Each year, the Variety staff picks their favorite scenes from the year’s top contenders. While spoilers of all shapes and sizes may follow, read on with caution if you have yet to see the films!
Avatar: The Way of Water
(20th Century Studios)
James Cameron’s escalating obsession with using technology to recreate the beauty of the natural world reaches an exhilarating peak in the scene in which Jake Sully’s son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) communes underwater with the lonely, plesiosaur-inspired beast Ilu. The rebellious Na’vi youth feels estranged from his family, so the two creatures immediately have an affinity for one another, and quickly develop a camaraderie that gives Lo’ak a sense of belonging. But after learning that Ilu was exiled for a crime that the whale-like animal did not commit — an event that holds the key to prevailing against the “sky people” greedily ravaging Pandora’s resources — the pair develop an unbreakable bond of trust and empathy that results in a fleeting but essential moment of transcendence as Lo’ak and Ilu not only see one another, and the harmony of the planet’s native species, but what’s at stake for their collective safety and survival if they don’t fight to protect themselves.
Have you ever wondered what Bel-Air looked like in the early 1920s? Damien Chazelle’s latest, “Babylon,” reminds us of the silent-era days when L.A. was barren land in the opening scene. As Diego Calva’s Manny tries to get an elephant up a steep canyon, things go awry pretty quickly. Elephant poop is just the beginning. A hedonistic, roaring party is in full swing with a live band and partygoers indulging in cocaine and wild orgies fill the scene as composer Justin Hurwitz’s dizzying and brilliant track “Voodoo Mama” sets the party alight with his horn section. That’s before Margot Robbie’s star-in-the-making Nellie LaRoy crashes onto the scene and before Li Jun Li’s Marlene Dietrich’s raunchy “My Girl’s Pussy” and before the elephant stomps into the room. Welcome to the wild ride and first 30 minutes of “Babylon.”
— Jazz Tangcay
The Banshees of Inisherin
Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” is a welcome return to the black comedy genre for the writer-director behind the 2006 Academy Award-winning short film “Six Shooter” and 2008’s “In Bruges.” Brendan Gleeson delivers an unnerving performance as composer and fiddler Colm Doherty, at one point threatening to cut off each of his fingers from his fiddling hand for each time he continues to be bothered by former friend Pádraic Súilleabhái (played by Colin Farrell). Limbs are, indeed, severed in one graphic scene in which Pádraic and his sister, Siobhan (played by Kerry Condon), find Colm’s index finger outside their cottage door. Pádraic places the crudely hacked-off digit in a box, foreshadowing the start of a gruesome, unsolicited collection. The horrifying sequence leaves viewers wondering what else Colm is capable of in his current state of severe depression — the answer to which is explored in a boozy, 114-minute bloodbath.
— Katie Reul
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
How was the “Black Panther” sequel going to handle Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing? Boseman was the Black Panther. When audiences finally got to experience “Wakanda Forever,” one of the most poignant scenes was T’Challa’s funeral. The pure white designs by Ruth E. Carter, the mural of a king on a wall as his body is carried through a Wakandan image. The opening sequence of the film was emotional for the filmmakers and the viewers. Audiences were mourning a loss, they were sharing in the grief. Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s cinematography rested on the faces of his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, and it was devastating. All of this before the silent tribute of the Marvel scroll.
— Jazz Tangcay
Decision to Leave
The film, directed and co-written by Park Chan-wook, has been described as a neo-noir and that’s partly true, but “Decision to Leave” is too complex and surprising to fit into any easy category. As it starts, a wealthy businessman falls to his death while rock-climbing and authorities investigate whether it was an accident, suicide or murder. Expert detective Jang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is dubious about the homicide possibility and he’s distracted by his attraction to the man’s widow (Tang Wei). Halfway through the film, Jang begins to doubt his instincts and envisions a possible murder scenario. The film changes style, in its camera moves, editing and use of graphics. It’s a tour de force scene that throws the audience off balance and alerts them to pay attention — and it sets up the fact that the film’s second half is very different from the first.
The transformative moment in “Elvis” occurs just seven minutes into the film. We’re in rural Louisiana and small-time but ambitious country music impresario Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) plans out gigs for his client, Hank Snow. Suddenly Snow’s son, Jimmie, appears and plops a 45 on a turntable. “You have to hear this. Kids all over town are playing it,” says Jimmie. The air fills with the instant earworm “That’s All Right,” sung by locally popular artist Elvis Presley. “I hear Negro rhythms,” says Parker. “But with a country flavor,” adds Jimmie. Parker notes that Presley’s label, Sun Records, is home to “colored singers.” Jimmie shoots back: “That’s the thing. He’s white.” Parker instantly grasps the money-making potential of turning such a powerful crossover artist into his client — and moviegoers suddenly realize this is more than a biopic. It captures the period when Black music stealthily entered America’s cultural mainstream. That motif informs the two hours that follow, as Elvis (Austin Butler) rises to fame and riches by enthralling white audiences with his swinging hips and the raw sexuality of the new art form of rock ’n’ roll.
— Peter Caranicas
(Apple Original Films)
If ever a photo could depict the brutalities of slavery, it is the sepia-toned image of “Whipped Peter,” a slave who had escaped the bondage of slavery and went on to fight for the Union. Nothing is known about him, other than he was a runaway who braved the Louisiana swamps following Lincoln’s call to freedom. Antoine Fuqua’s film “Emancipation” imagines his story with spirituality and family as Peter’s (Will Smith) guiding force. It’s Smith’s character in the opening scene, washing his wife’s feet in front of their family as the couple exchange words in Haitian. It is a brief moment from the hell they’re about to endure. Robert Richardson’s cinematography in this scene is just as searing as the lone image of Peter.
— Jazz Tangcay
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Of all the mind-bending visuals across the multiverses in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the pivotal scene between Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) toward the end is undeniably one of the film’s standout moments. While Jobu Tupaki — the Alphaverse version of Joy — attempts to end her life by entering the bagel, the Joy in Evelyn’s universe, begs her mother to let her go. Although she accepts this at first, Evelyn stops Joy, telling her, “No matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be here with you.” The multiverse montage that follows captures the beauty and parallels we’ve seen throughout the film, with Evelyn and Joy tearfully embracing each other in this emotional conclusion to their complicated mother-daughter relationship.
Chronicling his earliest — and most enduring — discoveries about the possibilities of visual storytelling, Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans” catalogs cinema’s capacity not only to unveil deep human truth, but also to shape it. After his onscreen counterpart relocates to Northern California, where he encounters antisemitism from a pair of jock classmates in high school, young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBasse) agrees to make a film about a senior beach retreat. Although he can’t resist making one of his bullies the film’s outcast, he exacts far more effective revenge on the other by depicting him as the school’s almost godlike alpha male. The lionized young man, Logan (Sam Rechner), is mystified by a complimentary portrayal from a kid he tormented, so much so that he confronts Sammy for an explanation. But even if the budding director can’t easily provide one, both he and his subject are galvanized in the moment by the medium’s ability to communicate not just information, but also person’s essence on screen. Sammy discovers his ability to shape an audience’s perception, Logan sees a hero he can’t possibly live up to, and Spielberg beautifully highlights the relationship he’s cultivated with audiences for more than 50 years.
— Todd Gilchrist
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
The final act of Rian Johnson’s whodunnit is complete brilliance on a screenplay and acting level. It’s a scene to behold as Janelle Monáe’s character Helen destroys precious glass sculptures in billionaire Miles Bron’s atrium. One by one, she walks around breaking them, getting the others to join in. This was the man who wronged her sister, and it’s her turn to get revenge as his allies turn on him. Perhaps the finest moment in Johnson’s screenplay is seeing Helen get the last laugh as she sets off an explosion in Bron’s home and the actual Mona Lisa is destroyed. And for those who are concerned, the real da Vinci still hangs safely in the Louvre.
— Jazz Tangcay
In Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider,” journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) investigates the serial killings of sex workers by the so-called “Spider Killer” who believes he is cleansing the Iranian holy city of Mashhad of sinners. Though the film has terrifying scenes throughout, it is the final moments of Abbasi’s crime thriller that leave the most disturbing impression — showing how the terrible murders by Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) have potentially influenced others to follow in his dark path. As Rahimi rewatches video interviews from her investigation, she comes across one with Saeed’s son Ali. He proudly recounts how his father murdered 16 women in their home, using his sister to act out their horrific deaths. “Don’t laugh, they’re filming you,” he tells his sister as she giggles while being wrapped up in a rug as his father did to his victims. Saeed may have been caught and executed as a murderer — but to his son and other religious zealots of the city, he is a martyr deserving of praise and replication.
— Sharareh Drury
In the film, set in 1950s Britain, government bureaucrat Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) learns he has only six months to live. So he takes some of his savings to enjoy the things he missed. However, after trying for fun, he has a sudden thought: “I came here to live a little. But I realized I don’t know how.” A key scene occurs when he runs into a young and upbeat former co-worker, Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood). He tells her about his diagnosis, which he’d kept from his son and everyone else, explaining why he had missed so much work and what he hopes to do in his remaining months. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro came up with the idea of remaking Kurosawa’s 1952 classic “Ikiru” and he could only envision Nighy in the part. It was the right instinct. Ishiguro wrote the script (only his fifth, and the first since 2005) and he and director Oliver Hermanus avoid melodrama in the scene. The result, thanks to them and the two expert actors, is quietly devastating.
A Man Called Otto
Of all the Tom Hankses out there, Cranky Hanks might be the most unexpected as the Oscar winner grumbles and grunts his way through the daily adventures of the title character, a recent widower. His resolve starts to soften when a new family moves next door and cracks in his grumpy façade soon show. Then Malcolm (Mack Bayda), a young transgender man, reveals he was a student of Otto’s late wife and how supportive she was, even being the first teacher to use his new name. Despite himself, Otto is affected, and a door to a new life is quietly opened.
Early on in S.S. Rajamouli’s “RRR,” we see Komaram Bheem lay a trap and capture a tiger. But the film moves forward with no mention of the tiger again until almost the intermission when Bheem and his cohorts attack the colonial ruler’s mansion during a party in a bid to recover little Malli whom the Brits had taken from their Gond tribe. It’s a sequence that brings roars of appreciation from the crowd that seems to have watched this Telugu-language film multiple times. Certainly the fight sequence is one of the best as wild animals are released from their cage, not just the tiger from earlier in the film but various others that Bheem and Co. recruited to help the fight the enemy. As the animals attack, Bheem leaps into the scene carrying twin torches. Panicked by the fire, the lions, tiger and bears — oh my! — go berserk and attack all the humans around them. There are some graphic scenes as we watch individual soldiers struggle while Bheem himself stylishly gets around the creatures. When he comes face to face with his lady love, Jenny, Bheem holds back and gallantly puts her in a car so she can escape.
— Shalini Dore
In one, 10-minute take, writer-director Todd Field gives us all we need to know about his protagonist, Lydia Tar (played by Cate Blanchett), her rarified world as a famous conductor and how she sees herself in this world. As she teaches a masterclass of awed students at Juilliard, Lydia waxes on about the glories of the classical canon but one student, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), pushes back about the old white guys, including Bach, asking why new artists are not being taught and performed. He’s not afraid to question authority, which flummoxes Lydia and she turns up her condensation to 11. The discussion foreshadows the cracks in her armor that will grow to eventually destroy her carefully constructed shell. But it’s also a very compelling exchange about art, society and generational views. Neither is right (although the controlling Lydia thinks she is) and neither is wrong, and Field lays out a power dynamic that’s about to change.
— Carole Horst
The Ron Howard-directed movie is epic in scope, but intimate in its details. The film closely follows the events of 2018, with the first half centering on the question whether divers can reach the 12 Thai football players and their coach, who are trapped in a flooded cave. Just past the film’s halfway mark, they come up with a never-been-tried plan on how to get the 13 out. A gripping scene shows their preparations and the constant challenges to the plan, with expert work in editing, cinematography and sound, along with Howard’s direction and the ensemble acting, led by Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton. Even for those who know the outcome of the real-life rescue, it’s a heart-stopping sequence.
Top Gun: Maverick
It’s been 36 years since “Top Gun” was released, and the opening minutes of the film’s highly anticipated sequel throw us right back into the nostalgia of it all. The opening notes of the theme by Harold Faltermeyer are goosebump-inducing as a card sets up the story and cuts to Claudio Miranda’s cinematography capturing fighter jets taking off and roaring down the decks of the USS George Washington. The film pays homage to the 1986 original before Kenny Loggins’ newly recorded “Danger Zone” comes on. It’s a perfect way to welcome audiences back to the cinema earlier this year. Those first few minutes hit the nostalgic senses and set audiences up for a thrill ride — and this is all before we even are introduced to Tom Cruise’s Maverick all these years later. Easily one of the best scenes and opening of 2022.
Triangle of Sadness
The infamous 15-minute vomit sequence in “Triangle of Sadness” is memorable, to say the least. However, the argument between models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) in the beginning of the film deserves recognition. After Yaya avoids the dinner bill, Carl is irritated that he is expected to pay for their meals even though she earns more than him. While Yaya tries to play off the situation — claiming that she was unaware that the bill was there — Carl’s resentment grows. The film follows the couple arguing on their ride back to their hotel and at the elevator, immersing audiences in their tumultuous relationship. The brilliant execution of this scene sets up the framework of the film’s attitude toward wealth, status and
— Michaela Zee
The Woman King
While “The Woman King” is about the Agojie, the all-female warriors who fiercely and bravely protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey, and boasts epic battle scenes and inspiring training sequences, the film also delivers beautiful and gentle moments filled with love and happiness. Viola Davis’ General Nanisca evokes fearlessness every moment she is on screen. Admittedly a runner-up for a favorite scene would be the moment she leaves to save a group of captured Agojie, including her daughter Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), and is followed by her loyal warriors, despite their king ruling they should not go. As the film comes to a close, it is the joyous dance she joins in with her Agojie warriors and her daughter that captures the heart of this story — a mother’s fierce love for her daughter, and a daughter’s discovery of the power she has inherited.
— Sharareh Drury
Sarah Polley’s meditation on faith, women’s agency, female relationships and the patriarchy elegantly argues complex issues thorough her complex characters, as the women of a cloistered religious community debate whether to leave the colony or stay after what seems like years of sexual and physical violence. As the discussion turns heated and their abuse is spoken about — for the first time, maybe? — out loud, community elder Agata (Judith Ivey) invokes Scripture and their beliefs and leads the women to the only conclusion that is logical. It’s a rare film that portrays faith as something alive, something that allows for ambiguity and human failure yet gives these women the power to save themselves.
— Carole Horst