All week, The Ringer will be counting down the 100 Best Moments in Culture in 2019 So Far, and in the process, diving even deeper to shine a light on the best of movies, music, and TV. Today, Miles Surrey and Adam Nayman turn toward the big screen and name their 10 best movie scenes of the year.
Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, and the Dogs, John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum
Miles Surrey: The balletic fight sequences in the John Wick movies routinely slap, but the franchise doesn’t get enough credit for how it manages to avoid redundancy. Whether it’s exciting new backdrops for carnage, or the inclusion of Boban, John Wick (and John Wick) finds new ways to make its action interesting. For the excellent third entry, Parabellum, the solution was more animals: some horses, but more importantly, two kickass Belgian Malinois shepherds.
Dogs—and a love of dogs—are as essential to John Wick as arcane Continental hotel rules and assassin currency, so including them in a fight sequence fits the franchise’s ethos. They spared no expense. With Halle Berry’s newcomer Sofia and Keanu Reeves’s Wick flanked by the Belgian Malinois, they kill their way through a bazaar’s worth of henchmen in Casablanca in the film’s second act. The action is punctuated by long takes and clean compositions so that viewers don’t miss a thing—typical John Wick, in other words. But seeing Parabellum adhere to those standards with two trained dogs—one of which uses Berry’s back as a springboard to leap onto an assailant and tear him to pieces—is an astonishing technical achievement, and an early and possibly unassailable contender for best action sequence of the year.
Taboo, High Life
Adam Nayman: A24 wasn’t able to make a hit out of French master Claire Denis’s English-language debut feature. Maybe if its star, Robert Pattinson, had announced that he was going to play Batman a week before its premiere instead of a month later, it would have helped the cause. In all seriousness, though, High Life’s tough-minded, bleakly oblique take on sci-fi tropes was never really aimed at a popular audience, and it’s got enough extreme imagery—i.e. a naked Juliette Binoche writhing inside a high-tech chamber called the “fuckbox”—to guarantee cult status. What I’ll remember best, though, is the brilliant, haunting, 10-minute cold open showing Pattinson’s sullen ex-con, Monte, raising his infant daughter alone in the hallways of a spaceship-slash-prison: volleying baby talk back and forth into a monitor while fixing the outer hull of the vessel in full astronaut gear or coaxing the kid to take one small step for humankind in between feedings, it’s as tender (and, in context, lonely and terrifying) a depiction of fatherhood as I’ve ever seen onscreen. When Monte teaches little Willow to talk by using the word “taboo,” it announces the unsettling subtext of a film that is, at its core, about what it means, for better and for worse, to be a human being, and how the rules we live by are only as good as the people who made them. Which is to say: not very good at all.
The Funhouse, Us
Surrey: There are a lot of ideas, allegories, and bunnies bouncing around in Jordan Peele’s Us, a film that wants its audience to be both frightened and enticed to think about what it all means. And unless you judge the merits of its enigmatic ending via dream logic, Peele probably bites off a little more than he can chew. Sometimes, a horror movie is best left deploying scares rather than continually riffing on Hands Across America iconography.
Thankfully, Us’s chilling prologue, set in 1986, satisfies those urges. A young Adelaide (played by Madison Curry) wanders away from her parents on a Santa Cruz boardwalk. Eventually she descends into the boardwalk’s hall of mirrors—an empty, seemingly endless maze full of trippy, distorted images; the usual stuff—and something unfathomable happens. Adelaide’s reflection isn’t a reflection at all—it’s a doppelgänger. This very relatable reaction is perhaps Us’s singularly defining shot:
It’s Us at its scariest, and Us at its best.
The Opening Scene, High Flying Bird
Nayman: “I am no longer having a good time,” says Ray (André Holland) to Erick (Melvin Gregg) over coffee in a high-rise restaurant at the beginning of High Flying Bird. Neither of them are: It’s hard to be a high-powered NBA agent—or a star point guard—when the league is on strike, and Ray’s meeting with his lottery-pick rookie client is all about how they’re both going to handle the consequences of a work stoppage with no end in sight, and all sorts of potential pitfalls on the sideline of the sideline. Steven Soderbergh’s much-publicized decision to shoot his crypto-sports movie on an iPhone pays off throughout High Flying Bird but never more spectacularly than during its curtain raiser, in which a fleet, mobile tracking shot effortlessly gives way to a series of tilted, intimate close-ups, cut in a serrated rhythm with Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stop-start dialogue. The quickness and agility of the filmmaking aligns us with Ray’s restlessly inventive mind, and creates an athletic aesthetic analog for all the basketball we’re not seeing, while Holland’s bristling, brilliant line readings are like a one-man skills competition. In the space of six breakneck minutes, Soderbergh gives us an entire world and a way of seeing it, relaying images and information from multiple perspectives without ever breaking our concentration. He’s having a good time, and as a result, so are we.
The Astronaut Montage, Apollo 11
Surrey: On the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon, the documentary Apollo 11 treads surprising new ground. Working off mostly unseen archival NASA footage while crucially omitting interviews with historians and the use of a narrator, providing only the barest amount of onscreen text to identify key figures and numerical data, Apollo 11 feels immediate. It’s less of a documentary reflecting history and more like a cinematic experience that exists in the present, allowing the sights, sounds, and indelible images to guide the story. (Seeing the documentary in IMAX, my whole body shaking from the rocket propulsions and booming electronic score from Matt Morton, certainly heightened the sensation.)
Because there’s no narrator, director Todd Douglas Miller has to show the audience how everyone must’ve felt at the time, rather than tell. He deploys a simple, but handy editing technique early in the film. With the three astronauts—Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins—in a contemplative state ahead of launch, the documentary deploys flash-cut flashbacks to show their respective journeys and what they’re leaving behind. Moments like Aldrin in a fighter jet or Armstrong’s LLRV crash and scenes of Armstrong with his young daughter (who died from cancer at age 2), quickly hit the screen. Obviously, some liberties are taken—we don’t know that Neil Armstrong was thinking of these things at the time—but the montage emphasizes the gravity of the situation and the unprecedented stakes these men were facing; the calculations for the moon landing were done with pencil and paper, for God’s sake. Apollo 11 is the closest I’ll ever get to knowing what it was like to watch the moon landing in real time. Like the documentary itself, I imagine it evoked a mixture of national pride, admiration, a good bit of fear, and utter astonishment.
“Heaven,” Her Smell
Nayman: As a Canadian, I have been conditioned to know the songs of Bryan Adams by heart. It’s a little-known fact that in order to acquire a marriage license in Ontario you have to serenade your partner with the Oscar-nominated Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves theme song “Everything I Do (I Do It for You).” So I’m more susceptible than most to the gambit of Alex Ross Perry using Adams’s all-time greatest power ballad “Heaven”—originally written for the extremely bizarre 1983 romantic drama A Night in Heaven, about a college jock who starts an affair with his older, married speech professor after giving her a lap dance at a male strip club—as the emotional fulcrum for his backstage alt-rock epic Her Smell. Really, it makes sense that Elisabeth Moss’s Courtney Love manqué Becky Something would have grown up listening to Top 40, and I believe that she’d spontaneously pick “Heaven” to play to her young daughter during a (supervised) visit after a long separation; it’s also a shrewd move, dramatically speaking, to have a character whose self-destructive struggles stem from a pathological urge toward authenticity pick something so redolently cheesy. But no matter the strategies behind the song’s inclusion or even the tremulous melancholy of Moss’s performance, this scene was always going to slay me because I used to sing “Heaven” to my daughter, too. All the better to indoctrinate her into future fandom, of course.
Motorball, Alita: Battle Angel
Surrey: Per the royal decree of James Cameron, 20th Century Fox let the X-Men franchise die unceremoniously so that Alita: Battle Angel could live. It’s for the best: The sacrifice of Dark Phoenix made way for a bizarre, postapocalyptic future when robotic body modifications were the norm, Martians perfected a lost martial arts form called Panzer Kunst, and only one sport ruled the land: Motorball.
Motorball, which is surprisingly essential to Alita’s plot, is a competition that combines roller derby with the aesthetics of the Mad Max Thunderdome, the carnage of battle bots, and the principles of a coked-out sports mogul. The rules are, I guess, trying not to die while holding on to the “motorball” all the way to the finish line. It sounds chaotic, and it is, but the miracle of Alita’s Motorball is that director Robert Rodriguez streamlines the action in a way that is shockingly coherent, particularly for the standards of a CGI-laden blockbuster. Helping matters was a lot of practical stunt work performed by actual skaters, who presumably didn’t replace their normal human feet with piercing metal blades. Few blockbusters these days are as deranged and endearingly chaotic as Alita: Battle Angel—which, after its parent company was acquired by Disney, may soon feel like a relic from a time when studios still took big, cybernetically enhanced swings.
The Composer, Under the Silver Lake
Nayman: David Robert Mitchell’s critically derided and commercially DOA thriller about Sam, a self-styled private eye (Andrew Garfield) searching through L.A. for the gone-girl-next-door, makes a fetish of its unoriginality. It’s a pastiche of a pastiche, swamped in nostalgia for the movies and music of both the distant and not-so-distant past. At once more complex than its haters allowed and not nearly well-executed enough to fulfill its creator’s prefab cult-classic aspirations, Under the Silver Lake is essentially a series of flexes by a talented writer-director. The movie’s most muscular display comes when Garfield, after connecting the semiotic bread crumbs left for him in a series of coded messages, arrives at a secluded mansion and confronts a grotesquely aged piano man (Jeremy Bobb) who claims to be the secret songwriter behind the 20th and 21st century’s greatest hits. The spectre of Phil Spector hovers over their exchange, which basically boils down—like so much in this deliberately artificial movie—to a referendum on authenticity. The Songwriter says that the music that has shaped Sam’s identity is just variations on a formula, with the same chords repackaged and exploited on down the generations by a series of complicit pop idols. When Sam learns that his idol, Kurt Cobain, was one such frontman, he loses his shit and reenacts the end of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video all over the older man’s head. The scene’s mixture of culture-industry satire, grunge heroism, and gore is potent, outrageous stuff, and Under the Silver Lake never hits those heights again before trailing off … oh well, whatever, never mind.
The Metallica Drop, Triple Frontier
Surrey: The film in which Netflix is most transparently filling its “dad blockbuster” quotient, Triple Frontier is a surprisingly subversive heist flick, where said heist happens quite early, leaving most of the runtime to deal with the aftermath. Before that, though, director J.C. Chandor provides the ultimate dad fan service: Metallica.
In the opening scene, Charlie Hunnam explains to a bunch of soldiers how he wrapped his arms around the throat of someone whose cart got in his way in the cereal aisle of a Publix. Why? “That’s the price of being a warrior,” Hunnam says, without a hint of irony. Cue “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and Oscar Isaac in a helicopter flying over a bunch of favelas in an unnamed South American country. The sweeping shots are breathtaking, and the song—alluding to the death of five soldiers—is the perfect prelude for all the Shit That’s About to Go Down. Triple Frontier checks all the boxes: It’s got five male leads who look like they stumbled out of a Bennigan’s after last call, a ton of talk about the heist being “one last job,” the heist going terribly wrong, dope nicknames for the whole crew (shoutout “Redfly”), and even an origin story for Affleck’s odious back tattoo. Triple Frontier didn’t have to flex the Metallica drop on us, but it did anyway. That’s the price of being a masterpiece.
The Egg Sandwich, Dragged Across Concrete
Nayman: I’ve said everything I want to say about the trollish political motives of S. Craig Zahler here, but in a year when most new American movies have been mediocre at best, I keep thinking about films whose flaws at least suggest evidence of stubborn or unconventional artistry: stuff like Domino, Under the Silver Lake, and, yes, Dragged Across Concrete, a sort of unholy trinity whose undeniably problematic aspects are indivisible from what’s interesting about them. In the case of Dragged, it’s Zahler’s inclusion of the insistently uninteresting—the banal, the boring, the absolutely superfluous—that contextualizes his more overt provocations, and in the case of his making us watch Vince Vaughn’s Detective Lurasetti go to town on an egg salad sandwich while on a stakeout with his partner Ridgeman (Mel Gibson), the shtick works. Maybe it’s that showing us the unglamorous aspects of police work is a good way to subvert the mythmaking of so many procedurals, or that the relative innocuousness of eating an egg salad sandwich—instead of, say, drinking on the job or shooting up like so many other Bad Lieutenants—is weirdly endearing. Maybe it’s that in a moment when movies are all about serving up spectacle, there’s pleasure in the quotidian. Maybe it’s just that Vince Vaughn hungrily scarfing down lunch and taking big, soulful chews while his costar tries not to look disgusted is just really, really funny. Let me think about it for another six months, and I’ll get back to you.