127 Hours
The scene that gets the most attention in “127 Hours” is the hide-your-eyes sawing off of Aron Ralston’s arm. The scene that deserves the most attention comes after.
After freeing himself from the boulder that practically immobilized him for those five-plus days, Aron (James Franco) still needs to find rescue before he collapses from exhaustion, starvation, dehydration … you name it. When he finally, almost miraculously, encounters folks out exploring on their own — almost losing them because his voice is shot, before ultimately being saved — the heart-racing effect is almost shocking. It’s the film’s biggest thrill, and one of the most remarkable catharses ever put onscreen.
— Jon Weisman

“Another Year”
Mary has made no secret of the fact that she fancies the younger Joe, a delusional fantasy that comes crashing down when she’s suddenly introduced to the lad’s new girlfriend. In one of writer-director Mike Leigh’s trademark shattering closeups, Lesley Manville, her face positively crumpling as reality dawns on her, captures the precise moment when Mary’s heart breaks — and breaks ours as well.
— Justin Chang

“Black Swan”
After unleashing her inner Ms. Hyde, Nina (Natalie Portman) takes to the stage and evolves into the Black Swan, a confident and passionate performer far removed from the timid and paranoid ballerina the audience was presented with previously. Throughout the transformation, director Darren Aronofsky uses claustrophobic close-ups on every detail, from the bumps on Nina’s arms to her climactic turns that release a ravishing set of black wings. As the theater audience erupts with applause, Aronofsky — in one of the film’s only wide shots — pulls the camera back to the audience point of view. As the film audience releases its collective breath, they see that the wings are only shadows of Nina’s mind and realize they, too, were seduced by the Black Swan.
— Brian Sheehan

“Blue Valentine”
In the most indelible scene from this marriage, Dean (Ryan Gosling) follows Cindy (Michelle Williams) into the clinic where she works after a long, frustrating night. He’s in a mood to pick a fight, and she gives him one. Physical and professional boundaries are crossed in the ensuing chaos, but the punches Dean throws are nothing compared to Cindy’s lacerating words as she tells him she no longer loves him — and the fierce look in Williams’ eyes makes it clear that, for perhaps the first time in the film, she’s being 100% honest.
— Justin Chang

“The Ghost Writer”
Among Roman Polanski’s more under-praised gifts is his knack for conjuring stomach-clenching suspense out of the most mundane of circumstances (“Chinatown,” retirement-home knitting circles; “Repulsion,” rent collection), a gift he displays with brio in “The Ghost Writer,” wringing impossible tension out of a BMW’s GPS system and a stiffly polite academic.
Following in the tracks of his mysteriously departed predecessor, Ewan MacGregor’s unnamed ghostwriter pays a visit to international relations professor Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson), whose clipped pleasantries make the pervasive gray weather outside seem positively tropical by comparison. Though he attempts to interrogate him over a pair of photographs, MacGregor is ill-suited for detective work, and after some directionless obfuscation and one half-accusation — “a less equitable man than I might begin to find your questions impertinent,” Emmett responds with a joyless smile — he leaves, with Emmett’s farewell driving instructions functioning as an unmistakable threat, finally kicking the film’s slow-churning unease into high gear.
— Andrew Barker

How to Train Your Dragon
The makers of “How to Train Your Dragon” went out on something of a creative limb with one scene in particular: Scrawny Viking Hiccup comes to visit Toothless, the dragon he’s injured, and begin a friendship that will change them both. The scene is daring in part because of its sheer length: around five minutes, an eternity by animated-feature standards. Yet every moment is riveting. The dragons and Vikings are mortal enemies, and each side has been busy killing the other, so any encounter between them is fraught with danger. Yet the two begin to communicate for the first time. At the end, Hiccup averts his eyes, making himself utterly vulnerable, and reaches out a hand to Toothless. Toothless nuzzles his palm, then bolts, as if startled himself.
Fear, longing, need and hope weave together to create a moment as thrilling as any movie’s first kiss. Well worth the time.
— David S. Cohen

“I Am Love”
Tilda Swinton’s Emma Recchi, the Russian-born trophy wife of a textile magnate, visits a Milanese restaurant where her son’s best friend is the chef. There she tastes, in the form of an exquisite plate of rosy prawns, a hint of the sensuality and bliss her life has been lacking up to this point. Her dining companions fade into shadow, and she and her perfect little pile of prawns are spotlit as though the heavens were shining down upon her. The rapturous look on Swinton’s face lays bare this liberating moment, but her newfound sense of personal freedom comes with dire consequences.
— Steffie Nelson

“The Illusionist”
At the end of Sylvain’s Chomet’s “The Illusionist,” the magician Tatischeff realizes that the rapidly changing world around him doesn’t understand or need him, made very clear when the only work he can find is in the window of Jenner’s department store, conjuring sale items for passersby on the street. He quits and another magician, desperate to work, takes his place. Chomet’s animation expresses this bittersweet epiphany poignantly and with grace. Tatischeff is an illusionist who’s lost his illusions despite the fact we’ve seen him generously “transform” old shoes into new ones, a worn coat into a fashionable one, and even help transform a guileless teenager into a young woman who finds love.
— Carole Horst

The van skids off the road and flips over, sending the lower level into zero gravity just as the dream team comes under attack. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doesn’t miss a beat, running deftly over walls and ceilings as he dispatches a nameless assailant. As the two men throw punches and grope for their guns in mid-air, all but oblivious to the fact that the corridor is spinning around them (courtesy of a 360-degree rotating set), the film provides a blissful rush that’s at once cerebral, kinetic, even musical, living up to its brief as an action movie for the mind.
— Justin Chang

“The Kids Are All Right”
Nic (Annette Bening), the breadwinning — and more controlling — half of the same-sex couple at the core of “The Kids Are All Right,” decides she needs to be less uptight about their son’s and daughter’s wish to spend time with their biological father (Mark Ruffalo). So she initiates a dinner party at his house. But just as she’s warming to his charms as a host who can cook the perfect steak, not to mention their mutual appreciation for the music of Joni Mitchell, she discovers evidence in the bathroom that her life partner Jules (Julianne Moore) is engaging in something more than a novice landscaping job there during the day. Back at the dinner table, the suspicion becomes a certainty in Nic’s mind, but there’s no dialogue, just a sense of shock, jealousy and betrayal that registers in Bening’s stricken expression as clearly as a bank of dark clouds. At that moment, all the harmony and trust built up by this extended family has been vanquished.
— Steve Chagollan

“The King’s Speech”
“The King’s Speech” is a copiously researched account of the friendship between King George VI of England, who struggled with a stutter, and the eccentric Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who helped him become capable of speaking in public. One of its best moments, though, comes not from an encounter between the two men, but from their wives.
Logue, sworn to secrecy, has not even told his own wife Myrtle he is treating the king. When the king and queen come to see Logue in his apartment, Logue’s wife comes home unexpectedly, and the somewhat panicked Logue is forced to introduce them.
Myrtle may be mortified and shocked, but replies with impeccable courtesy, asking “Will their Majesties be staying for dinner?” Now it’s the men’s turn to be mortified, and it’s left to Queen Elizabeth (the mother of today’s queen) to step in and explain they have a prior engagement.
It’s human, entirely accessible and a sure-fire laugh.
— David S. Cohen

“Rabbit Hole”
Eight months after the auto accident that killed Danny, their young son, Howie and Becca agree to sell their home. Becca (Nicole Kidman), wants to move on. Howie (Aaron Eckhardt) finds it hard to let go of the past. With a real estate agent about to bring over some prospective buyers, Becca leaves for the afternoon. Howie decides to stay.
The agent arrives with a couple and a young boy, approximately Danny’s age. Howie tries to steer them into the master bedroom but the mom stops and ducks into Danny’s room. It’s like a shrine, untouched and decorated with colorful toys and wallpaper.
“How old’s your son?” asks the dad.
Howie goes blank.
“This is your son’s room, I assume?”
Howie blurts out, “Uh, yeah. I mean … it was, but he … died.”
After a pause: “Yeah, a car. Right out front.”
The awkwardness is palpable and lingers. The couple does not make an offer.
— Peter Caranicas

“Toy Story 3”
Despite its kiddie-friendly bona fides and colorful escapades, the “Toy Story” trilogy has ultimately always been a series of films about confronting death. The curtain begins to fall for real in this final installment, in which the lovable band of playthings — their numbers already depleted via garage sales — face a future without longtime owner Andy and must decide whether to gently drift off into obsolescence, or fight the unwinnable fight for their owner’s affection.
To end a film like this in a way that honors the depth of its themes without sending its young audience into early therapy ought to be impossible, but Pixar somehow finds a way. In a lingering coda, Andy gives his toys, one by one, to wide-eyed toddler Bonnie. It’s a feel-good ending of the best kind, a subtle rebuke to our culture of novelty and disposability, and the kind of perfectly-played emotional gut-punch that leaves even the most hardened of cynics with a little something in their eye.
— Andrew Barker

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