Best of 2020: Top 10 Movie Scenes

We return to the movies, and to a list that’s always fun to write – even, as it turns out, when there aren’t all that many movies to choose from. Because I tried to widen my movie-watching scope to fit what was available this year (especially when it came to horror films and/or films with bad reviews), I feel like I was surprised by movie scenes more than usual; even if that’s all in my head, I definitely get to talk about some real corkers this year.

Quite a few of these scenes are more about execution than narrative surprise, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is always the most spoiler-heavy list of the year. Proceed with caution.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

THERE ARE HUGE MOVIE SPOILERS ON THIS PAGE.

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10. Demon Bear Battle – The New Mutants

Yes, this is a scene that actually happens in the otherwise low-energy, high-angst teen-fiction-esque The New Mutants. Right at the end there is a giant, multicoloured spirit-bear-thing that arrives to destroy absolutely everything – I’m pretty sure it makes slightly more sense in context. The bear immediately solves one of the main problems faced by our principal gang of super-powered misfits, creates a brand-new one straight afterwards, and then proceeds to save the movie. We finally get to see the young mutants act like a team and use their formerly-mysterious powers in tandem, shipping in some emotional payoff where there wasn’t much earlier.

9. The Mall – Wonder Woman 1984

The opening action set-piece of Wonder Woman 1984 is sprawling, dramatic and epic, but it almost plays like its own weirdly unrelated short film. The second one is really something else, though. Anyone who grew up watching live action comic book adaptations of any kind before the turn of the century will find something to cringe at here, from airborne launches that look like they don’t have the budget to cover up the wire work, to cartoony spins as baddies are left in a daze, to Wonder Woman’s centre-frame commercial-ready wink at a wide-eyed child. Oh yeah, and the establishing shots for the scuffle literally start by panning up from a pair of leg warmers, then moving through neon-saturated streets and corridors lined with garish ’80s shoulder pads and perms. WW84 is absolutely in on the joke and the gleeful nostalgia had me grinning in disbelief the whole time.

8. “That almost hit me!” – The Hunt

By the time offbeat slasher-thriller The Hunt saw release it was already embroiled in enough weird, un-earned controversy to overshadow any cool plot surprises it wanted to pull, but I didn’t know about any of that when I sat down to watch just about any movie I could get my eyes on at home in March 2020. I saw Emma Roberts was in it and thought that’d be a bit of B-movie fun, and sure enough hers is the perspective we follow as a group of strangers wake up in a Hunger Games-like field arena, with only a giant crate to use as cover from the snipers cruelly picking them off. It’s a fabulously tense sequence as our protagonist just avoids a fatal bullet- then, nope, I guess she isn’t our protagonist anymore. Ouch.

7. Rider vs Saber Alter – FSN Heaven’s Feel III

This is it: This is the kind of year that a scene from an anime movie can finally make it onto this list. In fairness, the fight at the climax of the three-movie adaptation of Fate Stay Night: Heaven’s Feel decades in the making is quite simply the most visually impressive anime fight I have ever seen. Coming from the vaunted studio behind last year’s runaway success Demon Slayer – as well as many earlier Fate adaptations – this battle makes needlessly rich use of every frame to sell each strike, each recoil and each strategic change; then a foreshadowed combination of abilities goes off and it just about blows away the back of the screen you’re watching.

6. Emergency Haircut – Soul

I know I said this page would feature spoilers, but at the time of writing Soul’s release is barely days old and a couple of reviews have pointed out that this scene isn’t highlighted in any of the trailers or posters. It turns out that’s because of the hidden plot logistics that not only set up the need for the scene, but also give it any level of narrative tension – so I won’t mention them specifically. Aside from that, this looks and feels like the most everyday, run-of-the-mill set of interactions in the whole (often very weird) movie. It’s certainly the warmest on a human level, and the brilliant thing is that you don’t realise just how important that is until the movie is ready to make its final point 45 minutes later. The scene is also Daveed Diggs’ biggest moment to shine within the movie, which is a nice bonus.

5. The Doctor Gets Down – Sonic the Hedgehog

You just have to have a dance scene on one of these lists if there’s one up for grabs, and Jim Carrey gave us an unexpectedly bombastic one at the beginning of 2020. Just as we’re starting to learn what makes his version of Dr Robotnik tick within the movie, the guy retreats into his gigantic space-age van, boots up some machines to analyse a sample of the blue blur, spins up Where Evil Grows by The Poppy Family (from his “Tunes of Anarchy” playlist, naturally) and shows us just how much he uh… believes in himself. The huge, rigid arcs of his dance moves – paired with devious ear-to-ear stage grin – call to mind the days of Ace Ventura and The Mask, and the way the sequence ends is one of the only teeny-tiny glimpses of humanity in Carrey’s performance.

4. Got His Eye on You – Fatman

Not many people will see Fatman, which is perfectly understandable – it has an even lower budget than its pretty well-constructed obfuscating trailer hints at, and it stars Mel Gibson. I probably wouldn’t even have seen it in a normal year. But despite an extremely annoying spoilt-child villain and a distinct lack of action, it has its moments, and one of them at the very end is a shockingly good bit of B-grade cinema that throws all of the above into a cocktail of grindhouse anti-horror greater than the sum of its parts. It lasts barely a minute and involves an eye patch served up with an incredible bit of far-fetched catharsis. Think the ending group shot of X2 mixed with the Joker reveal from the 1989 Batman and you’ve got the idea.

3. Inverse Car Chase – Tenet

Like much of the movie as a whole, the how and why of the half-forwards-half-backwards car chase right in the middle of Tenet is almost more interesting than the what, the where and the who. Filmed in Estonia by a massive crew over weeks of real stunt driving, elaborate camera setups and knifepoint to-the-second choreography demanding countless re-adjustments, the sheer dedication to a thrilling sequence that many will assume is just CGI shines through the frame. It’s just as well the movie has to show the chase twice by virtue of its structure, because the second time not only pays off the plot seeding from the earlier run but also shines a light on just how technically ambitious the set piece truly is.

2. Finale – Onward

To think Pixar almost didn’t make us cry this year. For long stretches of its runtime Onward plays like a pretty cookie-cutter animated caper with much better animation than most, but not much else standing out above the increasingly-decent competition (or its own, better cousin Soul). The cast is far smaller than many of the studio’s best efforts, and the cool idea of a magic-infused world packed with fantasy creatures that grew lazy thanks to modern technology is definitely underused. But the whole time, the simple story of two elf brothers travelling across the country for one extra day with their deceased dad is really setting up a gut-punch of an ending. It would take too many words to explain the mechanics that sell the final selfless act of the younger brother, but suffice to say if you were fortunate enough to grow up with a sibling, you should be prepared for waterworks at the end of this one.

1. One Chase, One Take – Extraction

Statistically, you probably watched Extraction if you have a Netflix account – It was already the streaming service’s most watched original film ever in the middle of 2020. If you haven’t, it’s a competent-enough action romp with a novel Bangladeshi setting utilising a surprising amount of Marvel Studios personnel both in front of and behind the camera. But the one reason to watch it isn’t any of these things – it’s the flat-out bonkers twelve-minute action sequence edited to look like one continuous take. It takes place right around the middle of the movie and sees the camera weave in and out of buildings, in and out of cars and car chases (yes, plural), sometimes following our stoic Chris Hemsworth-powered protagonist closely, sometimes hanging back to take in more of the chaos. He alternates pursuing and being pursued, but the whole time the momentum onscreen is absolutely breathtaking. No genre suffered more from pandemic delays in 2020 than big-budget action, so the idea that we got a scene like this in our own homes is one worth celebrating. I forgot to blink for long stretches of it.

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Honorable Mentions

–The Dinner – The Invisible Man

The final word of this inventive thriller goes to Elizabeth Moss’ tortured protagonist, who finally gets a good look at the movie’s titular madman face-to-face as he attempts to justify and/or deny any of the wrongdoing most of the movie has shown us (or not shown us, if you wanna be cute about it). The way it concludes is simultaneously satisfying and frustrating in a thematically apt way.

–Hiring a Prosecutor – Trial of the Chicago 7

I went into this movie without much knowledge of who was behind it, but the first cramped-room scene – ablaze as it is with zinging dialogue, characters who cannot wait to show you how clever they are and mountains of rapid cuts – just screams Aaron Sorkin. I dig the guy’s larger-than-life bottle episode energy and this opener emphatically sets the tone for the kind of movie you can expect.

–Final Showdown – Freaky

The set-up for the final living room battle of Freaky makes so little sense it’s almost like it knows its a time-honoured slasher trope that doesn’t have to. But the scene, which pits our stock serial killer against un-body-swapped protagonist Millie, her sister and mother, recovers in time for a gruesome finishing blow and my favourite closing line delivery since the Hanna movie almost a decade ago.

–Mank’s Manifesto – Mank

Right before Mank draws to a close, our protagonist’s loud, drunken monologue as he circles a room full of ludicrously-dressed Hollywood elite wearing scandalised expressions is pretty much just an excuse for Gary Oldman to do precisely what he does best – and in the most Gary Oldman way possible. The scenery never stood a chance.

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