15 of ’15: The Best Scenes of 2015

by Steven Spoerl

Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

[Warning: Some light spoilers will be found in the following descriptions. Proceed with caution.

Over the course of the past year, there have been several hints dropped towards an expansion in regards to this site’s film coverage. While the coverage so far has primarily leaned towards music-related releases, those pieces haven’t touched the scope or breadth of the coverage to come. Thus far, I’ve seen approximately 150 films to find release in 2015 either through a theatrical run or a festival screening. While there are still key titles missing from that equation (Son of SaulMustangChi-Raq, etc.), the majority of the major awards players have been accounted for as well as most of the smaller titles to find critical acclaim. So, while this list- like any- can’t be viewed as definitive, it can certainly still be representative. Even with those restrictions, there are still a lot of corners of the film world to cover. So, without further ado, here’s 15 of ’15: The Best Scenes of 2015.

15. Heaven Knows What Proves Its Love

In what will surely go down as one of 2015’s most harrowing opening sequences, Arielle Holmes desperately pleads with the object of her affection to accept an apology at the onset of Heaven Knows What. After several failed attempts to get his attention, Holmes (who stars in the film, which was based on her memoir) is told outright “If you love me, you would have killed yourself by now”, as she clutches a convenient store razor and holds it against her wrist. The tension is shot through- if only for a fleeting second- with one decisive action that sets the template for what’s to come.

14. 45 Years Finds Ivory Solace

Two scenes from 45 Years, Andrew Haigh’s elegiac study of a fractured relationship, have been receiving the bulk of the mentions in these lists. While those scenes (one involving a projection reel and another involving a climactic dance that sees Charlotte Rampling top her astonishing performance off with one final, devastating flourish) are deeply impressive setpieces that deserve attention. However, there’s one small but key moment that comes deep into the film that wasn’t originally scripted. During a break in filming, Rampling sat down at a piano that was included as an interior prop for the house where the majority of the film is shot and began playing a melancholic piece that caught Haigh’s ear. The performance is improvised and adds another layer of depth to one of the year’s most fully-realized characters.

13. Dope Shows Its Steel

One of 2015’s most energetic films was also one of its most publicized breakout successes from the independent sphere. Dope isn’t without its flaws but it’s still a massively entertaining film with a timely, pointed message. Featuring a startling lead turn from Shameik Moore, it touches on a variety of hot-button topics with a wild fervor but tends to hit hardest in its more implicit moments. In what may very well be the film’s most dramatic moment, Moore’s character turns to a drastic measure to secure his safety after being blindsided by a local gang and takes everyone (including himself) aback. It’s a jarring look at how easy it is to turn to violence as an outlet in a pattern that feels disconcertingly systemic rather than as a result of circumstance.

12. Carol‘s Last Look

Todd Haynes’ latest, an empathetic examination of a lesbian relationship in the 1950’s, has been hailed almost universally as a masterpiece. Firmly re-establishing Haynes’ position as one of cinema’s leading auteurs, Carol also boasts two bona fide masterclass performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. While the whole affair, even in its ugliest moments, is exceedingly elegant, it’s the film’s final moments that land most emphatically. Bringing the story full-circle, Blanchett’s Carol and Mara’s Therese exchange a glance- nearly identical to the one that began their relationship at the start film- only this time, the roles are reversed. Therese initiates the contact and- potentially- accepts an invitation much more substantial than the one Carol had extended in the film’s opening moments.

11. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence‘s Cruelest Instrument

The third and final installment of Roy Andersson’s Living trilogy, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence, proved to be a divisive title among most viewers. Even those accustomed to Andersson’s bone-dry sensibilities seemed to be split over the film’s merit but nearly everyone that managed to see his latest agreed on one thing: it contained the most unforgettable sequence the director’s ever produced. One of the only times Andersson opts for multiple POV angles occurs late in the film as a small string of relatively nondescript, elderly upper class denizens file out of a building and calmly watch a gigantic brass instrument that slowly rotates over a fire- an instrument that contains a line of slaves who had just been marched into the container. All at once, it’s a haunting look at the worst impulses of humanity and a vicious condemnation of the ideals that constitute social and racial divides.

10. Junun Takes Flight

One of 2015’s most unexpected delights was Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Junun, a short-form documentary that incorporated a guerilla filmmaking approach. In capturing the sessions Jonny Greenwood and Shye Ben Tzur hosted in Rajasthan, India, Anderson managed to document a small bounty of spellbinding moments. At its best, Junun manages to find a way to seamlessly combine some of those moments into scenes that are elevated to sublime realms. One of those moments arrives around the film’s halfway point, which splices in gorgeous aerial shots from one of the drone-mounted cameras surveying a frenzied bird feeding process and a spirited performance from Junun‘s key players that allows Greenwood’s guitar work to take a more central role. The sequence marks Junun‘s most definitive moment; conventions are eschewed while there’s an aesthetic artistry that’s conjured up in the marriage of the film’s distinctive live score and its ravishing visuals.

9. The Revenant‘s Grizzly Attack

At this point, it might be fair to say that the bear attack sequence that sets The Revenant‘s plot into motion is the most ubiquitous scene of 2015. After the ridiculous bear rape allegation was put to rest, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s most infamous setpiece was both afforded and allowed a great deal of further scrutiny. A meticulous construction of epic proportions (does Iñárritu work in any other model?), the sequence expertly balanced the naturalism that provides The Revenant with its magisterial approach and the CGI elements that transform it into something otherworldly. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a gutsy, committed performance as the film’s protagonist, with this- its showiest moment- operating as its beating but bloodied heart. The attack also sets the tone for the film’s ensuing stretches, where the bleak only becomes bleaker as DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass rallies time and time again to continue to barely cling on to survival.
8. Creed Shadowboxes With Ghosts

Yes, Creed‘s tracking shot in the film’s second staged fight (and the first professional fight for the titular character) is one for the books and, yes, the film lands several more knockout blows in various scenes. However, the film’s most direct moment is defined by its thoughtful subtlety. Early on in the film, Ryan Coogler focuses on Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed as he brings up the fight where his father takes on Rocky Balboa. Before long, the young Creed is swept up in the desire to become a part of the fight and starts mimicking the action happening on screen. While he takes the position of his father, he imitates Rocky’s patterns and movements, which played a role in cementing Creed‘s status as the 2015 film that embraced its legacy while opening an intriguing new chapter most successfully.

7. Beasts of No Nation‘s Grave Realization

Netflix’s first original film had a lot of expectations going into its unveiling and when it was finally released, it may have exceeded those expectations. Bold, provocative, and deeply unsettling, Cary Fukunaga’s tale of a child soldier, Beasts of No Nation, paints a hyper-violent portrait in vivid, arresting colors. While Idris Elba gives a towering, career-best performance as a militia commandant, the film draws a fair amount of power from an astonishing turn by Abraham Attah, who plays the film’s central character, Agu, with gravitas and grace. Both Attah and the film hit a high point in a climactic moment of obscene depravity where Agu, realizing the gravity of the actions taking place around him, suddenly finds his sense of morality and restores some of the humanity he’d lost in the process. As he starts putting an end to the unnecessary suffering of others, he begins to chart a new path for himself and work towards redemption.

6. Room‘s Return

In the 2014 edition of this site’s annual A Year’s Worth of Memories series, I closed the last chapter with a simple “I love you all” and the final scene from Lenny Abrahamson’s offbeat gem Frank. Abrahamson returned this year with a dazzling effort that earned Oscar nominations for its lead (the always-spectacular Brie Larson), its direction, its adapted screenplay, and a nod for best feature. While the scene that’s been earning Room the most notices is a tremendous piece of filmmaking that accurately captures a child’s wonder. While that sequence is admittedly dazzling, the sequence that comes at the film’s end where the film’s protagonists return to the titular room that once served as their prison. In that return, Jack (played masterfully by Jacob Tremblay) and Ma (Larson) view its ruins with differing perspectives. The youngest remembers it fondly, surveying a once-familiar landscape with a warm curiosity, while Ma makes peace with the most tragic time of her life and turns towards the future after whispering the film’s final two words.

5. Sicario Crosses the Border

Sicario, Dennis Villeneuve’s white-knuckle look at the wars being waged on and beyond our borders, certainly isn’t lacking in heart-pounding suspense. From the opening scene- where the walls are literally filled with relatively fresh corpses- to the final standoffs, not a moment passes that feels anything less than electric. While all of them are effective, none of them compare to the traffic jam sequence as the film’s protagonist, Kate (an excellent Emily Blunt, who’s quickly becoming this generation’s finest action star), is immediately submerged in what her new position will entail. Already suspicious that what she’s doing isn’t technically legal, Kate’s pushed to a near breaking point when the team she’s paired with engages in a shootout with a cartel as they’re stuck in gridlock. Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (who just earned his 13th nomination) shift back and forth from Kate’s shaky, uncertain point of view (which favors verite presentation) and the more assured stance of Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver. Meticulously constructed and flawlessly executed, it easily ranks as one of this decade’s finest examples of escalating tension.

4. White God‘s Final Bow

No film in 2015 benefited more from a remarkable animal performance than the vicious Hungarian drama White God, which chronicled the harrowing journey of one dog who’s forcibly removed from the care of Lili (an astounding Zsófia Psotta), a young girl whose only comfort rests in her dog (Hagen) and her music. After Hagen’s set to the streets by Lili’s father in accordance with the laws of the country, the dog goes through a brutal journey that includes a long stint at the hands of an abusive owner who injects Hagen- as well as several others- with drugs to prepare them for bouts of dog fighting. All the while, Lili continues a search to bring Hagen back home and make some reparations to a life that feels half-empty following Hagen’s removal. Before long, the dogs begin to revolt against their persecutors and form an unlikely union in an attempt to carry out their revenge. While Kornél Mundruczó’s film mostly deals in metaphor, it subverts its approach in its final climactic moments that bring several key elements into play before underscoring the empathy that gave White God glimmers of hope, even at its most wrenching. Its that final, unforgettable confrontation that provides the film its most striking visuals and its finest moment. 

3. Tu Dors Nicole‘s Sibling Bonding

While the familial bond that connects the protagonist to her brother- who are sharing their parents’ house while his band uses it as a studio to record their new album- only serves as one of Tu Dors Nicole‘s (admittedly crucial) undercurrents it also provides the setting for its loveliest moment. Late in the film, tensions are running high as brother and sister alike are both going through partnerships that are gradually dissolving. After toeing the line of a flirtatious relationship with her brother’s new drummer, Nicole (a wonderful Julianne Côté) finds that her brother’s domineering tendencies and need for control have forced him out of the band. Nicole, feeling low and already reeling from the sudden dissolution of both an important friendship and plans for the future, sees her brother playing guitar by himself, lost in his own train of thought. Wordlessly and without warning, Nicole approaches the empty drum kit he’s seated by and starts in on a rudimentary pattern that begins to elevate her brother’s melancholic guitar work. Before long, the two of them are operating in near-perfect harmony. As they play, it becomes clear that both are channeling their troubles and their frustrations into their playing, temporarily skirting their issues to simply set aside their fundamental differences and share a moment together.

2. Phoenix Speaks Low

If one were to compile an aggregate of these lists, the final scene of Phoenix would likely stand as a near-unanimous selection for the best scene of 2015- and for good reason. Nina Hoss delivers a tour de force performance as a holocaust survivor who enters into a game of cat-and-mouse with the man that believes the woman he once married has been long dead. In a desperate ploy to secure some of her estate, he enlists the help of a new arrival (Hoss), who- unbeknownst to him- was the woman he married. Nearly unrecognizable due to reconstructive surgery following her time at the camp, Hoss’ Nelly Lenz leads the man she was once married to down a path fraught with duplicity as he attempts to secure the finances his former wife had built in her time as a singer. As the divide separating fantasy from reality begins to gradually thin, it finally hits a point of no return in the jaw-dropping final scene that manages to incorporate the majority of Phoenix‘s recurring motifs into a sequence that also functions as an extraordinarily effective epilogue. It’s the ultimate reveal and the way its performed and presented instantaneously renders it iconic. All of the anxiety, all of the tension, all of the desire, all of the doubt manifests tenfold as Hoss gradually falls into a spirited rendition of “Speak Low” that leaves the audience in a stunned silence.

1. Anomalisa‘s Most Revealing Moment

Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to craft one of the year’s most intimate films using nothing but stop motion ball-and-socket armatures. A lot has been made over Anomalisa‘s incredibly moving sex scene and its portrayal of what is, more often than not, an awkward process despite all of its inherent beauty. Its easily one of the most memorable scenes of 2015 but what makes it work so effectively isn’t its length or attention to detail- it’s the immediate lead-up. At this point, Kaufman’s ably established himself as one of this generation’s greatest humanists, imbuing even the darkest corners of his work with an empathetic tenderness that can make the smallest moments come across as emotionally overwhelming. An extraordinary study of loneliness, depression, and a character confronting both on an exceedingly deep level, Anomalisa spins a series of grace notes when it gives its protagonist Michael Stone (superbly voiced by David Thewlis) someone to play off of in Lisa Hesselman (a marvelous Jennifer Jason Leigh and the only other character in the film not to be voiced by Tom Noonan).

What begins as a frantic quest to find that stray, magical voice leads to a modest drinking session that quickly turns to a nightcap between the film’s two most distinctive characters. Before they climb into bed together, though, both show their capacity for affection and vulnerability, forming an intense bond over the notion they’re both intensely out of place in the world they inhabit. Before long, Leigh’s Lisa is opening up about the scar on her face that she covers with her bangs (which is kissed later on in a moment of genuine kindness) and Thewlis’ Stone is gently coaxing her into a heartbreaking rendition of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (an unexpected but welcome staple of 2015) just so he can more clearly hear the music in her voice. Their entire exchange in the hotel room is warm, devastating, and unflinchingly human. It’s also a notch above perfect.

Honorable Mentions: An Italian Dinner in Brooklyn Tangerine‘s Ultimate Exchange | Steve Jobs Stops Pretending | The Martian‘s Starman | Kingsman: The Secret Service Takes Flight | Inside Out‘s Imaginary Friend Recedes in the Distance | It Follows Explains the Rules | Mistress America‘s Empathetic Invitation | Queen of Earth Tracks Dueling Expressions | Amy‘s Unexpected Victory | Ex Machina Tears Up the Floor | Straight Outta Compton Defies Authority | Cop Car‘s First Joyride | Slow West Makes Its Bed and Takes Aim | Güeros Dines Together | The Duke of Burgundy Finds Compromise | James White Visits Paris | The Curtains Close on Me and Earl and The Dying Girl Sleeping With Other People Dances Its Heart Out | Wild Tales Embraces Matrimony’s Inherent Insanity | Call Me Lucky Goes on the Offensive in a Court of Law | People Places Things Goes Camping | Spotlight Realizes Its Mistake | The End of the Tour‘s Epilogue | Breathe Runs Out of Breath