Think about your favorite movies. Odds are that no matter how much you love them, you can think of at least one scene that could use some improvement. Maybe there’s some lousy dialogue, or someone acting out of character, or bad special effects. It doesn’t ruin the movie for you, but it does bug you just a little bit every time you see it. Well, the reverse is true for bad or just plain forgettable movies. Some terrible films have one scene that, while it hardly redeems the movie, provides a flicker of enjoyment in an otherwise tedious affair and makes you wonder what might have been if that spark of brilliance had been present throughout the entire creative process.
We come here today to celebrate those moments.
8. Reign of Fire
Reign of Fire is a post-apocalyptic action movie about dragons destroying most of the planet that you might vaguely recall watching when you collapsed in a drunken heap on the couch at two in morning. In an early scene, Christian Bale and Gerald Butler entertain a group of children by acting out the famous plot twist from The Empire Strikes Back in what is implicitly an on-going story for these kids, who have never seen the movie (or any movie, presumably).
And that’s an absolutely brilliant concept, because of course that’s what we’d do if we lost the ability to watch our favorite movies – we’d pass them on to future generations orally, the same way we told stories before we had even invented a writing system. We already turn beloved films into big-budget stage shows. There’s no reason we wouldn’t do the same on a small scale if we were forced to, yet most post-apocalyptic stories assume iconic pop culture would be forgotten quicker than, well, most of you forgot this movie.
The scene’s barely over a minute long but it’s packed full of clever details – Bale imitates Vader’s breathing, Butler hastily hides his hand up his sleeve when it’s chopped off, and the way their audience gasps in awe at the big moments is adorable. It gives their world more personality than most post-apocalyptic settings… and then the rest of the movie is build-up to an idiotic dragon fight.
7. Southland Tales
Southland Tales pretty much killed Richard Kelly’s career, although The Box struck the coup-de-gr?ce three years later. It’s a terrible movie, but it’s such a staggeringly ambitious, sprawling and unique terrible movie that it’s hard not to like it on some level anyway. Most bad movies suffer from a lack of original ideas –Southland Tales tries to cram in so many ideas it becomes impossible to explain what the hell it’s about, in part because you can watch it multiple times or even star in it and still not have any idea.
But while Justin Timberlake may not know what he took part in, he does feature in its most memorable scene. Timberlake uses the drug of the future to go on a hallucinatory music video experience set to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.”
It’s a scene that plays to everyone’s strengths – J.T. gets to embrace his musical background while Kelly, for a few merciful moments, is free from the constraints of having to tell a coherent story. Instead he gets to focus solely on visuals, and the end result is crazy and ridiculous and awesome and makes you wish that Kelly had gone into music videos instead of…whatever it is he’s doing now.
Doom was a badly acted, incompetently directed, overly serious slog of an action movie that somehow managed to ruin what little plot the game had. Instead of monsters that come through a portal to hell, the movie’s monsters are created by a virus, an inexplicable change from camp silliness to the same dour cause of a dozen other generic movie monsters. There was a lot of pointless yelling, a lot of incomprehensible shooting, and a lot of wondering if you had anything better to do with your time. And then there was this five-minute, first person combat scene.
Those five minutes contain every moment of light-heartedness and camp that should have pervaded the entire movie. It was fun, creative and cool; everything the other 95 minutes weren’t. Not only was it filmed from a perspective you never see in action movies, but it contained the same goofy pop scares, rocking soundtrack, over the top weapons and video game-inspired kills that the whole movie should have been full of. It was a tantalizing hint of the kind of stupidly fun film Doom could have been if it didn’t take itself so seriously. Unfortunately, right after this scene wakes you up the movie goes back to doing what put you to sleep in the first place.
5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hobbit movies aren’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination, and compared to most of the other films on this list they’re cinematic masterpieces. But the general consensus is that they don’t live up to their illustrious pedigree – this very site gave The Desolation of Smaug a positive review, but others found it to be a loud, rambling mess. Personally, they gave me everything I never wanted to see on the big screen ever since I read the classic book as a kid: tedious romantic subplots between characters I can’t remember the names of, dumb Orlando Bloom cameos and incomprehensible fights featuring CGI that looks worse than the practical effects of the Lord of the Rings movies that came out a decade earlier.
But both movies have a single scene that mercifully let their films breathe. An Unexpected Journey features the Riddles in the Dark scene, where Bilbo engages in a battle of wits with Gollum…
…while the sequel has Bilbo confronting Smaug for the first time in a different sort of conversational sparring.
Both scenes are simply long, clever conversations interspersed with sudden flashes of action. They’re slow, tense, beautiful and, probably not coincidentally, they stick close to the source material. Taken in the middle of what feels like nonstop running and yelling, they’re a stark reminder of the richness of Tolkien’s world that’s often buried beneath Peter Jackson’s staggering budget. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the adaptations, these two scenes stand out as pieces of quality film-making.
4. Enter the Void
Enter the Void, a film shot mostly through the point of view of a dead person, isn’t a bad movie, but audiences sure weren’t interested in it – it made back less than a million of its 12 million Euro budget, and it personally lost me once lights started shooting out of everyone’s genitals. That being said, its opening credits sequence is one of the most intense, pulse-pounding and flat-out coolest ever recorded.
Doesn’t that get you pumped up to do… something? Not watch the movie, apparently, because the number of people who watched that video is more than 10 times the number of people who bought tickets to see the film. But if it doesn’t get your toe tapping and/or encourage you to drop some ecstasy, there may be something wrong with you. Considering how dull and routine most opening credit sequences are it’s great to see a filmmaker put effort into making them fun.
3. Tron: Legacy
The potential appeal of Tron: Legacy was obvious. Movie technology had finally caught up to the futuristic world the original Tron portrayed, an original that looks hilariously bad by today’s standards but still makes it clear why people thought it was so ground-breaking. The thought of seeing all those cool scenes in modern CGI was salivating.
The opening moments of Legacy live up to the promise. A cool real world stunt is quickly followed by a light cycle battle that’s fun, fast and gorgeous. Set to a moody soundtrack and a rarely seen color pallet, it promises you that you’re in for one stylish experience.
Click here to watch a higher quality version.
And then the rest of the movie is a bunch of aimless running around, gratuitous shots of Olivia Wilde and long, boring monologues from Jeff Bridges and Evil Jeff Bridges explaining plot points that no one cares about, because the needlessly elaborate cyber-drama is taking away from valuable light cycle time. The movie has its defenders, including former Topless Robot overlord Rob Bricken, but viewers like me who didn’t grow up with the original film were just left wondering when the next awesome battle would be. The answer, sadly, is never.
2. The Village
Is there a movie that sums up the contradiction that is M. Night Shyamalan better than The Village? Shyamalan takes a perfectly fine premise – a village is misled about the reality of their place in the world – and stretches it to the point of breaking. By the time the big “twist” is revealed audiences have either already guessed it or have long stopped caring. There are plenty of moments of idiocy that insult the viewer’s intelligence and destroy the film’s own shaky internal logic, but there are moments of beauty too-bold uses of color, and quiet meditative scenes like the conversation between Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard on her front porch.
It starts with typical Shyamalan ham-handedness as the pair awkwardly explain plot points to each other, but the conversation quickly shifts to being about their relationship. They’re engaged to be married, and when Howard asks “Why can you not say what is on your mind?” only for Phoenix to reply “Why can you not stop saying what is in yours?” you can feel countless partnerships being summed up in two succinct lines.
Phoenix goes on to explain why he’s sitting awake through the night on her porch and why he loves her despite at times being driven crazy by her, and in that moment the two feel like actual characters instead of vehicles to deliver a shocking ending. The shot’s a simple one – just two heads talking softly while darkness and fog lurks beautifully in the background, reminding them that they don’t know what’s to come. But it’s one that hints at a movie with strong characters and strong scares; a movie that Shyamalan couldn’t quite find.
1. Red Dawn
Red Dawn has a fascinating production history (I’m talking about the 1984 original, because the only thing good about the 2012 remake is that if someone says they liked it you know you never have to listen to their opinions again). What started as a serious story about how warfare affects people’s humanity quickly became a ridiculously over-the-top jingoistic action flick, but there are a few moments in it that hint at complexity and self-awareness. Perhaps the most famous example is the early shot of a bumper sticker reading “They can have my gun when they take it from my cold, dead hands” that pans to a Russian soldier doing exactly that.
And if Red Dawn thinks communism is the worst thing to happen to humanity since the fall of man, it at least sympathizes with the people living under it. Young Soviet soldiers are shown to be just as scared as our young Americans, and we get to see a trio of Russian troops visiting a national park, joking around, and generally acting like human beings before the Wolverines brutally ambush them in a scene where our heroes are afraid to kill and our villains are afraid to die, giving them far more complexity than most movie henchmen.
But what’s most memorable is the role of the Cuban Colonel Bella, who starts off as a generic commie but later gains character in scenes that feel like they’ve come out of a completely different film. Near the end he writes a letter to his wife where he questions his role in the war and expresses his desire to go home and live in peace. Shortly after that he corners our two wondered heroes. Every action movie you’ve ever seen has trained you to expect another American to rush in and save the day before he can execute them, but instead Bella lowers his gun and tells them to “Go with God.” A bad guy in an ’80s movie getting enough character development to make his sudden decision to let our heroes go make sense – and having him go on to survive the film – is unexpected to say the least, especially in a movie that’s as otherwise as stupid and unquestioningly patriotic as Red Dawn. It’s a subtler movie than it’s generally credited as being, at least for brief moments.
Previously by Mark Hill: