Following on from my recent blog about the most nerve shredding moments in Spielberg’s back catalogue which you can read here, I thought I would take a look at the moments that most fans of Spielberg look for in his films, moments where elation and rejoicing lead to punch the air instances, that allow the audience to give little cheers or even rapturous rounds of applause, even when you are watching it in your lounge alone.
This top 10 is a mixture of individual shots, or carefully choreographed setpieces, but each one makes you thrilled to be watching and helps build the understanding that the main purpose of any film is to entertain. Quite frankly this could have been a Top 100 list (maybe I’ll do that one day) but I have narrowed it down to the following 10. As always, there will be some of your favourites that I haven’t included, but that is why God invented the comment function on blogs. I’ve also tried to not include scenes that I have talked about in previous blogs, so no beach scene from Jaws or opening scene from Raiders here. I hope you enjoy the choices that I have picked regardless.
10. Spyder Search – Minority Report (2002)
In a previous top 10 I have praised the brilliance of the opening scene of Minority Report, but the other stand out scene in a film full of stand out scenes is the building search by the robotic Spyders that are unleashed to take retinal scans of all the occupants of the building as they search for the “on the run” John Anderton who is hidden away in the building after a rather grimy eye operation.
This scene almost sneaked into my nail shredding top 10, but what moved it to this one was because despite moving towards the edge of our seats, we marvel at the genius of the filmmaking on display. Firstly we have the robotic, futuristic spyders that scamper across the screen like a herd of genetically enhanced futuristic cousins of the supporting cast of the Spielberg produced Arachnophobia. Secondly, we can marvel at Janusz Kaminski being at the very top of his game as he glides his camera around the staircase at the entrance, to a sensational tracking shots from above the invisible roof staring down into the individual departments. The attention to detail here is staggering as Tom Cruise’s Anderton hides, from the more animalistic than robotic Spyders, submerged in an ice bath only to have his cover blown by the tiniest air bubble that leaves Anderton’s nostril and slowly almost silently impacts on the surface.
It’s Spielberg being playful, it’s Spielberg being fluid in his direction, there are no quick cuts or edits here and as an audience we sit an applaud the audacity of the scene from its simple premise to it’s peerless execution.
9. The Vote – Lincoln (2012)
The first of the genuine punch the air moments of this countdown, the vote on whether to approve the thirteenth amendment of the US constitution, that if passed would abolish slavery and involuntary servitude. In what is possibly Spielberg’s most dialogue heavy film, with lengthy but always intriguing monologue upon monologue extolling the virtues of the argument on both sides, we are left in no doubt that this is going to be tight decision.
As anyone who knows their history, will know the outcome of the vote, so similar to the conundrum facing Ron Howard with Apollo 13, or to a lesser extent James Cameron with Titanic, the challenge here is to make a widely known outcome remain in the balance. Spielberg manages this by never really letting the audience in on the running total, by painting the moral dilemma across the faces of all those who’s role it is to cast a vote. Of course the outcome is a success but the feeling of euphoria as the final count is announced is sensational, hell even Tommy Lee Jones cracks a smile.
8. Mine Cart Chase – Temple of Doom
Bit of a marmite film in Spielberg’s filmography, over the years it appears that people really love it or really dislike it, there isn’t much middle ground. However, one thing pretty much all fans agree on is the rip-roaring mine cart chase in Pankot Palace’s rather spacious basement.
After avoiding turning to the Dark Side and rescuing Willie from a burning pit, our intrepid hero joins up with Short Round and Willie and attempts to escape the dungeon like mine that has housed all the villagers children. Indy manages to battle his way through henchman upon henchman, and manages to avoid being attacked via Voodoo and eventually overcome a big dude on the worlds slowest conveyor belt (Aldi would not be impressed).
Once that is out of the way, he swings on a conveniently placed chain, knocking more henchman off the platform towards a watery grave, and lands perfectly in the mine cart with Short Round and Willie. (Btw, that whole swinging sequence…..awesome). Choosing to ignore the good advice to take the left tunnel, Indy sets off on a ride that would have the queues backing up at Alton Towers. They are once again pursued by a bunch of foolhardy goons, who really should have known what was down the tunnel and therefore known it wasn’t going to end well.
Sure enough a handy railway sleeper in place the travelling morons are catapulted off the track and into the strangely lava filled abyss (are they in a volcano, what’s going on here?). Still our triumvirate press on, but another gang of idiots is in pursuit, and they try and steal Short Round. Another pesky trip hazard puts pay to them and all is clear, phew.
Only the problem is there’s a bit missing from the track, should have took the left tunnel Indy, and unlike Keanu driving his bomb ridden bus there is no one to put a mysterious little ramp to assist with clearing the canyon. Fortunately Indy and co are on a bit of downslope and manage to perform the perfect launch and landing you know as if it was all in a days work. Fantastic stuff, oh and then the breaks fail, and Indy teaches us all why it is so important to have a good pair of walking boots if going searching for fortune and glory. Hanging onto the out of control cart using his Karimor’s as a breaking mechanism, Indy brings the cart to a halt inches away from the crash barriers, getting some scorch burns in the process.
Yes they made it. Slight issue though, you see whilst Indy and co were having fun on the ride, colossal git Molaram decided to send a dam’s worth of water down the track to flush them out. Will they escape the torrent, you bet they will.
Joking aside, what we have here is Spielberg at his frenetic best. The action is fast and furious but we are never in doubt as to where we are up to, the quick cut editing that is often in play in modern action cinema is not here, the kinetic energy is such that we as an audience are transported onto that mine cart, it’s a pure thrill ride and for me the highlight of the film.
7. The first task – Ready Player One
There are people who claim that Spielberg doesn’t make exciting films anymore. In the past 10 years we have been treated to political grandstanding in the script heavy Lincoln, the worthy and noble War Horse and the Espionage thriller Bridge of Spies. Critics started to wonder whether this famed popcorn peddler had finally moved on, or maybe worse, even lost his touch on how to entertain the masses. His attempts at family friendly films such as The Adventures of Tintin (more on that soon) and The BFG had been technically wonderful but had struggled to find a huge audience. Some times even the best have to mine their back catalogue and so here we have it, Ready Player One, described by this very blogger as a Greatest Hits film from Spielberg.
That was my first reaction to seeing it at the cinema and like all Greatest Hits albums, you know all the tracks and you can sing along happily and it makes you think of times touched with nostalgia and warmth, but there is nothing new there.
On repeat viewings, (and Ready Player One hugely benefits from repeat viewing), it becomes clear that the film is so much more than just a glorified compilation album. This is Spielberg properly letting his hair down, you could argue he has not had as much fun since he introduced the world to DNA created dinosaurs on Isla Nublar.
This is never more demonstrated than the completion of the first task, where Spielberg throws enough pop culture references and Easter Eggs to keep even the most nostalgia cynic among the audience interested. Whether it an appearance from an old favourite, the T-Rex, to the rampaging Kong, we are treated to 5 minutes of breathtaking action, packed with thrills and spills. What’s most impressive in this sequence considering it was made at the height of MCU/DC battlegrounds, once again the editing is tight without ever being disorientating or confusing. Demonstrating a clear eye for detail their is no need to cut every half second, Spielberg once again shows that trust the audience, give them a chance to take in as much as possible and do it with enough bravado to want to watch it over and over again.
6. Trip through Bagghar – Tintin
Spielberg’s first all encompassing trip into Motion Capture is the not talked about enough “The Adventures of Tintin, the Secret of the Unicorn”. Yet another Spielberg that rewards repeat viewings as the level of detail here is quite phenomenal.
A film that is often described as an animated Indiana Jones films, the comparisons are fair and should be taken as a massive compliment. The scene pictured above where Tintin and Captain Haddock pursue the evil Red Rackham is a flashback to the motorbike and side car chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where dad and Indy clumsily fight off the German soldiers.
The scene in question, is a chase through the town of Bagghar which culminates with a quite staggering 5 minute single shot taking into account crumbling buildings, sliding buildings, raging rivers, rascally birds of prey and the money shot to end all money shots, a ride down an telephone wire desperately holding onto the remaining front wheel of the motorbike.
There is so much going on here, but once again you are never in doubt where the action is up to and it is a perfect demonstration of how motion capture can be used to astonishing effect. In a film packed full of beautiful moments and clever imagery, we have a scene that would not have looked out of place in one of our favourite Archaeologists films.
5. The Caravan on the Cliff – Jurassic Park:The Lost World
By the time The Lost World was released, everyone who had a passing interest in dinosaurs had probably seen Jurassic Park and marvelled at the CGI creations that still astonish today. The problem facing Spielberg on this sequel, a film that he has since admitted he made somewhat on auto-pilot, was how do you create that sense of wonder again? Unfortunately that moment never truly arrives, it’s more “oh look dinosaurs again…cool” rather than, Sam Neil’s eyes perfectly capturing the thoughts and reactions of the first film.
Before I go any further, I have to say that I actually enjoy lots of The Lost World, in particular one scene that I think is just phenomenal, namely the caravan on the cliff. Vince Vaughan and Julianne Moore are trying to fix the broken leg of an infant Tyrannosaur in the caravan before mum and dad notice that they are missing.
This scene actually starts with one of Spielberg’s funniest visual gags as Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Malcolm descends from the High Hide without gripping the rope properly.
We are then treated to an ominous overhead rustling of trees shot, as Malcolm (showing no sign of injury from his 50 foot plummet) joins Sarah and Nick in the caravan just as mum turns up………oh and she is not happy. The first indication that she is a tad vexed is a quite brilliant shot of a jeep being tossed over the side of the cliff like you would perhaps flick at annoying bug who maybe encroaching on your dinner. The parenting team of T-Rexs are suddenly there, giving a dual aspect threat on either side of the caravan, but they don’t attack. That’s because they know their infant is in there. It’s one of Spielberg’s less obvious depictions of a family dynamic, but the power is all there.
A few threatening nudges of the caravan that spells out the consequences if their young is not returned make the human trio see sense and attempt to return the offspring to the parents, once this has been done, the T-Rex’s retreat, but only to shelter their traumatised youngster. They are not going to let this kidnapping go unpunished.
“HANG ON TO SOMETHING!!” yell Nick and Ian in unison, well that is the understatement of the year as mum and dad open a giant can of dino whoopass on the caravan and push it gradually towards the cliff edge. Now this is double trailer so the delays and red herrings here are spectacular, as the first half of the caravan heads for the abyss it is caught by the heavier end, however Sarah can’t hold on and plummets presumably to a watery death, but she is stopped by the safety glass of the caravan………………which slowly but surely begins to crack under her weight.
Just in time, Ian catches Sarah just as falling equipment smashes the window. Left dangling in mid-air the T-Rex’s nip off, presumably for a coffee and hob-nob, and our trio have Eddie (the always great Richard Schiff) turn up to help them out of the stricken caravan. He manages to tie a rope around a tree (very Nedry-esq) and lower it for the trio to clamber onto. Realising the top half is now starting to slide on the mud towards the cliff top, Eddie attaches the caravan to the tow-cable on the front of his jeep and puts all power into the rear wheel drive and begins slowly but surely to pull the caravans back onto the cliff top.
Problem is coffee break is now over and mum and dad come back to complete their work, which is bad news for everyone, in particular Eddie, who despite the hob nobs is made short work of by Mr and Mrs Rex. Of course with Eddie out of the way there is no-one to control the Jeep which means the Jeep is now going to also make a swift exit in the only direction that it can, towards the cliff top taking the caravans with it with one of Spielberg’s most exhilarating shots.
It’s a shame in many ways that the film never really matches up to that 10 minutes, but when a film has such an outstanding scenes that appears to be several leagues higher than the rest of it, there is a tendency to dismiss everything that came before or after it, which actually does The Lost World a disservice as there is lots to enjoy throughout. However as stated at the start of this entry, despite this thrilling breathtaking scene, it misses that one breathtaking moment, which brings me sneakily onto the next entry.
4. The Brachiosaur reveal – Jurassic Park
The secret of a truly great cinematic moment is when it can still make you gasp in wonder, maybe get a lump in your throat or punch the air in sheer delight no matter how many times you have seen that moment. Think about the first time you saw the Death Star Destroyer streak across the starry sky, at the start of Star Wars, or Josh Baskin dancing on the floor piano in Big, or George laying out Biff in Back to the Future in one punch. These are moments that made us all fall in love with cinema and why we come back for more constantly, and also lead the passion for repeat viewings.
If people reading this can think back to the very first time they saw Jurassic Park, especially if you watched it on its original cinematic release, you will no doubt remember the gasp, and definitely in the screening I was in back in 1993, the cries of “woah” and believe it or not the small ripple of applause as we suddenly knew what Alan Grant had gone all wide eyed about as the beautiful, majestic Brachiosaur strode gracefully across the meadows of Jurassic Park.
I’m just going to pause slightly now, for dramatic effect. Seriously just think of that moment when you first saw that. In a film of outstanding set pieces, this moment of tranquility is the stand out moment for me. It makes me want to weep thinking about it, it makes me want to grab my kids and sit them in front of it and say “Watch this!!!” (they’ve all been made to sit through before of course). . I want to thank John Williams for having the good sense to drop the score completely from the approaching Jeep to the first site of the dinosaur. I want to thank Dennis Muren and his team for producing such a moment and Gary Rydstrom for having the beautiful sound configuration. But most of all It makes me want to say thank you to Steven Spielberg for believing and realising such a vision from the pages of Michael Crichton’s book. It is moments like this why we return to films over and over and put our faith in the power of Cinema to thrill and excite people, and at times like this it is more vital than ever for people to enjoy such perfection.
3. The Truck Chase – Raiders
In a film that was prepared and storyboarded down to the last spec of dust there is sensational set piece after sensational set piece. In a previous top 10 I ranked the iconic opening scene as Spielberg’s number 1 movie opening, here in the top 10 crowd pleasing moments I pick my favourite scene from Raiders for number 3, but rest assured this could have been higher if written on another day.
A scene perfectly choreographed, a scene that demonstrates practical stunt work of the highest standards that looks as fresh today as it did almost 40 years ago when made. It’s also an endearing scene for the characterisation of Indy, proof if proof were needed that this was no superhero, this was once again an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, (yes I appreciate he was only there because he wanted to be but still you get the point). From the moment that the trucks icon begins to bend under the weight of Indy we know that he is going to have to improvise to get out of this mess.
Of course, somebody like Tony Stark would have a built in gadget or some on the way from a distant A.I but Indy just has his strength and his whip, oh and his hat which remarkably he keeps hold of, even when making the perilous journey under the truck and then being dragged behind it holding onto the trusty whip, I suppose when a hat fits, a hat fits.
Similar to the Mine Cart chase from Temple of Doom, or even the chase through Bagghar in Tintin, we have a clear idea of who is where and what is happening. A lot of the credit must go to Michael Kahn and his editing team for keeping such a tight reign on proceedings.
It’s also a scene that helps demonstrates that the villains of the piece are not over the top demonic beasts, they to are fallible humans who have no answer to Indy’s attempts to ram them off the road.
In a scene packed with swing and counter swing I think my favourite part is when Indy is dragged behind the truck, it’s a moment that I still cheer enthusiastically today as if I’m watching Liverpool come from 3-0 down to beat Barcelona in the Champions League Semi-Final (if people don’t know what I’m talking about well take a look at this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HldRlTZj_g)
Indy may not have completely won the day with this scene, but the reason it is such a crowd pleaser is that it is a scene not only of excitement but one of hope, we all love to see the bad guys get a bit of beating and if nothing else this scene helps reassure that perhaps everything is going to be ok……as long as whatever we do, we don’t look at it.
2. E.T and Elliot take flight
One of the most iconic images of Cinema for that there is absolutely no doubt, but it is the moment 35 seconds prior to this that is the true moment of unadulterated joy. Elliot with E.T as his passenger rides through the woods and comes to what he believes to be a dead-end. Not so as E.T uses his kinetic powers to take control and speeds off into the mist heading straight for the cliff edge (more cliff edges), and then it happens……just as they are about to plunge into the chasm they take off, with John Williams’s iconic Flying theme hitting the perfect musical cue for company.
Away they soar above the trees, the glorious, luscious trees, with their bustling wildlife and the endless possibilities of uninhibited adventure, this is every childs dream and Steven Spielberg captured it perfectly. It is best summed up, when moments after the iconic trip in front of the moon, Elliot lets out a triumphant cheer, yes Elliot we are with you all the way, this is just wonderful.
There really isn’t an awful lot more I can say about this scene, that hasn’t been said numerous times before, but once again it is an absolute gift of a scene and one that it is very difficult to imagine modern cinema without it.
1. The Mothership lands – CE3K
Whenever I have been asked in the past, what is about Spielberg that makes you such a fan, the first thing I mention is the last 30 minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I feel if there is anyone who wishes to know what Spielberg has to offer the world I would show them this.
I don’t think Close Encounters is Spielberg’s best made film but I have made no secret over the years that it is my personal favourite (and we all know there is some insanely good competition). I also think thematically it is the quintessential Spielberg film. It’s all here, ordinary man in extraordinary situation, a difficult and testing family lives, including the ubiquitous absent parenting. There is also the child eyes looking with wonder at what is often a scary world for adults. There is the music, perfectly put together by the maestro, and then there is the magic and wonder, the light show, the star lit skies, the shooting stars, it is all there, it is Spielberg summed up in 2 and a bit hours.
However, nothing comes close to the last 30 minutes. Almost balletic in its execution, dialogue is at an absolute minimum as humans and aliens communicate through light and music. We watch events unfold, like Roy (played with childlike enthusiasm by Richard Dreyfuss) with a huge grins on our faces, praying that this is actually happening. We are treated to a visit from 3 sentry spaceships sent on ahead, who perform a dance like joust above the humans before retreating from whence they came.
This is just the appetiser to the main course, which arrives in a cacophony of rumble and yet more dazzling light shows as the mother-ship, with the size and look of a small city arrives and descends onto the landing strip. There then follows the music and light spectacular, which if real would have been one of the finest classical music concerts ever. It is truly breathtaking and I absolutely love it.
What makes it interesting now is that it has been described by some as quite a dour ending, with Roy abandoning his family to follow his dreams, in fact Spielberg has been quoted as saying he would struggle to make such an ending if he made it today. Due to studio pressure, Spielberg went back to Close Encounters in 1980 and added extra scenes including the interior of the mother-ship, which isn’t as bad as people claim it is, it just doesn’t really add anything.
I was recently asked to list my film choices for a film version of Desert Island Discs and it will be no surprise to any of you who have read this far that Close Encounters was the number one pick. The brilliance of Spielberg is that is left with any one of his films, I would be kept entertained during my time there, but Close Encounters will always be my go to.
Thanks for reading