Often when we think of the very best scenes cinema has to offer we think about that unique power a scene has over us. Whether it be a fabulous ending, a gripping opening or a captivating change of pace in the middle of a film, these scenes often stay longer in the memory than that of an entire feature. 2020 is a year full of great films with their own singular displays of craft within them, even films that weren’t as great managed to show off what could have been (Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik dance being the prime example), they are scenes that in some shape or form bolster the final product of the film immensely. Here are just ten of the greatest scenes the year has had to offer.
“Silly Games” – Lovers Rock
One of Steve McQueen’s most identifiable characteristics in his films is his use of long, usually quite gruelling, takes that statically capture the essence of struggle. In Hunger (2008) it was the uncut conversation between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham. Mangrove (2020), the first film in his Small Axe series, the director opted for multiple shots of tension – but in Lovers Rock he’s creating something different. A film that trades grit for charm and an observant style all while maintaining the powerful themes of the entire series.
As Janis Kay’s “Silly Games” booms hypnotically across the house in which people are partying, the camera delicately drifts between people as they dance on each other in steamy fashion – creating an atmosphere that is second to none. But when the song comes to its end we see something new emerge – a sense of community. In this moment, as everyone sings their hearts out despite the song finishing, McQueen is able to capture something undeniably absorbing. He once said that the Small Axe series is a “celebration of Black Culture” and in this scene alone he shows us just what it means to be a “Lover” and a “Rocker” in 1980’s London.
“Home Birth” – Pieces of a Woman
Pieces of a Woman is the prime example of a film that, despite not being perfect, has one of the best film moments in all of 2020. A film about grief is difficult enough to make but what the “home birth” scene does is prove the legitimacy of the one-shot also, as Martha and her husband Sean, in real time, go from early preparations of labour to the devastating end of their babies death. It’s a scene that is gorgeously shot, something that the film continues, but more importantly the scene is crucial to the deep reflective journey that both Martha and Sean take, for the better and for the worst.
Often one-shots are all flair and no substance, there is no real need for them but some filmmakers enjoy the challenge – or they think it will spruce up the end product. But, when you watch one with such an integral part to the film’s narrative it becomes such a gorgeous way to tell a story. In real time you experience the emotional journey that Martha and Sean are taken on. There is panic, beauty, pain and an overwhelming anticipation of new parenthood. You are so locked into their lives through this scene that when it’s stripped away from them, the emotional core of the movie feels all the more earned because of it.
“HR Meeting” – The Assistant
Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a slow burner, one that captures every annoyance, passive aggressive comment and abusive action that is aimed at a female assistant working within a film studio. Jane is a workaholic, she has a dream career path for the future so for the entirety of the movie she simply takes it on the chin over and over again. It’s muted style and honest approach do wonders to keep the #MeToo conversation going, but when it eventually leads to a HR confrontation that’s where the film allows all of it’s absorbed emotion to come tumbling out.
When a new assistant is hired and taken to a hotel room by her nameless boss (but definitely meant to be Harvey Weinstein), Jane heads to a HR representative to release her feelings and expose the abuse. But, when a stone-faced Matthew MacFadyen gaslights and patronises her, the film’s true cause comes to the surface. It’s a scene that is delicate, brilliantly crafted and gorgeously performed – one that’s so powerful that even the sliding of a box of tissues has incredible meaning. The film as a whole stands out, but this scene is unforgettable because it highlights not just the abusers, but the encourageable attitude of the entire industry.
“Birthday Dinner” – Another Round
It may be surprising to not see the ending of Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round on this list, but despite it’s joyous positivity and redemptive qualities we found that the themes of the film could get mixed up in it. So, we opted for a much more dreary scene in the film, one in which lead character Martin shares a Birthday dinner with his best friends and becomes reflective about the man he’s become. It’s a scene that’s great for its character, but much like the film as a whole, it lives and dies with it’s lead performer Mads Mikkelsen.
As the dinner flows in a celebratory manor, Martin starts to feel reflective and upset. He begins self-analysing himself as a boring man, and how he’s become a hollow shell of the passionate man he once was. It’s the scene that ignites the alcohol-fuelled journey they all embark on, but it’s because Mads’ performance that this scene makes such an impression on you. It’s not just in his quiet and empty delivery, but in his inability to hold back what seems like years of repressed emotion and his performance in this scene alone deserves to see him lifting as many acting awards as he can.
“Questionnaire” – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
For the majority of Eliza Hittman’s thought-provoking drama main character Autumn is a reserved figure. We know her problem through subtle clues given to us through the wonderful eye of the film’s director, but as a character she rarely says exactly what’s going on. It’s a very teenage way to deal with your problems but more importantly, it shows us just how lonely of a world it is to be a young girl. But, once Autumn is faced with a “questionnaire” of sorts, we begin to learn the true horror of her teenage pregnancy.
The scene is where the film gets its name, as a nurse asks increasingly deeper questions about her pregnancy, Autumn must answer “never” “rarely” “sometimes” or “always”. But it’s Hittman’s decision to stay tightly locked on Autumn’s face that makes the scene so excruciatingly captivating. All in one tightly framed shot we experience the slow reveal of information that the film has subtly been keeping from us, if you add to that Sidney Flanigan’s delicate and fragile performance what you have is a moment in film that will stay with you for an incredibly long time.
“Painting Reveal” – The Painter and the Thief
The Painter and the Thief is a story about the blossoming friendship between the artist Barbora Kysilkova, and the person who was incarcerated for stealing her paintings from her gallery, Karl Bertil-Nordland. It’s a relationship that, at first, feels built on Barbora’s empathy as she agrees to paint Karl when he’s released from prison. But, as the captivating Documentary goes on what was once empathy and intrigue quickly turns into a sympathetic understanding of each other. It’s a Documentary that’s full of little emotional turns but the most wonderful one is in the very first painting Barbora does of Karl.
At this moment in the film Karl is reserved, stone-faced and unsure about the motives of Barbora. But, when she reveals the painting of him he becomes overwhelmed with emotion. The true meaning of this emotion is never said to us, but it feels as though Karl, a man who’s come from a broken background and lived a life of crime and suffering, finally sees himself as a piece of art. It’s a gorgeous opening into the fragility of this man, but what it also does is remind us just how moving and personal art really can be.
“Being Left Behind” – Sound of Metal
Something that makes The Sound of Metal so great is how it manages to create delicate scenes in a film about a character with such pent up frustration and anger. In one of these particular scenes, Paul Raci’s character Joe tells Ruben that, despite feeling as though the world is quickly leaving him behind he should always find the soft meditative moments that will never disappear even when you feel you have lost everything. It’s a powerful monologue that spawns one of the best endings of the entire year.
After going against the deaf community and getting the surgery to bring his hearing back, Ruben finds himself still out of sorts as his girlfriend has found a new way of life in Paris, and the surgery isn’t quite as spectacular as he wanted. Here is where the monologue given by Joe beautifully comes back around in the narrative as Ruben sits on a bench and lets the world go by. It’s composed gorgeously, capturing the feeling of here-and-now like no other. But it also gives the film a hint of positivity after being so consciously negative, reminding Ruben that in these little moments alone with the world, he will never be left behind.
“Agnostic Feminist” – Saint Frances
Saint Frances is one the most important films to come from 2020, it’s dedication to telling a modern female narrative never overwhelms the story but merely normalises everything into a wonderful drama-comedy. One of the most tender threads in the story is main character Bridget dealing with her abortion. Her belief in pro-choice means she doesn’t feel anything about it, and if she does it means feeling bad for something that women have the right to do. But, in one spectacular scene – as the drama of the movie comes to a boiling point – Saint Frances turns it’s strong conviction into a conversation.
Bridget becomes overwhelmed and utters the words “I’m an agnostic feminist why am I crying?”. A line that’s not just blunt, but completely changes the complexion of the film’s themes while still maintaining tone. It’s a scene that even stretches further than Bridget’s emotional conflict as it challenges several arcs at one time – but the main take away should be the fragile line the film walks and without losing it’s personality along the way. A reminder that, even though choice is a human right, it doesn’t mean you can’t allow yourself to be affected by it.
“Courtroom” – Herself
Phyllida Lloyd completely changed course with Herself. For a director who’s known for grand political biopics and Greek Island musicals, her devastatingly honest story about a woman fighting against domestic violence, and a system that doesn’t help those affected, is incredibly moving. Time after time Sandra (played wonderfully by Claire Dunne) is torn down but when things heat up and she’s taken to court for custody of her children, in one enraged monologue she throws blows at the idiocy and atrocity of the situation she’s been handed.
In what universe does it make sense that a woman, who’s been abused in front of her daughters and does everything to maintain their happiness, deserves to stand trial for how she acts as a mother. This is what Sandra passionately shouts at the courtroom and for a film that is constantly showing us pain, tackling this injustice is exactly what it needs. Social realism often opts for a dreary tone with no let up, but Herself smartly creates frustration and ignites it one fiery scene that is performed ferociously by Claire Dunne in one of the best performances of 2020.
“Rudy Giuliani” – Borat: Subsequent Movie Film
Although Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm wasn’t quite the disguised exposé that the first film was, it certainly lived up to it’s monumental pressure. Not just of succeeding as a sequel but trying to navigate commentary in a year that is full of political outrage. It tackles COVID-19, America’s woeful abortion laws and the most prominent commentary – the Trump administration. There are so many scenes that are memorable for one reason or another, but it’s the scandalous scene involving Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Guiliani that is the most talked about.
While Borat will never be among the greatest pieces of cinema to grace our screens, it’s never really been the point of the film. Borat, as a character, is a weapon. A satirical sword that pokes at the belly of American politics, and even though Cohen is well-known for causing a stir he’s never made something quite as shocking as catching Rudy Giuliani with his pants down (almost literally). For a year that’s seen some fantastic pieces of cinema there is a reason that this scene was the most talked about, and it’s because of the films undeniable statement on 2020, pushing the boundaries of what you expect to see in such a film.