Scene one, hot take one: Three top films of the decade and the scenes that made them the best

5 characters from various movies are featured across a film strip.
(Waverly Wang • The Student Life)

This article contains spoilers.

As February comes to a close and January is far in the rearview mirror, now is as good a time as any to look back on the films of the previous decade and celebrate three of the era’s best films, as well as one scene from each film that captures why that film is the best of the best.

“The Tree of Life” (2011)

Terrence Malick’s masterwork on the human experience stands out as the best film of the decade. The semi-autobiographical film follows an aged Jack (Sean Penn) looking back at his upbringing in Waco, Texas, as well as the birth of the universe itself. The genius of the film lies in its ability to find the greatest meaning in the smallest of moments. 

Take for example its opening scene, wherein Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) delivers a monologue over sweeping shots of miscellaneous moments in Jack’s childhood. She explains that nature is a domineering force that only works to please itself, represented in the film by Jack’s father (Brad Pitt), while grace is a force that bends to the forces around it and embraces all with love, represented by Jack’s mother.

This metaphorical war between nature and grace is the central conflict of the film. Malick’s choice to treat the seemingly meaningless shots of Jack’s childhood with the same grandiosity as the birth of the universe allows the audience to find their meaning of life in both its smallest and biggest moments.

“The Master” (2012)

Ever since his entrance into the mainstream with “Boogie Nights,” Paul Thomas Anderson has dominated the cinematic discourse with every new film he makes. In the 2010s, Anderson’s cinematic dominance was best represented by “The Master.”

The film follows Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he searches for purpose by seeking the help of a cult leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The film is Anderson’s most mature effort to date and follows themes of anger, power and love present in the friendship between these two men, which is best represented by the film’s pivotal processing scene.

At its surface, the scene is quite simple. The scene depicts Dodd making Quell take an oral exam where Quell is asked questions about his life in order to become a member of Dodd’s church. Quell begins the processing by making a mockery of the questions as Dodd plays along.

However, once Dodd instructs Quell to not blink during a round of questioning, Quell’s defense mechanisms seem to shut off. In this round, Quell reveals his darkest secrets to a monotone Dodd. While Quell is seemingly breaking down, Dodd remains completely still and calm in asking the questions.

This scene is shot in a simple series of shot-reverse shots, over-the-shoulder shots and close-up shots of Quell and Dodd. The only movement in these shots is Quell’s fidgeting as the processing gets more intense; meanwhile, Dodd remains unemotional. By having Dodd remain as still as the camera, Anderson makes it clear to the audience that Dodd is completely in control of the scene and even the camera itself.

The camera’s stillness contrasts with Quell’s nervous movements, reinforcing the clinical aspect of the processing while highlighting the juxtaposition of anger and control that lingers over the entire film. The power struggle between these two men is what makes the film so captivating, and is represented best by this signature processing scene.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)

It wouldn’t be a white guy’s list of the best films of the decade without at least some mention of the Coen brothers, who delivered one of their best films in 2013 with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film follows the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk musician mourning the death of his collaborator and giving it one last shot at making it in the music industry.

The genius of this typical struggling artist story lies in the film’s absolute refusal to find nobility in the typical struggling artist. Sure, Davis is a good musician, but he’s just not good enough to really break through — setting this film firmly in the genre of tragicomedy. 

Take for example the film’s climactic “Queen Jane” scene. After some darkly comic misadventures, Davis finally makes it to an audition for a record deal, where he is asked to perform for top executive Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).

All of the scene is set to finally be Davis’ big moment as he sings his heart out while the camera lovingly pushes closer and closer on his face. For a moment, the audience even believes that this moment Davis gets his big break — that is, until the camera cuts to the plain-faced executive, who deals the final blow-turned-punchline: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

In that final line, we learn everything we need to know about Davis’ life as musician: He will never make it. This one scene is the most pure representation of this darkly comic masterpiece, communicating the message that some people are just doomed to be the lovable loser.

Ben Hafetz PZ ’20 is one of TSL’s film columnists. He is a media studies and politics double major who likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.

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