In the hundred or so years since film was invented and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, plenty of ink has been spilled over lists and articles about just who has been the best – the best director, the best actor, the best musician – like humanity can’t get enough out of figuring out the most superior of our own self-importance. The Hollywood awards season seems to last the entire year, with a multitude of industry-based awards shows dominating the blogosphere and newsprint each and every month, culminating in the very pinnacle of cinematic artistic achievement, The Academy Awards. Each year, golden gongs are handed out to those folks judged by others folks to be the best in their category at what they’ve done that year. Whether those awards are warranted or not isn’t the point of this article; here, we’re going to spotlight the very best of the best – the best Actors and Actresses, the best Directors, the best Films, even the best cinematic advances of the Modern Age. What do I mean by Modern Age, you ask. Simple. Hollywood’s boom times of the 30’s and 40’s, at least prior to the War, are known today as the Golden Age, and the three decades after that could be termed the Bronze Age – with a shift into color film, multi-channel stereo and the re-invention of the Hollywood “blockbuster” away from biblical epics and sweeping melodramatic romance. The 80’s, however, when you look at films produced at that time in a reflective mood, represents a shift both artistically and stylistically in the medium of film to such a degree that I think a new “age” of Hollywood could be coined: the Modern Age. An epoch of cinema between 1980 and 2010, 30 years of both massive successes, and epic fails. The Greatest of the Modern Age series attempts to distill the best of the Modern Age into a series of opinion-based lists, and we hope you enjoy (if not disagree with) our work.
As part of our Greatest of The Modern Age series, this particular list has been perhaps the most difficult to compile. Choosing, out of the thousands of films released since 1980, the ten best cinematic moments, has been one of the hardest top 10 lists I’ve been involved in. The communal moments in film, where an audience is stunned, shocked or simply entertained by some of cinema’s most astonishing scenes; be it dramatic, funny or thrilling, they’re moments that stand apart from the others, often standing apart from the very films they appear in. Mention the words “the shower scene” and you go straight to Psycho. Mention “Warm apple pie” and you get that mental image of Jason Biggs thrusting himself into a desert on his kitchen table in American Pie. Mention “the chariot race” and you go straight to Ben Hur. Moments in cinema that transcend the medium and enter the pop culture zeitgeist. That’s what we’re chasing here. We have cast our eye across the many varied film moments since 1980, and we think we’ve come pretty close to an unalterable list of the very best of moments in film in the last 30 years. If you disagree, let us know in the comments below!
The scene begins simply – an elderly man is accompanied to a war cemetery by members of his family, the wind fluttering the American Flag and the rows of pristine white crosses glinting hauntingly in the French sunlight. As the man, whose identity we know not, is overcome by emotion and he is comforted by his family, we begin a flashback to the beaches of Normandy, on D-Day, 1944. And we are not quite prepared for the ferocity of the combat we bear witness to. Bodies are rended with concussive explosions, bullets rip through flesh and bone, blood soaks the waters of the ocean, and the corpses of many solders lie where they fall. Sure, we’d seen combat presented on screen in War Films, from John Wayne epics to Guns Of Navarone and Apocalypse Now, but it had never been done like this before. The visceral, bloody, violent horror of war was amplified by director Steve Spielberg’s unflinching camera work, DOP Janusz Kaminski’s desaturated lensing, and Gary Rydstrom/Gary Summers’ amazing sound design, all of which combined to put the viewer right into the firing line in a way so potent and powerful, the style has since become the defacto visual cue of the War Film genre. We’ve since seen this fast-shutter style cribbed by even the best directors – Ridley Scott used a similar style in both Black Hawk Down and Kingdom Of Heaven, and Spielberg revisited his own work while producing both Band of Brothers and The Pacific. The opening battle sequence of Saving Private Ryan, which contains some twenty minutes of uninterrupted, gut-churning intensity, set the stage for the rest of that film, and led to Oscar casting its gaze in Spielberg’s direction. The film didn’t win Best picture (and it should have) but Spielberg snagged the Best Director gong for what is unquestionably the most resonant, powerful, moving moment of war cinema in the last 30 years.
It was one of Hollywood’s most controversial moments ever. The moment we caught a glimpse of Sharon Stone’s unmentionables, as she flashed her crotch in Wayne Knight’s direction. Sultry, sexy and oh so bad, Stone’s portrayal of Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s film Basic Instinct was a career defining one – and this scene in particular had everyone squirming in their seats. Brought in by the cops for questioning over the recent death of a music mogul, Tramell doesn’t seem too worried that she’s considered the prime suspect in his murder, and her interrogation scene, in which it’s discovered that she’s going commando, became synonymous shorthand for feminist liberation – I think. Tramell is a character unafraid of who she is: she’s a woman, and a woman able to use her sexuality to exploit any situation to her advantage. Sharon Stone’s steely portrayal of her, including the unflinching baring of her “wares” to fluster the police, launched her career. Hollywood scuttlebutt and legend has it that Verhoeven coaxed Stone into the scene by initially telling her that the shot would not be used in the final cut, and that the footage of Stones pubic region would only go as far as the cutting room floor – the fact it was actually used created perhaps more controversy than the rest of the film, and I have a sneaking suspicion that both Stone & Verhoeven knew exactly what they were doing to drag the crowds in off the street to watch their movie. Whether this is true or not probably isn’t the point – it’s the most (in)famous moment in a film filled with infamous moments, and aside from being the focus of a number of parody films following it, remains a defining, iconic scene in Hollywood lore.
Richard Attenborough’s broad English accent, delivering the most warm-hearted welcome to the most dangerous place on earth, sets us up for a thrill ride unlike any other – at least, until the sequels came along. Attenborough’s eminently optimistic John Hammond, driving his invited guests through his new nature park filled with resurrected dinosaurs, pulls up close to camera, instructing the driver to “stop stop stop.” The camera cuts to Sam Neill and Laura Dern, both of whom see something their minds cannot fathom. It’s an enormous Brachiosaur, feasting on the topmost leaves of a very tall tree, and as Neill and Dern leave their vehicles to get a closer look, we suddenly see a vista of dinosaur action as the wide expanse of Jurassic Park is revealed. As the John Williams’ music swells, and the breathlessness of the entire scene plays out, Attenborough looks slightly off-camera and says in that awesome accent of his: “Welcome to Jurassic Park.” With that, we’re sold. Steven Spielberg’s canny decision to keep the dinosaur effects hidden until well into the film added to the Big Reveal, and made Attenborough’s pronouncement even more iconic for the spine-tingling combo of sound and image. Jurassic Park went on to become the highest grossing film of all time (this was back in 1993, of course, and has since been surpassed) and launched a further two sequels, but it was this scene in particular that really introduced the magic of digital effects and the full scale of Spielberg’s cinematic power to modern audiences.
Heath Ledger’s role of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight remains his most iconic, as well as one of cinema’s most astonishing performances ever, but it was his arrival into the den of crime and his subsequent murder of an unnamed henchman via a 2B lead pencil that made audiences sit up and take notice. As the various gangs of crime in Gotham City gather to discuss what to do about Batman, the Joker strolls in to make his own deal to get rid of the masked hero. Taking a seat at the table, he jams a pencil into the surface of the desk, and proceeds to bait the kingpins of crime until one of them decides he’s had enough. A henchman rises, strides around to where the Joker is sitting, and is about to manhandle the crazed lunatic out the door when the Joker strikes back – slamming the henchman’s head into the table and right onto the pencil, killing him instantly. Without batting an eyelid, the Joker continues to outline his plan; this casual approach to murder revealing as much about the Joker as it does about Ledger’s approach to playing him. It also ensured the memory of Jack Nicholson’s gurning portrayal of the same character was finally put to rest.
For all its inherent logic flaws (such as uploading a virus to an alien computer system via a Mac), ID4 remains a fan favorite to this day, thanks in part to the sense of bravado director Roland Emmerich mustered for his Destroy The World Film back in 1996. Boasting staggering effects of both practical and computerized origin, ID4 was the years biggest blockbuster, and paved the way for Emmerich to give us classic films like Godzilla and 10,000 BC. Okay, so it’s been a downhill slide since then, but Independence Day reminded us of just how cool movie making could be – a script so patriotic it almost bled the colors of the US flag, a cast so scene-chewingly square jawed and full of adrenaline it resembled a wood collecting convention, and epic destruction the likes we’d not seen before (or since, although Emmerich has tried), ID4 remains one of the shining lights in the Aliens Attack genre Hollywood’s gone to great lengths to maintain. With all the monumental moments within the film, however, one stick out like no other – and it comes right at the very end, with US soldier Will Smith and resident uber-geek Jeff Goldblum flying a stolen alien craft up to the mothership to not only upload a virus which will cripple the ET’s communications, but also to detonate a nuclear weapon they’ve casually strapped to one wing. At a pivotal moment, just when all hope for them seems lost, a chance to escape beckons, with the heroic duo desperately trying to escape the bowels of the mothership before their recently activated nuclear weapon goes off – the hair raising, thrillingly humorous chase sequence and the “you’re about to cop a nuclear explosion in the face, you damn dirty alien scum” emotional ride we’ve spent the last two hours enjoying all come to a head with the massive blast of energy released as the mothership is blown to atoms by Earths most powerful weapon. It’s a cliched, trailer-worthy glee-gasm with big budget effects, and it works to complete the film perfectly. One of those fist-in-the-air with a whoop of delight moments, when the Bad Guys buy the farm in the most awesome of ways. Special mention to Randy Quaid’s suicide run (and its associated dialogue) up into one of the alien craft just prior to the nuclear detonation sequence, because that’s another of those fist-in-the-air moments, even if it is somewhat corny.
The loading bay door opens, the dull thud of something behind it echoing into the massive landing bay on board Marine Vessel Sulaco. The massive Alien Queen swings around, midway through pursuing and attacking the young girl, Newt, who is trapped beneath the metal grating of the ship and within reach of the creature’s grasping claws. Screeching, the Alien Queen sees Ellen Ripley, having survived the recent thermonuclear explosion of a detonating colony on the planet below, has jumped into a giant metal exoskeleton to take on the Queen in hand-to-claw combat. The power loader, a weaponless machine designed for loading heavy objects into a smaller spacecraft, stomps towards the Queen, a look of pissed-off determination on Ripley’s face. With a clenched jaw, sweat beading across her face and blood seeping from a few small wounds, Ripley utters one of cinemas most attention-grabbing lines: “Get away from her, you bitch!”. The Alien Queen launches its attack on Ripley, who, now armed with the power loader, returns fire with the hydraulic strength of a mechanized armament. These two cinema titans, Ripley and The Queen, do battle with all the power at their disposal – Ripley with the relatively tame flame thrower and crushing ability of the loaders’ pincers, with the Alien’s acidic body and razor sharp talons, tail and teeth threatening to disembowel her at a moments notice. James Cameron’s ballsy, gung-ho sci-fi thriller sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien was a revelation to audiences when it came out in 1986 – the film scored a number of Oscar nominations (including a Best Actress nom for Sigourney Weaver), but it’s Ripley’s heroic battle with the Alien Queen that the film is best remembered.
Disney’s modern renaissance unleashed it’s fury upon audiences with the opening few minutes of 1994’s The Lion King. Featuring music by Hans Zimmer, Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice, stunning painted animation from the Disney studios, and beautiful, evocative imagery, The Lion King’s spine-tingling opening sequence sets the story up perfectly. The film begins in darkness, the sound of the savannah surrounding the listener with the cry of birds and other animals – before the haunting cry of Lebo M rips into the soundfield, accompanied by the best-visualized sunrise since David Lean captured one in Lawrence Of Arabia. Carmen Twillie delivers the majesty of Elton John’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics, backed with the awesome might of the African chants, as Disney’s artists capture the serenity, the power and the beauty of the African landscape and the animals who inhabit it. As the music swells, the introduction of a young lion cub – Simba – to the assembled throng of animals causes a wild stampede, before sunlight breaks through the clouds and that spine-tingle becomes a shuddering sense of awe, and the title logo arrives with a thunderous boom. The opening to The Lion King is possibly the best ever opening moment to a film, a perfect mix of music and visuals, words and emotion, as the film went on to become the most successful animated feature of all time.
Considering the sheer volume of great moments in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, it’s only fitting that one of them makes it into our list today. Of all the stunning, evocative story beats in the three film epic, nothing beats the shock of seeing the seemingly indestructible wall of Helms Deep, a fortress hewn into the very side of a mountain, explode into fragments with the last dying gasp of a suicidal Orc. An army of Men and Elves, facing an onslaught from the army of Saruman, take refuge in the impregnable fortress of Helm’s Deep, only to find that Saruman has provided his army with a form of gunpowder, which they ignite in a small water drain cavity at the base of the enormous protecting wall. While Peter Jackson topped all previous action sequences with his Return of The King charge of the Olyphants, the battle for, and destruction of, Helms Deep in the Two Towers was the one single moment where my jaw literally dropped to the floor. The horror of this moment, the realization of what the breach meant for our heroic Men and Elves, and the sheer force of evil Saruman had unleashed, made this moment all the more profound.
“We’re going to need guns. Lots of guns.” Keanu Reeves’ deadpan intonation of one of cinema’s great understatements has the audience cheering for the action to come in the Wachowski Brothers seminal sci-fi masterpiece, The Matrix. Neo and Trinity set off into the matrix to rescue the captured Morpheus, held hostage by Agents in a city-bound high-rise, armed with all manner of automatic weapons and a fair degree of hostility. The Matrix’s iconic lobby shoot-out, in which Neo and Trinity slaughter a squad of well trained soldiers in glorious slow motion, remains one of the most jaw-dropping moments in recent cinema history. This scene is almost immediately followed by the iconic “bullet time” moment in which Neo dodges a series of bullets fired from the weapon of an Agent, before a dramatic and thrilling helicopter rescue of Morpheus concludes the sequence with explosive effectiveness. While The Matrix has an abundance of scenes which could easily slot into this list, the attack on Agent HQ sequence remains one of the best shot, best edited action pieces of the last 30 years.
Darth Vader’s iconic intonation (and Luke’s subsequent howl of dismay) remains forever entrenched in modern movie history as the moment cinemagoers’ heads exploded around the world. Darth Vader is actually Luke’s father? For realisies? Audiences had just seen Han and Leia admit their love for each other, before Han is encased in carbonite and sent to Jabba The Hutt, Lando Calrissian betrays (and then helps) our rebel heroes, and Luke trains with Jedi master Yoda over on puddle planet Degobah, before we finally get to witness Luke and Vaders first full confrontation in the bowels of Cloud City – where Vader gains the upper hand (so to speak) and reveals all to Luke. Thankfully, Empire Strikes Back was made long before the Internet and blogs came along, so this devastating revelation was pretty surprising for just about everyone who went along to see the second Star Wars film. George Lucas famously wrote differing pages of dialogue for this pivotal scene, in which not even David Prowse (playing the masked Vader) and Mark Hammill (as Luke Skywalker) knew of the twist to come, since Vaders dialogue was dubbed in by James Earl Jones later on. It wouldn’t be drawing too long a bow to suggest that this moment, and the echoes of its resounding impact on cinema patrons at the time, helped elevate Empire to its position of the best of the Star Wars films, and the most lauded critically in the intervening years. As far as moments of cinema goes, this is right up there.
Think we’ve left out a crucial scene belonging in our top 10? Got a better suggestion? We want to hear it! Leave your outraged comments about what we got wrong in the comment section below!!