To construct a great film, every detail has to be considered. Every shot, every line, every scene has to be carefully crafted to pack the perfect punch. But no matter how good the film, so often there is one scene, in particular, that stands out above the rest. Becoming one of the most famous movie scenes ever.
When these scenes happen, they are momentous to watch. More than anything, they grip you, reeling you in from the outside world. At that moment, you are in a heated gunfight, you are on the dancefloor, you are in a Mexican standoff. We love those moments, so here are our picks for the best and most famous movie scenes of all time.
Let’s begin with one of the most powerful movie openings in all of cinema history and one of the best movie scenes of all time. Saving Private Ryan’s storming of Omaha Beach. A credit to this harrowing scene is just how difficult it is to watch.
As the British and American soldiers seemingly charge towards inevitable death, Speilberg seems to pick the most crucial and nightmarish of details in every shot.
The rattle of the gunfire feels so real. Thanks to a mixture of the director’s wishes for each cinema that played the film to raise the volume as high as possible. Also, that the gunfire you hear in the scene was recorded specifically with rifles of the period to enhance the brutal realism of this scene.
This scene is the definition of the word gritty. Its colours were reduced by 60% by Spielberg to emphasize the bleak nature of the D-Day landings. Although not always remembered with a smile, this battle scene is definitely one that has left audiences awestruck for over 20 years.
Although short, what stands out most is its potency. Hauer’s character, Roy Batty is an AI knowingly taking his final breaths. In his ode to life, he talks about having “seen things you people wouldn’t believe”. These powerful 42 words echo Batty’s confrontation with mortality. They make him, the robot, seem more human than the unemotive main character Deckard. A robot created to kill, who in an act of poetic defiance, saves a life.
Casablanca may be the ultimate statement of second-world-wartime cinema. And in fact one of the defining films of the Old Hollywood Era. It’s tricky to pick a scene from one of the most quoted pieces of cinema. We could have gone for the heart-melting “heres looking at you kid” or even the fate sealed “of all the bars in all the world” scenes.
But instead, we’re opting for the most classic and famous movie scenes of them all. This film’s conclusion, which involves Humphrey Bogart’s Rick walking away with Major Louis Renault to go and fight in the war together, after giving up his love for Ilsa, and saving her to jet off with her war hero husband.
This scene isn’t just what’s on the surface, the glittering lights of the runway and the mystery of Casablanca in the 1940s, it’s also symbolic. The ‘beautiful friendship’ that Rick describes was a description of America’s increasing involvement in support of the Allies in World War II.
Next, it’s time for one of the most undeniably sad scenes in all of cinema, but still one of the most famous movie scenes ever. This is Jesses’ Song from the award-winning Toy Story 2.
This scene has broken the heart of adults and kids alike as we found out about the franchises’ newest character ‘Jessie’ and her tragic backstory.
The solemn and mellow guitar twangs of ‘When She Loved Me’, play over the Cowgirl’s story of love and abandonment, it really sets the tone.
The scene also is created with a glorious golden glow that echoes throughout. It heightens the sense of reminiscence Jessie feels remembering her old owner as if they were the ‘golden days’.
The autumn leaves when Jessie is left at an old toy donations truck suggest that ever-present sense of change. That same sadness of going from summer to winter is echoed in Jessie’s sadness. Going from playing with her owner to no longer being wanted.
For a supposed kids movie, the detail in this scene is fantastic. It will continue to stand out as a defining pillar of digital animation for decades and one of the best movie scenes of all time.
Next, let’s go for something a little bit more cheerful. One of the most famous dance scenes in movies. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
While the whole film may not be ‘cheerful’ as much as it is dark, stylish, and violent. The style is no more prominent than in the ever-iconic dance scene at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Rather than go into the deep subtextual details of this dance, as many film buffs have been for a number of years now. It might be better to appreciate the subtle detail of this moment.
After this scene we see Vincent and Mia (the dancers) waltzing home with the trophy. We assume, unsurprisingly, that they won the competition. However, later in the film, we hear on a television broadcast very faintly, that the dance trophy had been stolen from the Diner.
Whether it was the flirtatious pair remains unknown. But in Tarantino’s winding and the ever-connected cinematic world, the link seems likely. A brilliant unknown detail of an iconic dance scene.
From a shocking secret now to a shocking surprise. The ending of The Usual Suspects. This was one twist scene that no one saw coming.
The moment the movie’s main character, Verbal Kint, with his signature limp all of a sudden breaks into a handsome stride is eye-wideningly good. The Usual Suspects plays a master hand in having a story so good, you never even think that the murderer might be making it up.
You can see the film demonstrating just how effective parallel editing can be in the right hands as we cut between Verbal Kint leaving the police station and the Detective realizing everything he’s been told was false.
Watching these two threads unravel and tie the plot up perfectly at the same time makes for a wondrous few minutes to close out a wondrous film.
There have been many sad scenes in cinema, and while not the only one on this list. Interstellars’ ‘Years Of Messages’ scene is maybe the most unique and best movie scenes of all time.
We watch Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper watch back the years of messages his son and daughter have been sending. In his deep space travels, time has slowed for him. And a few hours in the outer reaches of a faraway galaxy have become 30 years on earth. He watches years of messages from his son who grows up, falls in love, has, and then loses a child. He then ultimately gives up on sending out messages to his space wandering father.
The gravity of this scene hits like a steam train. It’s rammed home by Mcconaughey’s heartbreaking performance. He is lost somewhere between pride, devastation, and longing to be back with his kids. Although an incredibly adventurous film, this scene is resoundingly human.
The heightening of surrealism in American Psycho continues to ramp up throughout the film. The first time we see this almost dream-like style of filmmaking is in the business card scene. Patrick Bateman and his wall street cronies and competitors compare business cards in the boardroom.
As each card is taken out, every minor detail matters. The differences between ‘bone’ and ‘eggshell’ colouring, even the flat and raised lettering. The further surreal swooshes of the cards as they are taken out of overpriced holders. To be compared only serve to heighten the tension in this scene as the materialistic men compete with each other.
This film is a deconstruction of the misdeeds of those people. This scene sows the seeds for the chaos that will ensue throughout the rest of it. The palpable tension across that table is simply unforgettable and almost comically good. Making it one of the best movie scenes of all time.
If that last scene was tense, then we’re not sure what this one is. Here is another of the most famous movie scenes – No Country For Old Men. What stands out most is the performances. Javier Bardem’s undefeatable, subdued yet chaotic, Anton Chigurh holds the life of the gas station clerk in his hands. He almost seems to play death itself in this scene, butting the life or death of an innocent man down to the heads and tails on a coin.
Most impressively, this scene has no music, and the silence is deafening. You could slice the nervous energy of the clerk (expertly played by Gene Jones) with a butter knife, here, the quiet speaks volumes of the two men that take centre stage. This scene also features glorious cinematography, like a lingering shot of a crumpled sweet wrapper slowly uncoiling itself on the till – almost in surrender to Chigur’s menacing and fearsome nature.
This scene is a classic, but also a go-to if you’d like a movie induced heart attack.
How could we not include this scene? Maybe one of the most famous in cinema history – Rocky 2. Rocky trains for his big fight with some certifiably iconic horns in the background, the score seeming to inspire him as he sprints through the streets.
Not only does this scene represent Rocky’s rise to success with hard work, but also that of Sylvester Stallone himself who was a desperate, yet unsuccessful actor in Hollywood, parking cars part-time, and a year later at the Oscars.
Two of the truest rags to riches stories around. The training scene isn’t much of an action scene, but it’s proof that it’s the climb sometimes, which is the most important part. But it definitely leads to the best fight scene of all time.
When it comes to musical scenes, it’s truly difficult to make a choice, do we go for classics like the sensational opening of Mary Poppins? Singing In The Rain? The Time Of My Life scene in Dirty Dancing? All the above-mentioned song and dance scenes would have fitted onto this list nicely, but ultimately, it was hard to see past Summer Nights from Grease.
Sure the high school kids look like 30-year-olds, sure the lyrics make you cringe a little, but isn’t that part of the charm? This classic love story has been a mainstay in many families’ DVD collections for years. The simple, yet classic story this scene tells of a summer romance that felt like a dream is endearing in its exuberance of 60’s swagger. John Travolta is a star, and this is hands down one of the best movie scenes ever.
To round up this list, how about we finish it on one of the greatest cliffhangers of all time. By that, we mean the spinning top finale of Inception. Also known as one of the best movie scenes of all time.
Leo Dicaprio’s Dom Cobb is finally home with his kids after a tumultuous time dipping between dreams and reality. He has a spinning top to help him distinguish between the two, if it falls eventually – he is in reality, if it keeps on spinning – he is in a dream.
Just as you think you’ve got the happy ending, he decides to spin his top. As he greets his family, we close in on the spinning top, still spinning, still spinning, still spinning, to Hans Zimmer’s magnetic ‘Time’ Main score. Just as you think it’s certain he might be in a dream, the top gives the faintest of wobbles, suggesting maybe, just maybe, it might fall, but before we can find out, it cuts to black.
Master filmmaking, a masterful ending scene, and a perfect finale to our list of the most famous movie scenes! Hopefully, at least one of your favourites are mentioned here, but let us know if we’ve missed out your favourite in the comments below!
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I agree with just about every one of those – great list! I could add another hundred to it – The Battle for Helms Deep in Lord of the Rings, the first time we see the mother ship in Close Encounters of a Third Kind, the end-twist in The Sixth Sense, finding out the it was all in his head in A Beautiful Mind, the breakout in
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