Great movie moments remind us why we love film, so I’ve compiled a handy list of the 100 best moments in the history of cinema.
100. ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ — the Fire Escape Scene
The fire escape scene at the end of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and the ensuing struggle on a fire truck’s extension ladder is the culmination of a batshit crazy movie taken to absurd extremes. What makes this scene so memorable is the way it uses physical comedy as a tool for visual storytelling. It’s the epitome of the old writing adage “show don’t tell.” By using zany antics, it shows how greed destroys all reason and crushes the human soul yet never preaches a word. That’s what the best slapstick comedies did in the glory days of silent movies — they used the emerging language of cinema to tell wacky stories about the most important social issues of the time. The climax of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World harkens back to those roots, paying homage to likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and especially Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock face in Safety Last! (1923), but on a grander more gonzo scale.
99. ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ — the Fugazi Scene
During his cameo in Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Matthew McConaughey delivers the best performance of his career with his “fugazi speech.” What makes this moment so entertaining is how McConaughey completely eviscerates Wall Street and the entire financial services industry in simple comic language even a coked-up hooker could understand. In the process, he shines a bright light on the ugly reality of modern capitalism and reveals why the foundation of our economy is so rotten at its core. The whole time, Leonardo DiCaprio sits there dumbly as a proxy for us. He asks the same questions we would ask. His naïveté about the inner workings of the world of money is on full display but the glint in his eyes tells us everything we need to know about the human condition: we’re all seduced by the promise of riches.
98. ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ — the Leatherface Ending
Pure terror is the rawest emotion cinema can deliver and no movie moment will make you shit your pants like the ending of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
In the last scene, the heroine — if she can be called that — survives a brutal nightmare that was all too real. But as she rides away in the bed of a pickup truck, she lets out a scream that tells us she’ll never be the same. Neither will we. There is no catharsis in her scream, no closure, no happy conclusion to her horrifying story. Her panicked wail is the cry of a generation forever haunted by the senseless failure of Vietnam, disillusioned by Watergate, and gutted by watching their peers and leaders gunned down in the streets. She lets us know we’re all forever fucked.
Meanwhile, Leatherface lumbers around the middle of the road, swinging his churning chainsaw like a scythe as a new day dawns. The evil that slaughters our youth and murders innocence remains unvanquished. The final image of his manic behavior perfectly captures the existential dread of living in America during the nineteen seventies.
97. ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ — the Dance Scene
Philip Roth’s controversial 1969 coming-of-age novel Portnoy’s Complaint is nothing more than a long setup for a punchline only a Catskill comedian would deliver. Similarly, Napoleon Dynamite (2004) is a meandering coming-of-age movie designed with only moment in mind. But Napoleon Dynamite’s climatic talent show performance is no lame joke. Rather, it’s a rousing payoff that satisfies in a way most movies never accomplish. That’s because the fluidity and energy of Dynamite’s dance routine comes as a complete surprise. Up until this point in the film, actor Jon Heder plays the laconic Dynamite to awkward perfection. He’s an adolescent outsider uncomfortable in his growing body, a high schooler so shy and socially maladjusted he’s painful to watch. The film derives its pleasure and humor from the dorkiness of Dynamite and his equally dorky friends; the idea of him performing at the school talent show fills us with cringeworthy dread. That’s what great cinema does — it makes us care about fictional characters as if they were real. When to our astonishment Dynamite nails his dance, we share his triumph. We were all angst-filled teenagers once upon a time. Then the music stops and a terrified Dynamite rushes off stage. Reality hits us. This is not a star-is-born story but just small victory in a cruel world.
96. ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ — the Final Scene
At its heart, An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) is about the struggles of working class Americans, a topic Hollywood religiously avoids unless it’s a sports movie. So when Richard Gere walks into the paper factory at the end of the film and sweeps Debra Winger off her feet, there is more at stake than just love. Her socio-economic status is about to change. She’s moving up in the world, up where she belongs as the swelling music so aptly tells us. That’s why the women in the factory applaud, especially her mom and best friend. Not because she found a handsome man to marry, but because she won the golden ticket. Her days of blue collar drudgery are over. It’s Hollywood’s classic fairy tale ending, with a twist. Her Prince Charming comes from similar working-trash stock, but through sheer determination, turns himself into an American archetype: a Navy flyboy in the sexy white uniform of an officer. The final scene is a romantic visualization of the Horatio Alger myth. It confirms hard work, honesty, and courage can rise you out of poverty and shitty circumstances, but even more importantly, it shows love conquers all. That’s why the film’s iconic last scene still resonates decades after its release. Even the most cynical among us want to believe in the power of love, and we also want to believe the sky is the limit for our dreams. We want to believe the fantasy.