These scenes left an indelible mark on us.
A great scene not only stands on its own, but also recalls the rest of the film. Like a mind racing with the memory of events past, a truly unforgettable scene is the apotheosis of its characters' emotional journey through the narrative.
Below, we have selected 14 of the best scenes 2016 movies had to offer. A common thread between all of these scenes is economy: it wasn't the flashy, blood-curdling scenes that took our breath away. It was the elegant, minimalist scenes which left much up to the imagination. In these scenes, directors trusted the audience to put the pieces together—or to contemplate ambiguity.
1. Paterson — Marvin's poetic revenge
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Like a great poem, Jim Jarmusch's Paterson makes the simple feel cosmic. The film revels in the particulars of everyday life: the beauty of an old matchbox, the gushing sounds of a waterfall, the absurdity of happenstance. Paterson, a poet, keeps a “secret notebook” bursting at the seams with the lyrical ephemerality of this imagery. His life—and the movie—is demarcated only by names of days; like a rotating wheel, it shifts slightly when the wind blows, then corrects its routine course.
Paterson’s wife constantly urges him to make copies of his poems, and with good reason: one day, the couple returns home to find that their mischievous bulldog Marvin has ripped the notebook to shreds. This event has cataclysmic implications for Paterson, whose poetry is the form and substance of his existence (and the film's); the event recalls all of Paterson's poetic encounters. Now, finally, we understand their fleeting nature. We experience that feeling of loss familiar to every child who has built a sandcastle, only to watch it demolished by the indifferent ocean. —Emily Buder
2. Toni Erdmann — "Greatest Love of All" & Naked party (tie)
Director: Maren Ade
When Toni Erdmann premiered at Cannes, a scene in which the uptight protagonist Ines performs Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" karaoke-style for a room full of strangers inspired raucous applause. That's because the scene is not only brilliantly executed in a standalone manner, but it also serves as a major release for the film's central tensions. We would never expect this kind of unrestrained, impassioned behavior from Ines; her father has spent the entire film attempting to liberate her from a repressed, neurotic lifestyle. It's he who carefully engineers this situation. Through the course of the song, Ines slowly succumbs to the power of her own performance; for the first time, she lets loose in a big way, like an animal freed from its cage. We laugh at her, but we also feel for her—these antics, antithetical to every fiber of Ines' being, play as part caricature, part much-needed catharsis.
Of course, we would be remiss not to include the scene that has come to define Toni Erdmann—the naked birthday party—but since the film has just been released, we'll let you discover its magic on your own. —Emily Buder
3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople — Car chase
Director: Taika Waititi
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Hunt for the Wilderpeople recalls the best adventure films from the '80s—and is steeped in both that nostalgia and a very contemporary feel. The film makes the "odd couple buddy comedy" trope feel fresh again, particularly in a car chase at the film's dramatic peak where teenage protagonist Ricky and his unwitting guardian Hec are running from the law. The scene makes fun of epic car chases, but it is also a pulse-pounding watch. Ricky's insistence that he will "die in a blaze of glory" followed by a hilarious montage set against the gorgeous New Zealand outback sums up the entire spirit of the movie. —Liz Nord
4. Rams — Swallowed by the snowstorm
Director: Grímur Hákonarson
In the final scene of the Icelandic tragicomedy Rams, two brothers who have spent their adult lives stoking a feud of near-Biblical proportions are driven together for the last time. As they chase their beloved flock of sheep into a white-out snowstorm, it engulfs them. Through glimpses of piercing white, we watch them struggle to survive; the very qualities that produced the feud—stubbornness and a desire for independence—finally bring them together, but also lead to their demise. The exquisitely shot scene is a culmination of the film's absurdity and tragedy. —Emily Buder
5. Tower — Dying daydreams
Director: Keith Maitland
Tower, the sleeper doc hit of the year, recreates the infamous mass killings at the University of Texas, Austin in 1966 through archival footage and gorgeous, impressionistic rotoscope animation. Maitland's pacing and storytelling are unspeakably tense, perfectly encapsulating the atmosphere of insanity that hung in the air that day in Texas. There are many vignettes that are mindboggling in their intimacy and implications, but none more so than a brief respite about first love, recounted on the hot pavement while waiting to die or be rescued. Delirious gunshot victim Claire Wilson has a moment of clarity remembering how she met and fell in love with boyfriend Tom Eckman. Suddenly clouds part, black and white turns to color, and this woman isn't dying; she's back in the best part of her life. —Scout Tafoya
6. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World — Nikki's family
Director: Werner Herzog
Herzog's film explores the impact of technology on the modern world through the director's inimitable lens. Different segments—essentially short films in and of themselves—probe into the absurdity, wonder, and challenges that technological innovation has inspired. But none is as arresting as Herzog's visit with a car accident victim's family.
After Nikki Catsouras crashed at 100 miles per hour into a toll booth, first responders came upon a horrific scene: her mangled body hung out of the car, her decapitated head split in two. An EMT snapped a photograph to show his colleagues, but the internet's greedy hands soon took over; trolls spread the disturbing image through every avenue possible. They taunted Catsouras' family by emailing them the photographs with violent, hateful comments attached. "Some of the hate mail was so unspeakably horrifying that we can not repeat it here," Herzog narrates. It was perhaps the worst instance of internet rubbernecking the world had ever seen.
Herzog refuses to show the images; instead, he documents "places in the house that [Nikki] liked." In a final long shot, the family sits at their marble dining room table. Pastries are organized neatly around them as if they had just returned from the funeral. Nikki's mother says that the experience showed her that the internet is the "the manifestation of the antichrist." Some family members stare directly into the camera, while others gaze silently off into the distance. The tragedy's horrendous reverberations, enabled by the internet, have rendered a family catatonic. —Emily Buder
7. Manchester by the Sea — The confrontation
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Heartbreak is most potently expressed not with words, but rather through their failure. In Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, a harrowing tragedy has caused a happily married couple, Lee and Randi, to divorce and become estranged. When they bump into each other on the street, the passage of time has buffered acrid feelings; what's left is a deep well of loss and guilt. Neither party knows how to navigate this chance encounter, so each is as polite and accommodating as humanly possible. But however they try to dance around each other, this dam will inevitably break. When Randi asks Lee to get lunch with him, the floodgates open; both fight back tears as Randi grapples with years of built-up remorse while Lee clearly can't decide whether to placate her or run for the hills. Watching this scene is heartbreak in slow motion—and a masterclass in nuanced acting. —Emily Buder
8. Moonlight — The diner
Director: Berry Jenkins
The final diner scene in Moonlight is as good as cinema gets. Reuniting characters who still need things from each other after years of being estranged is a cinematic cliche, but Jenkins handles the sequence with a deftness and honesty that always remains firmly rooted in who these characters are and how they've been shaped by the lives they have led. The weight given to an open door sends tingles up your spine, leaving you thinking about the film for weeks or months after you walk out of the theater. —Charles Haine
9. Neon Bull — Pregnant sex
Director: Gabriel Mascaro
Body and gender politics govern Gabriel Mascaro's observational film about a bull handler in rural Brazil who aspires to be a clothing designer. Appropriately, the climax is one of the most unflinching sex scenes in cinema to date: a five-minute shot depicting the metrosexual protagonist and a nine-months-pregnant young woman having spontaneous intercourse on a table. As the bull handler eschews notions of traditional masculinity throughout the film, so does this sex scene; it's the pregnant woman who dominates the man, confidently guiding him into positions that satisfy her particular needs.
When we spoke to Mascaro prior to the film's release, he said, "The actress was totally fine. You can easily see that she is so comfortable with this situation, so much more than him. It really helps and it was very important to the film to show her in this position where she’s taking control of her body—taking control of their pleasure—and enjoys doing so. This lack of embarrassment makes the scene even more intriguing." —Emily Buder
10. collective: unconscious — Everybody dies!
Director: Frances Bodomo
The omnibus collective: unconscious features many great shorts, but the best—and most haunting—is at once a Lynchian dark comedy and a potent piece of social commentary. Shot in the low-end '80s cable VHS format, Everybody Dies! is a montage of a macabre game show for kids starring the Grim Reaper, who leads African-American children to their demise with saccharine rhymes, games such as Whack-a-Soul, and a giant smile on her face. The dismal message—that mortality is high among African-American children—resounds as deeply as the mordant humor. —Emily Buder
11. The Witch — I am a witch
The Witch explores Biblical fears of colonial New England. When Thomasin, in a fit of frustrated teenage anger, torments her sister, frightening her with tales of witchcraft, a normal situation is recontextualized in a profoundly unsettling way. Thomasin knows that in her family, to even hint at malignant forces is to invite censure, quarantine, and death at the hands of her well-meaning but utterly deluded father, a man so far out of his depth he can't even begin to see that he's drowning. This scene works on multiple levels, sowing doubt in Thomasin's benevolence as well as illuminating her character and setting up the rest of the story—and its climactic payoff. An almost perfect scene. —Justin Morrow
12. Nomads — 360° of disappearing Kenya
The sun is setting in southern Kenya. In front of you, a roaring fire. Behind you, an open field. Around you, a congregation of Maasai, singing into the night. If you watched the VR trilogy Nomads from Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël of Felix & Paul Studios, the scene is etched in your mind. The series is mesmerizing not just for incredible 360-degree cinematography of a rapidly disappearing Kenyan tribe, but for the electric feeling it conjures of being in an incredible place. Amidst a year of forgettable VR, here is where you finally say, “Now I get it.” — Oakley Anderson-Moore
13. Arrival — The greatest arrival
Director: Denis Villeneuve
In Arrival, there are many arrivals, but the greatest arrival of them all is Dr. Louise Banks' arrival at the military base in Montana. The suspense is masterfully crafted: hypnotic tones score the helicopter ride into the base, past the floating egg-like UFO. A fast-paced sequence of events places Banks at the heart of the ship mere minutes later. Villeneuve leads us to believe he's going to pull aside the curtain and reveal his monsters—before cutting away to Banks' return to the military base instead, dazed from an encounter which, for the audience, remains yet unseen. —Jon Fusco
14. Midnight Special — An unspoken goodbye
Director: Jeff Nichols
In the climactic sequence, after the father Roy has delivered his son Alton against all odds to a specific location at a predetermined time— his sole focus for the entire film—Roy realizes he may never see his son again. Roy turns and calls out to Alton. When Alton stops and looks back at his father, Roy has nothing to say. Father and son simply look at each other, full of love and understanding. The moment is absolutely heart-wrenching, and no one says a word. Then, in a flash, it's over. The film takes off again. —Christopher Boone