard for the mundane, watches intently as endless miles go by. Out of the water rises random islands of road, or a house, or an empty train station. The only people are shadows, spirits that are mute and featureless. It’s desolate, but in a beautiful way. And it’s taking that break from the chaos to express that beauty that provides the contrast of the film.
Kill Bill – House of Blue Leaves (youtube)
This is perhaps as far from the last scene as one can get. This scene is all about the flash and the flair. The heroine is coming to kill the bad guys, but the bad guys are so badass they get one of the greatest intros of all time. With the blaring music, the slow motion pans of O-Ren Ishii and her entourage, cutting a swath through a restaurant like wolves among the sheep. If I could, I’d pick this whole scene, the intro and the 20 minutes of carnage that follow it. But if I have to pick just one moment, it would be this one, where you just sit back and say “whoa, that’s badass.”
Amélie – The Hunt for the Mystery Girl
Amélie is an amazing film, full of wonder and beauty. But the best moment, for me, was when Amélie attempts to return a found photo album to the young man who she’s in love with. Too shy to actually approach him, she leads him on a chase through an amusement park with carefully staged signs and clues, all the while watching him search but being unable to say anything. That kind of exposure, of showing him who she is while having never met him, is incredibly touching. And the whimsical approach to something as mundane as a courtship dance between two people is so fragile and perfect that it makes the heart soar and one fall instantly in love with the woman who would do all this.
Evil Dead 2 – The Possessed Hand (youtube)
The best horror-comedy ever made. And while Army of Darkness is the fan favorite, nothing reaches to the heights that this film pulls out. The evil Book of the Dead releases demons and it’s up to bumbling jerk Ash (played by professional bumbling jerk [and my hero] Bruce Campbell) to stop it. Of course, in doing so he ends up killing his girlfriend (twice) and watching most of his friends die horribly.
Eventually his hand is bitten by one of the demons, and is possessed by the evil spirit. What happens is the best slapstick in modern cinema, with reverse footage and slightly undercranked pacing to give it this crazy, silent film keystone cops quality. The hand flips Ash, hits him in the head with plates, tries to strangle him, etc. It’s hilarious, it’s raucous.
And that it ends with an amputation? Priceless. A must see, especially for the aftermath.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Final Showdown (youtube)
When I first approached this project, this was the scene that popped into my head first. You know why? Because this is the best scene ever committed to film. Nothing is shot so well. Nothing is so perfect. These are a scant few minutes of cinematic nirvana the likes of which I’ve never, ever seen before.
Watch it, then come back. In fact, go watch the whole movie. It’s an amazing film, with tons of stuff nearly as good as this. But the film wisely saves the best for last, and the final scene is a masterpiece. There’s just nothing like it.
It’s in the framing, with three characters who keep eyelines logical. In the scope, with huge towering figures against rambling landscape. In its pacing, with long cuts interspaced with quick edits that build and build with the rousing Morricone score that leads to the final moment of violence, a second payoff that is worth every agonizing moment.
And all this at the end of an amazing film that keeps building and building to this inevitable point. Truly, the best scene ever.
One Last Bonus Scene
Speed Racer – The Finish Line
I know nobody saw this one, but I’m putting it here anyway. The Speed Racer movie is not a great movie. It’s kind of a mess, but it’s a pretty mess. It has its moments, though , and among the best is the ending. The movie is a racing movie, as one might guess, but it’s also a technicolor dream wrapped around mind-blowing effects.
By the end, it’s become a flash of color, a swirl of lights and tones that is a blur of motion as Speed races towards the finish line. And in that last moment, the film transcends its trappings into a complete impressionistic vision. The lights become smears of moving color, and we enter a POV as the track begins to fade, then to spin in the final corkscrew, becoming nothing more than a tube of lines that converges into a point of white. Which suddenly bursts into a pattern of black and white as the checkerboard is passed, a full screen of lines that mean almost nothing at first as your brain tries to put it together, finally figuring it out as the car comes to rest, melting, past the finish line.
And that’s it! If you feel like joining in, feel free to do this as just a list, or something as involved as mine, or something in between. Nobody’s gonna judge, though showing your movie cred is always awesome. Until next week, stay classy San Diego!