Tyler’s Favorite Cinematic Moments

Vader still from Empire Strikes Back (1980)

What are some of your favorite cinematic moments in cinema?

Big reveals, tense emotions, one-liners for the ages, questions that keep you up?

We’ve brought you Tyler’s favorites today! Reminisce, discover new scenes, and enjoy!

1.”I am your father.” Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Light, high-pitched strings accompany Luke as he searches the corridor, adding a very Hitchcock-esque flavor of suspense. Instead of moving from left to right in the frame of the shot, movement typically indicative of progress and forward motion, Luke walks from right to left in the frame. This is cinematic language that something is off. It informs the audience that something bad is about to happen. Then, before we even see Darth Vader, we hear him take a breath. His red lightsaber cuts through the air. There is no music throughout the lightsaber fight until Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand. The big reveal happens. Darth Vader’s theme music plays, and Luke screams as he realizes the truth.

This moment is classic. Music, costume design, voice acting, and cinematography all contribute to making Darth Vader one of the most iconic villains of all time. And to find out a guy like that is your dad? Tough luck, man.

2. “May I smoke my pipe as well?” Inglorious Basterds (2009)

In its entirety, this scene is nearly twenty minutes long. Most of it is idle chatter, yet suspense builds steadily throughout the scene. This is a testament to Tarantino’s skill as a writer/director in building suspense.

Hitchcock once described suspense as the bomb waiting to go off under the table. The audience sees what the characters don’t see: the timer steadily counting down to disaster. In other words, suspense in a film can be created by showing the audience something the characters cannot see. A large part of the suspense built in this scene is due to the social situation itself: the tension of someone being questioned by a Nazi officer in their own home. In the middle of this scene, however, as Colonel Landa goes about a dull, bureaucratic, the camera pans down past LaPadite’s feet, under the floorboards, to where a Jewish family hides. This is the bomb waiting to go off. There will be consequences, they won’t be pretty, and the audience knows it.

On top of the masterful building of suspense throughout this scene, it is beautifully lit and composed. The main source of lighting in this scene is a single bright light above the kitchen table. Despite Landa’s pleasantries, the lighting makes the scene feel like an interrogation. And pay attention to how Tarantino frames certain subjects in doorways and window frames. My favorite example is when Shoshanna is seen through the open doorway, running for her life. More than making the shot aesthetically pleasing, shooting it this way adds layers of meaning to the shot. Shoshanna isn’t just running away from Nazis. She is alone, without a home.

3. “Anybody here?” Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Possibly my favorite movie of all time, Cool Hand Luke is the story about what the world does to people who refuse to conform. What I love about this scene isn’t about suspense, lighting, cinematography, or any of the things I usually look for in a great scene. I love this scene solely for the emotion of it, and the way that emotion is verbally expressed. Luke has, at this point in the film, escaped from prison several times. He is on the run from the authorities. Chains still clank around his legs. And for whatever reason, Luke decides to stop at a church. The monologue that follows gets me every time.

4. “It’s Alive!” Frankenstein (1931)

Few scenes fill me with nostalgia like this one does. As a kid I loved these old black and white horror films. I used to rent them on VHS from the library. I can trace my passion for storytelling and cinema to first-generation horror films like this one.

Nostalgia aside, it’s hard not to love the blocking of the actors at the beginning of this scene. The three characters onlooking Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment are positioned to look down on him. These “three very sane spectators,” as Dr. Frankenstein puts it, have the physical high ground as well as a metaphorical moral high ground. The spectators look from left to right, focusing our attention on Frankenstein. Lightning flashes and the “sane” people recoil from it. Frankenstein, on the other hand, looks right at the light–unafraid. We, the audience, identify with these level-headed people witnessing pure madness reach its apex.

Their reaction to Dr. Frankenstein’s mania mirrors ours. And there is something brilliant in the delivery of those lines, “It’s alive!” and “Now I know what it’s like to be God!” He stands at his fullest height, face turned upward, limbs tense. We know in this moment that a monster has been created and it’s not the one strapped to the table. In this scene we realize Dr. Frankenstein is the real monster of this story.

5. “I write greeting cards.” 500 Days of Summer (2009)

            More than any other role in the filmmaking process, the editor’s main priority is telling the story. One might think this is the screenwriter’s job, but not necessarily. The screenwriter may conceive the idea for a film, but as a visual medium the real storyteller of a film is the editor.

I chose this scene to cap off this list because of how brilliantly it was edited. The words of a song, “Never ever saw it coming at all” play over Tom’s initial entrance into the building where a heartbreaking revelation awaits him. His expectations and his reality begin to play out next to each other simultaneously. At first, the two versions of events are very similar, but disillusion seeps into Tom’s reality as it disparages more and more from his expectations. Tom’s expectations literally get wiped off the screen as the camera pans over to see Summer’s engagement ring. It is a near perfect representation of disappointment.

Honorable Mentions

These were just barely outside my top 5, but definitely deserve a mention.

1.”Now we got ourselves a game.” Deer Hunter (1978)

Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken at their finest. The emotions in this scene cover an enormous bipolar range from pure hatred to absolute mania. The acting choices made here were brilliant.

2. “Call it, friend-o.” No Country for Old Men (2007)

“You stand to win everything,” Chigurh says. This poor gas station owner. He had no idea how close he came to disaster.

3. “I’m gonna count to ten…” Mission: Impossible III

This is one of my favorite examples of a McGuffin as a plot device. We don’t know what the rabbit’s foot is, and frankly we don’t care. What really matters is the tension between these characters who are both after the same thing.

Let us know what your favorite cinematic moments? What scenes have stuck with you through the years?

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Check out our start to Valentine’s/Single’s Awareness month with our piece on Nora Ephron’s Masterpiece: Julie and Julia.