Yes, many people are already writing their Top 10 movie lists for 2013. We're saving ours for the last week of the year. While we wait for this terrific movie year to wind down, we're going to start looking back at some highlights. Today, it's our favorite individual scenes.
When Sandra Bullock appeared on The Daily Show in early October to promote Gravity, Jon Stewart (who loved the movie) made one thing clear from the beginning of their interview. "I don't want to know how you made it," he told her, and even when Bullock began explaining the amount of painstaking effects work that went into the sci-fi disaster movie, he cut her off. "You were in space," he insisted. "You were in space."
It's a compliment to director Alfonso Cuarón and his creative team that a lot of people share Stewart's willful ignorance. Gravity is such a wonder because it pushes past our desire to understand how it was conceived. At a time when so much CGI exists in service of creating artificial, unbelievable worlds—pulling us out of the story to focus on inspecting the phoniness—Gravity sought to create a shockingly authentic portrait of outer space. It was so shockingly authentic, in fact, that we simply accepted it as the truth. (How else do you explain the amount of anger that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson provoked by pointing out the film's factual errors? People wanted to believe this particular Santa Claus was real.)
The movie's technical genius is encapsulated in its first scene. Inspired by IMAX documentaries, Cuarón and longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki envisioned the film's opening as an epic single shot that would envelop the audience inside the precarious reality of an astronaut operating high above Earth, his life at the mercy of the oxygen tank attached to his spacesuit.
That stunning opening shot of Gravity, all 11-plus minutes of it, has a little bit of everything. It introduces the playfully jousting rapport between Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). It establishes the movie's utterly matter-of-fact, reasonably credible outer-space environment. (As Stone says, what you're struck by isn't so much the beauty of the cosmos but the absolute silence of it all.) And the scene also very slowly works your nerves—first by showing that Stone is suffering from nausea because of the weightlessness and then later laying the groundwork for the crew's imminent threat. Goosed by the gradual build of Steven Price's moaning electronic score (with its perhaps unintentional homage to John Williams's Jaws theme), Gravity's opening culminates with the sickening reveal of the fast-approaching satellite debris as it quickly and lethally pummels Stone's ship, throwing the scene's balletic calm into utter chaos and setting the stage for the rest of the movie.
People can quibble about where Gravity goes from there. Is Stone's backstory too blatant? Is the movie's reaching for a feel-good, almost spiritual ending more than a bit overdone? But for those first 11 minutes, Cuarón delivers an untainted, magnificently thrilling theater experience. We're wrapped up in the terror and majesty of space—in the very idea that movies are so fantastic because they create universes we can only imagine and then, like magic, place them right on the screen in front of us. (My rational mind knows they shot this on Earth, and yet a larger part of me, like Stewart, just prefers believing they were in space.) In a single, beautifully choreographed shot, Cuarón makes something graceful and moving and gripping. Of course the rest of the movie couldn't live up to its opening. How could it have?
What does it mean for a scene in an action film to be "realistic?" We always seem to be striving for realism, but rarely do we consider what that actually means.
Paul Greengrass is a director renowned for his realistic touch in his films, both the fictional ones (the Bourne films) and the recreations of real life (United 93, Bloody Sunday). Greengrass in the past has achieved this realism through various methods, from the casting of non-actors in key roles (the best example being former FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney, playing himself in United 93), steadfast period detail, or just good old-fashioned shaky cam. This has generally worked. Greengrass is both kinetic and grounded, a combination that would seem impossible.
In Captain Phillips, Greengrass employs all these same techniques, to rousing success. It has all the tension of a Bourne film, the taut, you-are-there claustrophobia of United 93, and the small-story-in-a-larger-battle immediacy of Bloody Sunday. (The movie never forgets that everyone involved is a pawn.) But the moment that best captures the real-world situation, the way any of us might handle such a traumatic situation, is a quiet, understated one, involving one of the biggest movie stars on earth.
SPOILERS READY HERE, though if you thought Captain Phillips ended with Tom Hanks dead on a Somali beach, I salute you for your child-like sense of wonder. After Hanks's Phillips is rescued from the lifeboat where he'd been held captive, he is escorted onto a navy vessel and checked out by medical personnel. (All real-life military medics, in Greengrass tradition.) The whole film has been almost unbearably tense for the viewer, and at last, with three whizzes of snipers' rifles, it is over—we've been released.
But Hanks's Phillips has been in the middle of this the whole time, and while there are elements of bravery in Phillips's handling of his ordeal, he's not an action hero; he's just trying to make it out alive. All that terror and helplessness explode as Phillips is attended to, with a nurse working on his wounds and trying to figure out whether or not he's in shock. He is. Hanks' implosion, his total collapse, is deeply moving, the rawest work he's ever done. It's a devastating scene, a reminder that as superficially "exciting" as Captain Phillips has been, it's about real people suffering in real ways. You want realism? Greengrass seems to be saying. This is what this really looks like. It's awful. It's daring and powerful and the best scene of 2013.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.