Best of 2021: Top 10 Movie Scenes

When you bring back blockbuster movies, you bring back spectacle and surprise and scale, and that makes this year’s list very different from 2020’s. Though I really did enjoy putting together last year’s list, the bombastic highlights were much easier to pick in 2021; in fact there are multiple films on this page packing more than one worthy scene, so I had a grand old time choosing. We’re looking at plenty of big action beats, coils of tension, a surprise or two, and a whole heap of spoilers.

Seriously, don’t read this if there were any big movies you missed in 2021 – especially that really recent big one that everyone’s been talking about.

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VR BEST OF 2021 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 beyond unlikely. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

HUGE SPOILERS FOLLOW!

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10. Train Fight – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

For my third mention of Shang-Chi this week, we have this fabulous character-revealing martial arts platform from the film’s first act. The one-vs-many showdown on a bendy-bus is actually quite similar in both setting and narrative purpose to another great sequence in Nobody, but of the two I think this one is more flashy and fun. With great choreography, every kind of dynamic camera move in the book, well-paced comedic beats, a properly crunchy soundtrack, and a (literally) crowd-pleasing final move, the constant momentum of the fight makes it easily the action highlight of the movie’s first two hours.

9. Scorpion vs Sub-Zero – Mortal Kombat

Speaking of martial arts scenes, Mortal Kombat fans get to see two rounds of the series’ most iconic rivalry in action within the 2021 movie of the same name: Once when neither combatant has reached the full extent of their powers in the extended prologue, and once for the grand finale of the whole (and I use this word loosely) plot. The second fight doesn’t really do anything super different from previous movie iterations; it’s really just playing the hits with much higher-quality stunt work and special effects. But the build-up to Scorpion’s re-entrance is a lot of fun, and if the thing you pay to see in a Mortal Kombat movie is the best thing about that movie, it’s kinda hard to complain.

8. The Hardware Store – Nobody

I’ve already mentioned that train scene from earlier in the film, but the final action set piece of Nobody is even more memorable. Rather than going for shock and awe, the hardware store shootout climax aims for cartoonish carnage as Bob Odenkirk, RZA and none other than Christopher Lloyd all arm themselves to the teeth and go to town on a small army of baddies. There are inevitable homages to Home Alone and the like, but the highlight is unquestionably Lloyd; Doc Brown himself hasn’t lost the ability to look like he’s enjoying every second of a scene way too much and you can imagine how that enhances a sequence like this.

7. The American Dream – I Care A Lot

We’re taking a brief break from the physical violence now for a good old-fashioned dose of sizzling tension. Scenes where adversaries sit down and chat casually despite wanting each other dead are nearly always a hit with me, but how often do you see one where both characters are villains? When Chris Messina and Rosamund Pike are seated opposite one another in a brightly-lit room to discuss their characters’ shared interests, trading polite barbs with increasingly-thinner veils on them while gleefully discussing the societal systems that allow them to be so heartless, the screen may as well be made of electricity. Well, I mean, it is, but you get what I mean.

6. Start the Body Count – The Suicide Squad

Aaaand we’re back; this one might even be the most violent scene on the list this year. When Warner Bros began to market James Gunn’s gigantic semi-reboot The Suicide Squad, they did so with a set of amusingly bottom-drawer DC Comics characters that grew in number astonishingly quickly. With a cast that size it was obvious some of these characters wouldn’t last long in the film, but with names like Nathan Fillion, Pete Davidson and Michael Rooker attached – and a wide line of pre-release merchandise that appeared to treat every character equally (except for Harley Quinn of course) – there was no real way to tell who the movie was actually going to focus on. So when the movie’s opening action scene wipes out half of the super-powered cast in the most brutal beach sequence since Saving Private Ryan, it is quite a sight to behold.

5. We Don’t Talk About Bruno – Encanto

The most complex and creative song in Encanto starts innocently enough (what Disney classic tune doesn’t?) with a low-key transition from spoken dialogue about a long-lost brother with the power to see the future who supposedly rubbed a wedding as a result. But before long the tune is bouncing multiple ridiculous harmonies off one another to a steady Latin beat as various characters add in their poorly-processed thoughts about this “cursed” missing family member – making for a beautiful but ominous cacophany. It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s most immediately standout work in the film, not only because it sounds fantastic when in full flight but because the foreshadowing moral about gossip and hearsay is on full show.

4. 96,000 – In the Heights

Speaking of Lin-Manuel, fans of his In the Heights musical knew this was the song to show up for as soon as the film adaptation and its spectacle-loving director were announced. While John M Chu does do some fantastic – even surprising – things with other musical numbers (the club dance scene is another massive visual highlight), 96,000 remains the showpiece. Effectively a secondary musical “I Want” song for almost the entire main cast, the show’s heaviest use of hip-hop (and thus the closest it get to sounding like Hamilton) is constantly changing up rhythms and vocalists; the visuals manage to keep up impressively well, peaking with a massive pool flash mob during which Gregory Diaz IV absolutely dominates his verse as the previously under-the-radar character Sonny.

3. The Staircase – No Time to Die

Of all the movies on this page, and despite all its faults, No Time to Die is the clear leader in terms of the number of scenes eligible for this list. The terrifying opening visit, the Cuban detour where Paloma shows up, and the foggy forest chase where James Bond outwits and dispatches a handful of vehicles from the shadows would all sit well here, but director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s involvement always brought the possibility of a great staircase shootout after his work on True Detective, and boy howdy does he deliver.

At the very climax of the movie, Bond is alone and racing against the clock. He rounds a corner, shoots right down the camera in a wonderfully-framed shot, takes a moment then starts up a square spiral staircase, reacting to all manner of attacks from all directions as the camera follows him, unbroken. The illusory one-shot has become a bit less novel over the last couple of years, but Daniel Craig’s final action scene as James Bond truly stands out from the pack.

2. Meet The Sandworms – Dune

How do you make one of the most iconic science fiction monster designs of all time feel new and scary again? Well according to Denis Villenueve, you play into the reputation. Across the first hour of the movie the script throws in a mention every once in a while of how imposing and deadly the sandworms of the planet Arrakis are, making sure no one in the audience forgets the threat hanging over all our characters’ heads at all times. Then we follow our protagonist out to the sandy wastes on a routine spice mining run, but things are too quiet. A distant rumble approaches, but the spice is on track to be extracted in time – until one of the bracing arms malfunctions and a crew is suddenly in grave danger. A desperate rescue attempt follows. The whole sequence is a masterful display of nerve-shredding suspense, and the final shot of a Sarlacc-like circular mouth is simply awe-inspiring on the big screen.

1. Great Responsibility – Spider-Man: No Way Home

Amid all the insanity of fake leaks and real leaks and public denials and rampant speculation surrounding Spider-Man: No Way Home, there was one plot possibility I did not see or hear anyone bring up. When Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May pushes back against her nephew abandoning his caring instincts after a catastrophic attack by the Green Goblin, she puts on a brave face and says the line. The line that is never far from tragedy for Spider-Man, and in its full comic book form this time. The cinema I was in on opening night broke out into a huge cheer, and it was kind of earned; after two MCU movies emphasising her love life, Tomei plays Aunt May as much more of a moral centre for Peter Parker this time around.

Then, she falters, and my cinema gasped loudly before holding its breath in shock. No Way Home kills Aunt May and makes it feel devastating, marking the turning point for both the movie and Tom Holland’s version of Peter. From there the next four scenes in a row are all astonishing examples of fanservice with purpose – almost on the level of Avengers: Endgame – but the moment that the mood of the film plummeted with this heartbreaking scene, the trajectory towards a more recognisable Spidey status quo was set in motion – and the movie’s excellent finale solidifies that.

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Honorable Mentions

–The Fire – Minari

There’s nothing especially flashy or unique about the structure of this scene itself, but the moment protagonist Jacob picks his family over his burning self-made dream after spending most of the movie sliding the opposite way absolutely broke me.

–The Bandits Just Leave – Wrath of Man

This is John Wick-level badass build-up work – as soon as a group of scary men attempting a robbery learn who they’re indirectly messing with, they turn around and the scene just ends. It’s a hilarious moment that ends up having more consequences on the story than first apparent.

–They Go to Space – F9: The Fast Saga

Yep, the mad lads actually did it. The dream (and the meme) finally became real in 2021 for the Fast & Furious franchise – and of course they play it for laughs.

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