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Memorable Moments: Our Favorite Scenes From Best Picture Contenders

Best Scenes King Richard Lost Daughter
King Richard: Warner Bros.; Lost Daughter: Netflix; Licorice Pizza: MGM

As the once wide-open best picture race continues to narrow, Variety staffers take a look at some of the individual scenes that made us laugh, cry and think — sometimes at the same time.

“Being the Ricardos”
(Amazon)
Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) pulls Madeline (Alia Shawkat), the only female writer on Ball’s “I Love Lucy,” out of the writers room for a little one-on-one discussion about a scene that Lucy has been trying to make funnier — or at least make logical, and therefore funny. Like Madeline, Lucy is a smart, funny, strong women in the early 1950s — a unicorn in this man’s world in which they have mastered “work-arounds.” This scene from writer-director Aaron Sorkin is an honest yet sharp and somewhat frustrating talk about the TV character, the way the character is treated on the show and what type of comedy works. The scene is brave enough to open up all sides of the challenges each woman faces, explores her mindset and the compromises that Lucy has made, what she tells herself to keep going even if a new type of feminist thinking is right outside the studio lot, and makes her accomplishments all the more iconic.
— Carole Horst

“Belfast”
(Focus Features)
There are way too many brilliant moments in Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” from Jamie Dornan’s Pa singing “Everlasting Love” at a wake to that emotionally heartbreaking end scene with Judi Dench. However, the moment that never fails to make me chuckle is with Buddy, played by the brilliant young star of the film, Jude Hill. Buddy does his math homework with his grandfather (Ciaran Hinds) who teaches him a trick or two to better his grade. All he wants is to be at the top of the class to woo a girl. And when Buddy achieves his grade, he finds, while he’s moved up in the class, the girl has moved down. Buddy’s little face is distraught. Innocent young love is the best thing that the world needs to see.
— Jazz Tangcay

“CODA”
(Apple Original Films)
A dimly lit conversation in the bed of a pickup truck cements Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur as two of 2021’s most exciting breakout stars. After feeling lost at Ruby’s (Jones) choir concert, her deaf father, Frank (Kotsur), asks what her big song meant. Her answer that it was about “what it is to need another person” points to the tension ruling their family. At her father’s request, she tentatively begins a rendition of “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and Frank places his hands at the base of her neck to feel the vibrations of her voice. Wordlessly, he processes that Ruby’s passion for music isn’t some angst-driven attempt to escape her family’s deafness, and Ruby learns that her dreams don’t necessarily have to exclude the people she loves most. With stillness and care, the scene is a perfect picture of the way love requires meeting people where they are.
— Selome Hailu

“Don’t Look Up”
(Netflix)
Of all the laugh-out-loud moments in Adam McKay’s end-of-the-world comedy, it’s hard to top the scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy has a nervous breakdown live on camera. It’s earned comparisons to Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning work in “Network,” and rightfully so, as DiCaprio perfectly captures the disbelief, frustration and anger that people are refusing to believe the obvious truth. Mindy screams at the dunderheaded hosts of “The Daily Rip” (the wonderful Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) and at the camera as it zeroes in on his face and there’s a moment when he gets so worked up he knocks his glasses askew. It’s a split second before he fixes them but manages to be both funny and frightening — not unlike the film itself.
— Jenelle Riley

“Drive My Car”
(Sideshow and Janus Films)
Toward the end of the three-hour “Drive My Car,” Hidetoshi Nishijima’s character Yusuke needs a place to get away and grapple with the fact that he needs to play Vanya, a role that is emotionally exhausting, especially since he lost his wife, Oto, some years back. His driver Misaki (Toku Miura) takes him to her village at his request to mull things over. On the drive they both exchange their deep-seated guilt about the deaths of his wife and her mother. Yusuke wonders if he had gotten home earlier on the day his wife died, he would have been able to help her. He says he wishes he could get his wife, Oto, back so he could apologize to her and also to yell at her for leaving him. Meanwhile, Misaki voices her guilt that she got out of the house after it was buried in a landslide while her mother didn’t. Then they hug and he says, “You and I must live like that. We must keep living. It will be OK, I am sure. We will be OK.”
— Shalini Dore

“Dune”
(Warner Bros.)
“What’s in the box?” It’s a staple question of game shows, children’s birthday parties, and David Fincher films. But when that question is asked toward the end of the first act of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” the result is one of the most memorable and meme-able scenes of the year. Shortly before his departure to the desert mining planet Arrakis, protagonist Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is called into a library, and presented by his mother to the high priestess of her religious order, played with exquisite menace by Charlotte Rampling behind a birdcage veil. Holding a poison needle to his neck, she orders Paul to place his hand inside an ancient-looking box as a test of his will, describing the box’s contents in a single word: “pain.” Up until this point, “Dune” has largely occupied itself with extensive world-building; here, we suddenly begin to grasp the human stakes, the Oedipal tensions, and the depths of pneumatological mystery that the rest of the film will proceed to brilliantly unravel.
— Andrew Barker

“King Richard”
(Warner Bros.)
Biopics about widely known, widely visible public figures often center themselves in real-world historical reality by reenacting events that the audience will recognize, then offering us glimpses behind-the-scenes at events we could otherwise only imagine. But for the most part, “King Richard” avoids the former, spending most of its running time with the Williams family long before Venus and Serena were world-conquering tennis superstars. So it makes it all the more poignant when, after a deeply touching pep talk from Will Smith as patriarch Richard, the 14-year-old Venus (Saniyya Sidney) emerges into an Oakland arena — with her brand new, soon-to-be-signature beads in her hair – to play her first professional match. All of a sudden, we begin to viscerally connect the years of struggle and training the film has spent the last two hours depicting with the brilliant athletes that we know she and her sister are about to become. We understand why, even though she doesn’t win the match, just by making it that far Venus has already won half the battle. And the rest is history.
— Andrew Barker

“Licorice Pizza”
(United Artists)
Sometimes the obvious answer is also the correct one. Although Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s-set tale features so many standout scenes involving actors as experienced as Harriet Sansom Harris and Sean Penn to newcomers Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, the most talked about moment has to be Bradley Cooper’s turn as future super-producer Jon Peters. In a sequence that goes from hilarious (Peters insisting on the correct pronunciation of his girlfriend Barbra Streisand’s last name) to terrifying (after abandoning their jobs, Hoffman and Haim’s characters run into Peters and realize they might have to face his wrath). Cooper’s appearance is topped off with a brilliant shot of him stomping down the street as Haim hides her face from him, until only his lower half is visible. When a pair of attractive women walk by, we see Peters pivot to go after them, a perfect note to a flawless scene.
— Jenelle Riley

“The Lost Daughter”
(Netflix)
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut allows viewers to see motherhood through a new lens when Leda, played by the oh-so-magnificent Olivia Colman, inserts herself into the life of young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her daughter. Throughout the film, the two women share an emotional bond and unspoken understanding of their maternal struggles — while Leda hides that she has the missing doll that has driven Nina’s daughter to tears. Viewers may think the two women could reconcile but Nina stabs Leda after she finds out, leaving Leda clutching her bloodied stomach in shock. To think that Nina would separate herself from her mob-like family, who hated Leda since the beginning, was utterly fanciful. What makes the film so intriguing is Gyllenhaal’s directing, showcasing that there is no perfect way to be a mother, to make amends or to accept a woman’s apology after she admits to stealing your daughter’s most precious toy. As Colman’s Leda puts it, “It doesn’t pass. It never passes.”
— Jennifer Yuma

“Nightmare Alley”
(Searchlight)
The best scene in Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is the end; it’s a true full-circle moment for Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle. Here is a man who has gone from being down on his luck to meeting a group of carnival performers. There he gets an inside look at the workings of grift and takes notes. Stanton meets Molly (Rooney Mara) and falls in love with her. Stanton plans to leave the show and make a name for himself, taking Molly with him. In the city, he meets the mesmerizing Cate Blanchett’s Lillith (the woman was born to play a femme fatale in noir). With Stanton conning his way through life, it begins to unravel, which takes us to the end. It has all come undone. A desperate moment, a lingering close up as Cooper hits every emotional chord is deserving of all awards. It’s indeed one of Cooper’s best performances to date, and this scene is devastatingly good.
— Jazz Tangcay

“No Time to Die”
(United Artists)
Daniel Craig’s superlative tenure as James Bond has been filled with breathtaking action and heartrending drama, but one word that’s rarely been used to describe it is “lighthearted.” Enter Paloma, Ana de Armas’ effervescent CIA agent tasked with aiding Bond infiltrate a lavish Spectre affair in Havana to retrieve a (quasi-)kidnapped scientist. As with most women in Bond movies, Paloma looks stunning, dripping in Chopard jewelry and swimming in a dark navy Michael Lo Sordo dress. Her connection to Bond, however, remains strictly business — but no less fun. The sheer enthusiasm Paloma brings to the job — from downing a martini to laying out a raft of Spectre goons — is thrilling and infectious. So when she tells Bond, “This is my stop,” the bittersweet look on his face is unmistakable. Their parting words speak for everyone: “You were excellent,” Bond says. “You too,” Paloma replies. “Next time, stay longer.”
— Adam B. Vary

“The Power of the Dog”
(Netflix)
Jane Campion’s drama tackles masculinity, society and the biblical in more ways than one, but most specifically before the climax of the film. While teaching Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) how to ride, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) sits down with the boy to get to know his story — and how he’s had to take care of his mother (Kirsten Dunst) after his father committed suicide. After telling Phil that it was he who found his dad’s body, Peter says his father used to worry he wasn’t kind enough, and that he was “too strong.” A scoffing Phil looks at the skinny, flushed boy before him and retorts, “You too strong? He got that wrong.” Although viewers may not have been able to sense it at the time, it was Phil who couldn’t have been more wrong. The camera lingers on Peter’s face afterward, with his ever so nonchalant pondering — only to foreshadow that his father was always right, and that it would be Peter who freed his mother and himself, once and for all.
— Jennifer Yuma

“Tick, Tick … Boom!”
(Netflix)
Without a doubt, the best and one of the greatest cinematic moments of the year is the “Sunday” number in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!” The Moondance Diner is the setting for this number, as Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson starts his shift. Production designer Alex DiGerlando recreated the iconic Soho diner, and Miranda called on his Rolodex of Broadway legends in the ultimate gift to theater lovers. Bebe Neuwirth, Adam Pascal, Chita Rivera, Joel Grey, Phylicia Rashad and Chuck Cooper all appear. So too do “Rent’s” Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. And he didn’t stop there, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo, better known as “Hamilton’s” Schuyler sisters, show up. Blink and you miss the Miranda cameo — he’s a chef. “Sunday” is in a word, joyous.
— Jazz Tangcay

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”
(A24/Apple Original Films)
A small figure in a thin nightgown stands on a wind-whipped rock promontory — it’s Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand). We see the sinister drip-drip-dripping of water and her cold, brutalist castle; the camera then focuses on a maid and the physician, worried about the lady’s penchant for sleepwalking. Lady Macbeth’s guilt over the murders of the king and his servants at the hands of her husband — in which she was the main planner and instigator — has taken its toll. Lady Macbeth’s famous “out damn spot” speech is filmed as if it were a 1930 Universal horror film — appropriately in black and white — with McDormand moving like a possessed zombie. Her tense, mostly contained madness — she does let out a terrifying howl at one point — heightens the horror. Is she really sleepwalking? She eventually punctures the surface tension: “To bed,” she says, “to bed.” Then turns directly to the camera: “To bed,” she says with dreadful finality to the spying pair (and the audience) with a look in her eyes as if she can have them offed, too.
— Carole Horst

“West Side Story”
(20th Century Studios)
Steven Spielberg’s remake of the iconic 1957 musical lands on a heartbreakingly powerful edge in the moments after Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler’s performance of “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Anita, played brilliantly by DeBose, is devastated after the death of her lover, Bernardo (David Alvarez), who was killed by María’s Tony (Ansel Elgort) at the night’s rumble. María (Zegler) is still unconditionally in love — and asks Anita if she could forgive Tony. “You can’t ever ask me that,” says Anita. “Will you forgive me?” asks María. “Te quiero, mi niña. But he will have to go away, and you will have to go with him,” says Anita. And, among those words, the complex loss, strength and hopelessness that love carries in the world of “West Side Story” are cemented.
—Wyatte Grantham-Philips