Movies provide us with a chance to escape and enjoy possibilities, realities, and awakenings the real world can’t ever quite replicate. While only a few films have ever managed to resonate as a whole project many contain single scenes or moments that have had lasting appeal and have become ingrained in pop culture, in some cases for decades. Throughout the month of September I have been exploring some of the best of these moments in the history of film. After exploring seven decades of film and the classics that preceded the 50s the time has come for my picks of the best of the best. A total of 36 moments qualified for consideration to be on this ultimate list. Now let’s take a look at the ones that impressed or left a strong enough impact to earn recognition beyond their decade. At long last these are my picks for the Top 20 Movie Moments of All Time.
The rules for this list are simple. Any movie moment that made the top four in my previous eight lists qualifies. Whether they are moments of today or yesterday I chose the best moments with lasting appeal that I felt have stood the test of time or will stand the test of time for decades to come. Every movie moment that topped my eight lists was automatically included on this countdown while the remaining entries were extremely difficult to sift through to the point where while a few decades saw all four films make this countdown some decades only saw a single film represented.
So without further ado here it is, my ultimate list of the greatest movie moments from across the decades. This is obviously a heavily subjective list so I truly want to hear from you. Do you agree with my picks? Do you think there was a moment or moments that deserved to be represented over others? Let me know in the comments below. I want to thank you all for reading these countdowns. Because of you I have reached new records for views and likes over the course of September which is fitting seeing as I decided to do this list to celebrate reaching 100 followers, itself a milestone for me as I never even thought I’d get one person to read this thing. Thank you all for continuing to support this blog and I hope you enjoy the list.
If you’d like to catch up on the lists that led to this countdown you can read the previous countdowns at the following links: Classic Movie Moments, and my Top Movie Moments of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, the 2000s and the 2010s so far.
Now ON WITH THE LIST!
20. Andy Gives Away His Toys, “Toy Story 3”
Disney and Pixar released “Toy Story 3” in June of 2010 and immediately the film became the first sure-fire classic of the decade. “Toy Story” defined a generation in the 90s and by the time the third film arrived we had all grown up and so had Andy, the owner of the toys in the film. The final moments are heart wrenching in all the right ways as Andy decides to give the toys away to a young girl who Woody had bonded with earlier in the movie and could continue to play with them rather than storing them in the attic. Andy spends one final moment playing with the toys that defined his childhood before saying goodbye as we all eventually have to do. No matter how many times I see it this moment gives me goosebumps. It’s a moment that I doubt will ever be matched from this decade and reminds us all of the magic of being a kid and the importance of growing up and passing down those childhood memories to others who can appreciate them as we always did.
19. Blowing Up the Bridge, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”
From Best Picture winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, released in 1957, its Alec Guinness who takes the reins for this scene that helped earn him his own Oscar for playing Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson. The film focuses on British POWS at a Japanese prison camp who are instructed to build a bridge over the River Kwai. Nicholson proves to be a divisive character throughout the film, at times standing up to his captors and other times falling in line eventually seeing the bridge as a way to solidify the ingenuity of the British Army rather than simply a slave project. This moment is the culmination of Nicholson’s actions as he has exposed a plot to destroy the bridge only for the ensuing battle to reveal to him how wrong he was. His final words show his remorse and he attempts to detonate the bridge himself, succeeding only after sustaining a mortal injury. With that the bridge is destroyed, a train plummets and we see one of the most spectacular explosion scenes in cinema in its fiery glory.
18. The Dawn of Man, “2001: A Space Odyssey”
Next up is a classic moment from the legendary director Stanley Kubrick. “2001: A Space Odyssey”, released in 1968, is filled with visual brilliance and style but it’s the opening sequence that gets the nod here known as “The Dawn of Man”. The sequence features ancient hominids finding a monolith that seemingly influences them to utilize bones as weapons thus exploring the origin of man’s use of tools to solve their problems while also asking questions of our origins that, honestly, remain unanswered throughout the rest of the project. Topping it off is the soundtrack. That epic, iconic and often overused overture called “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or simply the “Space Odyssey Theme” speaks to something grand and significant happening on screen as if the evolution of man is the start of something much more profound and important still to come. “A Space Odyssey” is a spectacular film that revolutionized the art for years to come and adding in scenes like this is why the film remains one of the genre’s all time best.
17. “You Talkin’ to Me?”, “Taxi Driver”
“Taxi Driver” is an unquestionable classic. The 1976 thriller helped further catapult Robert De Niro into superstardom after he won an Academy Award for “The Godfather Part II” and also brought about one of the most quoted and famous movie scenes of all time. De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a taxi driver who decides to take justice into his own hands. This moment shows Bickle preparing to take on the scum of his neighborhood trying out a new spring loaded gun up his sleeve. He looks into a mirror talking to himself as if he was the enemy, practicing the tough words he will share with his opponents. The scene works into the incredibly quotable “You talkin’ to me?” line that pretty much everyone knows by now often used to sound tough and intimidating even if only to one’s self. It’s a simple moment that delves into Travis Bickle’s psyche. Many films have shamelessly borrowed from this scene but “Taxi Driver” will always be the origin of one of the most famous and overused quotes in cinema history.
16. Welcome to Oz, “The Wizard of Oz”
There are a lot of cool moments in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” but for me this one stands out the most as Dorothy has landed in Oz after her house was swept up in a twister. Most of the first act of the film is shown without color but it seems the filmmakers were very aware of the significance of their project as when Dorothy lands in Oz she opens her doors to find a land full of beautiful color and magic. The reveal is just as awe inspiring today as it must have been for viewers of the time as Dorothy’s dark and depressing reality is replaced by a world of imagination and wonder that she has barely even begun to explore for herself. It’s a cinematic moment that just FEELS important and stands out among the many other great scenes in the film because of the buildup and the payoff. It wasn’t the first color scene in film, but it was the first true showcase of what color films could look like in all their brilliance. The debut of Oz feels grand and promises the viewer a delightful adventure still to come.
15. Scarlett’s Declaration, “Gone With the Wind”
“Gone with the Wind” brought us a few iconic cinematic scenes way back in 1939. This scene sees Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara at the end of her rope. Her life and family are being torn apart by the harsh realities of the world around her and she takes a moment, with the sunset complimenting the intensity of the scene, to make a bold statement that she will survive and she’ll never go hungry again. It’s a daring promise from a woman just trying to find some solace in the sea of despair. More than any of “Gone with the Winds” countless iconic one-liners and scenes, this particular moment serves as a great setup for the rest of the film, the culmination of what has happened so far, and an amazing character moment that helped solidify Scarlett O’Hara as one of the most iconic female characters in cinema history. The words “With God as my witness I’ll never go hungry again” live on forever as one of the most well-known pieces of dialogue from this film.
14. Literally Singing in the Rain, “Singin’ in the Rain”
The 1952 classic “Singin’ in the Rain” not only includes a titular song, but a titular SCENE in its depiction of Hollywood in the 20s with a lighthearted twist. Its most famous musical number is, in the fact, that titular tune which features Gene Kelly literally singing in a rainstorm. The sequence is meant to express the optimism of Kelly’s character even though the weather around him is damp, depressing and otherwise considered dreary to everyone else. The song itself has become synonymous with movie musicals and has even been featured in other films many times since with direct references to this very scene. The song is infectious as is Gene Kelly’s energy and optimism and how many people don’t know this legendary tune and sing along to it once in a while? It’s because of musical numbers and scenes like this that “Singin’ in the Rain” is often considered the best movie musical among professionals in the industry and it’s hard to disagree.
13. The Boulder Chase, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
In 1981 the world was introduced to Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” which contains one of the most epic action adventure sequences ever put to film. The movie begins with a great introduction to Jones and the epic quests he undertakes as the adventurer seeks out a golden idol in Peru. When he finds his treasure Indy needs to make a smooth exchange in order to avoid setting off traps so he can escape with the idol. However his attempt is futile causing a large bolder to be freed and roll after him forcing him to run for his life in order to escape. It’s an iconic, often referenced action scene that immediately sets up the world of Indiana Jones and the perils he faces for the sake of his obsession. Of all the great moments contained within this long running adventure franchise this is the moment everyone is familiar with and it’s one of the most exciting cinematic sequences ever.
12. E.T.’s Moon Flight, “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial”
“E.T.” is often considered to be one of the greatest movies of the 1980s. The film follows a young boy who befriends a lost alien creature and eventually leads the two into the nearby forests in the middle of the night to try and call E.T.’s home planet. E.T. takes control of the human Elliott’s bike using his telekinetic abilities and drives it off a cliff side only to cause the bike to float in the air. The pair flies through the sky with a massive moon in the background creating a now iconic image that we all know and love today. It’s not the last time E.T. uses this power either but it’s a cool introduction to the true capabilities of the alien and it’s a great moment between two friends from different worlds. The moment also became notable as the basis for the logo of Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment and the icon still utilizes the imagery today. The moon scene from “E.T.” is one of true imagination and wonder and no matter how old I get seeing the alien and his human friend Elliott fly through the sky always brings on a great sense of nostalgia that I personally can’t get enough of.
11. The Spaghetti Kiss, “Lady and the Tramp”
Disney’s 1955 animated classic “Lady and the Tramp” is a timeless story that shows that love doesn’t have to be held back by social class or society. The film follows the titular Lady and Tramp, an upper class dog and mongrel stray respectively, who fall in love despite their social statuses working against them. Perhaps the most iconic scene is the often imitated spaghetti kiss. The two pups have bonded leading to a romantic candlelight dinner outside an eatery owned by a man named Tony. The dogs share a plate of spaghetti which leads to an adorably awkward unintentional kiss as the two are found to be slurping on the same noddle. The music, the atmosphere, the setting, and the somehow undeniable chemistry between two animated dogs all drive home possibly the most iconic, most parodied and most imitated animated movie scene of all time. There’s practically nobody who doesn’t know this scene even if they may not quite remember where it’s from.
10. Marilyn Monroe’s Dress, “Seven year Itch”
This is a moment so iconic that it has surpassed its movie and become the very thing Marilyn Monroe is known for to practically everyone. The 1955 romantic comedy “The Seven Year Itch” features Monroe as simply “The Girl” who becomes the love interest of Richard Sherman, husband in the midst of a midlife crisis. Over the course of the film Monroe’s character grows closer to Sherman and he becomes more and more infatuated with her beauty especially given the cloths she wears. This scene showcases just how significant those fashion choices are as Monroe stands over a subway grate to experience the breeze only for the train to blow her dress up creating the image we all know today. Since “The Seven Year Itch” this image has been plastered all over memorabilia and posters for decades albeit from different angles than the actual shot in the film. While many know of it few probably remember its humble origins as a little scene in a film about temptations.
9. The Coin Toss, “No Country For Old Men”
It’s rare that a movie moment becomes iconic through word of mouth. If you know this scene it’s likely because someone told you how awesome it is and you had to see it for yourself. Javier Bardem plays one of cinema’s best villains, Anton Chigurh, in the Best Picture winning “No Country for Old Men” from 2007 and we find out everything we need to know about the character in the opening minutes. Chigurh escapes from prison, kills a driver with a bolt pistol and makes his way to a gas station where the tenant gets on his nerves. Chigurh offers the man a chance to live or die by making the call on a coin toss setting up a tension-filled interaction resulting in Chigurh providing an awesome monologue on the concept of fate and chance. It’s an incredibly shot and performed moment in cinema that defines the personality of the man flipping the coin and well as his fractured patience and personality in barely three minutes of film. It truly is one of the best movie scenes ever.
8. A Visit with the Don, “The Godfather”
Many consider the 1972 film “The Godfather” among the best of all time. The Best Picture winner is near flawless and part of its success can be attributed to the legendary performance by Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. “The Godfather” doesn’t waste any time establishing Vito as the opening scene shows Corleone hearing requests during his daughter’s wedding day. A man asks Corleone to kill someone as a favor and the Godfather denies the request casually berating the man for expecting something from him when it’s clear the only reason for their friendship was to benefit from Corleone. We learn everything we need to know about Vito in this scene. He’s casual but intimidating. He’s considerate and courteous but stern and direct. This moment debuts the iconic and memorable performance that earned Brando an Oscar and even the adlibbed addition of a cat, which Brando simply found on set and decided to use in the scene, adds a little something to Corleone showing a gentle side of an aggressive and intimidating human being.
7. The First Dinosaur, “Jurassic Park”
The premise of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 perennial classic “Jurassic Park” is simple: an investor creates a theme park where he uses dinosaur DNA to bring the animals back to life for show. The initial trailer for “Jurassic Park” left these dinosaurs mostly to the imagination so when the movie hit theaters this was truly the first time we got to see a dinosaur in full as Dr. Alan Grant and company are presented with a brachiosaurus brought to life through revolutionary CGI. The buildup is perfect and we feel the awe and amazement that the characters feel even if we’ve seen this scene a hundred times. It’s a truly spectacular moment that brings to life these amazing creatures we all know and love right before our eyes. While not as parodied or referenced as many other entries on this list, the first dinosaur appearance in “Jurassic Park” is truly awe inspiring and resonates even beyond the first viewing giving us an experience of wonder few things in life can bring. It’s the kind of emotional response movies were made to evoke and it does that job perfectly even today.
6. The Big Reveal, “Planet of the Apes”
Released in 1968 “Planet of the Apes” practically founded the concept of the epic movie twist with one of the most iconic movie moments in history. After everything that Charlton Heston’s George Taylor goes through in this film he soon finds himself staring down an unfortunate truth as he rides along the shoreline to his freedom with Nova. The two come across what’s left of the Statue of Liberty revealing to Taylor, and the audience, that the setting has not been an alien planet as originally assumed. Taylor is on Earth years after a nuclear war leading Taylor to fall to his knees and condemn humanity. Heston captures the moment perfectly as a man experiencing an unfortunate realization. Humanity destroyed itself and any hope Taylor had of returning to the life he once knew is now extinguished. Not only is he trapped in a reality where he must fight to survive, that reality is the result of man’s own hand and he can do nothing to change that. As years went on this moment has been parodied and reference numerous times and established the legacy of an entire franchise.
5. Bigger Boat, “Jaws”
The 1975 Steven Spielberg classic “Jaws” is considered to be the original blockbuster with a movie monster that very well could exist in real life. Due to limitations in the effects and technology Spielberg made the creative decision to show the movie’s famous shark as little as possible to the point where this moment is the first time we get to actually see the shark in all its glory instead of just a fin. Roy Schneider’s Martin Brody is laying down the chum line when Jaws finally surfaces showing the sailors and the audience its size and shape for the first time on screen. The massive shark startles Brody so much that he backs away into the cabin where he tells the captain, Quint, that he’s “going to need a bigger boat”. Thus an iconic scene and moment were forever etched in pop culture. Pretty much everyone knows this iconic scene and the buildup, character reaction and one-liner have all contributed to making it among the best and most well know cinematic moments ever.
4. The Big Twist, “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”
This moment became known as one of, if not THE greatest twist in cinema history. In the climactic moments of 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back”, the second “Star Wars” movie and the one many consider the best of the series to date, Luke Skywalker comes face to face with Darth Vader which leads Luke to be hanging on for dear life over an air shaft while Vader tries to tempt him to the dark side. Luke refuses and accuses Vader of killing Luke’s father and the twist moment to end all twist moments. Vader delivers one of the most quoted lines in all of cinema telling Skywalker “I am you’re father”. The revelation devastates Luke, leaves anyone who has been living under a rock for the last few decades in shock, and redefines the relationship between these two characters. For cinemagoers back in the day this moment was completely unexpected. For fans of the series today it’s a moment that changes everything. For everyone else it’s THE moment everyone knows no matter how hard you’ve tried to avoid the “Star Wars” bandwagon.
3. The Skyscraper Battle, “King Kong”
Back in 1933 “King Kong” was still a very new cinematic monster. Considered not only one of the greatest horror movies ever made but also one of the greatest FILMS ever made, the original “King Kong” revolutionized the idea of stop-motion and it all culminated in one of the most epic final showdowns in movie history. In the closing moments of the movie Kong, frightened and out of his element, scales the Empire State Building trying to escape his assailants. On the way to the tower he also kidnaps the human he formed a bond with, Ann, and brings her to the peak of the tower with him. It’s here that a fantastic battle ensues with Kong being targeted by assault planes as he attempts to destroy them. The eventual death of Kong leaves a mark on every viewer especially since we’ve come to realize he is in this situation by no fault of his own. The skyscraper battle was competently remade in the 2005 Peter Jackson version of the film for modern audiences, but the original remains a huge part of Kong’s lasting legacy.
2. The Shower Scene, “Psycho”
Alfred Hitchcock brings us this epic moment from 1960’s “Psycho”. One of the most iconic horror movies ever released, “Psycho” turned the tables on audiences by killing off its major character and lead actress in only the first act. That immortal moment barely misses out on topping this list as we see who we are led to believe is Norma Bates taking a knife to Marion Crane while she is in the shower. For the time it was a brutal murder scene accented by the dark blood flowing into the drain (which was really chocolate syrup). It was considered graphic and ushered in a new era of horror with more detailed violence incorporated into stories. The moment has gone down in history as one of the most recognizable scenes ever and inspired many parodies, imitations and callbacks that continue to pop up decades later. I don’t think there’s any real movie fan who doesn’t know of the shower scene and its impact on cinema. It’s a fantastically and creatively shot moment that not only defined its film but redefined the limitations of an entire genre.
1. The Airport Farewell, “Casablanca”
The final scene of the 1942 classic “Casablanca” is one of the most beloved movie finales in history. A lot leads to this moment: the existence of the letters of transit, the love triangle between Victor Laszlo, Ilsa and Rick, and the impending German occupation of Casablanca. Most of all though, there is the promise Rick made to his old flame Ilsa to allow her to stay with him. He turns on that promise and asks Ilsa to get on the plane taking her husband away. It’s a final exchange between two lovers that packs intensity and a heck of a lot of frustrated emotion. Seeing Rick say whatever he needs to in order to force Ilsa away, including telling her she will regret staying either now or later, makes for a great exchange. This immortal scene is filled with amazing dialogue from lines like “We’ll always have Paris” to “Here’s looking at you kid” that helped solidify “Casablanca” as more than an award-winning film but a pop culture staple. This is the scene almost every movie fan knows in one way or another and the fact that it packs so many quotable lines and works so well even by today’s standards makes it a truly amazing cinematic moment to behold and, in my opinion, the best moment ever put to film.