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.
25. PATHER PANCHALI – A GLIMPSE OF THE TRAIN
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali is the first part of Ray’s celebrated Apu Trilogy, depicting the childhood of the titular protagonist and the harsh struggles his family faces in 1910s rural Bengal. Although it does not shy away from the grim realities of poverty, Pather Panchali also taps into a sense of childhood wonder that has rarely been bettered in terms of authenticity. With his long shots and documentary-like realism, Ray brings an immersive joy to scenes of little Apu and his older sister Durga relaxing under a tree or chasing the candy man as he passes through their village. Each evening, the pair indulge in their simplest but most treasured activity: delighting at the distant sound of a train’s whistle. From unspoken context we glean that neither of them has ever seen a train before so in the scene when they finally do, Ray slowly builds the anticipation until we too feel excited to see what to most of us will be a common sight. Following the sound of the train, Apu and Durga run through a field in desperation to catch a glimpse. Suddenly, there it is! Ray is careful to only let us see the train when the children can so that we share every element of their experience. Billowing black smoke, the vehicle takes on the significance of a mythical beast as we imagine seeing it for the first time ourselves. And suddenly it is all we see as its imposing presence fills the entire screen. Many films promise us monsters or spaceships and then hold back from showing us them in order to build anticipation. Pather Panchali‘s major achievement in this respect is convincing an audience that something commonplace can hold just as much wonder given the right set of circumstances.
24. MULHOLLAND DRIVE – CRYING
The work of David Lynch is so dense with symbolism and layered storytelling that many people find his films too intimidating to even attempt. But to become frustrated with your own inability to “get” everything in a Lynch film is to miss the joy of simply experiencing them. There are undoubtedly secrets to unlock and elusive elements to discuss, that is also part of their appeal. But when sitting down to watch one of Lynch’s films, it’s important to push understanding the plot first time way down your list of priorities. In Mulholland Drive, one of his most sumptuously enjoyable but most narratively challenging works, Lynch inserts a scene of almost overwhelming emotion right before things start to get really complex. Following a harrowing experience and then an evening of tender lovemaking, Betty and Rita visit a strange theatre called Club Silencio at 2am. Here, they witness a performance by Rebekah Del Rio of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’, translated into Spanish and performed a capella. ‘Crying’ was always one of Orbison’s corniest numbers and its famous use in an Only Fools and Horses episode had since made it seem even more ridiculous. But this arrangement strips the song down to its bare-bones and beating heart, a gut-wrenching rendition that causes a sense of both emotional awe and eerie discomfort. The song has an effect on everyone, with Betty and Rita reduced to uncontrollable tears and Del Rio collapsing before the song’s end. Despite the singer having been removed from the equation, the song continues, acknowledging an element of artifice which will very soon become thematically significant. While Lynch’s work is criticised by some for lacking an emotional component, the ‘Crying’ sequence exposes this for the hogwash it is by serving up a scene that is almost nothing but pure emotion. For the most part, the entries in this list inspire wonder in a positive way, tapping into a childlike excitement or rapturous joy. In the case of Mulholland Drive‘s ‘Crying’ scene, a very different sense of wonder is inspired; a kind mixed with melancholy, awe and a hint of fear.
23. THE CROWD – INTRODUCTION TO JOHN SIMS
Many films take great pains to establish their protagonist as someone special, unusual, great, sometimes through heroic deeds or a lingering build up to their first appearance in which the camera slowly pans up their body as if they are the human equivalent of an awesome monolith. But when King Vidor made his 1928 silent masterpiece The Crowd, his intentions were the exact opposite. Vidor’s aim with The Crowd was to tell a story so unremarkable that it felt like it could be anyone’s. Rather than build up his blandly-monikered hero John Sims as someone different, Vidor instead goes out of his way to make it seem as if his protagonist was selected at random. The opening shots of New York are designed to make us marvel at the sheer size of this bustling metropolis, while its inhabitants are made to look like insignificant ants going about their mundane business. The camera finally picks out one specific office block from a row of identical buildings. It slowly progresses up the side of the tall building until it picks out one window from the many identical ones lining the building. Behind this window is a massive office filled with identical desks arranged in tidy, equally-spaced rows and at each desk is a worker busying themselves with paperwork. Finally, the camera zooms in to one man in particular, his name plaque informing us that this is ‘John Sims’. At this point in a story, the audience would normally wonder what is so special about this man that we’ve honed in on him but Vidor has instead implanted the idea that there is nothing special about this man in our heads by comparing his tiny frame to the gargantuan world around him. And though he has big dreams, John Sims goes on to prove himself as unworthy of special consideration for a starring role in a film.
Though there are dramatic beats here and there, Vidor is careful to keep John’s small successes and failures from spilling over into actual drama. Although MGM reportedly took against this experimental approach to narrative and insisted Vidor shoot seven alternate endings to The Crowd including some climactic flourishes that provided a happy denouement but completely undermined the point of the whole exercise. Fortunately, Vidor got his way as regards the ending. Still in an uncertain place as regards his career and marriage, John takes his family to a vaudeville comedy show and as they laugh at the performance, the camera pulls back to once again lose them amongst a sea of laughing faces. Quite unlike MGM’s proposed ending in which the family inherit a fortune and are shown living in the lap of luxury, Vidor’s ending is not an ending at all. John Sims’ story will continue but we will not be privy to any more of the details. He seems neither on the brink of success nor at the door of destitution but our allotted time with him is at an end. Ironically, Vidor provided MGM with what, on the surface, appears to be a happy ending in the most literal sense: a room full of people roaring with laughter. But are they laughing at John Sims or with him? The answer is neither. They don’t even know who he is. This is merely their own moment of temporary respite from their own distinct narratives.
22. FANTASIA – THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE
Before it ballooned into the part-mesmeric, part-bloated 2 hour plus concert film it became, the seeds of Disney’s Fantasia were planted when Walt expressed interest in creating a special Mickey Mouse short in order to boost the character’s waning popularity. Mickey had already secured his place in film history but Disney’s affection for his first major star character drove him to envision an epic short based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ and set to Paul Dukas’s orchestral piece inspired by the poem. The poem tells the story of a sorcerer’s assistant who, left with a list of chores, attempts to use his master’s magic to lighten his load. The Disney version sticks closely to this tale, casting Mickey as the titular idle opportunist who enchants a broom to fetch pails of water for him. After drifting off to sleep and dreaming of himself as an all-powerful wizard, Mickey awakes to find the floor awash with water and is powerless to stop the broom continuing to fetch more. In chilling silhouette, he hacks the broom to pieces with an axe… only to find that the pieces spawn into new brooms and soon there are an army of them all intent on fetching more water. The return of Mickey’s master puts a stop to the spell. A simple morality tale, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ remains by far the most popular segment of Fantasia and was included in its entirety as part of the belated sequel Fantasia 2000. Mickey had never looked handsomer, redesigned from his original hollow-eyed look to finally have pupils and stripped of his famous red dungarees in favour of a long red coat and wizard’s hat. Though he only appeared in this garb the once, Mickey as the sorcerer’s apprentice became one of Disney’s most iconic images. While it ultimately became part of something much bigger, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ still plays equally well as a standalone short. Its exquisite animation, perfectly timed to the music, represents some of the finest work the Disney studio ever turned out.
21. THE THIRD MAN – HARRY LIME APPEARS
Carol Reed’s The Third Man pulls off a neat trick in making its villain, the elusive Harry Lime, easily the most charismatic character despite his vile misdeeds. A good deal of credit must go to Orson Welles’ performance with its sly-eyed twinkles and the perfect timing of his famous, self-penned cuckoo-clock speech. But none of this would have quite the same impact without Reed’s masterful introduction of Harry which imbues him with the qualities of a Puckish sprite. Joseph Cotten’s American writer Holly Martins arrives in Allied-occupied Vienna to track down his old school friend Harry Lime on the promise of a job he offered him, only to first be told that Lime is dead and then that he was a criminal. Martins probes deeper into the mystery, demanding an investigation into Lime’s death, only to discover that he was a ruthless black marketer who stole and sold-on penicillin at the expense of many patients’ lives. Disillusioned and defeated, Martins decides to leave Vienna but as he stalks through the darkened streets, he notices someone is watching him from a doorway. Unable to see the silhouetted figure, Martins cries out for the him to identify himself. In doing so, he disturbs the slumber of one of the nearby building’s occupants, who puts on their light to chastise him. The light from the window immediately illuminates the stranger, who turns out to be the supposedly deceased Harry Lime. As Anton Karas’s fantastic zither score kicks in, Lime remains perfectly still and breaks into a small, childlike grin. As the disturbed occupant of the house returns to bed, the light is extinguished and, like the ghost he seems to be, Lime vanishes from sight. By the time Martins makes his way to where he was standing, there is no longer anyone there. This exquisitely composed scene has justly become one of the most famous sequences in British cinema. It injects a sense of the otherworldly into a non-supernatural mystery, making a lovable imp out of an irredeemable monster. Like the inadvertent spotlight thrown on Harry, it illuminated The Third Man in the eyes of the world, helping to ensure its lasting reputation.
20. MARY POPPINS – ‘TWEEN PAVEMENT AND STARS IS THE CHIMNEY SWEEP WORLD
Dick Van Dyke comes in for a lot of stick for his performance in Robert Stevenson’s tremendous Mary Poppins but for those who can look past his famous inability to grasp the cockney accent, Van Dyke is as much a source of wonder in his performance as chimney sweep Bert as Julie Andrews is as the titular magical nanny. He dances, sings, cavorts and runs a gamut of emotions like the consummate entertainer he is and never is this better displayed than in the sequence in which he takes the children up into his world, the rooftop realm of the chimney sweep. Beginning with the gentle, hauntingly timeless melody of the Sherman Brothers’ ‘Chim Chim Cheree’, Bert explains the appeal of his profession before disappearing up the chimney itself to introduce the children to a sooty wonderland atop the rooves of London. The gentle harmonies of ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ then segue into a full-on party as Bert instigates a game of ‘Step in Time’ with his fellow chimney sweeps. With ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ having established a tranquil magic about this otherworldly rooftop reality, ‘Step in Time’ indulges in the joys of existing within it as a whole troupe of sweeps dance energetically in perfect synchronisation. Silhouetted against the skyline, they jig on top of the chimneys before disappearing down them and reappearing armed with their brushes. Mary Poppins goes to several fantasy wonderlands within its 130 minute runtime but none are quite so affecting as this glorious land of working-class abandon.
19. THE WRONG TROUSERS – THE TRAIN-TOP CHASE
After the success of his first Wallace and Gromit short A Grand Day Out, Nick Park’s second short starring the pair, The Wrong Trousers, was instantly hailed as one of the great masterpieces of animation. Improving in every way on its predecessor, this Film Noir style tale of an eerie penguin lodger, a pair of robotic trousers and a diamond heist remains the definitive Wallace and Gromit film and became an instant classic from the moment it was first screened. After the technically brilliant but ponderously plotted A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers not only upped the ante in animation terms but also matched it with a tight, fast-paced, ingenious and very funny plot punctuated with exquisite little touches throughout. Key plot elements are casually dropped in so that the viewer barely registers them until they become important. A train set which Wallace keeps running constantly in order to transport small items around the house eventually figures prominently in an astonishing finale in which Gromit pursues escaped criminal Feathers McGraw who has hijacked the train and, when railroaded into an incomplete area of track, finds himself having to lay down extra track like his life depended on it. Stop-motion animation is such a painstaking process that its a wonder Nick Park ever even conceived of putting such a technically-complex sequence on film and a certified miracle that he actually managed to do so. Not only is the train-top chase visually stunning and genuinely thrilling, it is also peppered with Park’s trademark sight gags as Wallace makes a series of clumsy attempts to aid Gromit, only to fall foul of a mounted moose head, an out of control trolley and a serving hatch. In its extraordinarily atmospheric, hilarious and tightly-plotted build-up (which includes another extremely complex sequence involving a remotely-controlled diamond heist), The Wrong Trousers had already done enough to earn itself widespread acclaim but the climactic train sequence pushes it from a stone-cold classic to simply one of the greatest animated shorts ever made.
18. SAFETY LAST! – HAROLD HANGING FROM THE CLOCK FACE
Harold Lloyd was always considered the third great comedian of the silent era. Perhaps Harold’s regular persona, known somewhat blandly as ‘the glasses character’, was not as inventive as Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s Stoneface, and Lloyd had less creative input into the films in which he starred, but as a screen comedian Lloyd threw himself into his films with gusto, performing many of his own stunts and creating a thoroughly likeable persona who was easy to root for and effortlessly mixed a comic zeal with a sense of heroism that occasionally bordered on swashbuckling. While popular at the box office, Lloyd’s films have rarely been considered as masterful as those of his two more famous contemporaries (although the oft-overlooked The Kid Brother more than deserves that accolade) but in his 1923 comedy thriller Safety Last!, Lloyd became the subject of one of cinema’s most famous and enduring images. The plot involves Harold becoming embroiled in a publicity stunt to climb up the outside of a 12 storey building. In doing so, he ends up teetering on ledges, swinging from ropes and, in the terrific climax, dangling from the hands of the building’s clock face, an image that became instantly iconic. Alternating between stunts Harold did himself and more dangerous routines performed by stunt men, the whole sequence of Harold’s perilous vertical journey is a riveting mix of ingenious physical comedy and edge-of-the-seat suspense. It’s rightfully gone down as one of silent cinema’s greatest moments and a source of continued wonder for cinema lovers nearly a century down the line.
17. BIG – HEART AND SOUL
Penny Marshall’s beloved fantasy Big is often lumped in with the barrage of body-swap films that were briefly popular in the 80s. Though Big stands head and shoulders above any of them in quality, it also doesn’t belong in that group because it isn’t technically a body-swap comedy so much as a body-change comedy. The protagonist Josh Baskin doesn’t change places with an adult, he merely becomes one after making a wish on an enchanted fairground machine that he could be “big”. As a result, he wakes up as an adult, a role played flawlessly by Tom Hanks who manages to tap into the mannerisms of a twelve year old boy with uncanny accuracy. Quibble though I might about Big not technically being a body-swap film, there is one strikingly moving moment in which the adult Josh inadvertently turns an older man into a child. When he runs into his new boss Mr. MacMillan (Robert Loggia) at New York’s famous toy store FAO Schwarz, the two develop a bond which is sealed when they stumble onto a large foot-operated electronic piano. Delighted, Josh begins playing the standard ‘Heart and Soul’ and MacMillan joins in. The two perform a duet of the whole song and, in doing so, Josh brings out the dormant child inside the old man as he delights in frolicking with his new playmate. Hanks and Loggia perform the duet for real and the experience is made all the more authentic and magical for their occasional wobbles onto the wrong note. They’re not aiming for perfection, they’re just having fun, climaxing with a triumphant version of ‘Chopsticks’. Big‘s ‘Heart and Soul’ sequence has both these things in spades and has become one of the most famous scenes of 80s cinema. Seeing two adult men behave like joyous children is an experience guaranteed to bring out the child in all of us.
16. JURASSIC PARK – WELCOME TO JURASSIC PARK
Although it ultimately became a franchise that continues to churn out instalments, no subsequent film has captured the same magic as Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster masterpiece Jurassic Park. The film is, of course, a cautionary tale about the responsibility that comes with appointing yourself as a creator and ultimately the dinosaur-filled nature park that has long been the dream of billionaire John Hammond (an avuncular Richard Attenborough) becomes everyone’s nightmare where things start to go wrong and the dinosaurs run amok. But in order to convince us of Hammond’s hubristic dreams in the first place, Spielberg needed to show us a glimpse of the paradise Hammond envisaged. In the scene in which Hammond welcomes his guests to Jurassic Park, Spielberg achieves this to perfection. Despite knowing exactly what horrors there are to come as a result of its creation, every time I hear the words “Welcome to Jurassic Park”, hear that soaring John Williams score and watch the camera pan across the lush green paradise with its cool blue lakes and gently cavorting herbivorous dinosaurs, there’s nowhere I long to be more. Spielberg has always been a master of capturing the initial sense of wonder before it gives way to the inevitable dangers around the corner and in this scene he has created a swooningly beautiful moment that, despite being made in 1993, still completely convinces, a good deal more than many later attempts at CG wonders. Those dinosaurs still look like they are really there and the awesome spectacle of seeing these long-extinct beasts resurrected coupled with the glorious landscape and uplifting music results in one of my favourite blockbuster movie moments and one which always makes me want to go back and watch the film in its entirety. Spielberg made another film in 1993 as well… something about Nazis I think, I can’t quite remember. Anyway, this one’s better!
15. SPIRITED AWAY – TRAIN JOURNEY TO ZENIBABA’S HOUSE
Hayao Miyazaki has a legitimate claim to being the most magical filmmaker of all time. His films are mesmerisingly immersive, crammed full of imagination, invention and wonder. His Oscar-winning masterpiece Spirited Away is perhaps the Miyazaki film that bursts at the seams with creativity more than any other. Following the story of 10 year old Chihiro who inadvertently enters the spirit world while she and her family are travelling to their new home, Spirited Away takes place largely within a gorgeously-realised Spirit Bathhouse in which Chihiro is forced to work while trying to rescue her parents from a spell that has transformed them into pigs. There is ample magic to be found within these walls teeming with spirits of all shapes and sizes but it is when Miyazaki takes us on an extended, quiet journey away from the hubbub that Spirited Away gives us its most effective scenes of breath-taking awe. Chihiro’s quest forces her to take a train to visit the witch Zenibaba. Accompanied by the mute spirit No Face, Chihiro’s journeys is uneventful and consists of lengthy passages of silence among ghostly shadows of passengers or in an otherwise empty carriage. Given nothing of significance seems to happen in this journey, most directors probably would have left it out, cutting from the boarding of the train to the arrival at Zenibaba’s house, but Miyazaki recognises the value of showing these extended moments of quiet meditation. When discussing moments like these in his work, Miyazaki refers to the Japanese term ‘Ma’, referring to the conscious intervals of silence and inaction which allow the audience to experience a sense of time along with the protagonists. Miyazaki told Roger Ebert, “If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb.” While watching Spirited Away, the audience shares in every moment of Chihiro’s quest and, in doing so, what should be mundane moments become all the more magical. After the chaos of the Bathhouse, the melancholy train journey feels like an escape and we share in the glorious views from the window and the claustrophobia of the insalubrious train carriage. Though there is ostensibly little going on on the screen, as we collect our own thoughts and feelings at this point in the story we project this process onto the characters as well, giving their subsequent actions a greater sense of consideration and significance. In a climate where much mainstream animation seems unwilling to let up for a second in its barrage of obnoxious slapstick and quickly-dating contemporary references, Spirited Away‘s lengthy excursion into ‘Ma’ shows how much can be added through seemingly so little.
14. RAGING BULL – BOXING AS BALLET
Given that it is generally accepted to be the finest boxing film ever made and perhaps even the greatest sport-themed film, it may come as a surprise to discover that Martin Scorsese, the director of the glorious Raging Bull, is a fan of neither sports or boxing. The latter in particular is something that Scorsese felt disgust for. When attending a boxing match for research purposes, on seeing the blood sponge for the first time he declared “And they call this a sport?!” Given his disinterest, it took a long time to convince Scorsese to make Raging Bull but he finally connected with the story of self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta on a more personal level. For Scorsese, the film was never about boxing itself but instead about how the boxing ring can be “an allegory for whatever you do in life.” After the critical and commercial pounding that his previous film New York, New York had received, Scorsese certainly saw this as the case for a filmmaker. It may seem incredible that someone who was so disgusted by boxing could have created scenes of such intense beauty as those in Raging Bull but Scorsese’s allegorical approach helped him imbue every second Raging Bull spends in the ring with a sense of sad gravitas that clearly foregrounds the notion of the action being about more than just boxing. Unlike the straightforward action of Rocky’s many bouts, Raging Bull slows things right down. Filming in crisp, classic black and white, Scorsese adds a soundtrack of classical music and uses slow motion to capture the impact of every blow, the devastation of the approaching canvas, the desperation and fury in the eyes of every fighter. Like Scorsese, I am a fan of neither boxing nor sport in general but Raging Bull makes something incredibly beautiful out of something brutal as hell. Without hiding the harsh reality of the fight, it somehow makes the whole thing akin to a ballet, finding the grace and poetry in what seems from a distance to be mere savagery.
13. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM – THE MINE CART RIDE
There’s a tedious and oft-made comparison between blockbuster cinema and fairground rides which is intended to degrade the quality and importance of big budget mainstream hits in comparison with more cerebral offerings. Apart from being a blatantly snobbish suggestion which itself betrays a narrow viewpoint in its attempts to diminish the scope of cinema rather than embrace its delirious extremes, this fairground ride comparison is rarely accurate because, though fast-paced thrillers often reach for similar pleasure centres as a roller-coaster, it’s rare that immersion is successfully achieved to the point that an audience actually feels as if they are on one. With Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom however, Steven Spielberg managed to put together a sequence in which Indy and his sidekicks escape the titular temple in an out-of-control mine-cart during which the audience feels as if they are in the cart with them. Combining great sets, immersive POV shots and an exciting John Williams soundtrack which stays just the right side of light-hearted to ensure everyone they’ll be alright, the mine cart sequence is cinema’s greatest approximation of an actual roller-coaster ride. Its appearance late in the film saves Temple of Doom from a long stretch of weaker scenes and single-handedly revives the film for an excellent 30 minute climax. Although it appears in the most hit-and-miss of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, the mine cart scene is one of the strongest and most beloved moments of the trilogy. It is ample evidence that films striving to recreate the thrill of amusement parks is not necessarily a bad thing.
12. LOVE ME TONIGHT – PASSING ON A TUNE
Rouben Mamoulian’s beautiful, unconventional musical Love Me Tonight is a little-known gem in the underappreciated director’s catalogue. Its simple tale of a Parisian tailor (a young Maurice Chevalier) who falls in love with a princess while posing as a Baron in an attempt to obtain unpaid tailor’s bills from a family of aristocrats (OK, maybe it’s not that simple!) is merely a hook on which to hang its gorgeous set-pieces and surprisingly pointed satire. Love Me Tonight is unusual in its presentation of musical numbers. In one of cinema’s greatest opening sequences, the sounds of everyday graft in a town square build up into a kind of found-symphony. This clever moment is then topped when a catchy tune sung by Chevalier (the Rodgers and Hart standard ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’) is passed from person to person through a series of clever edits until it is carried miles away to reach the ears of the tailor’s eventual romantic love. The song starts in Chevalier’s shop as he sings it while serving a customer. That customer then goes away singing it himself, which is overheard by a battalion of soldiers. They in turn make it their marching song, which is then picked up by a passing gypsy who takes it back to his family who sing a newly violin-infused version around the campfire. This is heard by Princess Jeanette who is standing on her balcony and she picks up the tune too, singing a shrill operatic rendition, never once guessing that the source of the romantic song she’s singing is her future love. For someone like me who tends to wince at the ultimately entitled notion of fate and destiny, Love Me Tonight‘s brilliant take on the concept makes its romantic irony secondary to the larger observation that we are all connected, sometimes by something as simple as a bewitching melody. The important point is not necessarily the connection made between the two future lovers but the fact that so many different kinds of people are all involved in creating that connection.
11. KING KONG – KONG ATOP THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING
There are few people out there, regardless of age, who don’t know the name King Kong. The magnificent ape (or ‘The Eight Wonder of the World’ as the film itself would have it) has never been far from the minds of movie producers and cineastes, following up his game-changing debut with numerous sequels, remakes, parodies and even appearances in popular songs that kept his light burning brightly down the decades. The prospect of revisiting Skull Island and its numerous deadly beasts has proved too tempting for filmmakers to resist but thus far there has been no incarnation of Kong as thrilling as the first one. Although the stop-motion movements of the massive monkey are obvious to modern audiences and often provoke laughter in place of awe, at the time of King Kong‘s release the beast seemed like a genuine miracle and the interactions between him and the human cast baffled many an enchanted movie-goer. For anyone with a sense of history and an ability to adjust their perception to experience the wonderment of another era’s audience, this enchantment is easy to tune into and even those who initially guffaw at Kong’s jerky movements often find themselves drawn into the action to a greater extent than they imagined possible. Hence the impact of the finale, in which Kong escapes his captors who are cruelly exhibiting him in New York and climbs the Empire State Building with his beloved Fay Wray in his hand. The image of Kong atop the building swatting planes with his massive fists is one of cinema’s most iconic but it has even more power when watched in the context of the film because by this point there are very few viewers who have not been won over by the personality with which Willis O’Brien’s superb animation has instilled him. Perhaps to cinema audiences of 1933, Kong’s first appearance on screen would have been more awe-inspiring but decades down the line the animation technique was bound to date. What is awe-inspiring though is that over the course of the hour that separates Kong’s debut and his tragic end, that same animation technique, along with some good storytelling, has turned something palpably artificial into something that can not only fool our eyes but win our sympathies.
10. THE WIZARD OF OZ – DOROTHY OPENS THE DOOR TO OZ
Although it is significantly different from L. Frank Baum’s source novel, the beloved 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz presents its own interpretation with a laudable coherence and internal logic, surprising given the amount of contributors working with such fantastical material. One major change the film made was to couch the land of Oz in realistic terms by making it the subject of a dream in the mind of farm girl Dorothy Gale (an enchanting Judy Garland). While some devotees of the book found this change controversial, it resulted in one of The Wizard of Oz’s greatest moments in the transition from its real-world to dream-world settings. The scenes on and around the Kansas farm are presented in black and white, suggesting a dull existence from which Dorothy longs to escape over a rainbow which she can presumably only see in shades of grey. After the house is caught up in a tornado and hurled into the wonderful world of Oz however, the images on screen are suddenly transformed into sumptuous colour. The transition between these two stages is exquisite. We see Dorothy perform the simple task of opening a door and immediately the image transforms from monochrome to glorious Technicolor, which remains until Dorothy wakes up at the film’s climax. While the film ultimately proffers the conservative message ‘There’s no place like home’, it undercuts this with its presentation of these two contrasting worlds. It’s impossible to imagine The Wizard of Oz having succeeded as a black and white film. Colour is so important from the yellow brick road to the Emerald City and to drain this visual vibrancy away would be to rob the film of the vivid context required to make its outlandish jokes, wilfully cornball wordplay and larger-than-life characterisations work. The juxtaposition of the two worlds using colour and black and white suggests an unspoken acknowledgement that while home may be where the heart is, sometimes we all need a Technicolor break from the mundanity of the everyday.
9. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS – THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE WICKED QUEEN
It may not have been the first full-length animated feature film as is so often misreported but Walt Disney’s first full length animated feature remains the most important and influential film of feature animation’s infancy, not to mention one of its very best. But historical importance is not enough alone to make a film so enduringly beloved by audiences of all ages. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains at the top end of every list of greatest animations because it is simply one of the most breathtaking cinematic experiences ever. For all the technological advancements of the subsequent decades, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs still looks more sumptuous and impressive than most of its successors. Although years of hard work were put into making it this way, the film’s trump card is in making it all seem effortless. In Bambi you can practically see the animator’s sweat on the drawings as they strive to make the most realistic creations possible but Snow White…‘s characters just seem to already exist on screen, as if they’ve always been there awaiting our arrival.
There are many charming sequences throughout the film but the one that sticks with most viewers more than any other is the transformation of the Wicked Queen into the old peddler, a disguise adopted in order to fool the trusting Snow White into eating the poisoned apple that almost becomes her end. Transformation scenes have recurred throughout cinema’s history and have been achieved through clever lighting, editing, make-up or visual effects. The medium of animation would seem to remove some of these difficulties but to achieve a convincing transformation a level of subtlety is required. Have someone wither unconvincingly in plain sight and the credibility of the scene withers along with them. With its impeccably realised atmosphere, the scene in which the Wicked Queen concocts and drinks the potion builds up the adrenaline through the magnificent cobwebby backgrounds, the malevolent urgency of the way the Queen is animated and the audience’s shrinking surrogate in the form of a terrified, onlooking crow. With the obligatory thunderstorm raging in the background, we see only parts of the transformation in full. Soft, young hands become gnarled claws and a regal silhouette bends double and is consumed by a black cloak. Finally, the old hag emerges from beneath the cloak, causing the crow to collapse in fright into a hollowed out skull. Unlike in the frankly terrifying Pinocchio, here the horror is never oversold. The result of the transformation, given that it is intended to inspire pity rather than fear in its victim, is not particularly scary but the transformation itself is. It remains one of the finest screen shape-shifts of all time.
8. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY – STAR GATE TO STARCHILD
Though there are many who find his films too coldly clinical, few could deny the impressive diversity of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography which includes historical epics, psychosexual dramas, searing anti-war treatises, an iconic horror film and pitch black comedies. Sandwiched between two of the latter, 2001: A Space Odyssey was a shockingly different kind of film which used striking visual imagery to examine the continuing evolution of humankind against a backdrop of hitherto unexplored space. Although it would seem like the obvious choice to point to in illustration of Kubrick’s coldness, 2001: A Space Odyssey is in fact one of the director’s most emotionally engaging films. In presenting us with human characters who are essentially ciphers (the monotoned computer HAL is famously the most memorable character among them), Kubrick takes a step back from narrative conventions to instead present us with a largely visual philosophical experience. In doing so, he aims to inspire a sense of wonder in the audience that is far removed from the cynicism and emotional disengagement of which he is sometimes accused. 2001: A Space Odyssey utterly relies on the viewer allowing their breath to be taken away and their minds to be opened and challenged. It is a visual feast whose slow pace is deliberate in order to allow the audience time to fully drink in the images before them. With such grand ambitions, 2001: A Space Odyssey required a suitably striking ending in order to not fall into the trap of anti-climax. The film more than delivers on this promise when astronaut David Bowman finds his pod pulled into a star gate, a vortex of coloured light which launches him across vast swathes of space and time. During this lengthy sequence, we witness numerous space landscapes and cosmological phenomena drenched in vivid colours. Kubrick establishes what we are seeing as the viewpoint of Bowman by inserting the famous shot of the astronaut’s blinking eye with the colours changing with each blink. Finally, Bowman finds himself in an isolated room where he first witness and then suddenly becomes older versions of himself. Visited by a vision of the large black monolith that has appeared throughout the film, the dying elderly Bowman reaches for it and is seemingly transformed into the Star Child, a vast fetus encased in glowing light hanging in Earth’s orbit. The enormous, wonderstruck baby both stimulates and reflects the audience’s awestruck reaction as he too gazes in fascination at the comparatively tiny planet beside him. Whether you can make head nor tail of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s plot shouldn’t matter to those susceptible to its unique visual experience. It taps into numerous big questions about space, time and our own existence but encourages us to meditate on them separately rather than look to the film for definitive answers.
7. THE RED SHOES – THE RED SHOES BALLET
The films of Powell and Pressburger have offered much wonder to the world through a combination of unashamed romanticism, sumptuous use of colour, epic scope and intelligent, unusual storytelling. Ambition abounds in their work and generally pays off in spades, resulting in some of the most memorable moments in all world cinema. Perhaps the most striking of all these moments, and one which undoubtedly makes ample use of all the attributes listed above, is the ‘Red Shoes Ballet’ sequence in the acclaimed 1948 drama The Red Shoes. The story of an aspiring ballerina torn between her love for a man and her love for her art, The Red Shoes ostensibly breaks from its central storyline midway through to present a 15 minute ballet sequence based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of a young woman forced to dance herself to death when she puts on a pair of enchanted red ballet shoes. But the ballet, while rightly celebrated for its visual achievements, also ties in thematically with the narrative and Powell and Pressburger underline this fact by not only incorporating elements of what an audience member’s imagination would add to a stage production but also flashes of the inner concerns of the dancer herself. These thematic ties ensure that this astonishing sequence can never be written off as a self-conscious flourish or mere showing off. It is integral to the plot and enhances the emotional impact of what could have easily descended into boneless melodrama. But even for those who don’t make the connection between what happens on and off the stage, the ballet sequence is still an astonishing and beautiful experience. Danced impeccably by famous ballet dancers Moria Shearer, Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine among many others, the ballet is presented as a stylised step through the looking glass, with the performers appearing as painted grotesques like nightmare marionettes brought to life. The scenery is wilfully artificial but mesmerisingly magical and visual tricks such as items disappearing and reappearing or Shearer’s character visualising herself in the red shoes and appearing as a ghostly image in front of her own eyes remind the viewer that we are not just seeing what the audience watching the ballet is seeing but are being granted a vision of what is happening inside their imagination as it is stimulated by dance.
6. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL – FLYING BICYCLES
The 1980s was a decade when children began to be taken seriously as the main protagonists of films. Too often side-lined, their viewpoints trivialised or patronised, children had been dealt a raw deal in movies for decades. But with their shift towards more ambitious fantasy storylines and visual-effects-based wonderment, the 80s foregrounded the age-group most likely to be immediately susceptible to believing in fantastical beings as soon as they materialised before their eyes. The 80s was also the decade that saw a significant growth in the number of bike-riding scenes on cinema screens. This obviously went hand-in-hand with the greater ratio of pre-teen protagonists but bicycles also seemed to become a metaphor for the empowerment of a younger audience. Frequently pitted against larger, more powerful vehicles driven by adults, the comparatively delicate, wiry frames of pushbikes triumphed time and time again, outrunning cars, trucks and buses by virtue of their spindly manoeuvrability and the unrestrained ingenuity of their riders. For a whole generation of kids, bikes were an exciting visual experience without the intervention of magic but Steven Spielberg’s 1982 megahit E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial surely planted the seeds for the proliferation of bike scenes and even as later films like BMX Bandits kept the thrills more grounded, the notion that the trusty two-wheeler might take to the sky at any moment never left the heads of any kid who saw the former film. It’s a moment of such simplicity and yet such impact that even the dating of the effects cannot wither it. Elliot, with E.T. in the basket of his bicycle, is lifted into the air by the alien’s telekinetic powers and flies in silhouette across the moon. Carried aloft by John William’s heart-saturating score, it’s the cinematic ride of a lifetime which occurs again at the height of an integral chase scene, this time with E.T.’s powers launching a whole group of heroic children skyward. Later in the film, Spielberg gives us a spaceship but by comparison it is almost anticlimactic. It was the bikes that stuck in people’s minds and E.T imbued this simple mode of transport with a whole new level of cinematic power.
5. SHERLOCK JR. – THE PROJECTIONIST ENTERS THE SCREEN
Buster Keaton is cool. He oozes it. The fixed, neutral expression, the astonishing control he has over his own body, the heroic execution of those jaw-dropping stunts. I’d say he was up there with the coolest screen presences of all time. But despite their winning physical dexterity and the fact that they always win through in the end, Keaton’s characters are usually portrayed as part-hero, part-sap. From the effete son of a manly riverboat captain in Steamboat Bill Jr. or the shamed army reject in The General, his displays of acrobatic heroism are usually intended to prove himself to someone he has somehow disappointed, or else as a means of escape from a disastrous situation he has clumsily wandered into. Sherlock Jr. takes a different approach by separating the sap Keaton and the cool Keaton into two different entities. In the film’s framing device, Keaton is the sap; a movie projectionist who is framed for a crime and whose attempts at amateur sleuthing to catch the real culprit are abandoned as a disaster almost immediately. However, as he dejectedly returns to his day job, Keaton falls asleep and dreams himself to be a heroic figure; the great detective Sherlock Jr. Haven’t we all at some point looked to the icons of the silver screen and wished we could step into their shoes; be as cool or glamorous or heroic. Sherlock Jr. puts this dream up on screen for us but it is in the transition from sap to hero that it offers the most awe-inspiring moment. From hereonin, the film is full of tricks and stunts, some of them down to technical wizardry, others more closely linked to traditional stage conjuring, but it is the first of these that still stands as the greatest as Keaton steps out of his own sleeping body and walks up the cinema aisle right into the screen, where he joins the action of the movie. What follows is one of my favourite scenes of all time; Keaton remains on screen as the background changes behind him several times, causing surfaces to disappear from under him or objects to suddenly appear in his path. The transition from background to background is astonishingly smooth and Keaton revealed years later that he and his cameraman used surveyor’s equipment to position Keaton and the camera in exactly the right position. This excruciating process paid off in spades. Using a simple but extraordinarily effective visual trick, cinemagic was achieved. As early as 1924, Keaton took one of humankind’s greatest dreams and appeared to make it a reality.
4. MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO – WAITING FOR THE CATBUS
Frequently named as the best of the Studio Ghibli films and one of the crowning achievements of director Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbour Totoro is a film whose immense charm and simple magic crept up on me. The first time I watched it, I enjoyed it but its masterpiece status passed me by, probably due to its unpredictable narrative shifts which seem completely logical on subsequent viewings. Perhaps the greatest shock of My Neighbour Totoro for those who are more familiar with Miyazaki’s subsequent work is just how little fantastical content there is. The film has a solid backbone of enchantment but it is used sparingly. The appearances by woodland sprites are spaced out and only occur after long stretches of realistic, domestic story. This ultimately makes for a more measured and tonally fascinating film and each time I see it I love My Neighbour Totoro more. One scene in particular stands out though and its gentle but eerie atmosphere resonates throughout the film. The scene in question finds My Neighbour Totoro‘s two young protagonists waiting for their father at an isolated bus stop. When he fails to arrive on the expected bus and with the rain getting heavy, the two girls become worried. The younger girl, Mei, eventually falls asleep on her older sister Tatsuo’s back. At this point, the titular Totoro arrives at the bus stop. Mei has met him before but this is Tatsuo’s first encounter with the large forest sprite. As Totoro joins her in waiting at the bus stop, Tatsuo offers him a spare umbrella to replace the ineffectual leaf he is using for defence against the rain. Totoro is grateful and excited by the sounds the raindrops make on the umbrella. In thanks, he gives Tatsuo a bundle of nuts and seeds. Then a large cat-shaped bus arrives, which Totoro boards. Once he is gone, the girls’ father finally arrives. It’s hard to explain just what makes this simple encounter one of the most perfectly executed scenes in animation history. It certainly doesn’t sound that way on paper. But on screen Miyazaki creates a sense of wonder like no other. He manages to capture both the magic of a childhood viewpoint and a tendency of some children to respond to fantastical things almost as if they were everyday occurrences. The average adult would probably have run away at the sight of Totoro. Tatsuo offers him an umbrella.
3. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN – JUST SINGIN’ AND DANCIN’ IN THE RAIN
Producer Arthur Freed headed a unit at MGM that consistently turned out some of the brightest, most uplifting musical films of the 40s and 50s. The greatest of them all, Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain is packed with astonishing musical numbers, all realised to perfection in heart-melting Technicolor and strung together smoothly into a plotline that is not only coherent but also hilarious, emotionally-engaging and informative. Practically every routine in Singin’ in the Rain is a resounding success but it isn’t hard to pick out the most iconic scene. That would, of course, be Gene Kelly’s lovestruck dance in the rainstorm to the film’s title song. While it isn’t necessarily the film’s highlight (which should indicate the level of quality we’re talking about), this sequence has become one of the most famous in the history of cinema for a reason. It still stands as perhaps the silver screen’s most effective expression of cinematic joy. Despite having a 103 degree fever at the time of filming, Kelly splashes through puddles and is pelted with persistent precipitation without ever once losing his delirious smile. As a visual metaphor for falling in love it’s utterly perfect. For anyone who has ever be caught in a rainstorm and got so thoroughly drenched that they’ve gone beyond caring and started to actually enjoy it, this scene will strike a chord. Like throwing caution to the wind while plunging headlong into a new romance, it’s a moment that ignores the potential dangers of the situation and thrives on the pure joy of the experience. The viewer can practically feel the raindrops on their own skin as they watch Kelly wade through the streets and leap up lampposts, and yet the warm internal glow it inspires ward off any fears of catching a chill. The scene has been enshrined in history through repetition, homage and pastiche but its power is such that it cannot be diminished by over-exposure or superseded by parody in the way Airplane! made it impossible to watch 70s disaster movies without waiting for something ridiculous to happen. How wonderful that one of cinema’s most enduring moments is also such a positive experience. Free from guns, explosions, tears, raised voices, slapped faces and broken hearts, this is an awe-inspiring moment based on complete gay abandon and the willingness to embrace the uncynical notion of love’s power to elevate us to a whole new level of joy. And all this just from singin’… and dancin’… in the rain!
2. THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD/JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS – HARRYHAUSEN’S SKELETONS
Nathan Juran’s spirited fantasy classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a staple of 80s and 90s UK TV schedules, making it as firm a favourite with my generation as it was with its original 1958 audience. Although Juran officially directed the film, the name more readily associated with this and the subsequent Sinbad films is that of Ray Harryhausen, the legendary visual effects creator whose work is the lynchpin of the series. Harryhausen’s Dynamation technique ingeniously blends full colour, widescreen stop-motion animated figures with the live action actors to seamless effect. As with Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien’s famous work on King Kong, modern audiences have a better idea of how these effects were achieved but it doesn’t lessen their impact. Having been taught by the best, Harryhausen does what all good students should and improves on the work of his master. The vibrant, beautiful creations in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad still look completely alive today. The film knows the fantastical elements are its main attraction and does not skimp on giving the audience what it wants. While for many the Cyclops is the favourite character, for me the undoubted highlight is Sinbad’s swordfight with a skeleton, an incredibly deft blending of live-action and animation which still astonishes today. As a cinematic swordfight enthusiast, it always excites me when someone unsheathes a blade and this fantastic sequence measures up to classic fencing matches between two live action participants such as Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone’s epic face-off in The Adventures of Robin Hood. But while that sequence (probably the finest cinematic swordfight of all time) delivered on the thrills, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad‘s equivalent sequence instils an extra sense of wonder by having one of its swordsmen be a supernatural being. And the removal of all flesh and organs makes him quite a phenomenal foe in a battle that relies on the presence of squishy bits to penetrate.
The skeleton swordfight worked so well that Harryhausen reworked it on an even more impressive scale for Don Chaffey’s 1963 adventure Jason and the Argonauts, this time with seven of the sword-wielding skinless ones. Once again, few people could name the director of Jason and the Argonauts because all its high-points were delivered courtesy of Harryhausen, often seen as the film’s true auteur. The skeleton army became probably his most famous creation, with the thrilling battle sequence played again and again on film clipshows. Harryhausen achieved a perfect moment of fantasy-action-adventure here by using the inherent eeriness of the stop-motion animation technique to imbue the skeletons with an even greater nightmarish quality. The jerky movements of the horrific horde seem entirely consistent with how an audience might imagine skeletons to actually move.
1. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND – CONTACT
If asked to compile their own list of 50 movie moments that inspired awe and wonder in them, most people would have a Steven Spielberg film somewhere in the list. It should come as no surprise that his work has featured several times here or that one of his films has topped the list. Across the decades that Spielberg has been directing films, he has given audiences moments of joy, wonder, excitement, heartbreak and tension that have set the precedent for blockbuster cinema and have often proven difficult for Spielberg himself to top. I have several Spielberg films that vie for the title of my favourite and it’s almost impossible to choose between the likes of Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Jurassic Park, Empire of the Sun, Catch Me If You Can and Bridge of Spies. Different Spielbergs scratch different itches. But if forced to choose one of his films that I think is the absolute best, I’d go with Close Encounters of the Third Kind because it’s a film that quite simply makes me feel a certain way that no other film does. It is so unusual in its melancholy approach to fantastical storytelling that I can’t find anything else the replicates its achievements, even within Spielberg’s own canon.
Although it was often called a children’s film by critics upon its release in 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is far from it. Though the threat of an alien presence looms over the whole film, for much of its runtime it focuses on the mental collapse of a not-entirely sympathetic man, Roy Neary (played with a mixture of comic brio and gut-wrenching authenticity by Richard Dreyfuss) and the subsequent implosion of his family unit. There is no reconciliation here, as there would probably have been in Spielberg’s later, family-obsessed films that sometimes prized sentiment over integrity. Roy loses his family and comes close to losing his mind, his melancholy closure achieved through the uncertain opportunity to explore other worlds with alien beings. The excellent Melinda Dillon plays Jillian Guiler, a kindred spirit for Roy whose story is driven forward by the abduction of her infant son.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was very obviously an extremely personal project for Spielberg. Based on Firelight, a homemade, feature length sci-fi film he had made at the age of 17, Close Encounters… was written by Spielberg himself after he rejected two scripts by professional writers. He complained that they wanted to turn it into an adventure film while Spielberg himself envisaged a much more meditative, slow-paced movie. He was inspired by the way the Disney standard ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ made him feel, a glacial concept that actually gives a fairly accurate idea of what to expect from Close Encounters of the Third Kind if you can think in such abstract terms. There’s a sense of discomfort that arises from the film because it doesn’t tell you directly how to feel and as a result you can end up just feeling… weird. I certainly did after my first experience with it and went away under the impression that I didn’t like it. But, like many of the best films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind grows with every viewing and I never tire of returning to experience its tonal bizarreness.
So what makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind my choice for number one? That would be its closing half hour. If there is a haunting sense of tonal ambiguity throughout the film, there is no doubt that in its climactic sequence Close Encounters of the Third Kind reaches for and achieves a sense of complete wonder that has arguably never been replicated since. It’s an emotional payoff that defies description and eschews easy answers or neatly tied-off story threads. This exquisite sequence simply approximates the experience of witnessing the first real contact between human beings and aliens. The five iconic musical notes used to establish communication chime throughout the scene, playful but haunting and resonating in the viewer’s head for long after the credits roll. Blessed with a visual effects budget which he joked could have been used to produce an additional film, Douglas Trumbull created a jaw-dropping mothership and Spielberg knows exactly how little to show us of the aliens, who are viewed through a visually-impairing glare. When the film ends, I always find myself with an abundance of pent-up breath to exhale, giving me the impression that I’ve been holding my breath for the entirety of that final sequence’s lengthy runtime. While I know this cannot have been the case, the scene takes me out of myself so completely that I still convince myself that it is entirely possible every time. At the behest of Columbia Pictures, Spielberg would ultimately make a director’s cut of the film that included scenes of what it looked like inside the mothership, something he immediately regretted. Spielberg was well aware of the power of just showing us enough to stimulate that sense of wonder without answering all our questions. The mothership interior scenes may exist but that doesn’t make them the definitive reality within this film’s world. What it looks like on that ship, where it is headed, what will become of its inhabitants… we’ll never truly know those things. We can only continue to wonder.