When I was 7 years old, a movie about darkness and the light changed my path in the universe forever. I became a scoundrel in love with a space princess with cinnamon buns on her head. I piloted a banged up space freighter with a giant walking dog as my best friend and a disgruntled and petulant Jedi with mommy issues had me frozen in carbonite. Coming up with a list of only 7 of the greatest movie scenes that shaped me required starting with over 100 and crossing some great cinematic moments off the list. If my head was in a better place, this might have been a very different list — but it has not been that kind of summer.
Over the past five decades, I have subjected myself to almost 5,700 movies and with a movie collection that approaches almost 3,700 titles, I have invested most of my life to cinema. When I was not taking shots in the crease and pretending to be Ken Dryden, I was sneaking out of class and walking down Eglinton Avenue in Toronto to the Eglinton Theatre to enjoy hundreds of films during my childhood and adolescence.
While in Toronto recently, luck had me run past the former movie palace that is now an event space for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and corporate functions and just seeing the building for the first time in many years stirred up a lot of emotions.
What makes a movie scene great? Its popularity as a piece of pop culture certainly qualifies as an important criteria, but that doesn’t mean that it resonated with me in any meaningful way.
Tom Cruise sliding across the living room floor in his underwear in Risky Business lip syncing along with Bob Seeger was a memorable scene because I was doing the same thing at the time; I just lacked the courage to do it with my father’s McIntosh system because he could tell when someone touched it from 1,000 miles away while on vacation with my mother. It was a fun scene, but not one that I still think about almost 35 years later.
Please chime in with your own in the comments section but these scenes hold particular meaning for me.
Mark Spitz never game me swimming lessons at Forest Valley Day Camp, so when my father tossed me into the waters off Cape Cod in July of 1976, my body went into immediate panic mode. The water was only 2-3′ deep, but my brain had still not come to terms with the concept of being eaten by a great white shark after watching Jaws the year before. I watch the film once a year and still stand on the beach only blocks from my house on the Jersey Shore and stare into the surf and wonder. Available at Amazon.
Lawrence of Arabia
Having crossed Sinai and stood on the shores of Aqaba staring into Eilat over dinner with Israeli and Jordanian associates, my appreciation of David Lean’s epic tale is very different at 52; I watched the film for the first time as a kid on a 28-inch Zenith which really didn’t do the film justice. When the film was restored and released as a limited run, I took a date with me to see it. She hated it. I barely noticed that she was there. Barbarous and cruel. Available at Amazon.
Almost 78 years have passed, and there are few films that can rival the brilliant screenplay of this Billy Wilder gem. Dialogue is everything and Hollywood has seemingly forgotten that a film requires it to be great. Barbara Stanwyck could have charmed (or scared) the pants off of anyone and her fiery delivery in this noir classic is only matched by the brilliant performances of Edward G. Robinson and Fred MacMurray. It is somewhat appalling that an entire generation of moviegoers have probably never seen this cinematic hellfire that broke every rule and changed American cinema forever. Available at Amazon.
It must have been the wind. Elaine May was both beautiful and hysterical in this Carl Reiner film that has long been forgotten. If you have ever performed live, this is the worst case of stage fright in cinematic history. Reni Santoni had a rather successful career post, but his delivery in the opening night scene makes this one of the funniest moments onscreen. Goodbye Angela. Thank you Harriet.
William Holden finally received the recognition he deserved with Stalag 17, and Sefton barely makes it out alive after the final confrontation and escape. The film inspired countless WW II escape dramas and Hogan’s Heroes which kept the memory of the film alive for another generation to explore. My favorite film of all-time and a final scene that has few rivals for the tension and quality of the dialogue. Available at Amazon.
Indiana has been made popular again as the setting for Stranger Things, but my film memory takes me back to smaller films like Hoosiers, and Breaking Away that championed the underdog; the championship game footage and winning basket are certainly an emotional lift but the final moments from the race where the Cutters win the famed bike race in their hometown against the snobby rich kids from Indiana University is a genuine moment of triumph for the working class kids. Dennis Quaid and Paul Dooley are particularly strong in the film and it has never lost its charm. Available at Amazon.
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Worrying and Love The Bomb
The most important anti-war film outside of Paths of Glory, and another masterpiece from Kubrick who made both films. An all-star cast makes this darkly funny and scary film relevant regardless of when you were born and it is hard not to marvel at the performances of Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers who turn in one great scene after another. There is an intelligence and hard nosed edge to the dialogue that makes the film resonate even more as Russia, Ukraine, and NATO fight a pointless conflict overseas. An astonishingly bad idea to say the least. Available at Amazon.