The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

A great film scene has the ability to function, regardless of length, as its own self-contained short.

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016
Photo: Paramount Pictures

A great film scene has the ability to function, regardless of length, as its own self-contained short. Of course, such a scene has the benefit of being subtextually and thematically richer within the context of the film it hails from, but divorced of that context, it can still provide its own unique pleasures. This year saw no shortage of exemplary flourishes of cinematic bliss, from the technical, workmanlike precision of the Miracle on the Hudson crash in Sully to Ralph Fiennes’s flamboyant expression of musical euphoria in A Bigger Splash. Those and the 18 other scenes listed below all have the common thread of being able to be enjoyed as their own mini works of art—and some, in fact, are far richer than the films that contain them. Wes Greene

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Aquarius, Termite Revenge

Clara (Sonia Braga), the last remaining tenant in a building hounded by slimy developers, arrives at their headquarters at the end of Aquarius with a cryptic suitcase in tow. Even if we foresee its contents, it’s impossible not to be overcome with vindictive joy when Clara throws it on the boardroom table and reveals the same colony of termites that the developers had used to push her out of her home. The fact that the last person standing in a building besieged by the “silent destroyers” is a female cancer survivor, like overthrown president Dilma Rousseff, completes the allegory for present-day Brazil. More than the turning of the infested colony against the infesting colonizers, the termites ultimately amount to the simplest of mirrors. What other way for coup mongers to come face to face with their own vileness? Diego Semerene

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Arrival, First Contact

Denis Villeneuve is a patient and fetishistic director, lingering in Arrival on the looming abstraction of the alien spacecraft, adding one layer of surreality upon another: the violation of new gravity, the vastness of the ship’s internal, irrationally vertical angularity, and, finally, the gorgeous and frightening poetry of the squid-like aliens themselves. The numerous grace notes cumulatively serve to make aliens in pop culture alien again. Chuck Bowen

A Bigger Splash, “Emotional Rescue”

A Bigger Splash is built on Ralph Fiennes’s irresistible performance as Harry Hawkes, a record producer who lives both in and on his past. Harry’s invasive evasiveness reaches its crescendo during a glorious sing-and-dance number, in which he revels in his desperate, sexy neediness, reminding us that the Rolling Stones did some pretty great songs in their disco period. Bowen

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Cameraperson, The Boxer

Kristen Johnson’s personal documentary Cameraperson offers revelatory insight on what it’s like to be behind the camera, capturing human drama in real time without interfering with how the action plays out. In one long scene, which follows a Golden Gloves boxer from his devastating loss to a locker room outburst to an unlikely conversation with his mother, Johnson portrays a complete and captivating mini-narrative that’s also quietly about the threatened, thrilled woman behind the frame. Christopher Gray

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Certain Women, Horse Ride

A charged counterpoint to Certain Women’s numerous scenes of vehicular commute, Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart’s nocturnal horse ride to a lonely diner is staged with just a few exacting ingredients: the hum of the Montana wind, the clack of the hooves on the pavement, and a backlit tracking shot that distills the film’s various strands of melancholy—the longing for simpler times, the desire to connect with another person, the inability to express one’s full self—into a single, aching, iconic image. Carson Lund

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Cosmos, Linguistic Nonsense

There’s a rare moment in Cosmos when, for nearly five unbroken minutes, Andrzej Zulawski’s aerobic camera finally stops moving. Witold (Jonathan Genet) is in the middle of one his paranoid meltdowns when Léon (Jean-François Balmer), the head of the country house that the vacationing writer is staying at, proposes a seaside getaway. Léon has already shown a proclivity for nonsensical verbal embellishments but here, with Balmer seemingly caught off guard by Zulawski’s refusal to call “cut,” starts emphatically adlibbing until nothing he’s saying bears any resemblance to the French language. It’s a hell of showcase for Balmer, as well as the funniest scene in the career of a filmmaker rarely recognized for his sense of humor. Lund

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Elle, The Storm

Elle is all about thwarting audience expectations and upending politically correct sexual mores. So it’s no surprise that during the film’s most traditionally romantic scenario, there’s no sexual consummation. With a storm lashing the shutters against Michelle’s windows and the wind throwing her and Patrick’s bodies against one another, the pair turns down the opportunity to act on their obvious mutual attraction, as both need far more sinister scenarios to get off. Elle’s sensitive portrayal of Michelle and Patrick’s dangerous erotic desires and refusal to see their relationship as merely pathological makes the film a true 21st-century romance. Oleg Ivanov

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

The Fits, The Bridge Dance

Two gyms, both inside the same community center, figure prominently in Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, each one an affirmation of rigid social hierarchy. Boys box in one, while the all-female members of the Lionesses dance group work on their moves next door. Pre-teen tomboy Toni (Royalty Hightower) hangs out inside each gym, almost ritualistically jumping back and forth between the two spaces in what comes to reflect her grappling with identity. In the film’s most striking scene, Toni’s dance-cum-shadowboxing performance on a bridge is understood as a resistance to strictly defined gender roles—which is to say, her acceptance of herself as her own unique person. Greene

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Happy Hour, The Workshop

The marathon communication workshop from Hamaguchi Ryûsuke’s Happy Hour, from the none-too-successful mind readings to the striking moment where a chair appears to defy gravity by balancing on one of its legs, is a distillation of the humor, awkwardness, and gentle surrealism of the film itself. When it comes to their many issues, the film’s main quartet of friends frequently fail to meet on the same level despite their best intentions, and the nontraditional, sometimes laughable nature of the exercises in this scene beg the question: What is the right way to communicate? Greene

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Hell or High Water, Final Confrontation

David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water ends on an inconclusively pregnant note that affirms its allegiance to the writing of Cormac McCarthy, though the derivations are forgivable for the laudably submerged acting of Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine. The poignancy of this finale resides in how the characters are understood to find, in their blooming bitterness, a kinship that will nevertheless fail to halt the flow of violence. Bowen

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Neon Bull, Pregnant Sex Scene

Sex scenes often serve as breaks in films, offering bits of impersonally imagined titillation that exist apart from the narrative. By contrast, Neon Bull’s nearly six-minute climax actively apotheosizes the classist, racist tensions governing the narrative, showing two frustrated people as they forge a communicative release that’s moving as well as intensely erotic. Bowen

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Kate Plays Christine, “It’s All Bullshit”

Unlike Antonio Campos’s flawed, floundering Christine, Robert Greene’s unclassifiable take on the legend of Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide is always equally about humanizing its subject and the follies inherent in attempting to do so. “You’ve got to tell me why you want to see it,” actress Kate Lyn Shiel pleads in Kate Plays Christine’s finale, which is provocative and ontologically slippery but unequivocally ethical. Gray

Moonlight, Driving to Kevin’s

After a chef’s special and a couple plastic tumblers of wine, Barry Jenkins pivots from the outright formalism of Moonlight’s diner sequence to a more naturalistic night drive that’s no less romantic. A prelude to a long-overdue confession, the scene is defined by the rhythmic glow of passing streetlights and a gentle shift from pleasantry to a deep, earned intimacy. Gray

The Neon Demon, Warehouse Party

An early party scene in The Neon Demon, set in a warehouse ported over from Nowheresville, epitomizes director Nicolas Winding Refn’s evocative sense of lonely decay. Primary colors suggest the giallo films of Mario Bava, blank stares evoke the writing of Brett Easton Ellis, while an exhibition, with a dancer levitated into the black air of the velvet night, connotes a looming apocalypse that defies explanation. Bowen

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

O.J.: Made in America, The Run

This football agnostic found something of a religious experience in watching O.J. Simpson play the sport—at least as presented by the brilliant editing of Bret Granato, Maya Mumma, and Ben Sozanski—in O.J.: Made in America. “He did his magic,” says USC offensive lineman Steve Lehmer, who inadvertently allowed O.J. to execute what would be known as “The Run”—a 64-yard dash around and over UCLA’s defensive line to a historic touchdown. With one play, O.J. became a legend, and with one crucial scene, director Ezra Edelman suggests a complex moral framework through which to examine that moment, and the man’s entire life thereafter. Sam C. Mac

Sausage Party, Orgy

This gloriously crude and pun-heavy, ahem, climax to Sausage Party comes in the grand tradition of offensive, Mel Brooks-ian bad-taste cinema. But the kicker to this anything-goes orgy is how the film joyfully and sans judgment celebrates the sentient food products’ individuality and personal taste, which is born out of their liberation from their oppressive ideology. The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” couldn’t be cued at a more appropriate time. Greene

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Sully, Crash and Rescue

We all know from history that Chesley Sullenberger’s attempt to land a compromised Flight 1549 on the Hudson River was a success, so in director Clint Eastwood’s flashback-framed dramatization of the event, there’s no need for nerve-jangling music, performance hysterics, or liberal time-stretching to build suspense. In Sully, the near-tragedy takes exactly as long as one imagines it to have actually taken, and the ensemble of anxious passengers behave how one imagines them to have behaved—that is, not as a shrieking mob but as mortals stunned silent by the sudden realization that their lives may come to an end any second. Lund

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Toni Erdmann, “The Greatest Love of All”

A world-conquering love song becomes a piercing ballad of self-reliance and a thorny indictment of millennial entitlement in the giddy centerpiece of Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade’s dramedy about the masks we wear to get on. Here, the titular life coach (Peter Simonischek) attempts to embarrass his daughter (Sandra Hüller) into authenticity, and her fierce unburdening quickly makes it clear he has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. Gray

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2016

Valley of Love, The Disappearance

In one of the most arresting sequences in contemporary cinema, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) and Gérard (Gérard Dépardieu) have been following their dead son’s post-suicidal script as best they can, hoping to receive a post-mortem sign from him. They’ve hiked in the scorching desert heat. They’ve been irked by vulgar Americans at their hotel. They’ve yelled, quarreled, and wept. But right as they’re about to give up, Gérard explores one of the canyons in the area by himself and rushes back to Isabelle to tell her that Michael has appeared. She runs toward the canyon screaming her son’s name frantically, only to find nothing. It’s impossible not to be overcome, or engulfed, by her despair, which suggests a childish refusal to accept a loss that actually predates even her son’s demise. Semerene

The Witch, Black Philip Speaks

In The Witch, Robert Eggers’s wickedly sardonic parable about religious hysteria and adolescent angst in 1630s New England, the line between real and imagined evil is left intentionally thin. So when teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) finds herself free of her family’s stifling control, her liberation is baptized by the Prince of Darkness, disguised as the family goat, Black Philip. This ambivalent moment of female empowerment is made more ambiguous by Satan’s ethereal presence, nothing but a pair of boots and a disembodied voice, reminding us that evil is a product of the mind. Ivanov

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