As the strangeness that is 2020 rumbles on, I thought we could all use a boost. Stuck in our respective homes, many of us have been turning to the vicarious thrills of cinema as an escape from day-to-day claustrophobia. Cinema has a unique power to take us out of ourselves and, at its most fantastical, take us to places the like of which we’ve never dreamed. Here is my top 50 moments of cinematic wonder; those moments that make our hearts swell, our jaws hit the floor, our eyes fill with tears and our brains believe the impossible.
50. BOYHOOD – “THERE’S NO REAL MAGIC IN THE WORLD, RIGHT?”
A sense of wonder can come from many different sources. Sometimes it is moments of huge, jaw-dropping spectacle that inspire awe and rob us of our respiratory capacities. There’ll certainly be plenty of those moments in this list but we’re starting in a much smaller, if arguably no less inspiring way. Richard Linklater’s epic 2014 film Boyhood was awe-inspiring in itself, having been filmed periodically across 12 years using the same actors thereby allowing us to see its central character Mason actually growing up before our very eyes. But the film itself is very much focused on the minutiae of life, with most of its plot threads developing in a realistically untidy and often open-ended manner. But one sequence in Boyhood deserves inclusion in this list for the way in which it encapsulates the nature of wonder in a persuasive argument that has the power to change the viewer’s perspective and which I have incorporated into my everyday outlook.
In this terrific moment, the young Mason asks his father, flawlessly played by Ethan Hawke, “Dad, there’s no real magic in the world, right? You know, like elves and stuff. People just made that up.” His father replies “Oh, I don’t know. I mean, what makes you think that elves are any more magical than something like a whale? You know what I mean? What if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean, there was this giant sea mammal that used sonar and sang songs and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car and you could crawl through the arteries? I mean, you’d think that was pretty magical, right?” With this extraordinary piece of dialogue, Mason’s father takes his child’s growing detachment from the notion of magic and turns it on its head, giving him back an example from the real world that is far more magical than the majority of fictional concepts human beings have created themselves. He teaches him not to take amazing things for granted just because they’re right in front of us. He teaches him that magic can be real but it is frequently misinterpreted, as we attempt to reach past the enchanting things we can actually touch to try and grab some intangible notion of something better. For all the spaceships, mythical creatures, crazy stunts and enchanted worlds on this list, this quiet moment between a boy and his father bedding down for the night might be the one that has stuck with me the most.
49. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY – A PASSIONATE ROLL IN THE SURF
It might be the most famous love scene ever shot but what is it that makes the sight of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster’s roll in the waves remain such a source of wonder. For one thing, it feels like a moment of real passion compared to the chaste pecking that neutered so many censor-pleasing movies of its era. Kerr and Lancaster convince completely as lovers, their adulterous clinch achingly capturing the desperation of a snatched moment. Many films relied on corny, overwrought dialogue and syrupy strings on the soundtrack as a passion surrogate and From Here to Eternity has both. George Dunning’s score soars in Icarean fashion as Kerr simpers “I never knew it could be like this. No one ever kissed me the way you do.” But by the time this cheeseball dialogue spills out of her thoroughly-snogged mouth, the spell has already been cast. It was apparently Lancaster’s idea to play the love scene lying down rather than standing up as scripted and director Fred Zinnerman makes the most of having his stars positioned horizontally by first showing the crashing waves inches from them and then having those same waves reach out to engulf the trysting twosome. On a silver screen that was kept on a very tight leash when it came to matters of the flesh, this wet hot eruption of unrestrained lovemaking caused millions of jaws to drop and it’s still possible to feel that buzz of excitement even in an age when far more graphic sex scenes are a regular fixture of cinema. Modern day filmmakers may be able to get their actors to strip down and jiggle on top of each other but few love scenes have created the same level of wonder as From Here to Eternity‘s perfect evocation of forbidden love and unbidden passion.
48. LA BELLE ET LA BETE – CHILDHOOD’S “OPEN SESAME”
Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete is renowned for being one of the most magical films in cinema history and yet it begins in a deceptively mundane way. Its opening credits are etched crudely in chalk on a blackboard by a man who never tries to hide his presence from the camera. After just enough time to read one credit, another man rubs it off to make way for the next one. In this bold rejection of artifice, Cocteau not only provides an effective juxtaposition for the magic to come but pre-empts the in-camera style of the effects he will use to achieve this magic. Much of what we see, or think we see, in La Belle et la Bete is achieved through the audience’s own self-deception. As the down-to-earth opening credits draw to a close and a man with a clapper-board prepares to herald the arrival of the first scene, Cocteau halts him in his tracks in order to insert a written preamble. Presented as nothing more complex than text against a blank backdrop, this introduction nevertheless proves to be perhaps the film’s most magical moment because it unlocks that within the viewer which is necessary to fall under the spell of La Belle et la Bete.
“Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s “Open Sesame”: Once upon a time…”
La Belle et la Bete‘s disarming introduction allows the susceptible viewer to segue into its fairy tale world in a less cynical state of mind, ready and willing to be charmed and wonderstruck. We know that to Cocteau our imagination is as important as his own, so when Belle’s father first enters the Beast’s castle and is greeted by disembodied human arms holding aloft candelabras to light his way, we marvel at the simple effectiveness of the conceit but also at the strength of our own capacity to believe in it. Not for one second did I imagine there were human beings stood on the other side of those walls sticking their limbs through a hole. Likewise, when a magic mirror is held up to Belle’s unspeakable sisters and shows a reflection of their true character, I believed in its power. While he has acknowledged that magic is an elusive concept, one of Cocteau’s themes in La Belle et la Bete is the importance of recognising its value as a concept, to the point that those who don’t believe in it are punished by metamorphosis and even death. What is life without a little wonderment, asks Cocteau, and the answer seems to be that it is a monstrous form of living death.
47. BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS – SUBSTITUTIARY LOCOMOTION
While it is oft-underrated in comparison to the same director’s classic Mary Poppins, Robert Stevenson’s exceptional family film Bedknobs and Broomsticks has magic to spare. An undersea dance with anthropomorphic fishes. A brutal football match between feral jungle animals. A song-and-dance encrusted version of Portabello Road. All these scenes go some way to making this underrated film special. But perhaps the most awe-inspiring moment is the denouement in which Angela Lansbury’s trainee witch uses her powers to assemble an army of museum exhibits to battle a platoon of Nazis. As well as being an inspiring sight to see suits of armour brought to life to battle against Nazism, there’s a sense of unity against tyranny in the fact that various opposing military figures are united against a common enemy. In its stringent opposition to Nazism, this scene of reanimated warriors inspires a tingle of real liberal inspiration alongside its sense of magical otherworldliness.
46. MURIEL’S WEDDING – I’M NOT ALONE, I’M WITH MURIEL
Everyone loves those moments in films when the bullies get their comeuppance but while they tend to be satisfying to watch in a punch-the-air way, few could be said to inspire a true sense of wonder. P.J. Hogan’s comedy Muriel’s Wedding, however, adds a new wrinkle to the formula which makes it not only satisfying but thoroughly empowering. Toni Collette plays Muriel, the unpopular member of a small clique of old schoolfriends who ultimately ditch her in a very public, unnecessarily vicious manner in which they ridicule her weight, her fashion sense and her obsession with the band ABBA, citing all of these factors as reasons they can no longer be seen with her. Left alone during a group holiday to Hibiscus Island, Muriel bumps into Rhonda (the wonderful Rachel Griffiths), a former outcast from her old school who also suffered ridicule at the hands of Muriel’s erstwhile ‘pals’. Rhonda has grown into a confident, self-assured woman and when she finds out what has happened to Muriel, she confronts the group. Impressing them with her newfound swagger, Rhonda is invited to join the group who assume she is there alone. In one fell swoop, Rhonda takes them down by not only refusing their invitation but informing them “By the way, I’m not here alone. I’m with Muriel.” It’s a fantastic moment but what makes it such a source of wonder is the way Hogan cuts immediately to Muriel and Rhonda performing a triumphant rendition of ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ at the resort’s talent show while the disgruntled, deflated clique look on. In renouncing the people whose cruelty and derision were keeping her down and in finding a new companion whose company enriches and empowers her, Muriel is able to become everything she adores. Resplendent in a blonde ABBA wig, she has become her own personal idea of the height of glamour and beauty and the confidence with which she performs displays the positive effect this transformation has had on her. In one perfect transition between scenes, Hogan is able to capture the liberating magic of rejecting toxicity in favour of inspiring positivity and generosity of spirit. In realising that she is not the problem, Muriel unlocks her full potential.
45. HENRY V – INSIDE THE MIND OF A THEATRE-GOER
Whether one can appreciate the magic of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V hinges at least partially on how the viewer feels about the experience of attending the theatre. For some, myself included, the theatre at its best can be a place of real wonder and a great stage production can draw you into its world to the extent that you forget the artifice completely. It is exactly this experience that Olivier seeks to replicate with his ingenious staging of the play here. The film opens with a panoramic view of 15th century London and the camera slowly zooms in to pick out the Globe Theatre. It enters the theatre to show members of the public being seated in preparation for a performance of Henry V. The Chorus (Leslie Banks) enters and implores the punters to use their imaginations in order to visualise the play’s settings. The first few scenes play out on the Globe’s stage but gradually the action takes on a stylised cinematic approach resembling medieval manuscripts as the audience settle into the story. By the time of the Battle of Agincourt scenes, the film has opened out into real outdoor locations as the epic fight ensues. In the aftermath of the battle, the film begins to revert once again to the stylised setting and eventually pulls right back to the Globe again, where the audience applaud and the actors take their bows. There have been any number of filmed plays that have reached the screen in a fairly similar form to their stage versions but few have dared attempt to try and simulate the theatre-going experience to the extent of actually entering the audience’s minds. Olivier’s bold, ambitious gambit paid off in spades and while his straightforward adaptation of Hamlet won the Best Picture Oscar four years later, it now seems stilted and cobwebby in comparison with this daringly fanciful experiment which manages to effectively approximate the thrill of being a theatre lover in cinematic terms.
44. ARRIVAL – ABBOTT AND COSTELLO
In sci-fi films in which alien lifeforms play a significant part, filmmakers have a delicate line to walk between the awe-inspiring and the silly. Since we have yet to make contact with any extra-terrestrials in real life, this pretty much gives the filmmaker free-reign to create any kind of creature they like. This can be a blessing and a curse. For every inventive, iconic face-hugger with the power to elicit shock and wonder, there’s a bulbous-headed cliché that inspires only laughter and immediate detachment from the narrative. Sometimes the most effective screen aliens are those kept partially obscured from view and, while this can be frustrating when done wrong, if done right it retains a sense of mystique that would be disastrously shattered by a clumsy rubber-suited abomination. Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent, meditative 2016 sci-fi Arrival required a high level of subtlety for the screenplay’s atmosphere to be successfully achieved and this was realised beautifully with the creation of the aliens Abbott and Costello, two octopus-like creatures who are mostly seen only through a large window behind which is a thick fog. Their unusual shapes and movements are clearly perceived but the finer details of their appearances are not. As Amy Adams’s linguist tries to break down the barriers of communication, they reciprocate using inky, coffee-stain-like splodges on the glass, and when she places her hand against the same glass, we are treated to a closer look at one of their tentacles which slams suddenly against the other side of the window. While there are undoubtedly other sci-fi films that deliver faster paced thrills, Arrival distinguishes itself with its deliberately paced approach, slowly tapping into the excitement of breaking down the walls of communication between two completely different species.
43. OLYMPIA – THE DIVING SEQUENCE
Leni Riefenstahl’s epic documentary record of the 1936 Berlin Olmypic Games will always be a film mired in controversy given Riefenstahl’s connections with the Nazis. Her infamous 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will has subsequently been revered for its technical achievements and reviled for its use of cinema to deify Adolf Hitler. Olympia, however, suggests the work of a director in awe of the physical excellence of athletes from many different nations. As critic Richard Corliss noted, in Olympia Riefenstahl bestows the same heroic treatment she’d given Hitler on Jesse Owens, something that apparently created tensions with Goebbels. While Riefenstahl’s legacy will always be mired in her murky political affiliations, Olympia is a far easier film to watch and enjoy than Triumph of the Will as, despite being commissioned as propaganda, it emerges more as a celebration of the international diversity of this incredible sporting event. One way in which Olympia differentiates itself from mere filmed footage is in its dedication to capturing more than just a record of the events but a sense of wonder at the achievements of the athletes themselves. This is never clearer than in the famous diving sequence that closes the film. What begins as a record of the high-diving event quickly morphs into a kaleidoscopic appreciation of the pattern of movement. Riefenstahl shoots the divers from different angles as they leave the board and eventually we stop seeing them hit the water at all. Images flow into one another fluidly as bodies twist and turn in mid-air until finally the athletes seem to be diving into the clouds themselves. It’s an astounding sequence that epitomises the transformation of Olympia from an intended propaganda piece into a real work of art.
42. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT – EDDIE ENTERS TOONTOWN
Animation is a constant source of wonder. The fact that still images can be manipulated to realistically bring to life characters of all shapes, sizes and species still amazes me to this day and even at its sloppiest, animation feels like a sort of witchcraft! In Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit the animation is certainly not sloppy. This homage to classic Hollywood animation by way of a film noir detective story is a rich, beautiful tribute to the cartoon characters whose iconography managed to effortlessly surpass that of their human counterparts. Although it involved a lot of careful legal wrangling, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stunned the world by bringing together characters from rival studios all in one place. Seeing Donald and Daffy Duck in a piano duel while Betty Boop serves cigarettes and cigars to the audience is the kind of dream scenario cartoon fans thought they’d never get to witness. Throughout its runtime, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is filled with so-called ‘Toons, who coexist on a daily basis with real-life inhabitants of LA but who live in their own area of the city called Toontown. Prejudiced against ‘Toons since one took the life of his brother (by dropping a piano on his head, of course), Detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is forced to venture into Toontown in order to solve a murder case that is being pinned on Maroon Cartoon Studio’s big star Roger Rabbit. Throughout its early acts, Who Framed Roger Rabbit builds up Toontown as both a place the audience is longing to see and the last place that Eddie wants to go so this conflict is at work when the film finally sends him on a journey down a long dark tunnel to the place of his nightmares. The sense of foreboding as Eddie makes his way through the darkness quickly gives way to the familiar sound effect from the opening of a Warner Bros. cartoon as an animated curtain rises to reveal a sunshine-saturated, completely animated world populated by famous characters. At this point, the film becomes an animation nerd’s dream as the frame is filled with blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em jokes and references. Characters zoom by the screen for a matter of milliseconds or appear as tiny figures in the corners of frames. In one hidden joke, we see the Wicked Queen in her Old Crone disguise being helped across the road by Snow White. It took me several viewings to spot this detail and then several more to see the joke’s ultimate punchline: that Snow White is in fact helping her to cross the road to buy apples! With so many details swarming on the screen, Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Toontown provides a seemingly endless gag-spotting experience the like of which a cartoon-lover like me can still scarcely believe exists.
41. A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH – PING-PONG PAUSED
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death is a film that presents us with numerous wonders throughout. It asks us to believe that a seemingly doomed airman and a radio operator can fall in love over a short broadcast, and we accept it. It presents us with a vast escalator between our own world and ‘another’ and we gladly grant the concept. It differentiates worlds by contrasting Technicolor with black and white and we applaud the innovation. And yet the most striking moment in this sumptuous creation is one of its most simple. After having inadvertently evaded death in a parachuteless plummet from a plane, David Niven’s airman Peter Carter is unwinding with his new love June and her friend Frank Reeves when Conductor 71 arrives to inform him that he should have died in the fall. In order to converse with Peter, the Conductor freezes time for everyone except himself and Peter. As Peter realises something is amiss, he wanders into the room where June and Reeves had been playing Ping Pong. The sight with which he is greeted is astonishing. June and Reeves are frozen mid-game, their small white ball suspended mid-air. This eerily effective moment somehow sticks in the mind more than even the towering interdimensional staircase or the extended excursions into the ‘other world’. It’s an intrusion on reality. A simple, small moment injected with a sense of the otherworldly, which makes it all the more extraordinary.
40. GERTIE THE DINOSAUR – THE FIRST ANIMATED PERSONALITY
Winsor McCay’s 1914 animation Gertie the Dinosaur remains one of the most famous animated shorts of all time. Often wrongly credited as being the first animated film, McCay’s film does make a convincing claim to creating the first cartoon star. In her canine like capering and interplay with McCay’s master of ceremonies, Gertie far surpasses all other attempts at animated characterisation that went before her. From Charles-Emile Reynaud’s stiff painted figures and J. Stuart Blackton’s chalk outlines to Władysław Starewicz’s spindly insects, no-one had quite mastered instilling recognisable traits into animated creations. McCay’s mosquito from his previous short How a Mosquito Operates perhaps came closest but Gertie takes things a step further. Here was a creation with whom audiences could identify and sympathise and it made her all the more entertaining. McCay took his Gertie show on the road and it perhaps loses some of its impact when seen by modern audiences, as we are deprived of the experience of seeing the real-life McCay interact with his animated creation, tossing her a pumpkin or riding on her back. But Gertie the Dinosaur remains one of the crown jewels of animation, paving the way for animated personalities. Gertie starred in only one more short, Gertie on Tour, the majority of which is now lost, but this debut performance alone cemented her place in cinema history and opened the door for a barrage of animated personalities who would stimulate our sense of wonder for decades to come.
39. INDEPENDENCE DAY – THE MOTHERSHIP DESTROYS THE WHITE HOUSE
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day isn’t that good a movie. So why have I seen it so many times? I attribute my apparent willingness to repeatedly subject myself to this film almost entirely to one eight second effect in which an alien mothership blows up the White House. This superbly realised moment is the first image most people think of when Independence Day is mentioned and it encapsulates everything you look for in a turn-off-your-brain-and-be-entertained Saturday night popcorn film. I’m still so wowed by it that somehow I can’t convince myself not to keep going back. Thinking about it now, I want to go and watch the bloody thing again. Not just the eight seconds, the whole flipping 145 minutes! As an iconic moment of 90s cinema, it more than does its job. When watching this moment of jaw-dropping destruction, it’s important to remember that CGI was still in its infancy so a greater amount of work had to be put into achieving the effect. Emmerich and his team did this by employing a technique for which I’m an absolute sucker: model shots. The effects team built a five foot tall scale model of the White House so detailed and realistic that Visual Effects director Bob Hurrie became reluctant to blow it up. But blow it up he did, with Emmerich shooting with nine different cameras at a variety of speeds. The model, of course, perished a lot quicker than the actual full-sized building would, so the problem was tackled by slowing down the footage. The effect actually lasted about a second, which in the film is stretched out to eight seconds. There can be few sequences so short that have become so integral to a film’s publicity, its success and its legacy.
38. A TRIP TO THE MOON – A ROCKET IN THE EYE!
Georges Melies A Trip to the Moon is regularly seen as cinema’s first great film. In an age when simple filmed footage of workers leaving a factory or a train leaving a station were still something of a novelty, Melies’ instincts as an illusionist made him eager to use the medium of film to capture something more. He saw the potential to show audiences things they could not see in everyday life and take them to fantastical worlds. So in only the third year of the 20th Century, Melies gave the world its first sci-fi film in the ambitious A Trip to the Moon which transported audiences who were barely used to the idea of the moving image to a whole different planet. Inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Melies envisaged a film with a stronger narrative and longer running time than any before it. Depending on the speed at which it is run, A Trip to the Moon lasts between 9 and 18 minutes. Melies was playing a significant part in mapping the language of narrative cinema so some shortcomings are understandable but to modern audiences the film can feel a tad long at times. The film’s opening scene depicting a meeting of astronomers, for instance, seems to go on forever and suffers from a cluttered frame with too much action going on in every part of it, creating confusion and nausea. But once it gets going, A Trip to the Moon‘s strengths significantly overshadow its longueurs and one image in particular has become one of cinema’s most enduring. As five astronomers pile into a bullet-shaped rocket and are launched skyward, Melies cuts to a shot of the moon in all its full, white, craterous glory. As we stare at the moon, it suddenly stares back at us as the face of the Man in the Moon emerges. As the astronomers’ capsule arrives, it lodges itself firmly in the Man in the Moon’s eye. It’s a delightful image that once seen is never forgotten and it remains one of cinema’s most iconic moments, even in an age when that particular celestial body is no longer quite as elusive as it seemed back then.
37. THE TRUMAN SHOW – AT WORLD’S END
Peter Weir’s The Truman Show tells the story of Truman Burbank (a brilliant Jim Carrey), an unwanted baby who was selected to be the focus of an elaborate reality show in which an entire life would unfold on live TV. Now grown into an adult inhabitant of a picture-perfect suburbia, Truman is unaware that he actually resides within a giant dome in Hollywood, his every decision manipulated by the show’s creator Christof (a subtle Ed Harris). We join The Truman Show just as Truman’s growing suspicions about his environment are coming to a head and he begins to behave erratically, attempting to escape from his cloying neighbourhood and head to Fiji. Despite Truman’s innate sense of curiosity having been quelled by a fake boating accident designed to instil in him a fear of water, he pushes forward with his escape plans and finally stages an elaborate ruse which distracts his captors long enough for him to hijack a boat and head out to sea. When he is finally located, Christof tries to make him turn back with another simulated storm but Truman weathers it well and his determination pays off when his boat finally hits the inner wall of the dome. With the stakes so high and the audience’s emotions thoroughly put through the wringer after witnessing Truman’s near death, we share completely in his hysterical mixture of joy, vindication and desperation as he hammers against the solid wall. In one of the film’s most enduring images, Truman ultimately locates a staircase and door painted in sky blue with clouds and makes his way out of the only world he has ever known, but not before he has conversed with God himself. Christof makes an emotional appeal to Truman which makes clear not only his desperation to keep his show on the air but also the genuine connection he feels to his ‘creation’. But that connection goes only one way. God is a disappointment and Truman chooses another world that is completely alien to him over one he knows to be unjust.
36. FOOTLIGHT PARADE – BY A WATERFALL
In 1933, the elaborate choreography of Busby Berkley was the toast of the town, with three hugely entertaining musicals displaying the best of his inspired, kaleidoscopic style: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. While Gold Diggers of 1933 is by far the best film, Footlight Parade features what is arguably Berkley’s most accomplished and famous routine. ‘By a Waterfall’ is an astonishing aquatic ballet in which a group of swim-capped chorus girls are shot from different angles as their synchronised diving and swimming creates mesmerising shapes and patterns. Immaculately directed, ‘By a Waterfall’ at its best makes the viewer forget they are even looking at human beings. In a particularly striking moment, the women form into two giants snakes and slither hypnotically through the water. Berkley uses lighting to accentuate the patterns the dancers create and ultimately forms them into an ornate human fountain. There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of women as objects and Berkley was unapologetically obsessed with the female form but when watching ‘By a Waterfall’, the overwhelming sense is that of a dedication to the wonderful shapes and images that can be created through the medium of dance, something at which Berkley was a master and which he captures beautifully here.
35. THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY – THE OUTLAW FIRES INTO THE AUDIENCE
Edwin S. Potter’s 1903 silent classic The Great Train Robbery was not, as is often erroneously stated, the first narrative film but in its coherent, technically accomplished and genuinely entertaining approach to storytelling it undoubtedly stands out as one of the gems of cinema’s infancy. The film has gone on to be considered as America’s first action film with a recognisable form, specifically pre-empting the imminent popularity of westerns. Across its 12 thrilling minutes, The Great Train Robbery delivers a tale of simple but satisfying morality in which a gang of vicious bandits are killed by lawmen as they attempt to abscond with ill-gotten gains. But the film has one final trick up its sleeve as a climactic fourth-wall breaking shot shows the leader of the outlaws in close-up as he fires his gun directly at the audience. This scene, unrelated to the plot itself, was delivered to projectionists as an added bonus and it was left up to them whether it was played at the beginning or end of the film. Though this enormously effective surprise moment would undoubtedly start things with a bang, over the years it has become the accepted practice to play it at the film’s climax. Not only does this avoid this piece of cinemagic making the subsequent film feel anticlimactic, it also retains the illusion that every individual audience member has been shot dead, thereby ending the film. There’s a subversiveness to the shot as epilogue as opposed to prologue. We cheer when the bandit is shot dead in the narrative but ultimately he returns from the grave to remind us all of our own mortality. The group experience of being in a cinema audience momentarily falls away as we each feel it is ourselves alone staring down the barrel of that gun.
34. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS – SOMETIMES YOU CAN STILL CATCH ME DANCING IN IT
Tim Burton’s first truly great film, Edward Scissorhands transformed Johnny Depp into one of the most iconic creations of 90s fantasy cinema. Edward is an unfinished creation who never got his hands due to the premature death of his creator. Burton contrasts the intimidating Gothic mansion in which Edward finds himself stranded alone with the bright, colourful but eerily sterile suburbia into which he is brought by Dianne Wiest’s well-meaning Avon lady Peg Boggs. Burton also carefully walks the line between the story’s inherent ridiculousness and affecting tragedy, deftly getting as much mileage as possible out of both. This delicate balance is best evidenced in the scene in which the doomed nature of Edward’s romance with Peg’s daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) is pre-empted in the exchange “Hold me”, “I can’t”, which plays equally as a joke and a heartbreaking moment of pathos. Ultimately, Edward’s story ends in bittersweet fashion as, in order to escape his enemies he ends up condemned to an eternity alone in the Gothic mansion in which he began life. An elderly Kim, relating the story to her granddaughter, tells of how she knows Edward is still alive because before he left it never snowed in her town and now it does. The source of the snow is revealed to be Edward using his blades to create vast, beautiful ice sculptures, the offcuts from which drift down to the town below. “Sometimes you can still catch me dancing in it” says Kim to a dry-eyeless audience. Edward Scissorhands works so brilliantly because its exquisite storytelling eliminates the inclination to ask questions like “Why give him something so dangerous as a placeholder for his hands?” or “Where did he get the ice from?” and manages to make those who do look daft.
33. THE GOLD RUSH – DANCE OF THE ROLLS
Cinema has captivated audiences for over a century by showing impossible things while using artistry to conceal the reality of how these illusions are achieved. But in his melancholic comedy masterpiece The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin convinced audiences that two bread rolls impaled on forks were a pair of dancing feet and never once did he hide his method of bringing them to life. Though the ‘Dance of the Rolls’, as it has come to be known, was not first performed by Chaplin onscreen, he undoubtedly perfected it as he did with so many other existing but rough-edged comedy routines. The roll dance was first performed onscreen by Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle in 1917’s The Rough House but here it is a mere throwaway gag, focusing mainly on the fact that the rolls on forks look like feet but never imbuing them with any real sense of life. Chaplin’s take on the bit sets aside almost a minute of screentime as he performs a graceful and carefully choreographed table ballet in a manner that totally convinces audiences of the rolls’ sentience even though we see Chaplin acting as their puppeteer throughout. In working up a small throwaway gag into a mesmerising 50 second piece of magic, Chaplin takes the Dance of the Rolls from daft to deft in less than a minute and shows great cinema’s power to deceive an audience even as it shows the mechanics of its own illusion.
32. BACK TO THE FUTURE – ARE YOU TELLING ME YOU BUILT A TIME MACHINE… OUT OF A DELOREAN?
Sometimes small ideas give birth to lasting iconography. In Robert Zemeckis’s evergreen Back to the Future, for instance, the time machine that transports Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly back to 1955 was originally supposed to be a refrigerator. Had this cumbersome item be retained as a central plot-point, it would undoubtedly have harmed Back to the Future’s well-documented flair for perfect pacing. In making the time machine mobile, numerous doors were opened up for great scenes like the mad-dash to the clock tower which is just one of several climactic thrills. But in making the time machine a DeLorean, writers Zemeckis and Bob Gale hit the creative jackpot. Noticing the similarity between its unusual door mechanism and the design of 50s sci-fi spaceships, Zemeckis and Gale wrote the DeLorean into the script in order to take advantage of the opportunity for a throwaway joke in which Marty, newly arrived in 1955, is mistaken for an alien invader. While the joke still works, the image of the DeLorean has transcended its purpose to become one of the most iconic movie vehicles of all time. Without its appearance in Back to the Future it’s unlikely many people would remember this quickly discontinued model but since the moment Doc Brown emerges from it in the car park of the Twin Pines Mall, this impractical vehicle was saved from its fate as a laughing stock curiosity and obtained a cool reputation it never had as an ordinary car. The scenes involving the DeLorean’s first appearance and its test-drive through time have perhaps become a greater source of wonder as time has gone on, since the film is frequently viewers’ first introduction to the otherworldly DeLorean car and it feels like something strange and exciting even before it has done anything. Once it disappears in a flurry of flaming tyre-tracks… well, that just seals the deal.
31. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD – MAGIC CARPET RIDE
Raoul Walsh’s epic 1924 fantasy adventure The Thief of Bagdad gave legendary swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks one of his greatest roles. Now considered one of the finest accomplishments of the silent era, The Thief of Bagdad is an astonishing masterpiece for its time and (for anyone with a bit of imagination) for any time. Although it is obvious in hindsight how some of the effects were achieved, The Thief of Bagdad is loaded with them, with endearing visual tricks used to fool the eye into believing it is seeing giant monsters, magic ropes and flying carpets. One need only buy into the fairy-tale gaiety of the whole endeavour to be thoroughly charmed and transported. For a lover of adventure films such as myself, The Thief of Bagdad is replete with treats as Fairbanks roguish thief Ahmed sets about trying to win the love of a princess, at first (rather alarmingly) through a planned abduction but ultimately through a quest to bring the princess the rarest gift imaginable. Pitted against several rivals, this epic quest sends Ahmed to far flung places but upon his return he finds Bagdad has been taken by the Mongol army. A terrific final battle ensues after which Ahmed guides the princess to a magic carpet and takes to the skies. There are many moments of wonder throughout The Thief of Bagdad but I’ve chosen this final moment because it feels like the perfect ending to the film. Amidst the chaos of the action, Ahmed and the princess take flight and we really believe it. From the artificial Bagdad cityscape to the tiny carpet flying through it in the distance, what now seem rudimentary effects become an incredible gateway to adventure because the sheer goodwill this film evokes makes it so.
30. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – PARTING OF THE RED SEA
Although they were big business in Hollywood for a time, Biblical epics tend to be looked back upon with a sense of disdain. Weighted down by their own inevitable finger-wagging piety, it’s rare that you’ll hear someone say “we’ve got an afternoon free, let’s pop The Ten Commandments on” these days. But in creating his near-four-hour epic, famously excessive director Cecil B. DeMille pulled out all the stops to make it visually arresting. DeMille had actually shot a previous version of The Ten Commandments in 1923 in which he had achieved a mightily impressive Parting of the Red Sea sequence for such an early era of cinema. But that effect was significantly upstaged 23 years later when DeMille revisited the story in glorious Technicolor. Even someone as staunchly irreligious as myself cannot help but be somewhat awestruck at the sight of a commanding Charlton Heston parting a vast sea in order to escape the Egyptian army. Of course, it’s not necessary to believe this fantastical event happened in real life in order to marvel at the fact that it happened convincingly in a 1956 film. The effect was considered to be one of the most elaborate achieved up to that time and it still impresses. DeMille was always reticent to discuss how it was done and that’s a reticence I will preserve here. If you want to know, it’s easy to find the information online but I prefer to watch that mighty ocean rent asunder without the encumbrance of technical information. It’s a moment of wonder that almost makes those four long hours seem worth it!
29. WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY – A WORLD OF PURE IMAGINATION
Though he may be one of the greatest children’s authors of all time, Roald Dahl’s work has proved difficult to adapt to the screen. This is sometimes down to filmmakers’ apparent need to tinker with perfection and many of Dahl’s stories have been devalued by the addition of feeble subplots, additional characters and tacked-on happy endings, but the art of adaptation is a necessary part of the transition from page to screen and this oft-vilified process is not necessarily the main reason Dahl adaptations tend to fall flat. The main problem for me is that no image or series of images any team of filmmakers has put on screen has ever come remotely close to matching the joyous creations Dahl’s written words stimulated in my brain. The magic is all too often drained away in favour of a recognisable but unsuitably safe brand of whimsy that sits at odds with the genuine sense of danger and subversion in which Dahl’s tales came wrapped. Mel Stuart’s 1971 Dahl adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though much loved, is no exception and Dahl himself disowned the film after his screenplay was dramatically revised. Among the things Dahl objected to were the shifting of focus from Charlie to Wonka (why change the title of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time?), the casting of Gene Wilder as Wonka instead of his preferred choice, Spike Milligan, and the addition of musical numbers. While many of Dahl’s complaints are valid, Wilder made a fantastic Willy Wonka, his performance merely crying out for a better script, and the addition of songs did lead to one moment of real magic that ensured the film a lasting legacy. Written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, the song ‘Pure Imagination’, sung with a comforting gentleness by Wilder as Wonka first takes the group of children into his factory, is a spine-tinglingly beautiful melody that perfectly captures an overwhelming sense of wonder. More than that though, ‘Pure Imagination’ unknowingly epitomises the reason Dahl adaptations rarely work. The worlds he created on the page were themselves “world(s) of pure imagination” and when you have other writers, directors and designers trying to do the leg work for you, they simply can’t live up to what an imaginative child can conjure in their own mind. This is the sense of wonder missing from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but for four glorious minutes this song identifies where that absent wonder is located and why it can never be fully harnessed for the screen.
28. DUCK SOUP – THE DISOBEDIENT MIRROR IMAGE
Although its appearance in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup is undoubtedly its most famous occurrence, variations on the classic Mirror Routine in which an intruder disguises their presence by impersonating their suspicious investigator’s own mirror image had appeared in previous films and would become familiar to new generations through animated versions in several classic Hollywood cartoons. While the goofy concept of a person possibly being able to mistake another human being for their own reflection did fit comfortably into the absurd world of the animated comedy short, it also robs the gag of the wonder inspired by a live real-world performance in which two performers must be perfectly synchronised in order for the joke to reach its full potential. In Groucho and Harpo Marx, the Mirror Routine found its perfect practitioners and director Leo McCarey opts to drop all sound from the scene completely, drawing the audience’s attention to the intricacies of the bit. As Harpo mimics Groucho’s increasingly absurd actions closely there are some wonderful wrinkles like when the pair momentarily swap places, the rules of a real mirror lost in their intense game of who-blinks-first. But the moment that really makes this routine an awesome proposition is when Groucho spins round in a circle and lands in a flamboyant manner. Rather than mimic the whole spin, Harpo simply waits in position until Groucho is facing him again, snapping into his climactic pose at the last minute. In a routine built around making two men into one indistinguishable entity, this glorious moment separates them again reminding the audience of just how taken in they themselves have been by the comedic illusion.
27. HAROLD AND MAUDE – WHAT FLOWER WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE?
My favourite film of all time, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude is, in many ways, a modest production that follows the blossoming romance between a young, death-obsessed boy named Harold and the 79 year old woman who helps him find more meaning in life. The film was panned by critics on its original release and sank without trace for years but Harold and Maude is infused with meditations on the urgency and vibrancy of life that provide it with a greater scope and resonance than its small budget would suggest. These moments of beauty are contrasted sharply with scenes of pitch black comedy and this deft juxtaposition helped rescue the film from oblivion when its ever-growing cult following helped elevate its reputation from the director’s forgotten curio to his most revered film. To me, Harold and Maude is a wonder through and through but one ingeniously edited scene stands out for its ability to bring life’s glorious diversity into sharp focus for both its characters and the audience. The ever-exuberant Maude asks Harold what kind of flower he would be if he could choose any. Harold half-heartedly indicates the daisies growing nearby and justifies his choice by saying that they are all the same. Maude replies “Oooh, but they are not. Look. See – some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals – all kinds of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this, and allow themselves to be treated as that.” It’s a beautifully written moment made even more affecting by Ruth Gordon’s wonderful performance but immediately after her speech Ashby cuts to an overhead view of a cemetery lined with seemingly identical white gravestones. From our viewpoint they look, like the daisies, identical but if we were to look closer we would see that each one if unique. Ashby finishes off this tear-jerking moment perfectly by soundtracking it with Cat Stevens’ ‘Where Do the Children Play?’ There are many moments in cinema that draw their wonder from the ability to show us something on the screen that we cannot see in life. Harold and Maude‘s flower scene shows us something we can see in life if we only look hard enough.
26. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – RAMSHACKLE HONEYMOON
For all its Heavenly angels and Christmas miracles, the true source of wonder at the heart of Frank Capra’s beloved classic It’s a Wonderful Life is that of the human spirit. After all, the film pulls off a rare trick by presenting us with an avaricious, opportunistic villain and then completely neglecting to give him an onscreen comeuppance. Lionel Barrymore’s Henry F. Potter, the richest man in town, commits a heinous act that almost drives James Stewart’s George Bailey to suicide, yet we don’t see or hear of his arrest or exposure. That’s because It’s a Wonderful Life is not the kind of film that is interested in straightforward retribution. Instead, by showing us George Bailey’s climactic bliss inspired by family and friends, Potter’s own money-centred version of happiness is implied to be an empty, unsatisfying Hell on earth by comparison, a conclusion Capra allows us to draw completely on our own. It’s hardly surprising then that It’s a Wonderful Life achieves its most magical moments through simple human interaction and the joy of small kindnesses. My absolute favourite of these moments is the scene in which, deprived by circumstance of their savings and their honeymoon, George and his new wife Mary (Donna Reed) have a makeshift honeymoon in the tumbledown, abandoned house that must now serve as their home. The scene starts with a despondent George following Mary’s directions to the abandoned house where he is met by friends Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver. Under Mary’s direction, the pair have helped her turn the derelict building into an approximation of a romantic honeymoon destination. Posters for exotic locations line the walls and a champagne dinner waits on the table. Bert and Ernie guide George into the house and into Mary’s arms where he realises how much he still has when it seemed like he’d lost everything. It’s a magical scene made all the more so by the little touches. As George enters the house for the first time, Ernie leans back against the door so that the top hat he is wearing tips up in acknowledgement. In response, George bobs his head downwards and a river of rainwater escapes the brim of his own hat. Capra’s skill at capturing endearing, humorous moments like this are key to his ability to bring a real sense of wonder to a scene that could otherwise have seemed oversentimental and unconvincing.
That’s it for Part 1. Join me soon for more wonder in Part 2.